Il mostro dell’opera is not quite what you’d call an adaptation but more an experimental variation of The Phantom of the Opera. But it’s unlikely that viewers will come to this side of Eurocult obscurity just to see what replacing The Phantom with a Count Dracula-esque vampire in a beloved and well-known canon would be like; most probably seek this out because of the movie’s co-writer/director Renato Polselli. I know I did.
If you’re a fan of Polselli’s The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), of which this makes a good double bill with, you are going to love this, and if you’re a fan of Polselli’s delirious S&M fever nightmares from the early ‘70s, you’ll love this too, because Il mostro dell’opera is like a predecessor to Delirium (1972) and Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century (1973) aka The Reincarnation of Isabel – minus the turbulent editing. It builds on everything that made The Vampire and the Ballerina a fun time but is progressive in a sense with certain erotic and expressionistic elements that in contrast to its old-fashioned, classic look makes it feel ahead of its time.
I’m not sure what kind of success The Vampire and the Ballerina had during its release, but a few years later, again with co-writers Ernesto Gastaldi and Giuseppe Pellegrini, Polselli had another go with the vampires-and-dancers thing but with a little more ambition and grander performances, mixing in male dancers, instead of the previous all-female ensemble, and setting the performances on a large theatre stage, instead of in front of a gothic fireplace in a living room. Of course, the dancing in a Polselli film would later reach its culmination with the sporadic dancing-nude-hippie scenes in Le veritá secondo Satana (1972) (love, love, love those dancing hippies).
Again Polselli managed to get ahold of several actors who also happened to be trained dancers, so naturally the film benefits from excellent dance choreography, which really can’t be said about the dancing in The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) (although no one here comes close to surpassing Helene Remy’s acrobatics in The Vampire and the Ballerina). The dancers in Il mostro dell’opera aren’t just extras; they do get to be involved in the story as well, and because there are a lot of them, the effect is a little like that of a character overload.
Acting-wise they’re not bad and are comical and cartoony most of the time, kind of like pompous clowns in a play, and at times the movie has a tendency to want to cram as much people and chaos in front of the camera as possible, but it’s still a welcome cast of oddball characters, and there’s a lot of bickering between them, but everyone's enthusiasm and comical performances make it entertaining nonetheless, and, even though it can be difficult to keep track of everyone, the large volume of characters ends up being comforting company, like throwing a party in a haunted house and being in the nominal safety of a large group.
Being a variation of The Phantom of the Opera, one can sort of spot the character counterparts. Lead actress Giulia (Barbara Howard) is obviously the ‘Christine’ variation. Howard is quite comely and satisfactorily plays Giulia in a half-dazed, half-delirious state, but you’ll have to agree if this movie were made about six years later, Giulia probably would’ve been played by Rita Calderoni. She’s really good at going into screaming fits and mass hysteria, which is something I like to think Renato Polselli had a way of bringing out of his lead actresses. Giulia seems to be having complications and emotional problems, all the while seeming drawn to whatever it is that is haunting the Aquarius Theater, the opera house in question where there is actually no opera singing but more classical dance mixed with contemporary risqué dance that likes to chime in with cabaret sexiness.
The titular monster of the opera is a vampire phantom named Stefano (Giuseppe Addobbati) who has an affinity to Giulia, as she seems to be a reincarnation of the monster’s past mortal love, Laura.
Sandro (who is played by ‘60s Italian gothic horror presence Walter Brandi and not Marco Mariani who’s wrongly credited) could be the ‘Raoul’ counterpart. He’s the director of the stage production and has affections for Giulia, and he’s acquired the old rundown and very much haunted Aquarius Theatre in order to realize his own grand vision of Cyrano de Bergerac, against the warnings of the old theatre caretaker, Achille (Alberto Archetti). This might be a longshot, but Achille (Alberto Archetti), who’s somehow inherent to the theatre and a reluctant servant to Stefano, could be ‘The Persian’ counterpart.
I believe the only one from The Phantom of the Opera who made it here is Carlotta (Milena Vukotic), although one could say she is loosely based on 'Carlotta.' She wants to replace Giulia as the lead in the play, and she has a strange, cackling laugh which we get to hear several times over (seriously, dat laugh, though). She’s a little like Steffy from Reincarnation of Isabel in that she’s cute and memorable but a little irritating too.
He may go by the name Stefano, but the vampire/monster brings to mind Count Dracula. Certain Dracula tropes are visited such as one of the dancers noticing that the monster has no reflection in her makeup mirror, as well as several others. Although he seems to have traded the cape he’s wearing on the poster for a tailcoat look instead. But there’s something else about him, something sensitive, some sort of inner torment that makes him sympathetic, which can’t be said of the original Stoker Dracula. In a way, he’s replaced The Phantom but still maintains certain Phantom-like qualities, such as having an unhealthy obsession with Giulia, which has the incidental result of making him, probably, the first emotionally sensitive Dracula, who allows himself to be merciful out of his love for Laura/Giulia, with love being painted as both a salvation and a downfall.
I had originally thought that Paul Naschy’s Dracula from Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) was the first to be an emo-softie Dracula. To be fair he probably still is since the monster in question is named Stefano, but the idea is still there.
The kinky S&M elements are secluded to the fun and playful set piece that is Stefano’s inter dimensional chamber of chained up vampire babes, who are supposed to be the souls of his past victims. You can’t help but admire everyone’s enthusiasm because that’s part of what makes it work. Curiously, Stefano has a thing for pinning a couple of the female characters under a pitchfork, in extended torture scenes where one can’t help interpret the pitchfork as a phallic symbol, even more so since Giulia has a few moments of enjoyment flash across her face when she is menaced by Stefano’s pitchfork, a masochistic Polselli trademark that will pop up several more times in later films. The tormented, sadistic madman with love issues, similar to Stefano, would be explored further with Roibert in La verita secondo satana and with Dr. Herbert Lyutek, played by Mickey Hargitay, in Delirium.
The film reaches an entertaining climax in a grand dance performance where everyone dances like they’re under a spell and as if their lives depend on it. During this part the film cuts to a few up-close shots of Stefano’s epic Bela Lugosi eyes with cloud shadows passing over, which I like to think denotes an epic passage of time, as if the performers are dancing through the ages.
Part gothic Italian horror, part Italian comedy, and part erotic madness, Il mostro dell’opera feels like a seed to Polselli’s characteristic mania style, and he would reference it quite a bit in his later films. And don’t feel alienated if you haven’t yet seen anything from Renato Polselli because the film is still a worthwhile experience in its own right, not to mention a good starting point. And I've got to say that the scene with the dancing skeletons is worth the price of admission alone.
© At the Mansion of Madness