Saturday, 14 June 2008

Tempi duri per i vampiri / Hard Times for Vampires / Uncle was a Vampire

It's well known that Christopher Lee refused to reprise the part of Dracula for a long time after playing the character in Hammer's 1958 film for fear of becoming typecast in the way that Bela Lugosi had been, leading Hammer to produce Brides of Dracula and Kiss of the Vampire as vampire films without Lee or Dracula.

Hotel Dracula?

What's not so well known, however, is that long before his return to the role in 1965's Dracula Prince of Darkness he had played a vampire and upon his association with the Dracula role in this 1959 Italian horror-comedy. Even odder is that, with the film being executive produced by Joseph E. Levine and dubbed into English – albeit with another actor providing Lee's heavily reverbed voice – it clearly had distribution outwith Italy, even if this was delayed by a few years.

Lee trading on his Dracula image

The film is surprisingly prescient, prefiguring elements of Blood for Dracula, Love at First Bite and – given Lucio Fulci's mentoring by director Steno – Dracula in the Provinces.

Beyond this it's also an engaging and entertaining film that's worth watching in its own right given the reliable and versatile Steno, a comedy specialist who could also turn out an excellent hard-hitting poliziotto conspiracy thriller when the occasion demanded, and the presence of the multi-talented Renato Rascel (also one of the co-writers and composers, along with Armando Trovajoli) and a young Sylva Koscina and Kai Fischer amongst the euro-starlets on display.

We begin with a Renfield-like servant transporting his master, Baron Roderico da Frankurten (Lee), to the train station in a crate, ready for shipping to Baron Osvaldo Lambertenghi (Rascel) in sunny Italy.

It doesn't seem the most obvious place for a vampire, but Frankurten is running out of options and hopes that his nephew's castle will provide a suitable replacement for his own, which has been destroyed; his servant's last request is to have permission to commit suicide, which the Baron graciously, wordlessly grants.

“And at last Baron, may I commit suicide?
Thanks; can one say this was really living sir”

Meanwhile Baron Lambertenghi is selling his castle to the Atlas Hotel Corporation in order to raise the money he needs to pay his back taxes, 80 million lire. Graciously, however, the Corporation agrees to allow the Baron to stay on at the castle in a position appropriate to his status and worth, that of the bellhop; they also convert the family crypt into a bar...

Learning the truth about his uncle, Lambertenghi resolves to destroy him, but finds his attempts repeatedly stymied by the interruptions of the other staff and guests. Worse follows as Baron Frankurten, weary of an unlife of moving from castle to castle and tomb to tomb, decides to transfer the family curse / inheritance / disease to his nephew. (As with the Hammer Dracula, from which the filmmakers draw a number of images, the direct image of one man biting another is evaded, though here we see Lee throwing his cloak around Rascel.)

The two barons meet; note the contrast in their outfits / uniforms

Gaze into the eyes that hypnotise
Lambertenghi addresses the spectator

Transformed from gamekeeper into poacher, Lambertenghi begins to work his way through the female staff and guests, beginning with Koscina's character's mother, before waking up in his uncle's coffin, wearing an opera cloak and remembering nothing about the previous night's antics. He then can't understand why no fewer than 42 women are infatuated with him, “ready to die for love” or asking for “one more bite”...

Lambertenghi has women trouble – too many of them

Though the film's version of vampirism is perhaps thus more akin to lycanthropy the filmmakers elsewhere engage nicely with other aspects of traditional vampire lore, having Lambertenghi attempt to fumigate his uncle with a garlic infused garden spray and one guest inadvertently paralyse the vampire with a cross-shaped clothes hanger, temporarily robbing the vampire of his powers.

An owl, recalling Terence Fisher's Dracula

They also make the most of the contrast between the tall, aristocratic Lee and the short Rascel, with the latter taking a somewhat more Lugosi like approach to the vampire role, exaggerating his gestures and expressions for greater comedic effect. He also delivers some monologues direct to the audience, again reminding us of the way in which long established popular theatrical conventions had their own proto-Brechtian elements, with some critics forgetting that in addition to alienating his audience from the work Brecht was also concerned with transforming their notions of popular entertainment.

More Hammer-style images

Apologies if this seems like an obsession in my writing of late; put it down to the coincidence of having seen multiple films using similar devices in a short space of time, along with the ease with which its possible to read social, sexual and political subtexts into a film like this. The more committed modernist can however take comfort from the fact that the film's resolution is more conventionally happy and reassuring than revolutionary.

Or, as the closing theme has it, with its blend of traditional and contemporary, “Dracula, cha, cha, cha”