Part of the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

When word came out that there was going to be an Italian horror film-a-thon, I made two decisions instantly:

1) I was going to be part of it;

2) I wasn't going to review a giallo.

Not that I don't love gialli. But I tapped that well pretty hard this summer, you know? So it seemed right to challenge myself. Zombie movies were out, on account of the fact that I've already reviewed the best ones, and cannibal movies... that's a hard beast to deal with.

One obvious solution presented itself fairly quickly: find the earliest Italian horror movie I could, and review that. Pretty much every source seems to agree that I was looking for 1956's I vampiri, which if not necessarily The First horror movie made in Italy, is almost certainly the first made in the sound era. And a pretty fine little movie it is, with drop-dead gorgeous black and white CinemaScope photography by Mario Bava in the days before he would become the godfather of Italian horror; it is instead directed by the much less famous Riccardo Freda, who proves himself a fair hand at a genre that nobody in the industry would have had any experience with whatsoever. It's all good enough to make you forgive the fact that it has, technically, not a single vampire in all its cast (though it comes much closer than the French crime serial Les Vampires).

Set, oddly, in Paris, I vampiri largely concerns the troublesome investigative journalist Pierre Lantin (Dario Michaelis), who has made it his life's work to solve a string of disappearing women that have completely flummoxed the police. Their bodies have turned up completely bereft of blood, without a single mark of physical violence, leading Lantin to declare, in screaming headlines, that a vampiric killer is plaguing the streets, causing no end of irritation to Inspector Chantal (Carlo D'Angelo), the head of the case, who would much prefer that the press quit stirring up public terrors and let the police do their job. But that is not at all in keeping with Lantin's vision of a free press, and he keeps on poking his nose here and there, ultimately finding a student, Lorrette Robert (Wandisa Guida) who was bothered on the street by a man who is almost certainly connected to the kidnappings. In the meantime, Lantin is himself being hounded by Giselle du Grand (Gianna Maria Canale), the niece of the fantastically wealthy Countess du Grand, who in her youth had a passionate (and, it is suggested, wholly unreciprocated) crush on Lantin's father.

It's not terribly hard to guess where things are going well before they get there, but this is a mystery at heart, so tread lightly, those who fear spoilers: it turns out that the du Grand manor hides a lot more secrets than anyone could guess, including a hidden laboratory with a bona fide mad scientist, the countess's cousin Julien du Grand (Antonie Balpêtré), who is obliged to fake his own death so that he can continue working unmolested. His work is not entirely clear at first, but it definitely has something to do with extracting the blood of hapless young women for reasons that are bound to be no good. Like I said, it's not difficult to see where things are going, but all I'll say here is that if vampirism isn't precisely what's going on in that lab, it's a reasonably close model.

Perhaps because Bava was there for the birth of the whole genre (and allegedly did some uncredited directing of his own), I vampiri has more than a few similarities with the movies that would follow in its wake; indeed, you could hardly ask for a first film of any sort with a plainer line of descent. Much of what typifies the gialli can be found in this film in one state or another: the protagonist working outside of the police force and at times precisely at odds to the police, a weird quasi-non-sexual relationship between the male lead and a mysterious woman with peculiar ties to the murder (two such women, in fact), a necessarily urban setting punctuated with an incredibly ancient, huge building where most of the horror takes place. There's an unambiguously paranormal flavor to the proceedings that isn't typical of the gialli at all, but which is common to the most important non-giallo Italian horror, including Bava's own early works. There are few elements indeed that disappeared in the later evolution of the genre in Italian cinema: this film has a proper denouement, instead of ending abruptly once the main conflict is ended, and the mad scientist angle is, while not unknown to Italian horror, much rarer than in American films of the '50s and '60s. But in the main, the plot would have fit into the post-Argento gialli without a hitch.

But the most important link between I vampiri and the films to follow isn't narrative at all, but the fact that it's breathtakingly beautiful. Bava's later career as a greatly influential and important director has tended to obscure the reality that he was one of his country's all-time greatest cinematographers, and the uses he and Freda find for the CinemaScope frame is positively miraculous. There's hardly a single composition that isn't packed within an inch of its life with evocative imagery, and even such banal things as a conversation taking place in a two-shot are framed to have depth and layers far beyond the basic need to have two people chatting. The lighting in the film is equally inspired: growing ever darker from the start of the film to the end, but so gradually you can hardly tell, with the noir-inflected shadows growing longer with the greatest subtlety.

The best thing I can say for the film is this: even without the very real fact that it inspired decades worth of beautiful, hallucinatory horror masterpieces, I vampiri would still be entirely worthwhile on its own merits as a film. It's not hard to understand why it was so influential, for it could hardly be improved as it stands. This is what great horror filmmaking looks like, irrespective of country or era, and the fact that so many movies adopted its basic model essentially without change is testament to how durable it remains, more than fifty years after it sprang itself on an unsuspecting public hardly accustomed to home-grown terror.