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The Monster Of the Opera (1964)

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.