Italian Horror Showcase: The Vampire and the Ballerina (dir by Renato Polselli)

“If you want to taste the night, come downstairs.”

— The Professor (Pier Ugo Gragnani) in The Vampire and The Ballerina (1960)

A young woman relaxes with her friends at a waterfall.  She sees a funeral procession passing by and cheerfully announces, “A funeral!  It brings good luck!”

One person who would disagree with that would be the girl in the coffin.  She’s just the latest villager to have been found passed out in a field in the middle of the night, lacking blood.  The locals say that there’s a vampire on the loose.  The local doctor insists that the girl is just anemic and will recover in ten days.  Instead, the girl ends up in a coffin, only opening her eyes while being carried to her grave.  From her point of view, we watch as clumps of dirt are tossed onto the coffin, one after another until finally all is dark.

At night, she leaves her grave and runs into the horribly disfigured vampire who previously bit her.  He greets her and tells her to lie down in his coffin.  As soon as she does, he drives a take through her heart and says that he must remain “the master of my world.”

It’s a strange world.  In the village, a dance troupe is, for some reason, staying at a villa belonging to an older man (Pier Ugo Gragnani) who is called both “grandpa” and “The Professor.”  (Despite the film’s title and some of the dialogue, they are clearly a modern dance troupe.)  The professor tells the dancers a story about vampires.  Everyone’s amused.  Interestingly, most of the dancers seem to believe that there is a vampire on the loose but none of them seem particularly concerned about it.  From my own experience, this is probably the most realistic part of the film.  When you’re a dancer, that’s pretty much all you worry about.

Later, two of the dancers, Luisa (Helene Remy) and Francesca (Tina Gloriani), are walking around the woods with Francesca’s fiancée, Luca (Iscaro Ravaiolli) when it starts to rain.  They take refuge in a nearby castle, one which they believe to be deserted.  It turns out that it’s not.  Countess Alda (Maria Luisa Rolando) lives there with her manservant, Herman (Walter Brandi).  Alda explains that she allows the villagers to believe the castle is deserted and haunted because she doesn’t want to be bothered by them.  Luca is immediately enchanted with Alda while Francesca wonders why Alda looks exactly like the woman in a 400 year-old painting that is hanging in the dining room.  Luisa wanders off and gets bitten by the same disfigured vampire who has been preying on the villagers.

That night, Luisa waits in bed until the vampire comes to her.  Meanwhile Luca sneaks back to the castle to see Alda.  Alda claims that Herman is holding her prisoner but, when Herman suddenly shows up, Alda orders Luca away and proceeds to drink Herman’s blood and he goes from being a handsome servant to being the disfigured vampire that we saw earlier in the film.  It turns out that Alda and Herman’s blood-soaked relationship is all about trying to stay young.  When Herman ages, he drinks the villager’s blood to become young again.  Then Alda drinks his blood to retain her youth, which means that the now aged Herman again has to go out and drink more villager blood….

Meanwhile, the dance troupe’s choreographer has a brilliant idea!  Why don’t they do a number about vampires!?

1960’s The Vampire and the Ballerina is a personal favorite of mine.  That really shouldn’t surprise anyone, of course.  I love vampires.  I love to dance.  Of course, I’m going to love a film that brings those two things together!  But beyond that, The Vampire and The Ballerina is just such a strange little film.  From the off-center performances to Angelo Baistrocchi[‘s haunting cinematography, The Vampire and the Ballerina plays out like a filmed fever dream. The fact that the plot often doesn’t make sense only adds to the film’s surreal atmosphere.

Continuing what Hammer started with the Horror of Dracula, The Vampire and the Ballerina takes the sexuality that has always been the subtext of most vampire films and instead puts it front and center.  The formerly repressed Luisia writhes in bed as she waits for the vampire to come to her.  Luca stares at Alda with an obsessive intensity before forcefully kissing her hand.  Alda and Herman torment each other, even though one could not exist without the other, a relationship that is more sado-masochistic than supernatural.

