In their book Immoral Tales Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs convincingly argue that many of filmmakers involved in the continental European sex and horror cinema of the period circa 1956-84 were cultured and intelligent individuals.
The films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin might have seemed silly even stupid to the uninitiated, but as the viewer became more aware of their particular aesthetics and world views, everything began to fall into place: they knew how to make a 'proper' film, following the requirements of the classical style but made a conscious, principled choice not to conform.
One filmmaker whom Tohill and Tombs address only in passing but who would seem to make a suitable case study for a follow-up to their book is Renato Polselli. A philosophy graduate whose films express a distinctive take on issues of psychology, sexuality and morality that strive for freedom from convention and hypocrisy, Polselli was at the forefront of pushing the boundaries within the Italian cinema for nearly 20 years, moving from sexy gothic horror in the 1960s into ever weirder and wilder reaches of erotic and even pornographic horror through the course of the 1970s.
Made in 1960 but not released until two years later – a common fate experienced by Polselli's films, prone to also suffering from censorship troubles and marginal distribution – The Vampire and the Ballerina thus actually pre-dates Piero Regnoli's similar The Playgirls and the Vampire, made later but released in the same year.
Experimenting with then new post-Hammer gothic idiom, the film, co-scripted by Polselli and Ernesto Gastaldi, follow the I Vampiri route of combining the contemporary and the traditional, pushing the boundaries on sex and to a lesser extent violence that little bit further than British films of the same time – the decolettage around the crucifix is that bit more emphasised, the nastiness that bit nastier – while also taking a more conservative approach in using monochrome rather than colour to provide that old-style Universal / expressionistic aura (illusion?) of comfortable familiarity.
We begin with a familiar juxtaposition of two worlds. The first is that of the peasantry, with their well-founded and fatalistic fear of vampires. (“Another victim; nothing can help her now”). The second is the dance troupe from the city with their diaphanous nightdresses, ballet-cum-burlesque routines and scepticism towards folk superstition. (“Vampires seem so romantic in a way.” “Sure, you would think so, except that they only exist in movies.”)
Various post-Hammer images
Failing to heed the locals' advice, some of the troupe duly stop at the supposedly deserted castle to take shelter from a storm, ignore the hints dropped (“I don't care for the world you live in – it is not my world”) and the vraisemblance between the Countess and her 400 year old ancestress in a portrait, precipitating the usual stalking and staking scenarios and confusions over who is what.
While things eventually resolved in favour of the living over the undead, Polselli still throws the viewer some provocative curveballs.
One is the nature of the vampires inhabiting the castle. Unlike the classic Dracula scenario, where the Count is clearly dominant over his non-aristocratic female brides and servants, here we have the cross-cutting of class and gender power dynamics, insofar as Countess Alda - was turned into a vampire by her servant, Herman, but seeks an escape from her unlife he refuses to grant.
Alda and Herman's relationship is thus characterised by a certain perversity born of mutual dependency, where each is alternately the master and slave needing the other's recognition in a fundamentally sado-masochistic manner:
He: “I, I am your only love. I'm am yours forever. I am your slave. I belong to you.”
She, after biting him moments later: “Now it's done. You are a hideous monster again. I need you, but cannot look at you.”
Intriguingly, Herman turns physically monstrous when aroused, whereas Alda remains beautiful regardless of her situation – she can turn the tables on him by making him angry and exploiting her fatal beauty.
It might be said that Polselli's approach is misogynistic, given another scene in which Herman takes out his frustrations by destroying one his female progeny as she rises from the grave for the first time. I would instead suggest that given the strong female characters found elsewhere in Polselli's cinema it is more about the way in which he approaches human relationships as a whole. If not yet in a position where he could refute the kind of conservative Manichean formulations found in Terence Fisher's films – and arguably also in real world ideologies that would prefer to think of themselves as one hundred per cent pure and untainted – he was already on this path.
If the destruction of the neonate female vampire appears to present an inversion of a scene from Fisher's Brides of Dracula, the funeral procession of this vampire-to-be, with its subjective shots from inside the coffin, suggests another source of inspiration more representative of the European fantastique tradition: Carl Theodor Dreyer's expressionist and surrealist classic Vampyr.
Another surprise is the film's refusal of the conventional resolution entailing heterosexual couple formation. While Fisher's films of this period certainly also subordinated this theme through their emphasis on the celibate savant hero, it still tended to be present in the case of the supporting characters whose world the savant's priest-like sacrifice to God ensured.
Polselli's resolution here thus emerges as most reminiscent of that of The Gorgon, as a later film that threw the underlying limitations of the Fisherian worldview into sharp relief.
The difference, however, was that like Jess Franco – whose own opening contribution to this 'debate', The Awful Dr Orlof, suffered similar distribution difficulties and was released in the same year – he embraces rather than repudiates 'perversity' as a way out of and beyond the conservative notions of sexuality that tend to be implicit in conventional horror, religion and morality.
A moment of light in the dark reveals and questions (questionably) Christian iconography
Yes, Polselli was yet another radical popular avant-garde filmmaker on the cutting edge. Of course, those who went to see Accatone didn't watch The Vampire and the Ballerina, and vice-versa. Therein lies the rub...