By the 1980s a certain stereotype prevailed about Italian genre cinema. The Italians, it was presumed, simply imitated American successes by making similar pictures more cheaply. That may have been true for post-Star Wars space operas and even for spaghetti westerns, but the Italian horror genre bucks the trend. Its founding film, this 1956 production directed by Riccardo Freda but finished by cinematographer Mario Bava, looks like a more lavish imitation of some of the cheapest American films: the Poverty Row horrors made by Monogram Pictures and PRC in the 1940s. It most resembles Monogram's 1942 film The Corpse Vanishes, a Bela Lugosi vehicle in which a mad scientist kidnaps and kills virgins for their spinal fluid -- the elixir vitae of the day -- in order to keep his wife alive and beautiful. Like many a Monogram movie, I Vampiri has a nosy reporter in an important role, but it differs from Wallace Fox's movie on the most obvious pictorial level -- Bava's black-and-white widescreen cinematography is often beautiful stuff, despite having hardly more production time than Poverty Row would assign -- and in its focus on villainy. Corpse Vanishes is a Bela Lugosi vehicle in which the mad scientist obviously dominates the proceedings while his wife is little more than a whiny prop. In Vampiri the woman getting the treatment, a French aristocrat desperate to stave off aging, is the true villain, while the scientists are mere minions. The spinal fluid fad is over by the Fifties; Giselle du Grand (Gianna Maria Canale) sticks with good old fashioned blood; hence the title.
By coincidence, Freda and Bava's project appeared around the same time as a spate of American B-movies that attempted to modernize classic monsters. If I Vampiri seems to be a generation behind in its story ideas, that probably has a lot to do with a Fascist-era ban on horror films that persisted into the 1950s until Freda went to work. The overall sensibility is more modern, however, because the horror is grounded in sexual desire as well as a longing for youth. Which is to say it also looks back far past the pulp tropes that influenced Poverty Row USA and hints at a more complete return in years to come of what went repressed in American pictures.
I Vampiri approaches the truly supernatural in the special effects sequences shot by Bava in which Giselle youthens or withers depending on her fresh blood count. It's the old trickery with makeup and filters that dates back at least to Rouben Mamoulian's 1932 Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but the magic works as well as ever here as Canale emotes her way through the transformations. The actress strikes the right notes throughout, murderously imperious yet always just a little poignant. The movie grows more entertaining as it grows more gothic and the protagonists enter a castled world of hidden prisons and secret laboratories. It never entirely transcends its derivative nature, and it reportedly flopped in Italy, but it's an often-attractive, retrospectively significant film for the preview it offers of the world that Mario Bava would soon make his own.