Monday, June 22, 2015

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)

I’ll admit that about three years after seeing The Vampire and the Ballerina (L’amante del vampire) the only thing I could seem to remember about it was the dance numbers. The movie had left a good impression on me for some reason, and I don’t think it was just because of the dance scenes, which were surprisingly sexy for 1960. During a recent re-watch the rest of the movie was like viewing it for the first time. It’s a fun, atmospheric Italian vampire piece from the gothic horror golden age, and after seeing a lot of those, they tend to get lost in the memory over time if you don’t re-watch them on occasion.

This one, along with the same year's The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), does have enough sexy gimmicks to help it standout in the mix; and what might also make it a little more interesting to some is that it is an early effort from Renato Polselli, someone whose particular brand of erotic, expressionistic madness touches my heart. Polselli’s cinematic characteristics seen in films like Delirium (1972) and The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973) aren’t quite as apparent in The Vampire and the Ballerina as they would be in Polselli’s Vampire of the Opera (1964) later on, but it’s still a charming attempt at a gothic horror film, in romantic B&W, that Polselli co-wrote with prolific screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi as well as Giuseppe Pellegrini.

In one of those small European villages that almost always seems to have a vampire problem, a company of young dancers are temporarily living together to train and prepare for a ballet production at a rich professor’s house. During the dark early morning hours, a servant is attacked in the woods by a vampire, and the servent's screams alert the cow stable workers. Their arrival drives off the vampire before they carry the swooned servant back to the house, awakening several attractive ladies in skimpy nightgowns with near childish personalities, which introduces the film’s alternate playful tone that is interspersed with the more traditional, sullen gothic horror elements.

The Vampire and the Ballerina has the added benefit of having actresses who are also professional dancers. It isn’t apparent at first, but, among the group of performers, Luisa (Hélène Rémy) and Francesca (Tina Gloriani) end up singled out as the leading ladies. It has to be said that Hélène Rémy is an awesome gymnast. There’s no stunt-double needed for her; she flips and spins like no one’s business, and she makes it look effortless.

It isn’t long before audiences are treated to a fun, flawless cabaret fused dance number that adds a degree of sexuality and naughtiness to the ballet that, despite seeming tame today, would likely have caused moralist at the time to faint. Jazz hands, bare legs, and seductive looks are displayed with panache.

There’s a particular dancer in black (Ombretta Ostenda) who stays in reserve, leaning against the fireplace, for the first part of the dance, like some kind of secret weapon; when she goes into action, the focal point shifts to her. This is supposed to be the girls’ practice session, but they obviously don’t need the practice since they nail it in one take. Ombretta melds in a little more with the other dancers during the sensual vampire inspired dance number in the second half of the film.

The dancing only makes up several minutes of the whole movie. There is a decent vampire story here that not surprisingly borrows a little from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, particularly Lucy Westenra and Dracula, with Luisa and the Dracula-like Herman (Walter Brandi – who’s been referred to as the Italian Dracula) being suitable counterparts but also with an added metaphor of substance addiction with regards to the female victims, sort of like when someone starts acting differently after secretly becoming addicted to some sort of drug.

There are two primary story locations separated by a stretch of woods, the mansion in the village where the girls practice dancing and a supposedly abandoned castle deep in the woods, both of which provide an important contrast between the present and past, with the sylvan castle setting being like a time machine.

When there’s an abandoned castle in the woods, it only stands to reason that it will be inhabited by a mysterious, beautifully siren-like countess (with epic cleavage), who appears to have stepped out of the middle ages and who also has a 400 year old portrait of her “direct ancestor” who bears her exact likeness (you know where this is going). Aside from having a fabulous medieval femme fatale look to her, Countess Alda (Maria Luisa Rolando) is also a sympathetic villainess, something that ends up giving the ending an ironically tragic feel. She and her “servant” Herman are a reclusive, enigmatic lot feigning to be misanthropists. The fact that they are vampires is obvious, but the nature of their game is rather grim.

An interesting part I like that is kind of subtle is when Francesca, concerned for the changed behavior of her friend, decides to spy on Luisa running off to visit Herman at the castle. The tables end up turning, with Luisa stalking Francesca through the forest instead, leading her into the castle and locking her in the dungeon. I almost didn’t notice, since I had a hard time distinguishing between the two characters for a while, as they look a little bit similar. The trip through the forest is slightly elongated and oddly enhanced with intrusive but mesmerizing jazz music. The movie does have plenty of classical style orchestra music endeavoring to make it scary, but in this scene Polselli opts for a more experimentally stylish approach. When they get to the castle it becomes quiet and seemingly more conventional, but the previous jazzy trip through the woods is just fantastic.

There’s a certain typicality to it, yet at the same time there are plenty of unexpected twists, especially considering what Herman does to the undead maid right after he promises her passage to the “kingdom of the dead” or the exact nature of the perverse relationship between Herman and the countess. The conclusion is enjoyably dramatic, and a little bit grotesque, with a convincing sense of pathos accompanying the villains’ demises. There ends up being an ambiguity as to which one of them is the evil one controlling the other, as well as if a certain main character lives or not. It’s true that the whole ballet deal is a gimmick, but the dance performances are inspired, professional, and totally memorable.

© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. It's been a while since I saw this one but I remember enjoying it quite a lot. The dance sequences were very campy and fun. The relationship between the countess and her servant had a very ambiguous feel to it. My only gripe is that the makeup effects for the male vampire make him look like some gnarly old lady. I've only seen the Italian version but apparently there's an English dub floating about.

    For some reason, I never got around to finishing The Vampire of the Opera. I really should though because it seemed to be the start of Polselli's crazy experimentalism. Also need to check out The Playgirls and the Vampire.

    1. Greetings, Terence!

      The Playgirls and the Vampire is interesting for being one of the first of its kind and is enjoyable when you’re in the right mood. Its dance scene is a joke in comparison to TVatB though, but we do get a bold striptease. As it goes on, you’ll notice that it has a lot of nice touches to it, and it has a pretty clever twist (Both films have a shared interior of the room with the fireplace and the creepy model face above it).

      I watched the Italian version for this review, but I have a DVD-R that contains the English version. It’s murky looking in comparison, and the dubbing isn’t the greatest. Other than that there really isn’t much of a difference, as far as I can tell.

      One of the co-writers of TVatB, Giuseppe Pellegrini, apparently only directed one film, Love and Death on the Edge of a Razor (1973), which stars Peter Lee Lawrence and Erika Blanc, both of whom co-starred in Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods. Both films almost sound like companion pieces.

  2. "At the Mansion of Madness" has been included in our Sites To See #449. Be assured that we hope this helps to point many new visitors in your direction.

    1. Thank you very much, Jerry! It makes my day every time my efforts receive recognition. I'm honored to have made your list.