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Plot: ballerinas are stalked by vampire in an old opera house.

The Monster Of the Opera is the last in a very loose ballerina trilogy and was preceded by the kitschy The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960). It was initially conceived as a sequel to the latter with filming beginning in 1961. However as filming progressed and the production ran into budget problems it was made into a stand-alone feature, and only completed several years later. While just as kitschy as the prior two episodes The Monster Of the Opera does occasionally manage to line up an artful shot or two and the Aldo Piga score is sufficiently creaky and brooding when it needs to be. The only real difference (if it can be called that) is that The Monster Of the Opera is a pretty straightforward recombination of both The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) but is enlivened with a light sprinkling of surface elements borrowed from the 1909 Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom of the Opera. It’s not exactly the second coming of The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962), but there’s something resembling a pulse, at least.

Renato Polselli was a psychology graduate who filmed the usual melodramas and comedies in the fifties before veering towards gothic horror. As someone with his background Polselli’s aim was to constantly push the envelope as far as he could. Horror was his genre of choice, even if that meant having to deal with smaller budgets and casts of secondary players. Polselli sought to confront taboos and to be as transgressive as the medium would allow. He first did so with The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), an erotically-charged potboiler that positioned María Luisa Rolando as a skid row alternative to Barbara Steele. Gothic horror wouldn’t explode into an orgy of blood and boobs until Emilio Vieyra's The Blood Of the Virgins (1967) and the early fantastiques of Jean Rollin. Like several others Polselli brazenly charged forwards during the gothic horror revival of the early 1970s. The Truth According to Satan (1970), Delirium (1972), and Black Magic Rites (1973) all followed on the groundwork that The Monster Of the Opera had lain. Just like Lady Frankenstein (1971) and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) they too pushed the erotica and psychotronic excesses as far as they could. No longer restricted by crippling regulations from the censors Polselli found a handful of actresses, and reveled in shooting them from every angle he could. After Mania (1974) he made a few thrillers and a poliziottesco before inevitably descending into the world of hardcore pornography at the dawn of the 1980s.

Centuries ago the vampire Stefano (Giuseppe Addobbati, as John McDouglas) was betrayed by a mortal woman he loved, the medium Laura (Barbara Hawards, as Barbara Howard). Condemned to an eternity of darkness he sought refuge in the underground, and on top of his lair a grand theater was constructed. As the years pass women mysteriously disappear within the whispering walls of the Aquarius Theater. As the theater falls into disrepair and becomes affordable it attracts the attention of young director Sandro (Marco Mariani, as Marc Marian) who chooses it as a rehearsal space for his dance troupe as they prepare for the new show he’s working on. The old caretaker Achille (Alberto Archetti, as Albert Archet) tries to warn him not to go through with his plans as the Aquarius Theater is cursed, but Sandro brushes it off as mere superstition. Giulia (Barbara Hawards, as Barbara Howard), leading lady and Sandro’s fiancée, can’t shake the feeling that someone’s watching her and that she’s somehow been there before. When Stefano lays eyes upon Giulia he believes her to be the Laura reincarnated, and vows to kill her.

With rehearsals progressing Carlotta (Milena Vukotic) grows envious of the preferential treatment that Giulia gets, and wants nothing more than to replace her in the show. Aldo (Aldo Nicodemi, as Boris Notarenko) is in love with Rossana (Vittoria Prada) but she’s in no hurry to return his affections. Yvette (Jody Excell) has a love unspoken for Aurora (Carla Cavalli) who wants nothing but to return it, but neither of them seem in any haste to act on their romantic impulses. Lightman Tony (Renato Montalbano), actor Filippo (Fidel Gonzáles, as Fidelio Gonzales), and soundman Giorgio (Walter Brandi) are just happy to be working with a bunch of nubile women. It is learned that Achille is not just a caretaker, but very much Stefano’s prisoner. When Giulia is drawn to Stefano’s cavernous lair she finds not only the vampire, but also a dungeon full of chained earlier victims. As paralyzing hysterics quickly seize the ballerinas, it’s up to brave Sandro to vanquish the evil Stefano once and for all.

