“Cinema is the mightiest weapon” was the statement of intent behind Mussolini’s inauguration of the Cinecittà studio complex in 1937. And a mighty weapon it did indeed become for Italy, although thankfully not in the service of Il Duce’s fascistic purposes by the time World War II was out. What did happen was that Cinecittà, instead, became synonymous with such celebrated film artists and freethinkers as De Sica, Rossellini and Fellini, firmly ensconcing Italy on the cinematic map from the late forties onwards.

However, for every celebrated auteur at Cinecittà, there was many a smaller scale craftsman beavering away at Titanus or De Paolis Studios on less prestigious but often equally (or more) lucrative productions. ‘Rose-tinted neorealism’ (neo-realismo rosa) and soon after Commedia all’italiana were popular home grown forms, as were admirable attempts to recreate Hollywood biblical and historical epics. Horror films, however, were just not made in Italy. The all-too-real horrors of WWII still loomed large even for younger audiences.

Two such craftsmen were Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. A former sculptor and art critic, Freda was a director with a string of credits going back to the early forties, with works like Les Misérables (1948), Sins of Rome (1953) and Theodora, Slave Empress (1954) earning him a solid reputation as a specialist in lurid and spectacular historical epics. Bava had gradually become one of the nation’s most sought-after cameramen, thanks to work with the likes of Steno and Pabst that displayed sheer speed and efficiency with which he could work low-budget wonders with lighting and special effects. His father, Eugenio, had been a cinematographer and special effects artist, who had worked on such silent classics as Quo Vadis? (1913) and Cabiria (1914). When Freda and Bava met on the set of Sins of Rome, few could have suspected the now legendary path the pair was soon to embark on.

In 1956, one year before Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein would bring supernatural thrillers back to western screens with a bloody Technicolor vengeance, Freda hit upon the idea of making a horror picture and brought his initial pitch to his producers on audio tape, complete with improvised sound effects. Although they were impressed by what they heard, the deal was only sealed when Freda rather rashly bet them that he could deliver the completed film within just twelve days, with the cinematic miracle-worker Bava being the ace up his sleeve. The resultant film would be I vampiri (‘The Vampires’), and it would be the first horror film made in Italy since Il mostro di Frankenstein / Frankenstein’s Monster – a now long-lost silent released in 1920.

I vampiri opens with the body of a young girl being found in the Seine by a group of workmen. Coroners find no fatal injuries of any kind but the “body is completely drained of blood, just like the others.” A montage of rolling newspaper presses and screaming headlines inform us that there have been “Four Girls Killed in Six Months”, that a “Vampire Continues his Killing Spree” and the “Police Investigation Yields no Clues”. We also learn that these headlines are the product of an “Investigation by Pierre Lantin”, who we meet in the next scene and discover that he is grimly determined to expose the identity of the person or persons now routinely referred to as “The Vampire”.

Meanwhile, a black-leather-gloved hand rifles through a filing cabinet to find a card bearing the words “Nora Duval – 20 years old”. Cut straight to a dancing girl sat at a dressing table, clearly Nora, who happens to be reading Lantin’s reportage of the “Vampire Murders” aloud to a friend. As the others leave, Nora stays behind to meet her date, and a long, long take of the theatre’s staircase reaches its climax as an ominous shadow grows on the far wall. Within moments a menacing figure appears behind Nora, lit from below by her dressing table mirror lights. As she turns and starts to scream the intruder covers her mouth with a chloroform-soaked rag and we dissolve immediately to the police on the scene…

The opening of I vampiri may well have been very different had not the incredibly talented, but equally highly-strung, Freda left the project in what was by all accounts a fit of pique. Ten days in and only halfway through the script, it was painfully clear to the director that the bet was lost, and requests for an extension were turned down. However, after a brief hiatus in production, Bava and screenwriter Piero Regnoli cannily reworked the plot in such a way that they could conceivably complete the film in two days. With several cast members now unavailable, including the film’s ‘mad scientist’ Antoine Balpêtré, journo Lantin (Dario Michaelis) was promoted from supporting to lead character, with a host of mostly dialogue-driven new scenes depicting his investigations making up the earlier sections of the film.

