Gothic fiction has a long and storied tradition in Britain. From Lord Byron to the Bronte sisters, this melodramatic and thematically dark art form tainted (or bettered) a lot of fiction that followed. Highly influential and immensely popular, the Gothic tradition can be found in everything from Poe to Dickens, from Gaston Leroux to Ambrose Bierce, and even in satirically minded pieces from Jane Austen. It is largely archetypical and bound to systematic structure. In a way, Gothic literature is redundant, reusing the same bits of symbolism and subtext over the years, but it is nevertheless rich in imagination and fascinating to read. Unlike most of the literature of the time, the Gothic literature feels fresh, regardless of the fact that time has turned even the most shocking twist into simple cliché.
The Gothic film feels much like its literary counterpart. Watching early Hammer films, there is little in the way of surprise. They feel old fashioned (even in comparison to the Universal monster films which were produced decades earlier) and maybe a bit too stoic. They feature traditional Gothic archetypes (the hero, the monster, the virginal maiden, the clergy, the wise man or woman) and wallow in the melodramatic. While there were some transgressive elements in the early Hammer films like HORROR OF DRACULA and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, they were by and large quaint, safe films which reassured audiences that love would conquer all and that the monsters would be vanquished. Even though the Italian Gothic horror film started taking shape only a year or two before Hammer entered the fray with their re-imagining of the Dracula and Frankenstein characters, the early works feel like they came from the 1940s. If the early Hammer films felt quaint, the early Italian Gothic felt positively ancient. While visually striking, they seem to exaggerate all the wrong elements of the Gothic. The Riccardo Freda/Mario Bava directed I VAMPIRI, often cited as the first real Italian Gothic, is visually striking but virtually lifeless. Things improved greatly a few years later when Bava released BLACK SUNDAY but the Italian Gothic still produced relics of melodramatic days gone by with great frequency. Case in point: Roberto Mauri’s 1962 disaster SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES.
This is a Gothic monstrosity, filled with all the familiar (and much loved) Gothic staples but with enough romantic babble and melodrama to choke even the most hardened Gothic fan. It’s a film without a pulse, chained to tired, dull and vapid plot mechanisms and sappy, drippy dialogue. It is clearly modeled after the Hammer strain of vampire films but never finds the balance between the drama and the horror in the way the revered Hammer vampire films did. The biggest misstep was turning the vampire (who is never actually named) into the kind of nonthreatening uber-lover that you’d likely find in a dime store romance novel. There are endless shots of our unblinking undead villain (who is dolled out in what can only be described as old school stage makeup) staring at our heroine or snuggling up to her neck, babbling cheap throwaway come-ons and baring his thrift store fangs… It feels clumsy and boring, done so much better by the time the film was released.
The film isn’t all bad though. For 70 minutes we are treated to Graziella Granata, an absolutely gorgeous woman, running around in cleavage baring dresses, the score by Aldo Piga is lush and lovely, and Ugo Brunelli’s black and white cinematography is glorious. Mauri’s direction however is a simple point and shoot affair, and his screenplay, largely a regurgitation of every Dracula film ever made, is way too slow going and more than a little pedestrian. This is one of those films that should be seen by Italian genre fans as its early production date makes it an interesting curio piece in the development of the Italian Gothic. But those who are thinking of watching it in hopes of seeing a solid vampire tale should stay far, far away. There are much better vampire films out there.