As can be surmised from the above synopsis The Monster Of the Opera combines half of The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) with half of The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) with some superficial Gaston Leroux touches for good measure. The Stefano-Lauro opening gambit echoes The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962) more than anything else. More importantly, however, on more than a few occasions similarities with Pete Walker’s knickers and knockers classic The Flesh and Blood Show (1973) can be drawn. Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that Walker borrowed, nay stole, all his ideas from this litte Italian gothic, but the similarities between the two are too striking to be mere coincidence. First, there are the characters and setting: there’s the abandoned theater that holds a terrifying secret, the ambitious young director, and the senior citizen that issues a grave warning. Second, the various romantic couplings (same sex and otherwise) are nearly identical and third, both push farther in terms of eroticism following earlier examples. The Monster Of the Opera leans in hard on the implied lesbian histrionics following Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960). The Flesh and Blood Show (1973) adhered to the giallo template of omnivorous hyper-sexuality very much as in Top Sensation (1969) and perfected by Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, and Luciano Ercoli. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Ernesto Gastaldi would become one of the more prolific screenwriters in the giallo boom of the early 1970s. Here he understandably plays second fiddle to Polselli whose vision and voice dominates.

On a more interesting note it has several earlier iterations of character types that Polselli would explore in his eclectic 70s oeuvre with Rita Calderoni. This wouldn’t be a Polselli joint if old Renato didn’t push the envelope as far as he possibly could. In The Monster Of the Opera that manifests itself mostly in one scene of very strong implied lesbianism. First there’s the way Yvette is initially introduced (“born in the city of Lesbo, province of Sappho”) and later Aurora talks about the bonds of friendship between women before sharing a few longing looks with Manuela on a staircase. Then Carlotta descends the stairs and the three fall in a suggestive embrace while breaking out in laughter. Finally, Yvette enters the staircase, sternly sending the two other packing, claims Aurora for her own and the two almost share a kiss. However since it was only 1964 said kiss never materializes, and suggestion is as far as things go. What really drives most dialogues between the couples is the play with consent. Early on Rosanna tells Aldo, “you may kiss me, but don’t take advantage!”. Then later, a dance montage apart from the earlier Rosanna-Aldo exchange, Giulia reverses what Rosanna said and asks Sandro “why don’t you take advantage? Kiss me.” Quite playful and more than a progressive stance in those repressed days before the Summer of Love and Sexual Revolution.

Even on a lesser production composer Aldo Piga and director of photography Ugo Brunelli can be relied upon to deliver something of merit. Barbara Hawards is no María Luisa Rolando, Graziella Granata, or Soledad Miranda – but she does cut a nice figure and Brunelli captures her from her best side every chance he gets. Milena Vukotic and Carla Cavalli probably get the most lines out of the other ballerinas. Vukotic is still acting to this day while the rest never acted anywhere else. Giuseppe Addobbati was a support player for the most part, and it’s good having him as the lead for a change. Addobbati is most remembered around these parts for his role in the Barbara Steele monochrome gothic horror classic Nightmare Castle (1965). Walter Brandi and Dieter Eppler made more threatening vampires but Addobbati does the best with what little he’s given. The rest of the ballerinas act well enough, but their purpose is mainly decorative. The Gaston Leroux elements are superficial at best, and easily ignored since this is a pretty straightforward vampire flick with little actual story. The Monster Of the Opera is very much a product of its time – it’s kitschy, silly, and loaded with babes.

That The Monster Of the Opera is somehow considered the lesser of The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) is a bit puzzling. Polselli’s direction possesses far more flair than Piero Regnoli’s kind of daft The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960). It overflows with the kind of subdued sensuality that the better gothics from the Latin countries (in both Europe and South America) specialized in around this time. Barbara Hawards was a decent enough actress, and she certainly looked the part – but it’s evident that there was no María Luisa Rolando in congress this time around. That Renato Polselli would shoot the giallo Delirium (1972) about a decade later shouldn’t surprise anyone, and that The Monster Of the Opera was co-written by future giallo specialist Ernesto Gastaldi was one of those unavoidable instances of serendipity in Italian exploitation with several talents working in close proximity from each other. Compared to his most remembered work a decade in the future Renato Polselli elegantly pushes the envelope as far as the censors would allow. It would however be in the wild and exuberant 70s when he would indulge his worst excesses.