The Vampire and the Ballerina is an Italian horror film that deserves to be better known than it is.  I mean, seriously, how can anyone resist a movie that has this many vampires and this much dancing?

It’s a strange world.

Italian Horror Showcase: Il mostro di Frankenstein (dir by Eugenio Testa)

Sadly, there are some films that I will probably never get to see and this is one of them.

There’s a lot of reasons that films become lost.  Some films have been purposefully destroyed.  Some have been merely forgotten.  Unfortunately, it took several decades for people to understand that films could also be art.  Back during the silent era, I imagine people would have laughed at the idea that someone in 2018 would have any interest in watching a film that was made in 1920.

1920 was the year that a German-Italian production company produced Il mostro di Frankenstein.  It was one of the first film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s classic monster.  (It wasn’t the first, of course.  Thomas Edison produced his version of Frankenstein in 1910 and there may have even been earlier versions.)  It was a silent film.  It reportedly starred the hulking Umberto Guarracino as Frankenstein’s Monster while the Baron was played by a former circus performer name Luciano Albertini.  (Albertini also produced the film.)  The completed film reportedly ran afoul Italy’s then-stringent censorship laws and so much footage was cut that the final version only ran 39 minutes.

Il mostro di Frankenstein is considered to be a lost film, one that is now remembered for being one of the few Italian horror films released before the 1950s.  (As a genre, horror was frowned upon by both the Vatican and Mussolini, which meant the while the genre thrived across the world, Italian horror spent several decades moribund.)  In fact, I’ve read that Il mostro di Frankenstein was the last horror film to be produced in Italy until Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri was released in 1957.  I can’t say for sure whether that’s true or not but it makes for a good story.

Sadly, I’ll probably never see Il mostro di Frankenstein.  But, hey — if anyone in your family ever worked in the Italian film industry, why don’t you go up to your attic and take a look?  If it’s in your basement, get it out.  And if you find it in a storage locker, don’t throw it away because you’ve got a piece of history that many of us would like to see.

Until that happens, we only have this one screenshot to let us know that there was once a silent Italian film about Frankenstein and his monster.

Italian Horror Showcase: Beyond Darkness (dir by Claudio Fragasso)

In 1981, The Evil Dead was released in Italy as La Casa.

In 1987, Evil Dead II was released in Italy as La Casa 2.

In 1988, La Casa 3 was released in Italy and retitled Ghosthouse for distribution in America and the UK.

That same year, La Casa 4 was also released in Italy and it was called Witchery in America.

And then, finally, 1990 saw the release of La Casa 5.

Directed by Claudio Fragasso (who, outside of Italy, is probably best known for directing Troll 2), La Casa 5 was also known as Beyond Darkness* and it was the third “unofficial” Italian sequel to Evil Dead.  Like both Ghosthouse and Witchery, it actually has nothing to do with any of the Evil Dead films.  Instead, it plays out more like a weird mix of Poltergeist and The Exorcist.

Let’s say that you’re an aging clergyman and you’re living in a house that appears to be haunted by the ghosts of several dead witches.  Despite your own faith, you haven’t been able to exorcise their evil spirits.  What should you do!?  When Rev. Jonathan (Steven Brown) finds himself in that situation, his solution is to sell the house to one of his former students, Rev. Peter (Gene LeBrock).  Jonathan figures that Peter’s faith is so strong that he’ll be able to exorcise the house in no time!  Of course, Jonathan doesn’t actually bother to tell Peter that the house is possessed by evil.  Instead, Jonathan just lets Peter and his family discover that on their own.

And discover that they do, as the house quickly reveals itself to be haunted.  Meat cleavers fly across rooms.  Radios make strange noises.  Dishes are shattered.  A strange group of black-shrouded women are spotted hanging around upstairs.  It might have something to do with the big black swan statute that’s sitting in the kid’s room.  Or maybe it has something to do with the strange light that’s streaming out of one of the closets.  Eventually, Peter’s son gets sucked into the netherworld and, when he returns, he’s not only possessed but he keeps trying to kidnap Peter’s daughter as well!

