I come from the past. I exist in the present and in the future. I am here to offer you a life of passion for centuries everlasting. A realm which is waiting for you. A beautiful world of strange colours – colours which as yet you cannot even imagine, but which I will teach you to see. They are hidden in the darkness of our realm.
~ Dieter Eppler as ‘Vampire’
While influenced in terms of style and content by recent Gothic horror successes from Hammer and the earlier classics from Universal, the early Gothics from Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda are marked by their fierce originality, setting the gold standard for myriad Euro-nightmares to come.
Bava’s sensuous resurrected witch in Black Sunday (1960) and Freda’s demented necrophiliac surgeon in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) both may have had their antecedents across world cinema, but never had audiences seen such misdeeds related in quite such a passionate and mischievously transgressive fashion. The wake of Bava’s international success saw many Italian producers seeking to score similarly sizeable hits within the newly resurgent genre. Of course, not all of these had the same painstakingly honed talent and eye for detail as those two master craftsmen, and while some of their films are now seen as high watermarks of the genre and period, there are many others whose efforts few will ever hold in anything like such high regard.
Roughly around the same time that Freda was rushing his flawed masterpiece, writer and director Roberto Mauri followed the lead of Renato Polselli’s L’amante del vampiro / The Vampire and the Ballerina and Piero Regnoli’s L’ultima preda del vampiro / The Playgirls and the Vampire (both 1960) with a little vampire film of his own. La strage dei vampiri / Slaughter of the Vampires (1962) is a rather odd title (preceded by ‘The’ on screen) considering the relative lack of ‘slaughtering’ of or at the hands of the small number of nosferatu in question. While Mauri’s film clearly falls into the loose category of ‘also-ran’ in relation to the three films examined so far, it is nevertheless not without its own dubious charms and points of interest.
In the film’s opening shot, the camera lingers momentarily on a cross, casting its shadow on a dry-stone wall, before panning around to reveal a road on which two figures run up a hill towards us, closely pursued by a baying mob of torch-wielding villagers. Represented in glorious monochrome, with the male of the pair resplendent in full Bela Lugosi Dracula drag and the female in a billowing shroud-like nightgown, we’re immediately transported into the closing reel of a Universal creature feature.
It seems an odd choice to begin a horror story by presenting your monsters as the hunted rather than the hunters, and perhaps even odder to use audience identification techniques like having the viewer hide with the vampires in the undergrowth, as the villagers mill about and explain through their shouted dialogue that “the deaths of those girls must be avenged tonight!” As they “make a break for it”, as Female Vampire puts it in the American dub, she falls and the male scarcely looks back as he leaves his bride to her fate, bolting away to save his own undead hide. From her viewpoint on the ground, we see the villagers immediately descend upon her, prodding her with pitchforks, their faces contorted in zealous glee; further encouraging identification with the vampire.
So far, so Slaughter of the Vampires, but after the opening credits, it quickly becomes clear that, far from ploughing a new furrow in vampire lore, Mauri’s film is, in fact, going to be yet another retelling of the Dracula tale with a few minor but salient alterations. (We never see those villagers again, by the way.) The nameless ‘Vampire’ of the film is played by the late Dieter Eppler, a popular actor in the contemporaneous Krimi film cycle (West German murder mysteries loosely based on the work of Edgar Wallace or his son, Brian Edgar Wallace) who would enjoy a busy acting career right up until his retirement in 2001.
Eppler’s vampire, as mentioned, is in the traditional Hollywood mould, already of course incredibly clichéd by this time, cutting a fine figure in a tux, cape, slicked back hair and an inordinate amount of rouge and mascara. While he lacks the sheer physical presence of a Christopher Lee, he is still compelling to watch – rather comical at times, yes, but compelling nonetheless. It’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly why this is. Perhaps it’s the intense glare that he manages to sustain for most of the film, or maybe it’s just his very Germanic appearance, augmented by the layers of slap, lending him strange kind of vampiric authenticity.
After eluding those vengeful villagers, Dracula – sorry, I mean the Vampire, goes to ground in the wine cellar of the impressive castle of local lord of the manor Wolfgang (Walter Brandi) and first presents himself at the latter’s wedding reception. Prior to his grand entrance, we are introduced to Wolfgang and his new bride, Louise (the stunning Graziella Granata), in a rather sumptuous if criminally over-lit castle interior set, brimming with lavishly costumed extras.
Just like Magaretha in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Louise entertains her guests by playing a romantic melody on the piano – actually the film’s slightly overused main theme by the then-prolific Aldo Piga. “A composition worthy of a great master,” one of the guests remarks, even though nobody in their right mind would go quite that far. As Louise continues to play, she is suddenly distracted by… well, the viewer can’t be completely sure what it is, but whatever it is comes represented by a hilarious ‘spooky’ theremin on the soundtrack, which apparently only Louise can hear. To be frank, the only response one could reasonably have to this would be to fall about laughing, but Louise finds herself “a bit dizzy” after her performance is ended.
