B&W, 1956, 78 mins. / Directed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava / Starring Gianna Maria Canale, Dario Michaelis, Carlo D'Angelo, Paul Muller / Cinematography by Mario Bava / Written by Riccardo Freda and Pieto Regnoli

Format: DVD - Image / Letterboxed (2.35:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital Mono

This review by Fred Hunter appears courtesy of Classics on DVD

Paris is beset by a murderer who kidnaps young women, drains them of their blood, and tosses their bodies in the Seine. Intrepid reporter Pierre Lantin (Dario Michaelis), determined to break the story, sets out to discover the murderer that the press has dubbed “The Vampire.” While pursuing the case, Lantin is the object of the unwanted affection of the gorgeous Giselle, niece of the Duchess du Grand. Though Giselle possesses haunting beauty, Lantin feels an inexplicable revulsion to her. Little does he know that the case will bring him face to face with the cause of that revulsion.

I Vampiri is a landmark film in more ways than one: it marks the beginning of the modern Italian horror film, as well as the virtual beginning of Mario Bava’s career directing horror (he was the cinematographer on the project, and took over as director when credited director Riccardo Freda walked out). It also is probably one of the few films (or at least, one of the earliest) in which a newspaper reporter seriously questions the ethics of his profession.

The plot of I Vampiri is an awfully prosaic one for a Bava film: but in his hands even the prosaic becomes an expressionistic marvel. The film is filled with startling images, including the beautifully staged and photographed graveyard/funeral sequence, and the noirish murder of the drug addict. It also includes images that foreshadow Bava’s later work (paricularly his masterpiece, Black Sunday), like the entrance hidden behind the fireplace, opening into the Duchess du Grand’s great hall).

Bava also manages some astonishing special effects, most notably Giselle’s eye-popping transformation from beauty to crone, which was not only accomplished without computers, it was done without cutaways. The absence of computers produces an effect that is remarkably realistic (as opposed to modern-day "morphing," which is a much more self-conscious effect). Although I Vampiri doesn’t achieve the level of Bava’s later work, it is still a beautifully filmed, incredibly stylish entrance to the genre.

The transfer presents a few problems: the black level tends toward gray, and the picture is often very overly bright, which at times throws the contrast off to the point where detail is almost non-existent (there are a few instances where character’s facial features nearly disappear). The combination of the above creates stretches where the image seems washed out. Despite these drawbacks, the picture for the most part is very good. The densely detailed images are beautifully realized without artifacts, particularly noticeable in the interior of M. Chambert’s house, which is crammed with bric-a-brac, and the exteriors of the vine-covered Castle du Grand. Also, the print is remarkably free of specks (though there are a few) or other damage. The result is that even with the problems, the image is generally quite pleasing. The subtitles are large and easy to read, which is a good thing, because there is an awful lot of them in this film!

The one-channel mono audio is serviceable: the atmospheric score is clear and undistorted, though it lacks bass, and the Italian dialogue is very clear.

The disc includes filmographies for both Bava and original director Riccardo Freda, a photo gallery which includes shots from the scenes added for the US release of the film under the title The Devil’s Commandment, and trailers for other films in Image’s Mario Bava Collection. Also included are pretty extensive liner notes by Tim Lucas giving the history of the film and explaining the startling special effects. The notes are from the forthcoming book Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, which Lucas has been promising us for some time now. But from the tantalizing excerpts included with Image’s Bava discs, Lucas’ book is going to be a real treat for film fans.

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