Despite being told to avoid him, Rev. Peter is eventually forced to turn to another of Rev. Jonathan’s students, Father George (David Brandon).  Ever since he was forced to spend time with a serial killer who ate children, George has been struggling with his faith.  Will George be strong enough to help Peter exorcise the demon that has possessed his son?

(Incidentally, Peter’s son is played by Micheal Stephenson, who also starred in Troll 2 and who more recently directed the documentary about that film, Best Worst Movie.)

Watch and find out what happens!  Or don’t.  Actually,if you’ve seen The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist, or Poltergeist, you’ll be able to guess everything that happens in this film.  Even the final twist has been borrowed from countless other horror films.  The presence of Claudio Fragasso in the director’s chair might tempt some to watch this in the expectation that it’ll be another “WTF!?” romp like Troll 2 but Beyond Darkness is actually pretty dull.

Beyond Darkness was the last Italian entry in the La Casa franchise but it was not the last La Casa film.  When the American horror film House II was released in Italy, it was retitled La Casa 6.  This was followed by La Casa 7, which was actually an American slasher film called The Horror Show.

And with that, the La Casa series finally ended.

* While we’re on the topic of titles, Beyond Darkness should not be confused with 1979’s brilliant Buio Omega, which was released in English-speaking territories as Beyond The Darkness and which was directed, under the pseudonym Joe D’Amato, by Aristide Massaccesi.

Italian Horror Showcase: Witchery (dir by Fabrizio Laurenti)

Like many Italian horror films, Witchery is a film that is known by many names.

When it was originally released in Italy, it was called La Casa 4 and it was sold as being a sequel to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films.  (In Italy, Evil Dead was called La Casa.)  In countries where Umberto Lenzi’s Ghosthouse was a hit, this film was entitled Ghosthouse 2.  (Adding to the confusion, Ghosthouse was called La Casa 3 in Italy, even though it had nothing to do with the Evil Dead films.)  In countries where neither Ghosthouse nor La Casa were hits, this film was sometimes called Witchcraft and sometimes called Witchery.  For the purposes of this review, I’m going with Witchery, just because Witchcraft is kind of a bland title.

Anyway, the main lesson to be learned from Witchery is that David Hasselhoff will never be anyone other than David Hasselhoff.  In this film, he plays a character named Gary but, from the minute you see him and he starts talking, it’s impossible to think of him as being anyone other than David Hasselhoff.  You spend the film thinking, “Uh-oh, David Hasselhoff’s getting sexually frustrated.  Uh-oh, that witch is coming for David Hasselhoff.  Did they just throw David Hasselhoff through a window?”

David Hasselhoff and his friend Leslie (Leslie Cumming) are in Massachusetts, staying at an abandoned hotel.  It’s rumored that, living nearby, there’s a reculsive actress, known as the Woman in Black (Hildegard Knef), who decades ago made some sort of deal with the devil or a witch or something like that and the hotel is now some sort of portal to Hell.  Leslie is determined to discover whether the rumors are true but all David Hasselhoff cares about is the fact that Leslie is still a virgin.  “It’s not normal,” he tells her, with a look in his eye that suggests that he’s willing to help her out.  Somehow, Leslie manages to resist Hasselhoff.

Before Hasselhoff can continue to make his case, both he and Leslie have to hide in the hotel because a group of people show up.  It turns out that the Brooks family is interested in buying the hotel so that they can renovate it and hopefully make some money!  Now, they’ve arrived and they’re looking to inspect the property.  There’s Jane (Linda Blair), who is pregnant.  There’s Jane’s obnoxious stepmother, Rose (Annie Ross), who won’t stop complaining.  There’s two real estate agents, Linda (Catherine Hickland) and Jerry (Rick Farnsworth).  And then there’s a little kid who has a Sesame Street cassette player with him.  Have you ever wanted to hear a demonic chant come out of a bulky box decorated with Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch?  Well, this is the film for you!