Of course, this ‘strange feeling’ heralds the arrival of the Vampire, who, when Louise turns around, is framed in the doorway, gatecrashing unchallenged despite his otherworldly appearance. He zeroes in on Louise immediately, bagging the first dance and mesmerizing her with his intense visage, much to the delight of the resident gossips. Left ‘weak at the knees’ after this, Louise retires to her bedchamber and no sooner has Wolfgang given her a chaste kiss goodnight than the Vampire appears, sweeping her up in his arms and laying her on the bed.
The vampire seduction scenes are surprisingly steamy for the time the film was made, certainly more so than Hammer’s films of the period. The British studio would make up for this later. Where the undeniable sexual frisson of the bedchamber vampire visitation is largely implied in the more famous films from Terence Fisher or Freddie Francis, here it’s made blatant, with Eppler kissing Louise’s neck and breasts and Louise writhing and moaning more orgasmically than any young vampire victim had a business to in 1962. Once Louise is well and truly in his thrall, the vampire wastes no time in moving on to housekeeper Corinne (Edda Ferronao), a similarly voluptuous brunette, and the same erotic scene is played out with her.
When Louise has first been visited, but not yet ‘turned’, she lolls around the next day with the dreamy, satisfied look of someone who has experienced incredible sex for the very first time. The night before may have been she and Wolfgang’s wedding night, but we know damn well that Wolfie himself has nothing to do with her blessed-out state. It is the couple’s first day of married life, but Wolfgang’s burblings fail to hold her attention for a second now the realisation has dawned that there’s more to life than she ever imagined. An ‘awakening’ in more ways than one. And, frankly, Wolfgang does seem an incredibly boring man – but more on him in a minute.
As for the Vampire, there’s no ‘Count Dracula’s Great Love’ going on here. Unlike, say, Coppola’s Dracula, with whom we’re made to identify despite his dastardly deeds, because of the depth and sincerity of his ‘undying’ love for Elisabeta / Mina Harker, this nameless vampire just seems to want a piece of any ample-bosomed young lady that floats into his orbit. Dialogue like “Your mirror cannot show you, it only diminishes you; it cannot possibly do you justice. The reflection you see there bears no resemblance to the reality. Ah, could you but see yourself as you are in my heart,” (to Louise) and “I can feel your breathing when you’re sleeping, when you awaken I can feel the blood throbbing through your veins,” (to Corinne) reveal this vampire to be not so much the great romantic but more a bit of a shark with a nice line in pillow talk. Of course, the vampire is ever the ultimate sexual predator, and this one seems to enjoy the process of conquest above all else, losing interest once he’s acquired his latest ‘bride’. As we see this played out with Louise, and started again when he has Corinne letting down her Princess Leia braids, we guess that such was also the case with the ‘bride’ seen in the opening scene; who he was incredibly quick to ditch when crunch-time came around.
However, even though this loses the vampire some of the pathos inherent in Stoker’s character, not to mention any audience sympathy (that the film seemed to play within the opening sequence), this doesn’t mean that we fail to understand the attraction. Especially when the Vampire is compared to his competition. The character of Wolfgang, played by Walter Brandi, who had also appeared in both Ballerina and Playgirls (as a vampire), is roughly analogous to Michael Gough’s Arthur Holmwood in (Horror of) Dracula (1958) and as such doesn’t get to do much romancing, mesmerising or, indeed, inspiring awe. In most cinematic adaptations of Stoker’s tale, the ‘cuckolded’ husband figure appears as something of a drip next to the exotic, powerful and alluring vampire, and this is most certainly the case here. And it doesn’t help that at a couple of points we see him sitting around feeling sorry for himself in flouncy, silky nightclothes that resembles nothing so much as a Pierrot costume.
There’s no use in having an Arthur Holmwood without a Van Helsing, and this we have in the personage of Dr. Nietzsche (!), as played by Luigi Batzella under his ‘Paolo Solvay’ pseudonym. His confident demeanour and seeming control of the situation serves to further emasculate Wolfgang, and it is Nietzche that ultimately ‘penetrates’ Louise with the fatal stake. One wonders if ‘Dr Freud’ might have been a more appropriate and useful medical professional for this particular film. In a deviation from the Dracula template, Wolfgang himself is bitten, first by Louise, then by the vampire’s subsequent conquest, Corinne. In the first instance, a quick blood transfusion, courtesy of Nietzsche, keeps the vampirism at bay, but sees him virtually bedridden from then on (and hence given license to wear those damn pyjamas), making him easy prey for his undead housekeeper. With this in mind, it’s not hard to see that Wolfgang has been put into a more traditionally female role type, making the Vampire resolutely the alpha male of the narrative, with Nietzsche a close beta.
