The city of Paris is being terrorised by a vampire killer! As the blood-drained body of yet another young girl is dredged from the river Seine, intrepid news reporter Pierre Lantin (Dario Michaelis) is on the case, much to the annoyance of the police department, who resent his meddling. When a dancer is abducted by a black-gloved assailant, Lantin goes to interview one of her friends, a young girl called Lorette (Wandisa Guida), who mentions that she and the missing girl believed they were being followed. Lantin soon notices that Lorette is still being shadowed by a mysterious man and when the journalist confronts him, the man, a drug addict called Joseph Signoret (Paul Muller), panics and seeks out the person responsible for forcing him to kidnap the missing women (in return for supplying him with drugs) and threatens to go to the police if he is not paid off. Meanwhile, Lantin is being romantically pursued by Giselle Du Grand (Gianna Maria Canale), the niece of the Duchess Margherita Du Grand who lives in a nearby castle. Lantin is not too keen on her (despite the fact that she is widely believed to be the most beautiful woman in Paris) because his father was destroyed by a scandal caused by the Duchess Du Grand's romantic interest in him. What Lantin doesn't know, of course, is that Giselle IS the Duchess! Her husband, Julien Du Grand is a scientist who has developed a youth serum that can keep the Duchess young. However, the serum requires human blood and out of crazed love for the Duchess, Julien has been employing Signoret to kidnap girls in order to drain their blood. When Signoret threatens blackmail, he himself becomes another victim! The Duchess is obsessed with Lantin because he reminds her of his father; unfortunately, the serum's effects are unstable and the Duchess needs ever more blood to enable her to continue her youthful flirtations with Lantin while disguised as the young Giselle. When the girl Lorette is kidnaped by the deranged team and kept prisoner at the castle, Lantin must figure out what is going on in time to save her life!
Billed as the first Italian horror film of the sound era, "I Vampiri" is also of historical importance since it reputedly contains the first tentative directorial work of the great Mario Bava. The story goes that the credited director Riccardo Freda, who had made a name for himself as a director of historical epics, made a bet with the film's two producers that he could shoot the entire film in only 12 days! With only two days of shooting left Freda had only shot half the film and reportedly stormed out of the production in a huff, leaving cinematographer Mario Bava to complete the second half of the film in the remaining two days thanks to some hasty rewriting of the script and the inclusion of some stock footage and atmospheric tracking shots to pad out the 78 minute running time!
Most of Bava's known contributions as director seem to consist of fairly dull, static scenes of expository dialogue. Although the finished film is not quite the movie Freda intended, this should probably still be seen as a Riccardo Freda film rather than an early Bava film--even if it is Bava who appears to have decided on the film's eventual content. Bava's influence can mainly be felt through his ingenious use of special effects (a talent that Dario Argento utilised effectively many years later in his "Inferno"), and his excellent cinematography. The most notable innovation in terms of effects was the Duchess Du Grand's transformation scene, from the young and beautiful Giselle to wizened old crone, with no camera superposition's or cutaways! This was achieved by painting lines and wrinkles on Gianna Maria Canale's face with red make-up; the black and white film was then lit with red light so that the old-age make up is invisible on film. The red light is then dimmed while a green light is simultaneously turned up. Under green light the lines on Canale's face show up as black -- giving the appearance that she is gradually ageing before our eyes! The effect is striking, although it is noticeable that the shading of Gianna Maria Canale's clothes also changes! Bava's cinematography also perfectly captures the amazingly elaborate art direction of Beni Montresor: particularly striking are the interior scenes in the Du Grand castle with its look of antiquated decay. Bava's camera lovingly prowls among the castle's spacious hallways which are lined with oddly distracting translucent veils billowing eerily in the background of almost every scene! The look of Italian Gothic horror was defined by Bava for years to come with this first film in the genre. It is notable that many of the elements that became associated with the giallo genre also pioneered by Bava also appear here, probably for the first time: the preoccupation with criminality, drug taking and the appearance of a black gloved assailant for instance.
Strangely enough for a film called The Vampires, there aren't actually any blood sucking supernatural beings in it at all! Partly this is due to Italy's censorship laws at the time: Freda was actually a member of the board himself and knew exactly how to pacify the board's dislike of the material. The film is set in Paris to keep all the nasty business well away from Italian soil, and no on-screen blood drinking or kissing takes place! Instead, the film achieves its spooky effects through the atmosphere realised through the expressionistic B&W photography and it's clever but subtle effects. But, it could be that the vampire subject matter of the film is also a bit of a metaphor for some class comment on how the aristocracy exploit the masses. Some of this makes its way into the script, particularly in scenes between the hero of the movie, the journalist Pierre Lantin, and Giselle Du Grand. When forced to cover a ball at the castle by his editor despite his aversion to Giselle, he tells her: "Some of us belong to that slave class that is forced to obey orders when they are given". The Duchess lives off the Parisian youth -- sacrificing them for the sake of her vanity and her self-indulgent, romantic obsession with Lantin and before that, his father. The theme of obsessive love is well handled with the Duchess's unrequited interest in Lantin Paralleled by Julian Du Grand's own unacknowledged obsession with her. Even Lantin's romantic interest in the kidnapped girl Lorette seems a little off -- she is supposed to be a school girl after all! Visually, the decayed state of the castle and the great age of all the other guests at the castle ball are contrasted with the Duchess's youthfulness and beauty which is made to feel out of place and unnatural in these Gothic surroundings. In the end though, the stylishness of the proceedings are slightly let down by a rather clunky script.
Image Entertainment furnish this visually sumptuous film with a great anamorphic transfer of a, for the most part, fine print. Day time exterior scenes sometimes suffer from lack of definition, giving the image an overexposed kind of look, but thankfully most of the movie takes place at night or in castle interiors! The audio track is in Italian and clear removable subtitles are provided. There are absolutely no extras whatsoever, but some fine Liner notes by Bava buff Tim Lucas are included with the disc and are well worth a read.
Although not strictly speaking a Bava film, Image are justified in releasing it as part of their Mario Bava collection since it does hold a very important place in the Bava cannon and the look and feel of future Bava Gothic pieces, such as Black Sunday, can definitely be detected. It is also one of the few Riccardo Freda movies to be made available on DVD!