Skip to content

Plot: fair maiden is haunted by strange dreams and stranger occurrences.

There wouldn’t much of a global gothic horror industry, especially in continental Europe, if it weren’t for the British house of Hammer reimagining the old Universal horror monsters for the new times in the fifties and sixties. The Spanish language countries (Spain, México, the Philippines) as well as Italy took the gothic horror formula of Hammer Films and gave it a regional flavor all their own. Each country played up the genre to its cultural sensibilities/prejudices. While generally playing by the same rules and conventions there are distinct differences between continental European gothic horrors and their South/Latin American counterparts. Hammer’s influence was so strong that even Pakistan contributed to the genre in 1967 with Zinda Laash or Dracula In Pakistan (or alternatively The Living Corpse) as it became internationally. The Italian gothic horror ostensibly took after Riccardo Freda’s and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957) and the Hammer production The Horror Of Dracula (1958). However, the tides of change were washing over Mediterranean gothic horror by the mid-sixties and interest in them was waning. To accomodate the changing tastes Terror In the Crypt upstaged the old formula with a hefty dose of implied lesbianism and witchcraft.

La cripta e l'incubo (or The Crypt and the Nightmare, released internationally as simply Terror In the Crypt and alternatively as Crypt Of the Vampire in North America) is an interesting case for an international co-production. Helmed by an Italian director and crew the two name stars of the feature were Spanish exploitation pillar Adriana Ambesi as well Hammer Films icon Christopher Lee. Lee would complete his detour into Italian gothic horror with Castle Of the Living Dead (1964) the same year. With a screenplay from Tonino Valerii (as Robert Bohr), Ernesto Gastaldi (as Julian Berry) and José Luis Monter Terror In the Crypt is a distinctly Italian affair. Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla has long been an inspiration for the gothic horror genre and frequently served as a foundation for many productions. The earliest adaptation was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960). In the early seventies Hammer Films, then ailing and struggling to keep up with the changing times and tastes, used it for The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1971). Daughters Of Darkness (1971), The Velvet Vampire (1971) and The Blood Spattered Bride (1972) set the Carmilla story in then-contemporary times. Terror In the Crypt is distinct for being a more or less faithful adaptation of the famous 1872 LeFanu novel. While some of character names have been changed it covers most, if not all, major plotpoints and adds some Italian flair to it all. Filming at Castello Piccolomini in Balsorano, L'Aquila, Italy aided immensely too. As one of the country’s famous horror castles it would feature in Crimson Executioner (1965), Lady Frankenstein (1971), The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), Black Magic Rites (1973) (or The Reincarnation Of Isabel as it’s more widely known), Sister Emanuelle (1977) and the infamous Andrea Bianchi romp Malabimba (1979). Half a decade before Adriana Ambesi steamed up the screen in Spain’s first vampire movie Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), she experienced Terror In the Crypt.

In a grand castle amid a great vast forest in Styria lives lovelorn and lonely Laura Karnstein (Adriana Ambesi, as Audry Amber) with her affluent father Count Ludwig Karnstein (Christopher Lee, as Cristopher Lee), an aristocratic Briton widower retired from service to the Austrian Empire, and his nubile trophy wife Annette (Véra Valmont, as Vera Valmont). Laura has been suffering recurring nightmares wherein she sees family members coming to a gruesome end. Her most recent nightmares see the slaying of her cousin Tilda (Angela Minervini) and the dreams have Laura sufficiently startled. Looking after Laura’s well-being are maid Rowena (Nela Conjiu, as Nela Conjiú) and butler Cedric (José Villasante). Fearing that Laura might be possessed by the witch Scirra of Karnstein, who centuries ago cursed the Karnstein bloodline, Count Ludwig calls upon the services of historian Friedrich Klauss (José Campos). Klauss is tasked with reconstructing Scirra’s life and finding a portrait of her deep within the castle’s time-worn vaults.

One day a carriage accident brings Lyuba (Pier Anna Quaglia, as Ursula Davis) and her mother (Carla Calò, as Cicely Clayton) into the Karnstein household. The two girls immediately recognize each other from a dream and a strong bond grows between the two. The two grow inseperatable and Lyuba suggests they visit the ruins of the village of Karnstein. In the meantime housekeeper Rowena is revealed to be a practitioner of the black arts but she is brutally murdered before her spells and imprecations can accomplish anything. Count Ludwig and Friedrich continue their search for Scirra’s portrait and her tomb. The two eventually find the hidden portrait and are startled that Scirra bears a very strong likeness to young Lyuba. The search for Scirra’s coffin leads them to the discovery that Franz Karnstein (John Karlsen), Tilda’s griefstruck father, had been hiding in the castle bowels all this time. The three pry open Scirra’s tomb only to find Lyuba lying within instead. The three drive a stake through Lyuba’s heart lifting the age-old Karnstein curse and making Lyuba’s black carriage disappear just as Laura was about to board.