This extensive re-jigging also sees future Jess Franco regular Paul Muller’s role as used-and-abused heavy Joseph Seignoret metamorphose from that of a guillotined criminal resurrected by the ‘mad science’ of Julien du Grand (Balpêtré) to that of simply a heroin-addicted stooge. His former status as a reanimated corpse, with replaced head, is given away somewhat by the obviously Freda-directed scene where he is interrogated at the police station, in which a scar can be clearly seen around his neck.

An earlier Bava-helmed scene where the same character writhes in a darkened room screaming for a fix, finally to be administered with one, is surprisingly close to the bone considering the period in which the film was made. Of course, the character providing said fix is our scientist Julien, but kept in the darkness and depicted solely by a shadow and a pair of black-glove-sheathed hands thanks to Balpêtré’s unavailability at this stage. It is to Bava’s credit that this slight-of-hand actually works in favour of the narrative’s development rather than to its detriment.

However, this isn’t to say that the film does not come across as a shade on the convoluted side, containing as it does something of a hodgepodge of themes. The earlier, mostly Bava-helmed, sections focus chiefly on Lantin and Inspector Chantal’s (Carlo D’Angelo) investigations and the black-glove-wearing Joseph’s stalking of his attractive victims, imbuing the proceedings with the flavour of what would later become known as a giallo before we are taken into more recognisably Gothic fantasy territory. With the character of Julien du Grand – clearly a more central focus in the original treatment – the film also has its own Frankenstein figure, engaging in fevered experiments to find the “fountain of youth”. See if this sounds familiar at all: “One day I’ll discover the very energy that creates life and make it flow forever through my subjects. That will be my moment of triumph… because it will mean that all my work was not in vain!”

These elements aside, the real core of the story lies in a retelling of the Countess Bathory legend, with the character of Duchess Maguerita du Grand as portrayed by Freda’s wife and regular leading lady, the strikingly beautiful Gianna Maria Canale. Of course, we know her initially as the youthful, drop-dead-gorgeous Giselle Du Grand, supposedly the Duchess’s niece, who from the outset is shown to be attracted to Lantin. The young reporter, however, isn’t in the slightest bit interested in her, much to the bemusement of his photographer and sidekick Ronald (Angelo Galassi). “The most beautiful woman in Paris makes eyes at you and you don’t even care,” he muses, also stating that if Lantin would only introduce him to her he would “turn Paris upside down to find your vampire”.

Later, in the scene depicting the sham funeral of Julien Du Grand (who has faked his death to keep Giselle/Marguerita’s secret safe) we learn the reason for Lantin’s disdain; the old duchess, shrouded in mourning black and still believed to be Giselle’s aunt, had designs upon his father, with clearly destructive, but unspecified, consequences. “My father hated her. He wanted nothing to do with her,” we learn, and also that “She was a heartless woman who destroyed my mother’s life”. In this same scene, shortly before the above exchange, the attentive viewer has his first real confirmation of what is going on here. A pair of old Du Grand family friends or relatives discuss the fact that Giselle is not present at the funeral: “Giselle? She’s not the type to come to funerals. Besides, she’s away on a trip”.

Our first glimpse of the old Duchess as the decrepit Marguerita rather than the glamorous Giselle comes in the scene immediately prior to this, where she is glimpsed as a veiled, silhouetted figure framed by a doorway. Admonishing Julien in a rasping, disdainful voice, she prefigures many such ‘witch’ figures in subsequent Italian horrors – and can in this way very much be seen as ‘The First Mother’, by those versed in Argento lore.

As Stacy Abbot has pointed out in her piece for Kinoeye (‘The Vampire Transformed’), the Du Grand family’s crumbling castle, beautifully rendered by Beni Montresor’s exquisite set design and Bava’s breathtaking cinematography, represents an enclosed Gothic space in the heart of the modern world. From roughly halfway into the movie onwards, the action is increasingly located therein, transforming the atmosphere from the initial proto-giallo/mad doctor hybrid into a more purely Gothic one.

