Plot: a troupe of ballerinas is terrorized by vampires in a distant castle
Following the success of Riccardo Freda’s and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957) a stream of more kitschy gothic horror productions followed. Among the earlier ones to profit from the renewed interest in the genre were Renato Polselli’s The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and the campier Piero Regnoli companion piece The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960). The Vampire and the Ballerina is, of course, an elaborate excuse to have a group of attractive girls performing semi-sensual dance routines in tight-fitting leotards and have them walking around in short low-cut evening gowns. Some sources allege that a very young (and uncredited) Femi Benussi can be seen among the ballerinas, although all official sources indicate that she didn’t start acting until at least 5 years after. Despite, or in spite of, its pulpy nature The Vampire and the Ballerina can be very atmospheric – and even occasionally artsy – when it stops focusing on the titular ballerinas for a bit. Polselli would do the same thing again with The Monster of the Opera (1964) that mixed vampire lore with the 1910 Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom Of the Opera.
In a remote European village young maidens are found drained of blood, inevitably leading to illness and death. In the environs a troupe of ballerinas are training with their choreographer Giorgio (Gino Turini, as John Turner) at the estate of a professor (Pier Ugo Gragnani, as Ugo Gragnani). When a young blonde by the name of Brigitte (Brigitte Castor) is brought to the mansion for medical treatment, it is the perfect opportunity for the old professor to tell the wide-eyed and almost child-like ballerinas about the old folklore tales of the region. Francesca (Tina Gloriani) takes a special interest in the stories even if the rather serious Giorgio wants to hear nothing about it, as it will scare the other ballerinas witless for no good reason. Giorgio - who not only is the troupe’s choreographer but also the professor’s grandson - proposes to Luisa (Hélène Rémy) and Luca (Isarco Ravaioli) is close to doing the same with Francesca. They retreat to their chambers and the next day they find themselves lost in the woods as a thunderstorm breaks out. They seek refuge in the nearby Damian Castle, a remote and somewhat dark château hidden deep within the Lombardy poplars forest, until the storm passes.
In the castle they are greeted by the aristocratic countess Alda (María Luisa Rolando), a woman from another age decked out in a sixteenth century dress and untouched by the passage of time. In the castle halls the couples are drawn to an ominous portrait of what Alda refers to as her 400 year old ancestress. The countess and her servant Herman (Walter Brandi) offer their guests food and shelter until they can continue their journey. Alda and Herman both take an interest in the group and ensure that the ballerinas and Luca each make their seperate returns to the castle. As Luca becomes increasingly spellbinded by the alluring countess, Alda confides in him that she is, and has been, in fact Herman’s prisoner for the past several hundred years. Many a moon ago Herman vampirized her and the two have been living a symbiotic slave and master relation since. Alda drains Herman’s blood to retain her youth and vitality, which in turn forces him to feed on the pure blood of innocent maidens to hide his monstrous appearance resulting from the countess’ sanguine feeding habits. Soon Luisa and Francesca are stalked by an eerie shadowy figure haunting the bowels of the castle. As the group comes to realize they are being preyed upon by a vampire and Luca comes to grips with the dire hopelessness of Alda’s situation, it’s up to him to stop the menace.
Director Renato Polselli may not exactly have been controversial but a constant through his filmography is his striving for freedom from convention. Polselli pushed a distinct narrative on psychology, sexuality and morality. He frequently found himself as the forefront of pushing the boundaries in Italian cinema for two decades. As many of his contemporaries he started within the confines of gothic horror in the sixties but in a decade hence would be pulling into weirder and wilder realms. In wicked and wild seventies Polselli helmed a string of erotic horror productions (usually starring Rita Calderoni) that weren't so much concerned with narrative cohesion as they were with atmosphere and gratuitous female nudity. The original treatment for The Vampire and the Ballerina was written by Giampaolo Callegaris, but Ernesto Gastaldi found it unsatisfactory – and rewrote it with Polselli. Gino Turini was one of the production’s financiers and was given a role for that reason. Tina Gloriani was Polselli’s girlfriend at the time and she landed her role that way. The Vampire and the Ballerina was originally slated to be a French co-production and thus Hélène Rémy was brought in. Ombretta Ostenda, Stefania Sabatini and Franca Licastro were bit part actresses cast for their radiant looks.
Isarco Ravaioli was in the fumetti Diabolik (1968) and Satanik (1968). Walter Brandi was in the peplum Ulysses (1954) and graduated into gothic horror with The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), The Monster of the Opera (1964), and 5 Graves For A Medium (1965) with Barbara Steele. He would act as the production manager on Luigi Batzella’s The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) and the Bruno Mattei zombie debacle Hell of the Living Dead (1980) as well producing the little seen Alfonso Brescia action yarn Cross Mission (1988). The Vampire and the Ballerina was shot over three weeks in late 1959 in and around the 16th century Palazzo Borghese in Rome, Lazio, where once famous poet and later politician Gabriele d’ Annunzio lived ‘in splendide miseria’. The same location would also be used in Piero Regnoli’s more playful The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960). The score from Aldo Piga contains plenty of ominous theremin and clarinet. The cinematography by Angelo Baistrocchi is workmanlike and not particularly riveting.
The Vampire and the Ballerina and The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) are two largely similar features that take a more playful approach towards gothic horror. Of the two The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) is the most all-out campy. The Vampire and the Ballerina on the other hand has a few atmospheric moments and spooky scenes among its seemingly endless shots of nubile women doing sensual dance routines for absolutely no other reason than it can. Hélène Rémy and Tina Gloriani are frequently seen wearing very low-cut dresses, similarly do the ballerinas wear tiny sleeping gowns. María Luisa Rolando is barely able to contain her considerable assets in her medieval dress and there’s plenty of decolettage. The Vampire and the Ballerina sort of makes you wonder what could have been. Imagine what a gothic horror ensemble piece with the likes of Graziella Granata, María Luisa Rolando, Sylvia Sorrente and Helga Liné acting as vampire queens could have been. It’s unfortunate that no production company rose to the task of providing just that. To say that this would’ve been a memorable high point of Meditterranean horror cinema regardless of the actual screenplay and director would be putting it mildly. At least we got The Dracula Saga (1973) in the following decade which, more or less, was a who's-who of Spanish horror - and cult cinema.