Along with fellow British expatriate Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee stayed employed in the fantastic – and horror cinema of continental Europe from the mid-to-late sixties. Steele famously became a royalty in Italian gothic horror. In her decade-long tenure Steele played in about a dozen of Italian productions, nine of which were horror. Lee, on the other hand, appeared only in about four. Also on hand is John Karlsen, later of Belgian arthouse vampire romp Daughters Of Darkness (1971). Adriana Ambesi was a regular in peplum, chorizo western and comedy. In her 14-year long career she ventured into horror a meager three times. Ambesi had crossed paths with Lee before in Giuseppe Veggezzi’s presumably-lost Katarsis (1963) and would do so again here. Towards the end of the decade she would play a supporting role in Amando de Ossorio’s gothic horror potboiler Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) opposite of Anita Ekberg, Rosanna Yanni and Diana Lorys. Pier Anna Quaglia would star in that other Barbara Steele gothic An Angel For Satan (1966) as well as the jungle adventure Eve, the Wild Woman (1968), the comedy Alfredo Alfredo (1972) (with Dustin Hoffman and Stefania Sandrelli) and the giallo Reflections in Black (1975). Terror In the Crypt benefits tremendously from a portent, pompous score from Carlo Savina (as Herbert Buckman) who infuses it with copious amounts of theremin, clarinet, harp and ominous washes of organ. It’s something straight out of a fifties science fiction production. The “K” emblem from The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) can also been seen and there’s a witch trial similar to that of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960).

Compared to earlier gothic horrors of the sixties Terror In the Crypt is far more pronounced in its eroticism. Laura is initially paired up with Friedrich Klauss, but no chemistry to speak of develops between the two. It isn’t until Laura meets Lyuba that the obligatory romantic liaison with Klauss is discarded completely. It’s implied that Laura and Lyuba share a much deeper bond beyond that of an ordinary friendship. While bereft of any actual nudity Laura finds herself frequently sleepwalking and waking up topless in the castle chambers. Likewise does Lyuba sleep without a top on and although both Ambesi and Quaglia weren’t in the habit of flaunting their chests Terror In the Crypt is quite risqué for the time. A precedent with on-screen disrobing in Italian gothic horror was set with The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and Castle Of Blood (1964) that saw brief nude scenes from Maria Giovannini and Sylvia Sorrente, respectively.

In Terror In the Crypt Ambesi will always have her back to the camera and Quaglia is modestly covered by bedsheets which doesn’t change the fact that it is far more liberated in its portrayal of sexualty than Roberto Mauri’s The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1964). Where that movie hinged upon the bountiful decolettage of Graziella Granata here Ambesi and Quaglia each have a scene of implied nudity. Not only that, likewise it’s implied that Laura and Lyuba are engaged in a sapphic tryst. That Count Ludwig has a mistress young enoug to be his daughter with Annette almost a full decade before the pairing of Narciso Ibáñez Menta and Helga Liné in The Dracula Saga (1973) is at least prescient of where the genre was headed. It all sets the stage for the wicked and wild seventies when permissive attitudes allowed an increased focus on erotic tension between female characters and a greater amount of on-screen nudity.

Plot: cyborg flees into the desert after ignoring his programming.

Hands Of Steel (released domestically as Vendetta dal Futuro, and in France as Atomic Cyborg) answers the question that nobody asked: what if The Terminator (1984) ignored his programming, fled into the Arizona desert and took up armwrestling in some remote divebar instead? It’s the kind of movie that only the Italians could and would make. Who else could come up with a cross between The Terminator (1984) and Over the Top (1987) on the budget of the average Filipino action movie? Hands Of Steel often feels as if it’s three movies mashed crudely into one. It bounces between a pedestrian sports movie, a dystopian science-fiction thriller low on intelligence and production values, and a brass-knuckles actioner without crunch. It’s emblematic of mid-to-late 1980s Italian action. The concept and ideas are far too ambitious for the meager budget it was alotted. 6 credited screenwriters, a seventh for additional dialog. Not a coherent line anywhere – and Swedish minx Janet Ågren, sadly, keeps her clothes on. Never before were Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984) pilfered so expertly. At least not until Bruno Mattei’s craptacular Shocking Dark (1989) and the 2010 Mainland China exploitation boom almost twenty years later.