In the ballroom scene, where at ‘Giselle’s’ request Lantin arrives with Ronald in tow to cover the event for the society pages (having been ordered off the Vampire story by his editor, the amusingly monickered “Mr Bourgeois”), it is almost as if these two ‘modern’ characters have stepped straight into the past. The sumptuous yet decrepit-looking main room of the castle, where servants in fussy livery serve equally decrepit-looking members of the ruling class – actually Marguerita’s contemporaries – contrast starkly with the modest apartment where her latest young ‘blood donor’, Lorette (Wandisa Guida), lives with her parents, which can be seen to portray how the ruling classes, relics of a barbarous bygone age, sustain themselves at the expense of the poorer and younger. This tiny minority gorge themselves on the lifeblood of the majority as they have since time immemorial. As Lantin continues to spurn her advances, Marguerita (as ‘Giselle’ of course at this point) asks him “why did you come?” “You know very well,” he replies, “I belong to the class known as slaves, who have to scrupulously obey the orders they receive.” ‘The Vampires’ indeed. Marx and Engels would be proud.

However, the most powerful and memorable scene in the film is without a doubt that which takes place almost directly afterwards, where Giselle withdraws to her opulent but similarly time-worn bedchamber. There she plays some music on an antiquated gramophone and, sitting at her dressing table, sensuously smokes a cigarette and caresses her temporarily young and beautiful face. The sequence communicates the deeply private enjoyment of a fetish – which is jarringly disrupted by the sudden intrusion of Ronald, who has hung behind after Lantin’s departure to declare his love to her.

Incandescent with rage, she pulls away from his rather-too-forceful advances – and we see Bava’s special effect make-up genius at work, as she transforms from striking young woman to hideous crone before our – and Ronald’s – very eyes in one take, without the camera pulling away for as much as a second. No post-production trickery is this; Tim Lucas tells us that this was achieved “by drawing wrinkles on Canale’s face in red grease-pencil, rendering them invisible to the black-and-white camera with red lighting and then making them visible again by simultaneously dimming the red lighting and raising a corresponding green light, which made the red lines photograph as black.” Lucas goes on to share that this technique had been used before in films such as Rouben Mamoulian’s magnificent 1932 version of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, but Bava went one step further by fitting Canale “with a special wig with artificial filaments that photographed white when exposed to direct light, bleaching her hair on cue.”

Although its narrative is rather disjointed in some respects, relying a little too much on coincidence (such as the very man that Canale wants to become young and beautiful for also happening to be also the person most determined to get to the bottom of the mystery) I vampiri is still in many ways a beautiful film which sets the visual tone for many a European Gothic fantasy to come. Roman Vlad’s melodramatic score would be more at home in a 1940s serial and Dario Michaelis doesn’t make for a particularly engaging leading man, but none of this takes away from Bava and Freda’s achievement, especially when one considers the incredibly tight time-frame in which they had to work.

The film was received disappointingly by the Italian public, who apparently were put off the film when they saw that its director was a fellow countryman. Tim Lucas’ conversations with the late Freda reveal that when the film premièred in San Remo, the city in north-western Italy from which Bava hailed, on 5th April 1957, Freda was present to see the initial reaction. According to Freda, the film’s title and poster art at first seemed to interest them, “but then at the last moment they saw the name Freda… seeing an Italian name, they all made ugly faces, because they found the idea preposterous.” It seems that the general consensus was still that Americans made horror pictures, not Italians. This being the case, from that day forth ‘Robert Hampton’ (Freda) and ‘John (or sometimes ‘Marie’) Foam’ (Bava) were born for the purposes of future ventures. An anglicised nom de plume became standard practice for many Italian genre film directors right up until the late nineties.

