“La strage dei vampiri” (1962)
Italy’s Golden Age of Horror may seem to have begun as an imitative movement following the successful rejuvenation of the Gothic horror film by Hammer Films in 1957, itself modeled on the 1930’s Universal horror cycle -when, in fact, Italy’s initial foray into the field was Riccardo Freda’s “I vampiri”, whose release actually predated the initial relevant Hammer film (Terence Fisher’s “The Curse of Frankenstein”) by a month. Rather than settling into a redundant formula which combined the recycling of the classic horror narratives and characters, disguising the regurgitation of increasingly overly familiar materials with such sensory distraction as lurid, blood-soaked color and a baser mercenary mindset which relied on the attraction of increased violence and heaving bosoms barely contained in ripped bodices, (All inclusive in the Hammer formula.) the Italian horror finds no fidelity to a singular formula. For instance, in the aforementioned “I vampiri”, places its story in a contemporary, urban setting, is photographed in atmospheric noirish black and white and has as its protagonist, not the masculine vampire model of Bram Stoker’s, but a female monster, more in line with Sheridan Le Fanu’s conception in “Carmilla”, sans the rather latent lesbian overtones. This is not to say that there weren’t several Italian horror films that didn’t take advantage of a saturated vibrancy of color (Mario Bava’s efforts in this arena are among the most memorable in film history) but there was no standard aesthetic formula adhered to as was the case with the Universal and Hammer cycles, which would have locked the films into a redundancy of visual realization. Nor were the Italian films fixed into either strictly Gothic incarnations of horror stories or new versions of familiar horror figures, as was the mainstay of the Hammer Horror cycle. Italian horror films, though certainly derivative, (as are many of the imitative industry’s genre explorations) also moved into more challenging directions which, in one creatively industrious form, not only combined elements of krimi and horror into the iconoclastic hybrid of the Italian Giallo, but also approached the primal terrors of the traditional horror film though often emphasizing the psychological on an equal playing field with the strictly supernatural. Where classic American (and British, under the Hammer and later Amicus umbrellas) horror traditions, which are unalterably beholden to the Universal cycle- itself finding its greatest source of influence from German expressionism -are grounded in a cycle of perpetual folkloric European superstition, the Italian horror film (partially due to the fact, as if another mimicking of foreign genre- the western -the extension of expression was more attuned to fixating on the foundational visual characteristics of the vampire film itself rather than any specific contextual loyalties to narrative tropes) was able to find a wider range of expression than was possible when Hammer found disagreeable results in its own modernization of its own signatory franchise, whether adapted for contemporary settings or capitulating to the temporary Gothic popularity of the time. However, neither approach guaranteed a formula for success.
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