The Italian shlock movie industry took a heavy blow in the eighties when wide theatrical releases for cheap, imported titles in North America, once their biggest market and sure-fire way to turn a profit, became scarce. The nascent home video market became the new home of exploitation and shlock of various stripe. This unfortunately also meant that belts were tightened and producers/directors no longer were able to commandeer the kind of budgets and resources that they once had in prior decades. Hands Of Steel is not 2019 – After the Fall Of New York (1983), it’s barely above Giuseppe Vari’s post-nuke swansong Urban Warriors (1987), where bit players Bruno Bilotta and Alex Vitale would land their own feature, but that is faint praise. Hands Of Steel wishes it was half as good and action-packed as The Raiders Of Atlantis (1983). Unfortunately it is anything but. Not even John Saxon and Janet Ågren can save it from relentless drudgery. Hands Of Steel is painfully glorious and gloriously painful.

Sergio Martino was a director who dabbled in every genre under the sun. Among other things, he launched the career of French model-turned-actress Edwige Fenech through a series of bubbly commedia sexy all’italiana and stylish gialli. Fenech had just completed a string of German comedies, including the bubbly The Sweet Pussycats (1969). Earlier in the year Top Sensation (1969) had launched Edy as the hottest and most in-demand starlet in Italian genre cinema. In his storied four decade career Martino directed offerings as diverse as Arizona Colt, Hired Gun (1970), The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1970), All Colors Of the Dark (1972), Torso (1973), Mountain Of the Cannibal God (1978), Cream Puffs (1981), 2019 – After the Fall Of New York (1983), and Beyond Kilimanjaro, Across the River of Blood (1990). Whoever thought it was a good idea to let comedy specialist Martino direct a sci-fi/action romp clearly had no clue what his forté was. It’s probably the same skewed and random decisionmaking that led to Marino Girolami directing Zombie Holocaust (1980). Hands Of Steel isn’t Martino’s finest moment, but it’s more or less on the same level as the action-adventure dross Antonio Margheriti and Enzo G. Castellari were churning out around this time.

In the far-flung future past of 1997 pollution has ravaged the Earth and made it nigh on uninhabitable. Turner Corporation CEO Francis Turner (John Saxon) sees his bottom line threatened by the preachings of blind wheelchair-bound environmentalist guru Reverend Arthur Moseley (Franco Fantasia). He sends out cyborg soldier Paco Queruak (Daniel Greene), the most efficient and reliable in his product line, to quell the rebellion by taking out its leader. Upon reaching his target Queruak is plagued by memories of the past, only wounding the Reverend and fleeing into the nearby Arizona desert. At the local motel he meets Linda (Janet Ågren), who is in need of a handyman. Linda’s abode is the gathering spot for local armwrestlers, truckers and general troublemakers. Linda’s tavern is decorated with pictures from wrestlers Bruno Sammartino, Hillbilly Jim, Magnum TA and Dory Funk, Jr. One day working for Linda, Queruak draws the ire of perrennally sweaty Méxican no-good trucker Raul Morales (Luigi Montefiori, as George Eastman) and Tri-State arm-wrestling champion Anatolo Blanco (Darwyn Swalve). Queruak’s creator Professor Olster (Donald O’Brien) is paid a visit by Turner’s mercenaries Peter Howell (Claudio Cassinelli) and Hunt (Sergio Testori) – and when he fails to stop them, Linda is threatened at gunpoint by cyborg assassins Eddie (Andrea Coppola, as Andrew Louis Coppola) and Susie (Daria Nicolodi). Paco intervenes and things come to a violent, fiery clash. The fate of mankind will not be decided by some apocalyptic nuclear war, but in a fierce close-quarters confrontation.