So, although the first film in what would become the Italian horror cycle, I vampiri by no means set the world on fire on its initial domestic release. It didn’t fare much better on its export travels either. In 1960, the film was presented by to English-speaking cinema audiences by distributors RCIP in a shamefully bowdlerised form entitled The Devil’s Commandment. The title credits sequence, in the original a montage of stills of famous Parisian landmarks, was replaced by a newly shot and extremely shoddy new sequence where we see a body double for Paul Muller’s character staring up at an apartment window. Cut to within the apartment, where a girl disrobes, peeling off black stockings and basque seductively and getting into her bath. Thirty seconds later, ‘Joseph’ enters and approaches her with murderous intent; oddly prefiguring a similar in content but infinitely better scene in Bava’s later giallo-defining Blood and Black Lace (1964). She screams, and we dissolve to another new shot, depicting two men in silhouette throwing her corpse from a bridge into a body of water standing in for the Seine. Cut to the original opening with the body being discovered.

Many of the film’s dialogue scenes were cut short – perhaps a small mercy considering the atrocious dubbing – in favour of several more ‘racy’ inserts. The entire scene where Lantin brings the police back to the apartment he followed Joseph back to is removed completely, as is that where Lorette’s parents and Lantin anxiously wait for news of her whereabouts. Also missing is the entire scene where the blind beggar (paid by the ‘vampires’ to direct Lorette to the apartment where she is abducted) is questioned by the police, as is the subsequent raid on the house, found completely abandoned.

A tedious newly made scene, lasting a whopping five minutes, in which a girl walks the streets and goes to a nightclub (in what is obviously the daytime), watches a dance routine and is subsequently murdered by an ersatz Joseph is inserted in their favour, along with meaningless shots of some rats running around a skull and towards a body double for the unconscious Lorette. The viewer is also ‘treated’ to an extra scene with a character, supposedly one of Julien Du Grand’s assistants, forcing himself lasciviously on ‘Lorette’. The only halfway interesting thing about this extra footage is that the assistant is played by none other than a jobbing future ‘Grandpa Munster’, Al Lewis.

Despite the shoddy inserts, the Devils Commandment cut runs at a slender 69:18 minutes compared with the original version’s 77:58 minutes. When one thinks of the considerable revisions already made to the narrative midway through after Freda’s departure from the project, it becomes clear what an utterly dreadful patchwork bastardization of the original conception this version is. It’s difficult to imagine such treatment being meted out to, say, Bicycle Thieves or L’Aventurra! This was also the version that did the rounds on late-night US cable TV for many years, so it is little wonder that Bava and Freda’s gorgeous little gem of a horror movie has only recently begun to receive anything like its critical due.

Luck wasn’t on the side of these two particular maestri on this occasion, it seems. However, the success of Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (released in the UK on 2nd May 1957, just one month after I vampiri‘s Italian première), and subsequently (Horror of) Dracula (1958), was soon to send its ripples across Europe and, equally importantly, Pietro Francisci’s 1958 Steve Reeves vehicle Le Fatiche di Ercole / Hercules was about to kick in the doors to the American film market, kick-starting the Peplum boom of the late fifties and early sixties in the process. It was this export market that would become the key target for Italian genre film-makers from that point on – and their creative response to this would be staggering in more than a few cases.

With I vampiri, Bava had made the step into feature film direction and proved he could build a solid mise-en-scene, but it would not be until he had two more uncredited directing jobs under his belt – one of which finishing off work started by none other than Jacques Tourneur, La battaglia di Maratona / The Giant of Marathon (1959) – that he would actually be officially credited as such. Being then the better-known of the two, Freda received sole directorial credit on I vampiri, despite the fact of the final cut being Bava’s.

1960’s La maschera del demonio, better known to English speakers as either The Mask of Satan (UK) or Black Sunday (US), would not only mark Bava’s directorial début proper, but would also prove to be a catalyst unleashing a thousand Italian ghouls, maniacs, vampires and zombies onto the world’s cinema screens. Italy was about to discover that Italians could make horror films – and sometimes better than anybody else.