Plot: religious hysteria leads to the persecution of a libertine herbalist.

Spoken about in hushed tones of reverence by those in the know Il Demonio (or The Demon, internationally) is another example of just how revolutionary Italian cinema was during its Golden Age. Written and directed by Federico Fellini protegé Brunello Rondi Il Demonio (The Demon hereafter) is a socio-realist examination of religious mania and the oppression of patriarchal institutions in rural communities. Of how small-town superstition and religious hysteria lead to the persecution and lynching of an innocent outcast in a sleepy village in the south of Italy. There’s a distinct feminist undertone to The Demon. At every turn Purificazione is beset and besieged by men in positions in power, be they clergymen, police, or landowners. And with every fiber of her being she fights back. No wonder The Demon was deemed controversial upon release and condemned by the powers that be. What To Be Twenty (1979) was to the seventies, The Demon was to the sixties.

Brunello Rondi was an intellectual that wrote about 30 screenplays and directed 10 films himself. Gian Luigi Rondi, his brother, was a well-known and respected film critic at the time. Rondi was prone to imbue his screenplays with scathing social commentary and was critical of the church just as much as he was of the state. Rondi was the man behind Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Boccaccio 70 (1962), (1963), Juliet Of the Spirits (1965), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Besides Fellini, Rondi also was frequently employed in providing screenplays for Roberto Rossellini. While his directorial career was off to a flying start with the iconoclastic The Demon he quickly fell into the trap of exploitation and puerile comedy. The lowest he would sink was Black Velvet (1976), one of the many lesser derivates following the box office success of Joe D’Amato’s softcore classic Black Emanuelle (1975) with the Javanese queen of fondling, Laura Gemser. In July 1965 Rondi was interviewed in the Paese Sera newspaper by a young columnist, and film critic for various magazines, who moonlighted as a screenwriter. The young man was working with Bernardo Bertolucci on a screenplay for the Sergio Leone spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). That man was Dario Argento.

Just like The Witch (1966) three years later The Demon is a highly atmospheric slowburn of a movie that even several decades later still manages to shock. Wonderfully minimalist and with mesmerizing black and white photography it’s an indictment of religion (Christianity, in particular) and the kind of small-town superstition and callous prejudice that it breeds. The Demon was filmed during the Second Vatican Council and released mere months after the passing of Pope John XIII. No wonder then that it was condemned by the Vatican, and panned by god-fearing critics on grounds of alleged “anti-Catholic” sentiments. While thankfully reappraised in more recent times the influence of The Demon is felt to this day.

Without The Demon there wouldn’t have been Witchfinder General (1968) (and the entire Inquisition fad that followed), it was a key inspiration behind Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) (and thus was a direct influence on the nascent giallo murder mystery branch). Interestingly, future giallo specialist Luciano Martino is one of the producers and he recruited his brother Sergio as second assistant director. Finally, and perhaps more imporantly, the most memorable scenes that made William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) (based on the 1971 William Peter Blatty novel of the same name) a fright classic for the ages premiered here first. What that means is that The Demon shaped the American property that would spawn an entire cotton industry (the demonic possession subgenre) back home in Italy. The Demon has influenced so many horror subgenres in such profound ways that it’s criminal how few have actually seen it.

