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Plot: newly wed couple fall under the spell of vampire in remote castle

If Roberto Mauri’s The Slaughter Of the Vampires is famous for anything, it’s for making the Italian gothic horror profitable. Riccardo Freda’s and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957) established the horror genre domestically and Renato Polselli’s The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) acted as the catalyst for the first wave of Italian gothic horrors. It was however The Slaughter Of the Vampire that did for the gothic horror what Pietro Francisci’s The Labors Of Hercules (1958) had done for the peplum at the end of the prior decade. Not only is The Slaughter Of the Vampires a beautifully photographed and atmospheric gothic horror feature, it also is graced by the presence of the elegant and patrician Graziella Granata. Granata is frequently bursting at the seams and she’s the standard to which all feature female vampires will be measured.

Granata debuted in The Pirate and the Slave Girl (1959) opposite of Lex Barker and Chelo Alonso. From that point onward she became a regular in comedy (Fernandel and otherwise), swashbucklers and peplum with the occassional venture into other genres. The Slaughter Of the Vampires is the only horror in ravenhaired Granata’s body of work and memorable for no other reason that she gets to wear very flattering dresses and corsets and that she goes from the obligatory damsel-in-distress to the fang-sprouting antagonist in a matter of a few scenes. Also at hand are prolific actor Walter Brandi – who was a vampire himself in The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) – and future pulp directors Alfredo Rizzo and Luigi Batzella. Batzella would find fame by helming the delirious erotic gothic horror throwbacks The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), The Reincarnation Of Isabel (1973) and Nude For Satan (1974). Rizzo on the other hand directed nothing of peculiar interest outside of providing stock footage for two very dubious Eurociné features in the next two decades.

In Vienna, Austria in the 19th century newlywed marquis Wolfgang (Walter Brandi, as Walter Brandy) and his marchioness Louise (Graziella Granata) acquire a spacious castle. Unbeknownst to them lying in wait interred in one of the coffins deep within the castle’s wine-cellar is a vampire (Dieter Eppler). In their new abode the couple is looked after by maid Corinne (Gena Gimmy) as well as two housekeepers (Alfredo Rizzo and Edda Ferronao) living on the estate with their young daughter Resy (Maretta Procaccini). To commemorate the occasion of having come in possession of such luxurious estate the couple decide to throw a house-warming party. At the party Louise performs a piano piece she has written for the christening of the castle. She and her friend Teresa (Carla Foscari) ostensibly attract everybody’s attention until a mysterious stranger, unknown to hosts and guests alike, makes his entrance and asks Louise to dance. The mysterious stranger is in fact the vampire hidden in the wine-cellar and who has found his sole purpose in making Louise his living companion, regardless of the cost. As Louise and Corinne both fall under the vampire’s spell Wolfgang sees no other solution than to call on the services of expert in the occult and part-time vampire hunter Dr. Nietzsche (Luigi Batzella, as Paolo Solvay) to exterminate the supreme vampyric evil.

Graced by both breathtaking photography and lush location shooting in and around tenth century Castle d’Aquino in Monte San Giovanni Campano in Lazio The Slaughter Of the Vampires certainly looks better than its kitschy plot would suggest. What it also has in the positively bra-busting Graziella Granata is a gainly leading lady, and later vampire bride, that few have been able to match since. Indeed, Granata exudes a sense of sophistication and aristocracy that could measure itself with the finest of Hammer Films ladies. Graziella owns, despite being dubbed in the international English version, every scene she in – and oozes with sensuality long before she sprouts fangs. The Slaughter Of the Vampire sizzles with eroticism, whether it is in the form of bared shoulders or heaving bosoms in tightly-fitting bodices and dresses. Coming from a more innocent time The Slaughter Of the Vampires is completely bereft of nudity and blood, even though both The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and Castle Of Blood (1964) would have some of its female cast briefly shed clothing. Dieter Eppler’s concrete coiffed vampire, who for hitherto unexplained reasons will remain unnamed, on the other hand looks somewhat as a mix of Ed Wood stock actor Criswell and Paul Naschy.

Graziella Granata is perhaps responsible for this movie’s enduring legacy. The Slaughter Of the Vampires, as kitschy and pulpy as it often ends up becoming, is a paean to Granata. Graziella is initially introduced as the virginal ingénue but the prerequisite damsel-in-distress soon turns into a comely seductress that stalks the darkened bowels of the castle to satiate her sanguine hunger. The restrictive and restricting limitations of the genre notwithstanding it’s puzzling that The Slaughter Of the Vampires is Granata’s only horror title. Graziella does so much with so little. An exposed shoulder in a tight-fitting dress, a bit of leg, décolletage so ample and abundant that it makes the average red-blooded male dizzy, and more than enough longing, sultry looks abound. Without shedding even a single article of clothing Graziella manages to steam up whatever scene she appears in. Even when she’s reborn as a vampire cinematographer Ugo Brunelli takes every opportunity to photograph her full feminine form in a dazzling play of light and shadow. In a last desperate bid to thwart the dwellers of the dark Dr. Nietzsche finds Louise fast asleep in her coffin and drives a stake right between her breasts. It’s the sort of production that makes one wonder why Sylvia Sorrente wasn’t cast. Compared to the equally top-heavy María Luisa Rolando, Graziella Granata actually exuded a sense of nobility in spite of her thoroughly Italian corn-fed allure and charm.

The first Golden Age of Italian horror was initially imitative of Hammer Films’ rejuvenation of the horror genre with The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) from director Terence Fisher. Hammer in the fifties modeled itself after the 1930s Universal horror canon and before long Italy would be carving out its own distinct niche in horror. Sweltering with Mediterranean romanticism and bearing enough of a semblance to Bram Stoker’s classic novel The Slaughter Of the Vampires is gothic horror kitsch at its best. It does in shadowy black-and-white cinematography what Gerardo de Leon would do with Blood Of the Vampires (1966) and what Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) and The Dracula Saga (1973) would do a decade later in lurid, bleeding color. It makes the best of what little resources it has by having characters walk endless in and around the castle. Granata and Carla Foscari are memorable thanks to the dresses that are barely able to contain their bountiful bosoms. There are dusty hallways, candlelabras, shadowlit corridors, coffins buried by time and dust and the heart of the production is a tragic doomed love triangle. Granata makes a most formidable vampire bride and the conclusion is not nearly as laughably inept as that of The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960).

The Slaughter Of the Vampires is Hammer Horror all’Italiana and through its rustic charm and perhaps old-fashioned sense of style it beautifully sets the stage for later, more delirious exercises of the genre to come. It sports two directors one who would become famous for his absolutely batshit insane gothic horror throwbacks with Rosalba Neri and Rita Calderoni. Alfredo Rizzo, the less innately talented half of the duo, directed his own addition to the gothic horror pantheon with the well-intended The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance (1975), but the only thing Rizzo is remotely remembered for is his loveably dopey Eurowar debacle Heroes Without Glory (1971), graciously plundered for footage by Eurociné for their cut-and-paste feature East Of Berlin (1978) and the proxy-Jess Franco exercise in tedium Oasis Of the Zombies (1982) almost a decade later. Ah, Rizzo always was a better actor than he was a director. The Slaughter Of the Vampires comes from a more innocent and much simpler time when everything was classier. It’s might be a bit strong to call Roberto Mauri’s The Slaughter Of the Vampires an overlooked classic of the genre, but it certainly pushes all the right buttons and has atmosphere in spades.

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.