Anyway, the Brooks family ends up getting stranded at the hotel for a night, which gives the Woman In Black several chances to pop up and send people to Hell.  It turns out that the hotel is crawling with all sorts of demonic creatures and not even David Hasselhoff can scare them off.  One person gets their lips sewn together and is hung in a fireplace.  Someone else gets crucified upside down.  Someone else gets impaled on a marlin.  Because she’s played by Linda Blair, Jane gets possessed….

It’s a real mess of a film and not one that ever makes much sense.  You keep wondering just what exactly the Woman In Black is hoping to accomplish but then you realize that the film itself has no idea so you stop worrying about it.  Witchery may not be a good film but it’s such a strange film that it’s a little bit hard to resist.  I mean, how many other films combine demonic chants with Big Bird?  How many other films feature David Hasselhoff playing himself and getting into a fight with Linda Blair?  Watching the film, you get the feeling that everyone involved just kinda made it up as they went along.

I’m not exactly recommending Witchery but it is one of those films that’s weird enough to justify viewing it at least once.

Italian Horror Showcase: Ghosthouse (dir by Umberto Lenzi)

You have to love the utter shamelessness that was often displayed by the Italian horror directors of the 70s and 80s.

Consider this:

In Italy, both Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 were huge hits.  Evil Dead was released under the name Las Casa so, of course, Evil Dead 2 was called La Casa 2.

Now, imagine that you’re Umberto Lenzi, a veteran Italian filmmaker who has directed everything from thrillers to westerns to war movies to gangster dramas.  Over the decades, you’ve followed the trends.  Whatever genre was popular at the time is the genre that you worked in.  It’s now the late 80s and, even though the Italian film industry is in decline, Italian horror movies are still popular enough to make money.  So, that’s what you now make.  You’ve made cannibal films.  You’ve made giallo films.  You’ve made zombie films.  Now, it’s time to make a haunted house film.

And how do you make sure that people will spend their money to see your haunted house film?

You call it La Casa 3.

Sure, your film has close to nothing to actually do with either one of the Evil Dead films.  I mean, there is a deserted house and a scary basement and a message on a tape recorder but otherwise, your film is definitely not a part of the Evil Dead universe.   For that matter, your own rather staid directorial style is absolutely nothing like Sam Raimi’s.

Who cares?  Just call your movie La Casa 3 and make some of that Evil Dead money for yourself!

Of course, when the film is released in other countries, the name is going to have to be changed.  After all, no one outside of Italy knows the significance of La Casa.  In some territories, La Casa 3 is actually released under the name Evil Dead 3!  However, in the United Sates, it’s known as Ghosthouse.

As for the film itself, it opens with a murder and ends with a lesson about why you should be careful when crossing the street.  The film deals with a guy who spends all of his time in his apartment, listening to radio frequencies.  He hears someone screaming for help so he drags his girlfriend with him in a search for the source of the scream.  When she suggests that maybe it was a prank, he says, “That wouldn’t be ethical!”

Anyway, their search eventually leads them to an abandoned house in New England.  If the house looks familiar, it’s because it’s the exact same house that Lucio Fulci used for The House By The Cemetery.  It’s a pretty good location, too.  Almost all of Ghosthouse’seerie moments are due to the fact that the house is just naturally spooky.  Anyway it turns out that the house was the scene of a brutal murder.  If you enter the house, you might run into a little girl who is holding a scary clown doll.  As quite a few characters discover over the course of this film, the little girl will kill you just as soon as look at you.

As prolific as Umberto Lenzi was, he never really developed a signature style.  As opposed to the work of other Italian genre directors — like Dario Argento, Mario and Lamberto Bava, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, Anthony Margheriti, and so many others — it’s rare that you ever watch an Umberto Lenzi film and think to yourself, “That is such an Umberto Lenzi moment.  Only Umberto Lenzi could have made this film work.”  As a result, Lenzi’s filmography tends to be a bit more uneven than the work of some of his contemporaries.

