The Slaughter of the Vampires / Curse of the Ghouls / Curse of the Blood Ghouls / La Strage dei Vampiri (1962) -**½
A lot of foreign horror film industries got their start from filmmakers copying or reinterpreting American horror flicks of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Nobody much cared about British horror— even in Britain— until Hammer remade Frankenstein. Most of the Mexican horror flicks of the late 1950’s (at least the ones that didn’t have masked wrestlers in them) were Universal wannabes too. And even the Italians went through a Gothic-envy phase at the turn of the 60’s. The Slaughter of the Vampires/La Strage dei Vampiri is a mostly forgotten artifact from this early period, and while the dominant ethos at work here is definitely “Universal/Hammer on 50 lire a day,” it’s also possible to see a more distinctively Italian style struggling to emerge from inside it. It also looks like its main source of entertainment value was its goofball appeal, even before it was saddled with some of the most outrageous dubbing this side of the Pacific Ocean.
The combination of the title and the opening scene suggest that The Slaughter of the Vampires is going to be a far better and more interesting movie than is actually the case. A well-dressed man and woman are fleeing through the countryside from an enraged mob of peasants armed with the usual array of torches and farming implements. As the fugitive couple take cover behind a convenient hedgerow, we finally start catching a bit of their pursuers’ dialogue. Evidently the two objects of the chase are a pair of vampires— and yeah, now that you mention it, those do look like fangs in the woman’s mouth. Surprisingly enough, this scene is shot in such a way as to encourage audience identification with the undead rather than with their human hunters; the camera stays with the vampires in their hiding place, while the armed peasants are just barely glimpsed between the branches of the hedgerow in a striking reversal of the common cowering heroine set-piece. Eventually, the female vampire realizes that she and her consort (Dieter Eppler, from The Head and The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism) will surely be found sooner or later, and suggests that they make a break for it once the peasant mob has progressed far enough past them. The escape attempt pans out only halfway; the male vampire reaches safety, but his mate is caught, surrounded, and run through with pitchforks until one of the farmers happens to pierce her heart. It’s a nasty demise, even for a horror movie vampire. The other bloodsucker, meanwhile, hires a carriage to take him to a nearby castle, where he stashes his coffin in the cellar and drops out of sight.
I have absolutely no idea how much time is supposed to elapse between that scene and the next one. The transition is handled in such a way as to imply some significant lag-time, but it’s impossible to square an interval of more than a couple of hours with what subsequent dialogue will tell us. Count Wolfgang (Walter Brandi, from Bloody Pit of Horror and Five Graves for a Medium), the castle’s new owner, is throwing what appears to be a housewarming party. He, his wife Louise (Graziella Granata, of The Pirate and the Slave Girl and Mole Men vs. the Son of Hercules), and their many guests will all remark that the count has done a tremendous job fixing the place up, implying that it had lain abandoned and in partial ruin for many years— an interpretation that is consistent with the apparent emptiness of the castle when the vampire set up shop in its cellar. And yet, as we see when Wolfgang’s butler goes downstairs to fetch some more wine, the count has picked the very chamber in which the vampire’s coffin was concealed as the storage facility for his hogsheads, a state of affairs that could have come about only if the vampire had moved in after Wolfgang and his family— surely the movers would have said something if they had discovered a coffin in the room which they had been told was to become the wine cellar! In any event, the party upstairs awakens the vampire, and he comes out of his casket to join the fun. The vampire takes advantage of her husband’s distraction with other guests to get himself a waltz with Louise, causes quite a stir with all of the female partygoers, and then disappears out the front door with nary a word of explanation or introduction. Can it possibly be a coincidence when Louise has a fainting spell right after the vampire’s departure, and is forced to retire to her bedroom? Certainly not, especially when the vampire himself is waiting for her out on the balcony when she goes to lie down. He lets himself in and hops right into bed with Louise. By the time Wolfgang comes knocking at the door to see how his wife is doing, Louise is already under the vampire’s power, and a couple of steps along the way to becoming one of the undead herself.