In a mountain village somewhere in the south of Italy lives the sexually liberated herbalist Purificazione (Daliah Lavi). Purif is madly in love with farmer Antonio (Frank Wolff) but he spurns her advances as he’s promised to another (Rossana Rovere). Desperate to be loved Purificazione reverts to elemental witchcraft to win the heart of her object of affection. Living on the outskirts of town and perrenially clad in black Puri is the talk of the town and an outcast in her own community. Antonio is married to his promised woman and Purificazione is summarily rebuffed when she tries to barge in on the wedding ceremony. Purif is a woman in love. Madly. Deeply so. She casts the evil eye upon Antonio’s matrimony in hopes that he would return to her. When a mountainside ritual to win his affections doesn’t bring the desired result she resorts to stalking his home and spooking sentries and onlookers with the cadavers of recently deceased small animals. The village sees Purif’s increasingly unhinged behavior as a threat to the communal peace. The women consider her a harlot and some of the men think she’s possessed by a demon. The town has its own spiritual traditions and customs and Purificazione sinks deeper into madness. When chants and tokens no longer keep Purif at bay, the villagers agree that drastic measures need to be taken…

On one of her amourous escapades Purificazione is raped by a shepherd and violently “exorcised” by faith healer Zio Giuseppe (Nicola Tagliacozzo). Just for the crime of being a woman in love. Tired of all the abuse Purif is taken in by a group of nuns. For a while things seem to be looking up for Purificazione, but when she inquires after the history of a tree from which a man hung himself the relationship with her hosts turns sour. The nuns line the tree with barb wire and images of the Madonna, Purificazione reacts aversely to the sight of rosary beads and is banished from the convent. In the cathedral Padre Tomasso (Giovanni Cristofanelli) compels the demon to leave her body. Instead Purif speaks in tongues, spits the priest in the face, and spiderwalks her way across the floor as increasingly frightened parishioners look on. As the superstitious villagers pray for fortunate weather and crops, Purificazione hangs out in a tree eating an apple. Then Antonio shows up that night and the two succumb to the throes of passion. At long last her wish has to come true… Now that Purificazione has the man of her dreams, the only question is: at what cost will these affections come?

And what can you really say about Daliah Lavi? She was one of the great leading ladies of the Golden Age of Italian cinema along with Rosanna Schiaffino, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Claudia Cardinale. She was as patrician as Barbara Steele, Helga Liné, Graziella Granata, and Amalia Fuentes – and she has done just about everything. Daliah was multi-lingual (she was fluent in Hebrew, English, German, French, Italian and Spanish) and at various points in her life Lavi was a ballet student, an Israeli soldier, and part of the international jetset as a moviestar. She received a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer for Two Weeks In Another Town (1962) and starred in the Mario Bava giallo The Whip and the Body (1963). She was in the Karl May adaptation Old Shatterhand (1964) (from Hugo Fregonese) and in the spoof Casino Royale (1967) as well as the Bulldog Drummond spycaper Some Girls Do (1969) with Richard Johnson. Lavi acted in serious productions as well as a fair amount of pulp, and when her acting career winded down she reinvented herself as a pop singer. With help from Jimmy Bowien, the man at Polydor, Lavi enjoyed success in Germany – and the man who had discovered The Beatles and produced The Monks, Olivia Newton-John and Georges Moustaki had provided her with the platform that she could do more than just act.

Not to belabor the point any more than necessary but Hollywood always was, is, and continues to be, behind on European cinema. This especially rang true in the sixties and seventies when countries like Germany, France, and East-Europe (especially Russia and Czechslovakia) were responsible for some of the most revolutionary works in cinema. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) will forever remain, and be remembered as, an undiluted classic of American horror cinema, but there’s no denying that it loses some of its luster with the knowledge that some of its more memorable scenes were seen here first. If you know where to look shades of both The Demon and The Witch (1966) can be seen in Anna Biller’s retro nouveau masterpiece The Love Witch (2016) and Samantha Robinson is at least as beguiling as Daliah Lavi and/or Rosanna Schiaffino. Anybody with even the slightest and passing historical interest in continental European horror cinema has no excuse not to seek out The Demon. Since this came from a different time the horror is frequently more implied than shown. The Demon was a tipping point in Italian horror cinema and pivotal in the development of the genre. I Vampiri (1957) was the first Italian horror film of the sound era, and during the gothic horror craze of the sixties The Demon offered a more measured and realistic alternative.