If you accept a film like Nightmare City as being an example of Lenzi at his most memorable and something like The Hitcher In The Dark as being Lenzi at his most forgettable, Ghosthouse is somewhere in the middle, between those two extremes.  It has lots of atmosphere and those looking for gore will get what they’re looking for.  At the same time, it doesn’t really add up to much beyond random people coming to the house, seeing something weird, and then dying.  If you’re a fan of horror that doesn’t demand much from the audience, Ghosthouse is a diverting enough waste of time.  If you’re looking for something deeper, I’d suggest rewatching The House By The Cemetery.

Italian Horror Showcase: Tentacles (dir by Ovidio G. Assonitis)

Okay, tell me if this sounds familiar.

There’s a beachside resort town, one whose survival is pretty much dependent upon tourists and big business.  If you give the tourists a reason to not show up, the town dies.  If you give big business a reason to build their factories and their underground tunnels somewhere else, the town dies.

Unfortunately, something bad is happening in this little town.  People are going in the water and they’re never returning.  It appears that they’re being killed by some sort of giant sea monster, even though the authorities swear that it’s simply impossible.  The town’s leaders are putting pressure on the sheriff to cover up the crimes.  A scientist shows up and thinks that everyone he meets is an idiot.

It’s not safe to go in the water but people keep doing it!

Now, you may be thinking that it sounds like I’m describing the plot of Jaws but actually, I’m talking about an Italian film called Tentacles.  Released in 1977, Tentacles was one of the many films that was directly inspired by the success of Spielberg’s film.  Jaws was such a phenomenal success that it was ripped off by filmmakers across the world.  That said, of all the people ripping off Spielberg’s film, the Italians brought an undeniable and frequently shameless flair to the Jaws knockoffs.

Tentacles is a bit different from other Italian Jaws films in that, this time, the threat does not come from a shark.  Instead, it comes from a giant octopus!  That’s actually a pretty good twist because, in real life, an octopus is actually more dangerous than a shark.  Not only are they bigger and considerably smarter than most sharks but if they get enough of their eight arms around you, they can literally squeeze you to death!  I mean …. agck!  Say what you will about sharks, I imagine getting eaten by one would suck but at least it wouldn’t take long to die.  Whereas if an octopus gets you, you would actually be aware of it squeezing you to death and oh my God, I’m never getting in the water.

Anyway, in Tentacles, the octopus is snatching babies off of piers and sailors off of boats and it’s using its octopus powers to rip their skin from their bones.  It also attack scuba divers by firing ink at them.  The sheriff (Claude Akins) says that it’s nothing to worry about but Ned Turner (John Huston), a hard-boiled reporter, thinks that there’s a story here.  Ned’s in town visiting his sister (Shelley Winters).  She has a ten year-old son who enjoys sailing.  Uh-oh….

Henry Fonda shows up for a few very brief scenes, playing the head of a company that built the underwater tunnel that somehow mutated the octopus.  Fonda looks incredibly frail in his scenes (and apparently, he filmed his part while recovering from heart surgery) but his performance in Tentacles still isn’t as cringe-inducing as his performance in The Swarm.

Also showing up is a marine biologist named Will Gleason (Bo Hokpkins).  Fortunately, Gleason owns two killer whales so, after the octopus kills his wife, Gleason sends out the orcas to track it down.  Before doing so, he gives them a pep talk.  Apparently, killer whales respond to positive reinforcement.

Tentacles is unique in that it’s an Italian production that managed to rope in a few well-known American actors.  It’s an odd film to watch because, on the one hand, the film is full of risible dialogue and it’s painfully slow whenever the octopus isn’t attacking anyone and no one really seems to be that invested in any of their characters.  (When the octopus kills a baby, the actress playing the baby’s mother underacts to such an extent that the scene becomes almost surreal.)  This isn’t like Jaws, where you actually care about Brody, Quint, Hooper, and the Kintner boy.  On the other hand, the octopus itself is actually kind of frightening so, on that very basic level, the film works.

