Atom-Age Vampire/Seddok, L’Erede di Satana (1960/1963) -***½
Remember when I said that Eyes Without a Face kicked off a years-long wave of rip-offs over in Europe? Well, this here is among the first fruits of that rip-off bumper crop, and watching it is almost sure to make you appreciate how good Jesus Franco’s contributions to that distinctly European mini-genre really were. The original Italian version (which is fully eighteen minutes longer) may well be more logical, more sensible, and just generally better— then again, it might also be that the Italian prints simply feature more strippers with less clothing. Either way, the English-language version of Atom-Age Vampire is a truly ass-tastic film.
Let’s start with one of those strippers, shall we? Exotic dancer Jeanette Moreneau (Susanne Coret, of The Minotaur and My Uncle the Vampire) comes off the stage to find her boyfriend, sailor Pierre Mornet (Sergio Fantoni, from Hercules Unchained and Goddess of Vengeance), waiting for her. Actually, maybe I should have said “ex-boyfriend,” because Pierre has come to tell Jeanette that he’s leaving her. He can’t deal with the idea of her making a living by taking off her clothes onstage, and since she won’t quit, she also won’t be seeing him again after his ship sets sail tomorrow morning. Jeanette protests, of course, but it does her no good. Nor will it do her much good to know that Pierre will soon be feeling like a giant asshole about the terms on which they parted, because the event which causes that change of heart happens to be a horrendous car accident which leaves Jeanette with only about two thirds of a face.
Three months later, just about every plastic surgeon in the land has had a look at her injuries, and the consensus is that Jeanette is shit out of luck. But unbeknownst to her, a secretive scientist named Albert Levin (Alberto Lupo, from Giant of Marathon and Ursus in the Valley of Lions) has been following her case, and he believes that Jeanette is precisely what he’s been looking for— and vice-versa. Levin sends his assistant/girlfriend, Monique Riviere (Franca Parisi), to Jeanette with a message of hope. If she will agree to leave the hospital, telling no one on Earth where she’s gone or why, and report to the address Monique hands her, then Levin will use the revolutionary new treatment he has developed to restore her face to its former beauty. Jeanette gives no indication one way or the other when Monique comes to visit her at the hospital, but a few days later, she appears on Levin’s doorstep. Once there, however, her behavior is, to say the least, a bit odd. Rather than listening attentively as the scientist explains what he wants to do with her, Jeanette pitches a fit, launching off into such a spiral of suicidal histrionics that she faints dead away right in the parlor. Levin and Riviere take that as their cue to summon Sacha the handyman (Roberto Bertea) to carry their patient down to the lab.
What’s Levin’s new treatment, you ask? Well, originally, Levin was a cancer researcher, using a combination of radiation and chemicals to induce tumors and mutations in his laboratory animals. But somewhere along the line, he discovered that a derivative of his mutagenic Derma 25— which he has dubbed Derma 28— had the opposite effect, repairing deformed, damaged, and destroyed cells with an almost miraculous speed. In essence, Levin has tamed the runaway cell growth that causes cancer, using it to heal the body instead of destroying it. Jeanette is to be the subject of the first large-scale test of Derma 28 (Monique had already tested a small dose on herself, counteracting an equally small dose of Derma 25), and both Levin and his assistant are convinced that the experiment will be a complete success.
Before they can make much headway, though, Sacha goes on a bender and passes out, allowing the generator that powers the lab to run out of fuel. Levin storms downstairs to deal with the situation, but he also does something exceptionally strange while he’s at it. After scolding and dismissing Sacha and bringing the generator back online, Levin creeps stealthily into the deepest, most remote region of the cellar, where he finds a section of wall with water trickling steadily through the mortar. Making certain he’s really alone, Levin picks up a sledgehammer, and begins smashing his way through the leaking masonry. Why? Search me, man. Maybe Alberto Lupo finally realized how little he was getting paid for this gig, and tried to tunnel his way out of the movie. That’s what it looks like, anyway.
One of the gaffers must have caught him in the act, though, because the next thing we know, Levin is back in the lab, injecting Jeanette with Derma 28. Nothing comes of this first injection, or of several subsequent injections, either. Indeed, the doctor goes through his entire supply of Derma 28 without accomplishing a goddamned thing. Levin is crestfallen, concluding that Derma 28 works only on recently inflicted damage, and he turns his attention to the question of what to do with Jeanette now that he has failed. His decision that the disfigured stripper will have to be killed seems a bit drastic to me, but I’m not a cutting-edge medical researcher, so what do I know? That’s when Monique excitedly calls to her boss— something is happening to Jeanette’s scars. Sure enough, just minutes later, Jeanette looks exactly the way she did before her accident. Complicating matters significantly for the rest of the film, however, is the fact that Levin’s chemical does such a good job of fixing Jeanette’s face that the doctor becomes obsessively infatuated with his patient, and sets his mind to scheming over ways to make her his own.