However, things take a distinct turn for the odd and vaguely troubling with the Wolfgang character in the last reel. Still reeling from his double penetration, he rises from his bed wearing a trance-like but determined expression when he hears a piano playing a haunting melody; Aldo Piga’s title suite again, of course. He descends the stairs to find Corinne’s very young daughter playing the music and, after enquiring after her parents, says to her, “I feel like walking for a while in the garden. Will you go out with me?” adding that, “I can show you some wonderful new hiding places.” Soon the two are walking the castle grounds at night, until, spotted by Nietzsche and Wolfgang’s faithful retainer (Corrine’s husband and the girl’s father, played by Alfredo Rizzo), Wolfgang snatches her up in his arms and races towards the family crypt. (While this is going on our lead Vampire just seems to be scurrying around aimlessly.)
Wolfgang proceeds to lock himself and the little girl into a section of the crypt, and Neitzche and the manservant immediately start hammering on the door. “Don’t be afraid, it’s quite safe,” Wolfgang reassures the little girl. Then he’s suddenly startled by the appearance of the Vampire and leaps to battle with him to defend the girl – either because seeing the Vampire has brought him back to his senses or because he is defending his prey from a rival. As he manages to slay his enemy, it seems the vampire curse is lifted, so whatever might have happened with the girl is deferred. Throughout the film we have understood the vampires’ urges as being of a highly sexual nature, first with the Vampire’s seductions of Louise and Corinne, later with each woman’s violation of Wolfgang, but now we see that when Wolfgang is infected, his first port of call is a girl of no more than seven. What is this supposed to tell us about him? Whatever it is, it isn’t elaborated on any further.
Likely, it was simply convenient for the mechanics of the story to have the little girl in jeopardy at the end. The suggestion of paedophilia does bring some unease to the situation, but it’s unlikely that Mauri considered it of particular significance any more than the fact that the only person that Wolfgang actually gets to ‘penetrate’ in the narrative is his love rival, the Vampire. Like many Gothic horror man-monsters of the sixties, Eppler’s Vampire is far too easily destroyed, impaled on an iron railing after a short tussle. What follows is one of the poorest attempts at recreating the 1958 Dracula‘s disintegration climax ever seen; knocked off in what looks like three takes, with not one shot even remotely matching up with the last. That said, unlike most of Hammer’s horrors, at least Slaughter has the decency to offer a short coda instead of ending abruptly the very instant the monster is despatched.
The film is by and large nice to look at, with some exquisitely photographed location work at Monte San Giovanni Campano Castle and its grounds, in the Frosinone province of the Lazio region of Italy. The location would also later be used by ‘Dr Nietzsche’ himself, Luigi Batzella when directing the mad-as-a-box-of-frogs Nuda per Satana / Nude for Satan (1974). However, while frequent Batzella collaborator Ugo Brunelli’s cinematography is fantastic in the exterior shots, the set-based interiors appear flat and stagey from overlighting, especially when compared with similar spaces in the Bava and Freda films. Mauri and Brunelli’s use of shadow is impressive at several points, but their work is generally uneven; for example, one scene where Wolfgang and Nietzsche are talking for some reason employs a Vaseline-smeared lens for one shot, but not for the next.
On the whole, Slaughter is an entertaining, if muddled and often unintentionally amusing, old-fashioned little horror movie, that suffers in export prints from injudicious pruning and terrible dubbing. Mauri’s film didn’t see the US release until 1969 when it became Curse of the Blood Ghouls and, one suspects, hopelessly dated in a year that saw films like Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch and 2001: A Space Odyssey on general release. The delirious US trailer excitedly informs us that, “In the dark of night they leave their tombs to satisfy their needs for blood – because these demons of the undead can exist only by ravishing the living!” with subsequent on-screen captions reading “Fang-mark of the Vampire Branding Them… Horror Slaves of Satan!” Now, who in their right mind could resist that spiel?
As is the case with many of the less celebrated Italian Gothics, Slaughter of the Vampires amounts to a pleasing diversion, a dreamlike transmission from an age that never truly existed. While the film is generally popular with committed fans of this particular niche, most would no doubt concur with critic Glen Erickson’s dismissal of it as “a generally uninspiring and generic vampire tale with liberal script borrowings from Hammer’s Horror of Dracula.”
Much of the pleasure in films like Slaughter lies in the way they wear their clichéd iconography on their sleeves – they’re not at all ashamed to recall something that’s been seen before, as long as they can keep their audience entertained and, occasionally, create something beautiful. Mauri’s film succeeds in both of these aims at least some of the time.
The following year, 1963, would see an intensified proliferation of Italianate Grand Guignol, including maestro Mario Bava’s return to the cycle he initiated. And for I tre volti della paura, better known to us as Black Sabbath, he would also have a legend of old-time Gothic cinema along for the ride.
For Dieter Eppler (1927-2008)