In the end, Tentacles is one of the lesser Jaws rip-offs but you’ll never forget that octopus.


Italian Horror Showcase: Zombi 4: After Death (dir by Claudio Fragasso)

The 1989 Italian zombie film, After Death, takes place on a Caribbean island.  I’m not sure if the island was actually given a name in the film.  If they mentioned it, I either didn’t hear it or I didn’t bother to jot it down in my notes.  But, to be honest, the island doesn’t really need a name.  If you’ve ever seen an Italian zombie film, you’ll recognize the island immediately.  It features the same lush tropical jungle that was used in Hell of the Living Dead and there’s the usual voodoo-loving island natives.  Whether it was in Zombi 2 or Zombie Holocaust, you’ve seen this island before.

Years ago, Jenny grew up on the island.  Her parents were scientists, working to discover a cure for cancer.  But, after one of them shot and killed the local voodoo priest, all of the scientists on the island ended up getting eaten by zombies.  Jenny would have been eaten as well, except for the fact that she owns a magic necklace.

Now an adult, Jenny (Candice Daly) is returning to the island with a group of mercenaries.  We know that they’re meant to be mercenaries because they have guns and grenades and headbands.  They’re not exactly the most impressive paramilitary crew that’s ever appeared in a movie.  I mean, if this was a Predator movie, it would be a contest to see which one of them ended up getting killed first.

Jenniy and the mercenaries are heading to island to discover why her parents were killed.  As soon as they arrives at the island, their boat’s engine dies, which is really rotten luck because now they’re stranded.  Of course, their luck is about to get even worse….

But first, we cut to some hikers.  They’re hiking the island and you have to wonder why Jenny and the mercenaries were acting like this island was so isolated when apparently, anyone can just hire a guide and hike it anytime they want to.  Anyway, the hikers stumble into a cave that they shouldn’t have stumbled into.  This leads to the zombies once again coming to “life” and proceeding to attack anyone who they perceive as not belonging on the island.

Only one of the hikers survives.  Fortunately Chuck (played by Jeff Stryker, a porn star who appeared in this film under the name Chuck Peyton) manages to find the mercenaries and together, they all hide out in a deserted laboratory.  Unfortunately, one of the mercenaries has been injured by the zombies and is slowly dying.  Soon, everyone is under siege as the undead surround the lab….

So, After Death is a totally ludicrous film that I can’t help but kind of like.  It doesn’t quite rise to the level of being a guilty pleasure but, for the most part, the cast fully commits to their thinly-written roles and, from the minute the dead come back to life, the action is nonstop.  These aren’t your typical mindless zombies, just wandering about and randomly eating people.  Instead, these zombies are on a mission and their determination makes them a bit more menacing than the typical decaying cannibal.  While director Claude Fragasso never creates the type of ominous atmosphere that distinguished the zombie films of Lucio Fulci, he still keeps the action moving at a steady pace.  Even the fact that the ending makes no sense adds to the film’s weird charm.

After Death is also known as Zombi 4: After Death.  When Dawn of the Dead was released in the Italy, it was called Zombi.  It’s success led to Lucio Fulci making a film called Zombi 2, which, while being a fantastic horror film, had nothing to do with George Romero’s classic.  The success of Zombi 2 led to Zombi 3, which was started by Fulci but completed by Claudio Fragasso’s frequent collaborator, Bruno Mattei.  (Fragasso also wrote the screenplay for Zombi 3.)  Beyond the undead and the island setting, After Death has nothing to do with the previous Zombi films.  It has even less to do with the subsequent Zombi 5: Killing Birds.  However, you have to give the Italian exploitation film industry some credit.  They never allowed a good title to go to waste.