Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 18 
18 Nov

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Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I Vampiri (1956) HORROR
The vampire transformed
Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I Vampiri (1956)

Although an early classic of Italian horror cinema, Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I Vampiri has not yet been given its critical due. Exploring the various ways in which this film updates the gothicism of the traditional vampire tale, Stacey Abbott shows how "European horror began to confront the terrors of modernisation."

Often described as the film that launched Italian horror, I Vampiri (The Vampires), co-directed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava, prefigures the arrival of the modern horror film usually attributed to pictures such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959) and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968).

Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I Vampiri (1956)In particular, I Vampiri modernises the vampire legend by presenting vampirism as a product of the modern world rather than an opposition to it long before the presence of a vampire within a contemporary setting became the standard. It was only in the vampire-redolent decade of the 1970s that the cinematic vampire, most notably in Romero's Martin (1977), was completely reinvented as a product of modern America rather than as an intruder from a gothic past. Yet, almost twenty years earlier, Freda/Bava's film was playing with many of the same themes, albeit in a European setting.

The authorship of I Vampiri is often questioned as Freda, the film's director, left the production before its completion, leaving his cinematographer Bava to finish the film in two days. The resulting work contains much of Freda's influence and is based upon his concept, but it was Bava who set the tone for the film through its visual style and was responsible for the final cut. Tim Lucas argues that after Freda's departure, Bava's input was especially significant, as it was he who decided to raise the supporting character of the journalist to the lead, dispense with a Frankenstein sub-plot about a dismembered criminal reassembled and brought back to life, and flesh out the film with stock footage, montages of newspaper presses and "audaciously sustained long-takes," [1] all of which are critical elements contributing to the film's focus upon the modern. Furthermore, it is Bava's cinematography that visually suggests the relationship between the gothic and the modern world, and it is his special effects that associate the vampire with the technology of cinematic trickery, two key themes that mark I Vampiri as a truly modern horror film.

Modernising the vampire legend

I Vampiri is inspired by the legend of Countess Bathory, a seventeenth-century Hungarian countess who supposedly murdered over 650 young women in the most brutal and sadistic ways.[2] The legend claims that the countess' sadism was born of a belief that the blood of young virgins could sustain her youth. Stories circulated of her drinking and bathing in blood and from this developed a vampire legend to rival that of Vlad the Impaler. Numerous vampire films have drawn upon this legend in their conception of the female vampire, such as Harry Kü mel's Le Rouge aux lè vres (Daughters of Darkness, 1971) and Hammer Studios' Countess Dracula (1970), but it is the Freda/Bava film that attempts to address how such a murderer would satisfy her vanity and blood lust in the twentieth century.

Andy Black has suggested that Bava's films evince a preoccupation with the "notion that ancient myths and religious rituals could still prevail and [possess] influence in a seemingly agnostic contemporary society." [3] This theme is a defining feature of I Vampiri's reworking of the Bathory legend. While Chris Baldick argues that for the gothic to be relocated to a contemporary setting, it must focus "upon a relatively enclosed space in which some antiquated barbaric code still prevails," [4] I Vampiri creates a much more dynamic juxtaposition of the gothic past with the modern present by challenging the boundaries that separate them.

While the film does possess an enclosed location in the form of the Du Grand Castle, the characters constantly circulate outside the boundaries of the castle, thereby demonstrating that the modern vampire film need not be bound by such restrictions. The first half of the film, which is structured like an investigative drama, situates its narrative within a recognisably contemporary location as the police hunt for a killer and an unknown murderer hunts for a new victim on the streets and in the modern institutions of Paris.

Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I Vampiri (1956)I Vampiri begins with a montage of stills of Paris, followed by a scene in which a body is discovered in the Seine within sight of the Eiffel Tower. It then cuts to the mortuary and a rather scientific and clinical shot of three doctors staring down at the body as they determine that the victim was drained of her blood but with no sign of injury. This is followed by a shot of a printing press running off copies of newspapers over which a montage of headlines are superimposed. The headlines read: "Terror Strikes Paris Again," "Mysterious Killer Claims Another Victim" and "Four Girls Killed in Six Months."

These are standard newspaper headlines outlining a serial murder case. It is the final newspaper, however, that introduces a more supernatural connection when it claims that the "Vampire Continues his Killing Spree, Police Investigation Yields No Clues. Is The Monster Unstoppable?" Thus, in this opening sequence the notion of vampirism is introduced but stripped of its gothic attributes, deposited in a modern city and presented by modern science and the printing press.

The subsequent scene, however, marks a nod to more traditional representations of the vampire when a young showgirl is left alone in the dressing room of a theatre. She is to be, we assume, the next victim of the serial killer known as "The Vampire." As the last of the other dancers leave the building, a large shadow appears on the wall and proceeds to move toward the stairs. The use of this looming shadow and the subsequent image of the "vampire" slowly walking up the stairs are reminiscent of F.W. Murnau's German classic, Nosferatu (1922), and that earlier film's expressionistic use of shadows. The connection to a traditional screen vampire is quickly dispelled, however, when the killer's entrance into the dressing room is captured in a reflection in the mirror, demonstrating that this is not a conventional vampire.

Furthermore, the notion of an enclosed gothic space in which "an antiquated barbaric code still presides" is undermined throughout the film as one type of space becomes transformed into another through Bava's cinematography and mise-en-scè ne. Thus, science labs become "gothicised" and a gothic castle becomes modernised. When the supposed murderer, Joseph (Paul Mü ller), comes to Doctor Du Grand's (Antoine Balpê tré ) office to confront him, the doctor attempts to conceal his identity by turning his desk lamp so that it will shine directly into Joseph's eyes.

Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I Vampiri (1956)This shift in lighting transforms the room from a clinical laboratory into a gothic space through Bava's expressionist lighting and widescreen composition. Joseph looms over the doctor within this sequence, but his dominance shifts as the doctor's orderly comes up from behind, knocks him to the ground and strangles him. At this moment, another figure, the Countess Du Grand (Gianna Maria Canale), enters the frame on the extreme right and assumes the graphic dominance of the shot. She is dressed all in black with a veil over her face, and is engulfed in the shadow of Bava's lighting. Her spectre-like image, the dead body and the ominous shadows of the scientific equipment seen through the window all serve to shroud this medical space with the air of death and raises questions as to the real identity and motivations of "The Vampire."

Inversely, the chapel in which the Countess has supposedly buried her cousin (the Doctor Du Grand), but in which is actually buried the body of Joseph, is a classic gothic space that becomes modernised. The tomb is made of stone, surrounded by carved images of skulls and bones, shadows, torn draperies and countless candles. As night falls, men enter and open the tomb to remove Joseph's body. As they return the cover to the tomb, the image dissolves to a laboratory hidden behind the chapel. The use of the dissolve between the gothic and the modern space serves to link the two locations. Moreover, it becomes clear that the laboratory is actually set up in a secret room within the Du Grand castle; in one of Bava's characteristic long takes, this gothic space is revealed to have been infected with the modern as it is laden with test tubes, gurneys, electrical equipment, gauges, switches and flashing lights. The barriers that separate the gothic from the modern have clearly lapsed.

The spectacle of a cinematic vampire

I Vampiri not only modernises the traditional gothic setting of a vampire story but the notion of vampirism itself, firstly through Doctor Du Grand, a mad scientist experimenting upon young women, and secondly through Countess Du Grand and her "niece" Giselle (Wandisa Guida), the film's real vampires. Like Bathory, the Countess Du Grand craves youth and beauty, but rather than bathe in blood, she uses Dr Du Grand's scientific experiments in blood transfusions to turn her into the beautiful Giselle. The secret of their identity and the nature of their vampirism is, however, withheld until a fantastic transformation sequence as Giselle changes from a young and beautiful woman to a wizened old hag right in front of the camera.

It is Bava's use of special effects in this and two subsequent transformation sequences that reinterprets the magical powers of vampirism through the spectral technologies inherent in the film medium. These are show-stopping moments of cinematic spectacle, reinforced by the fact that Bava shows the transformation three times.

Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I Vampiri (1956)To achieve this effect, Bava drew upon film's intrinsic properties by exploiting its sensitivity to different types of light. Borrowing an effect previously utilised to demonstrate Christ healing the lepers in Ben-Hur (1925) and the transformation of Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde in Rouben Mamoulian's 1932 adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, the actress' make-up was applied with red grease pencil, invisible on the black and white film stock, and then lit with a red light that concealed the make-up.

As the transformation began, the red light was slowly replaced by a green light, giving the appearance of sudden ageing as the make-up gradually becomes visible. Bava enhanced the effect by fitting the actress with a wig made of artificial filaments that photographed white when exposed to direct light. [5] The Countess/Giselle's vampirism is thereby reinterpreted as a product of modernity, for the actual drinking of blood is presented as a scientific process of transfusion while the magical benefits of vampirism are dramatically showcased as the product of spectacular special effects techniques and a heritage of cinematic transformations.

I Vampiri and modernising Europe

Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I Vampiri (1956)Made before such modern horror films classics as Les yeux sans visage, Psycho and Night of the Living Dead, Freda and Bava's I Vampiri marks a significant moment when European horror began to confront the terrors of modernisation. Rather than simply condemn the effects of progress, the film constructs an ambiguous image of a modern European city forced to recognise the violence inherent in technology and science that go hand in hand with their perceived benefits. Doctor Du Grande and the Countess are monstrous modern vampires who exploit science and technology to their own ends, but it is their experiments upon Joseph's corpse that brings him back to life in time to thwart their plans. Science is both the cause and the cure here. Furthermore, the manner in which cinematic special effects are utilised to represent the magical effects of vampirism plays upon the wonder and spectacle of modernity. In this film, therefore, vampire mythology is reinvented to suggest that the vampiric qualities of modern science and cinema technologies can embody both the danger and the wonder of the modern age.

Stacey Abbott

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Also of interest
About the author

Stacey Abbott is a Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Surrey, Roehampton as well as being a doctoral candidate at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her thesis, "'Up-to-Date With a Vengeance': Modern Vampires from Dracula to Blade," is an examination of the relationship between the cinematic vampire and theories of modernity. Her other research interests include Canadian cinema, silent cinema and the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

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1. Tim Lucas, Liner Notes to the DVD of I Vampiri (Region 1, ID848lIFDVD, Image Entertainment).return to text

2. Raymond T McNally and Radu Florescu, In Search of Dracula: The Enthralling History of Dracula, 2nd edition (London: Robson Books, 1994), 127-30.return to text

3. Andy Black, "A Modern World with an Ancient Evil." In Necronomincon: The Journal of Horror and Erotic Cinema, Book 3, ed. Andy Black (Hereford: Noir Publishing, 1999), 41.return to text

4. Chris Baldick, introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales ed Chris Baldick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), xv.return to text

5. Tim Lucas, Liner Notes to the DVD of I Vampiri (Region 1, ID848lIFDVD, Image Entertainment).return to text

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