Sunday, April 28, 2024

Il mostro dell'opera (1964) [f/1961]

... aka: Il vampiro dell'opera (The Vampire of the Opera)
... aka: L'orgie des vampires (The Vampire Orgy)
... aka: Monster of the Opera, The

Directed by:
Renato Polselli

Though predated a few years by I VAMPIRI (1957), the international hit BLACK SUNDAY (1960), itself prompted into existence by recent period-set, costume horror successes from UK's Hammer, is usually given credit for kick starting the gothic horror revival in Italy. Soon after, dozens of similar films were produced there over the next five or so years, many quite beautifully and atmospherically shot in black-and-white, though some were in color (and no less beautifully or atmospherically shot when in the hands of someone like Mario Bava). While most of these suffered from pacing, story and dialogue issues, often due to the horrendous dubbing they received and hack-job re-edits, others suffered more because they barely received much of a release at all. 

Case in point is The Monster of the Opera. This was shot all the way back in 1961 but not released until three years later. It never even made it over here to the U.S., nor to any other English-speaking country, and thus never received an English-friendly release until over half a century after the fact. That means the movie not only didn't play in theaters, but it also didn't turn up on late night TV nor in video rental shops and was never able to build up any kind of reputation whatsoever. I'm only aware of Italian and French theatrical releases and wasn't even able to find an old video release in either of those countries. Once you actually sit through the movie itself, it all starts making sense.


We're hit in the face with the film's true intentions right at the start, as a beautiful young woman in a see-through negligee (though wearing bra and panties - this was still the early 60s, after all!) is pursued through an abandoned theater and then outside by a vampire brandishing a HUGE pitchfork. That gives way to a bunch of voluptuous starlets stretching, gossiping, giggling and dancing around in their leotards. One gets the immediate impression that much more screen time is going to be dedicated to showcasing the charms of the female cast as it will be to the horror elements, and that's exactly what happens here. Something mildly refreshing starts taking shape after a few minutes, though. In a subgenre known for evil, duplicitous and / or depressive characters in dreary period settings, we're introduced to a bunch of bouncy and vibrant young folks who laugh, flirt, make jokes, play pranks and run around happily spouting witty dialogue in a modern day setting.

"Marc Maryan" / Marco Mariani (TOMB OF TORTURE) stars as aspiring theater director Sandro, who's filled with good spirits and enthusiasm after having purchased an old, run-down theater called Aquarius. OK, so the place is rumored to be haunted, former performers claim to have been trapped inside by "invisible walls," a handful of previous actresses who'd performed there vanished without a trace and were never seen again, psychics who tried to investigate were driven away by a "sinister presence" and the building's grumpy caretaker, Achille ("Albert Archet" / Alberto Archetti), tries in vain to steer him away from the purchase, but it's just too good of a deal to pass up! It's also the perfect place for Sandro to stage his new play, which has been rejected by all of the other theaters. Now he won't have to worry about any of that since he'll be calling all of the shots. Soon, the theater is overrun with high energy cast and crew; guys in skeleton costumes and girls in undies, babydoll nighties and short, short togas (part of the play seems to be set in Roman times).

Giulia (Barbara Hawards), the production's lead actress, and also Sandro's leading lady off stage, has a strange feeling she's been there before. She also has a strange feeling she's met Achille before. That's because both have been prominently featured in a recurring nightmare she's been having about a vampire. Said vampire, Stefano ("John McDouglas" / Giuseppe Addobbati), eventually shows up in the flesh (at the midway point!) and (nearly an hour into this 80-minute film) attempts to put the bite to dancer Rossana (Vittoria Prada) but she manages to get away, Who he really wants is Giulia, the reincarnation of Laura, a (married) lover from hundreds of years ago who betrayed him. 

One of the lone good ideas here is that lying in the vampire's coffin and closing the lid allows one to enter into the bloodsucker's fogbound hidden lair, which appears to be in some kind of alternate dimension. There, he keeps a half dozen vampire brides, who've all gone mad, chained to the walls.

From a strictly visual standpoint, this is decent. There's good-looking black-and-white photography, a wonderful shooting location inside the old theater, nice art direction, lighting and use of shadow and fog, and some surprisingly good camerawork. The premise holds promise, the general atmosphere is quite good and things start out fun, but that fun soon gives way to tedium. Things move at a snail's pace, the plot is virtually nonexistent, the vampire is treated almost as an afterthought and most of the time is spent alternating between showing the girls running around shrieking and doing either their choreographed dances or impromptu frantic ones. While cleaning up, the cast randomly break into the Charleston and this hilariously even has the cast forced into a dance-for-your-life situation to ward off the evil at the end, as if this didn't already have too many filler dance scenes! The large cast also ensures that no one is really given much of a personality.

In addition to being a leg and undies fest, this puts a lot of focus on PG lesbianism, with the girls longingly staring into each other's eyes, caressing each other's shoulders, rubbing each other's legs, embracing, getting right in each other's faces as if they're about to kiss and, after a few are turned into vamps, nibbling on each other's necks. "Don't you feel that a friendship between two women is pure?" one dancer tells another as she seductively runs her fingers through her friend's hair. Instead of acting horrified, several of the girls act like they're in ecstasy when they're "speared" with the pitchfork, which is used to pin people down, not kill them. Subtle this is not. These bits may also explain why this was barely released. That, and the fact it's all pretty nonsensical and boring.

Most of the names in the cast list have been Anglicized, so it's difficult to know the true identity of most of these folks, though many appear to have been real-life dancers. Lead Barbara Hawards (most likely a pseudonym; she's called "Barbara Howard" on the posters) is very lovely so it's a shame this may have been her only film. Lost in the sea of other dancers is Milena Vukotic (playing "Carlotta"), the only one of the ladies who went on to much of an acting career. A trained dancer / ballerina herself, Vukotic would later act for the likes of Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel and Andrei Tarkovsky and win most of Italy's top acting awards.

The director, who also co-wrote the script with Ernesto Gastaldi, had previously made THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (1960), another entry in the 1960s Italian black-and-white Gothic cycle (also a much better film than this one), and would go on to work on some sleazier 70s genre films (usually utilizing the alias "Ralph Brown") like DELIRIUM (1972), MANIA (1974) and EROTIC GAMES OF A RESPECTABLE FAMILY (1975).

Discounting a French DVD release under the title L'orgie des vampires, which featured an English sub option but cobbled together a print from two different sources, the first English-friendly version was released by Sinister Cinema in 2020. That was followed by its inclusion in the 2023 Severin box set "Danza Macabra Volume One," which also included the forgettable THE SEVENTH GRAVE (1965), the mediocre SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER (1970) and, the most enjoyable of the lot by a fair margin, the minor cult classic Lady Frankenstein (1971).

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