The main portion of Hands Of Steel concerns itself with Queruak’s travails in and around the desert motel, his conflict with Raul Morales and his relationship with Janet Ågren’s Linda. Janet Ågren had come off Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1981) and Red Sonja (1985) and apparently this wasn’t enough to forward her starpower beyond redundant impoverished genre exercises like this. Hands Of Steel also features that other Italian low-budget action star of the 80s, Bruno Bilotta (popularly known as Karl Landgren) as one of the Reverend’s security detail. Other notables include the late, great John Saxon and an uncredited Daria Nicolodi as a rival cyborg assassin. Hands Of Steel is a typical example of the genre were it not that it anticipates Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), Universal Soldier (1992), and Albert Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) as its conflicted cyborg protagonist struggles with his programming and what is left of his humanity. Likewise does it pre-date the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic Over the Top (1987) by a single year. Martino films the whole with detached bemused disinterest as this is clearly not his wheelhouse. Hands Of Steel would’ve been blissfully forgotten were it not that Claudio Cassinelli was killed in an on-set helicopter crash during filming, necessitating the third-act disposing of his character. In between there’s enough techno-babble and arm-wrestling for everybody.

The nominal star of Hands Of Steel is Daniel Greene. Greene was an American television actor that somehow ended up in Italian exploitation trash as Hammerhead (1987), Soldier of Fortune (1990), and Condor (1990). In the late nineties he had his scenes deleted in the Farrelly brothers comedy There's Something About Mary (1998). Greene later had parts in other Farrelly brothers comedies as Me, Myself & Irene (2000), Shallow Hall (2001), and Stuck On You (2003). Janet Ågren was a Swedish model whose Nordic beauty sparked a quarter-century long career. Ågren debuted in The Two Crusaders (1968) and was a fixture in commedia sexy all’Italiana for several years. Somehow she escaped the fate that befell Christina Lindberg, Solveig Andersson, and Marie Forså. In the eighties Janet found herself in Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1980) and the considerably more high-profile Red Sonja (1985), but also in a Filipino The Karate Kid (1984) knockoff called The Boy With the Golden Kimono (1987). Suffice to say Ågren was no Gloria Guida, Barbara Bouchet, Sabrina Siani, Mónica Zanchi, or Cinzia Monreale. No, Ågren was far too classy and much too pretty for grubby exploitation and she never allowed herself to suffer the sordid degradation and assorted indignities that some of her contemporaries subjected themselves to.

The odds were certainly stacked against Hands Of Steel. Elisa Briganti (as Elisabeth Parker Jr.), Dardano Sacchetti, and Ernesto Gastaldi all contributed to the script – but 6 writers do not a decent script make. Production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng had worked on Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1981), 2019 - After the Fall Of New York (1983), Hercules (1983) and its sequel The Adventures Of Hercules (1985) as well as The Ark Of the Sun God (1984) and Dellamorte Dellamore (1994). Clearly Geleng couldn’t make more of what little he had been given. Director of photography Giancarlo Ferrando (as John McFerrand) lensed a lot of commedia sexy all’Italiana and he’s clearly out of his element here. Sadly, he would go on to work with Alfonso Brescia on Cross Mission (1988) where the only ray of light was one-time wonder Brigitte Porsche.

Spaghetti western and peplum monument Franco Fantasia is wasted as Reverend Arthur Moseley, a role that gives him nothing to do. He clearly was a long way from Kriminal (1966), Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972), Murder Mansion (1972), Mountain Of the Cannibal God (1978), Zombie (1979), and Eaten Alive! (1980). Decades prior he was in big budget Hollywood peplums as Ben-Hur (1959), and Quo Vadis (1951). Donald O’Brien was a regular in Italian schlock and can be seen in Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977), the original The Inglorious Bastards (1978), Zombie Holocaust (1980), 2020 Texas Gladiators (1983), and Warriors of the Year 2072 (1984). In short, Hands Of Steel is nobody’s finest hour. Except maybe that of George Eastman, whose excursions seldom ventured beyond trash auteur Joe D’Amato and his assorted ilk. Sadly, it never gets quite as absurd as The Raiders Of Atlantis (1983).

Hands Of Steel is one of those cynical pastiches from the once-flourishing Italian exploitation industry that were becoming a dying breed at that point. Over the course of the same decade were birthed Contamination (1980), Nightmare City (1980), and Alien 2: On Earth (1980) to name some of the most infamous. Hands Of Steel dared answer the question that James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) never asked: what if the Terminator struggled with his programming and instead of protecting his target took up menial work and armwrestling instead?

It’s the sort of question that Mainland China would provide plenty of possible answers for in the 2010s, but Italy got there first. Hands Of Steel might not be Sergio Martino’s best work, or anybody's for that matter, really. The Terminator (1984) spawned exactly one good sequel that did not dilute from its original vision. It did begat a slew of canonical sequels that have done irreparable harm to the brand. It’s difficult to hold a grudge against something innocent as this when the Hollywood machine does so much damage all by itself.