I vampiri (1956)

a.k.a. - The Devil's Commandment (USA), Lust of the Vampire (UK)

The birth of Italian horror, as directed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. Image R0 DVD

The Film

Another body washes up on the banks of the Seine, drained of blood. Journalist Pierre Lantin has taken it upon himself to investigate the killings, but Police Inspector Chantal is becoming frustrated by the media's overblown reporting as they dub the killer "The Vampire". Lantin swears that he has finally found a lead when he runs into drug addict Joseph Signoret (Paul Muller), the police can find no leads but the addict is in the control of a mysterious scientist. Meanwhile, Lantin is being persued by the attractive young niece of the enigmatic Duchess du Grand and having caused enough trouble for his seniors, is demoted to covering a formal party at her mansion.

Despite its future reputation, Italian cinema had no real heritage of horror and in the mid-1950s, the idea of Italian made horror films was laughed at by producers and audiences alike, but director Riccardo Freda felt that with his experience of directing costume dramas he would be able to give the genre a good shot. He made a bet with his producers that he could shoot a horror film in less than a fortnight and concocted a storyline overnight. In the end, he would walk off the production after ten days of shooting, leaving his cameraman Mario Bava to put together the pieces of storyline and devise his own script in a desperate attempt to make sense of the scenes that had already been shot. It is hard to know then to whom to credit the resulting film, but surprisingly I Vampiri's script is not the mess it should by all rights be and offers a solid if rather unoriginal tale.

Made in the year before Hammer would revitalise the gothic horror genre, I Vampiri instead harkens back to the American horror films of the 1930s and '40s and the basic storyline with a blend of mad scientists and gothic horror would certainly not be out of place in a PRC horror film with Bela Lugosi or Lionel Atwill. Unlike these often loosely plotted productions however, I Vampiri is very tightly written with an investigation storyline straight out of a Film Noir that takes up most of the running time without becoming tiresome. With the typically rapid fire Italian dialogue, the film moves briskly to a fitting if rather predictable conclusion. The only real deference to modernity in the script comes with the drug addict sequences which are explicitly discussed rather than just implied, although there is certainly none of the daring sexuality or vivd gore that would become hallmarks of the later Italian horrors.

It is not recorded which scenes were directed by Freda or by Bava and there is no obvious change in style, but whoever was behind the camera did a superb job - I Vampiri looks gorgeous and certainly belies its 'poverty row' script with a number of sumptuous gothic sets and some elborate tracking camera movements combined with some incredibly innovative 'aging' effects making full use of the black and white format. Somewhat less successful are the 'exteriors' with very obvious matting used to insert Parisian landmarks behind the studio-bound sets.

Top billed is the seductive Gianna Maria Canale - the wife of director Freda and a regular leading lady in his historical dramas, she does seem to be well suited to the mysterious part as Giselle du Grand. The rest of the cast is good, although the only real familiar face is Jess Franco regular Paul Muller as the addict.

Despite a rather unoriginal storyline and a turbulent production, I Vampiri has an effective storyline and some beautifully filmed gothic sets that would pave the way for the subsequent Italian horror boom. A must see for anyone interested in Italian horror in general and certainly any Bava and Freda fans.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Paul Muller - a frequent star in Jess Franco's filmography, including Eugenie de Sade (1970).
Directed by anyone interesting? Riccardo Freda - as well as horror films, he worked in a variety of genres including Giallo and Pepla.
Mario Bava - he would go on to make his official directoral debut with La Maschera del Demonio (1960)
Any gore or violence ? A little blood.
Any sex or nudity? None
Who is it for? A must see for fans of Italian horror in general and Bava/Freda in particular

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Black and white.
The print looks very good, with almost no damage. A little soft in places but detail is generally strong.
Audio Italian - sounds fine.
Subtitles English subtitles for the Italian audio - translated well although they do move very rapidly to keep up with the brisk dialogue.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Biography of Mario Bava and filmographies for Bava and Freda.
  • Photo gallery - presented as a video file with no music or chapter stops.
  • Bonus trailers for other Bava titles released by Image.
  • Detailed liner notes by author Tim Lucas are included as a leaflet in the DVD case.
Region Region 0 (ALL) - NTSC
Other regions? German release from Anolis Der Vampir von Notre Dame - includes the original Italian version (with German and Italian audio, English and German subs) as well as the American edited version. Also includes audio commentary (in German) and an interview with actor Paul Muller.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut as per the original Italian release, the film was substantially re-edited with new footage being filmed for US release as The Devil's Commandment and received several cuts by the BBFC for UK release (believed to be based on the US edited version). Print language is Italian.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 15th February 2011.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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