Meanwhile, Pierre’s ship has returned to port, and he has learned at last of Jeanette’s accident. Sick at heart over the way he treated her on her last night as a member of the face-having community, Pierre goes to the hospital, where he is told that Jeanette left some days ago. There’s no sign of her at the residence hotel where she had been living before the car crash, either. So Pierre does what any sailor would do in his position, and drowns his sorrows at his favorite showbar in an orgy of drunken hypocrisy.
Back at the lab, a serious problem has developed. While Levin and Jeanette are celebrating and Monique is sulking up in her room, the doctor notices that some of the scars on his patient’s neck are reappearing. There’s no more Derma 28, and Levin’s radiation machine is effective only against cellular damage caused by chemicals like Derma 25, so this is an alarming turn of events indeed. Levin rushes upstairs to beg Monique’s continued cooperation, assuring her that in exchange, he will send Jeanette away and never see her again, just as soon as he is sure that the repairs to her face are permanent. Monique agrees in principle, but she draws the line at the specific treatment strategy which Levin is contemplating— artificially stimulating cell growth in the affected area with a combination of transplants (of what, exactly, I’m not quite sure) and glandular secretions extracted from healthy, young women (who will presumably not survive the extraction). Consequently, we may infer that it’s something more than a coincidence when Monique dies in her sleep that night and Levin gives Jeanette a booster injection of unexplained provenance the following morning. The police inspector (Ivo Garrani, from Black Sunday and Hercules) who accompanies the hospital staff when they pick up the body may not see anything suspicious right now, but he’ll be spending a lot of time in and around the Levin place in the future, you mark my words.
What gets us moving along in that direction is the continued instability of Jeanette’s re-grown face. Even with Monique’s glands or whatever inside her, she keeps starting to unravel, and Levin keeps having to find new girls to steal glands from. Luckily for him, fate steps in to provide him with a cover story. Evidently, there’s an escaped gorilla on the loose (way to keep the Old Ways alive there, guys), and it has already killed at least one woman. Because Levin has a chemical that can turn him into a monster (Derma 25), a machine that can change him back (that radiation gizmo in the lab), and a way to get into and out of his house without being seen (the tunnel left over from his unsuccessful effort to escape from the film), that rampaging gorilla looks like the perfect alibi. The one hole in the plan is Jeanette herself, who has become increasingly terrified of the doctor, and who has begun trying to make contact with Pierre. When Pierre realizes that his old girlfriend is both healed of her injuries and in the clutches of some madman somewhere, he goes to the police, setting in motion a chain of events that will eventually bring him and the inspector right back around to Levin and his laboratory.
Okay, so there are no vampires and precious few atoms here. But since, so far as I’ve been able to determine, the original Italian version features neither any heirs of Satan (“L’Erede di Satana”) nor anybody named Seddok, the conspicuously inappropriate English-language title takes on its own twisted sort of propriety. Nor, as I’m sure you’ve noticed just from reading the above synopsis, does either title come close to exhausting the supply of things that are wrong with this movie. To put it bluntly, Atom-Age Vampire is everything a 1960’s audience would have pictured when they thought about shitty Italian horror movies. The dubbing is haphazard, the English-language dialogue is ridiculous, and the voiceover actors always seem to be overemoting in a slightly different direction from the performers whose voices they replaced. With so much footage missing, it’s impossible to be certain who deserves what share of the blame for the erratic pace and nonsensical editing of the American prints, but it’s equally impossible to ignore those defects when watching the US edit. The series of dissolves whereby Jeanette’s face grows back is quite well executed for the time, but Dr. Levin’s transformation scenes are laughable in the extreme. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the design for the monster makeup is laughable in the extreme to begin with.) And of the greatest importance, the story is simply insane. While it hypothetically explains why Levin dug that tunnel out of his cellar when we later see him using it to facilitate his murder spree, that explanation ignores the niggling little point that Levin doesn’t encounter the setback that leads him to begin killing until a couple of days after he takes up basement mining in his spare time. Neither of Levin’s stated reasons for turning himself into a monster make any kind of sense; why making himself ugly should magically enhance his bravery is beyond me, and a killer ape is an obviously terrible alibi, despite what fifteen years’ worth of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lionel Atwill movies would have you believe. Pierre’s ongoing habit of hanging out with upscale go-go dancers is awfully difficult to square with his supposedly all-consuming desire to find his ex-girlfriend, and is even harder to square with the reason he broke up with her all those months ago. If you enjoy this kind of junk, then you should enjoy Atom-Age Vampire immensely. If you don’t, then hey— that’s your loss, pal.