You know the drill. Louise’s health steadily worsens over the coming days, though she herself insists that she feels fine. Wolfgang’s doctor friend doesn’t know what to make of her affliction, which presents many of the symptoms of anemia, but which differs in several important respects from every case of that disease he’s ever seen. Knowing when he’s beaten, the doctor recommends that Wolfgang go at once to Vienna to see a colleague of his by the name of Professor Nietzsche (or so I’m guessing— all the dubbing actors in the English-language version pronounce it “Nitch,” which I’m dead certain is not a real Germanic name), who is reputed to be the foremost expert on blood diseases in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And Wolfgang had better make it snappy, too— Louise probably hasn’t got more than a day or two to live.
Wolfgang does as he’s told, and Professor Nietzsche (Luigi Batzella, who directed SS Hell Camp and The Devil’s Wedding Night) believes he knows exactly what Louise’s problem is. On the carriage ride back to Wolfgang’s castle, Nietzsche explains that the countess has come under the sway of a vampire, and that if she is to be saved, Wolfgang will need to give the professor a completely free hand to do whatever he thinks the situation requires. No matter how bizarre, outlandish, or counterintuitive Nietzsche’s instructions may seem, Wolfgang must do whatever is in his power to comply with them. But unfortunately for Louise and her would-be rescuers, it is a long ride to and from Vienna, and the sun has set long before Wolfgang and Nietzsche can reach her. The vampire takes maximal advantage of their absence to pay his human paramour another visit, and by the time the count’s coach has arrived, the girl’s maid — another early-60’s Italian hottie named Corinne— has already found her mistress slumped over dead in her bedchamber. Louise’s body is gone, though, when Wolfgang goes upstairs to see it, and we all know what that means. The count, however, doesn’t seem to be quite with the program here, because when he runs across the apparently living Louise in the subsequent search of the castle grounds, he’s so relieved to see her that he allows her to bite him and get him started on a vampiric curse of his own. Meanwhile, the original vampire is making time with Corinne, who turns out to have been in league with him all along. Looks like Professor Nietzsche has more on his hands than he bargained for. Indeed, even after the professor finds and disposes of the two undead women, his task will continue to be complicated by the possibility that Wolfgang will need to be put down before Nietzsche catches the main bloodsucker, especially once the count starts exhibiting a decidedly alarming interest in his gardener’s ten-year-old daughter.
What really blows my mind about The Slaughter of the Vampires is the fact that it got away with a G-rating when it was reissued in 1970. Naturally it’s fairly tame by modern standards, but it’s still got enough frantically bouncing, barely concealed tits and disturbing hints of pedophilia to give today’s MPAA a nice little round of strokes and heart arrhythmias. Seriously, the sex quotient here is considerably in advance even of what Hammer was doing at the time, and the movie is very explicit when it comes to the idea that vampirism is a distorted form of sexual desire. So when the half-vamiprized Count Wolfgang starts acting like he’s setting up the little girl as a victim, it seems far creepier than it does in most films where children run afoul of the undead.
On the other hand, The Slaughter of the Vampires is far less radical a film than it might have been— or than its pre-credits sequence implies— and by pointing out possibilities which he fails to exploit, writer/director Roberto Mauri shoots himself in the foot in a major way. By approaching the opening scene from the vampires’ point of view, and by choosing a title like La Strage dei Vampiri/The Slaughter of the Vampires, he creates the initial impression that the whole movie is going to treat the undead in a sympathetic way that was utterly at odds with virtually everything that had been done in the genre by 1962. That the movie turns out to be little more than a sexed-up, dumbed-down Universal Dracula flick is quite a letdown. Those who object to the flat, shallow characterization typical of Italian horror movies will also have much to gripe about here. Beyond mere one-dimensionality, the characters in this movie are scarcely even worthy of the title “character;” there isn’t a one among them who possesses any recognizable qualities outside of their bare function in the story, and the main vampire isn’t even given a name! With all these strikes against it, the main vein of enjoyment to be mined from The Slaughter of the Vampires (apart from its undeniable cheesecake value) is its wildly ridiculous dialogue. As we’re more accustomed to seeing in English-language versions of Asian movies, the translations used here are rigidly, absurdly literal, with the result that nearly every utterance comes out as something no living person would ever actually say. Indeed, it’s almost as if you can hear the words falling to the floor with a dense, woody thud every time one of the characters speaks. I had fun, but then again, my taste in movies seems to be getting measurably worse with each passing day.