Although THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (originally L’amanti del Vampiro ["The Vampire's Lover]) is certainly not the most important continental European or even Italian horror film made in 1960, it is nevertheless of significance for a number of reasons. In the first place, it marks the directorial debut of Renato Polselli. Polselli is one of the more intriguing and under-examined figures in European cinefantastique. A philosophy graduate whose films express a distinctive, personal take on psychology, sexuality and morality, striving for freedom from convention and hypocrisy, he continually explored and pushed the boundaries of acceptability.
Though THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is relatively tame today, it nevertheless part of a continuum that saw Polselli gravitate towards ever weirder and wilder reaches of erotic and even outright pornographic horror over the next two decades. This is apparent from the fact that the film, like many of the director’s later works, suffered from distribution difficulties, not being released in Italy until 1962. Unfortunately by this time, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA’s impact was inevitably diluted, given that both Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY and Piero Regnoli’s (decidedly similar) THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE had been released during the interim.
THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA also gave prolific screenwriter and occasional director Ernesto Gastaldi his first credit in both capacities, co-writing the script and serving as assistant director.
The film co-stars Walter Brandi. His period as a leading Italian genre actor was short-lived; his other key appearances are in PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE (also 1960) and SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES (1962). He nevertheless maintained an association with the filone cinema, working as production manager on a number of Bruno Mattei’s productions in the 1980s, including the notorious zombie entry HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Much like BLACK SUNDAY and THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA itself presents an early working through of the modern Gothic formula established a few years earlier Freda’s I VAMPIRI and Hammer’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. Like Freda and Regnoli’s films, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is shot in black-and-white yet has a contemporary setting, in which the very existence of vampire seems an absurd, atavistic throwback.
This is accentuated in the opening sequences, which contrast the fatalistic world of the rural peasants (“Another victim; nothing can help her now”) with the scepticism of ballet-cum-burlesque dance troupe from the city (“Vampires seem so romantic in a way.” “Sure, you would think so, except that they only exist in movies.”)
Failing to heed the locals’ advice, some of the troupe stop at the supposedly deserted castle to take shelter from a storm. Predictably, they ignore the hints dropped by the Countess (“I don’t care for the world you live in – it is not my world”) and her striking resemblance to a 400 year old ancestress depicted in a portrait, precipitating the usual stalking and staking scenarios and confusions over who is what.
While things are eventually resolved in favour of the living over the undead and good over evil, Polselli nevertheless throws some provocative things our way.
Unlike the classic Dracula scenario, in which the Count is clearly dominant over his non-aristocratic female brides-slaves, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA presents a cross-cutting of class and gender dynamics: Countess Alda was turned into a vampire by her servant, Herman, but seeks an escape from her unlife that he refuses to grant. Their relationship is thus characterised by a certain perversity born of mutual dependency, each alternately the master and slave and in need of the other’s recognition in a fundamentally sado-masochistic manner. (Hegel relevant to Italian schlock horror shock!)
The director also gives us a reworking of the famous burial scene from Dreyer’s VAMPYR, complete with coffins-eye view shot. Besides being a powerful image in its own right, it also serves as a reminder of the longer tradition of the European fantastique cinema and the impossibility of clearly delineating the better of its products as either ‘art’ or ‘trash’.
Here it’s also about knowing how to make a ‘proper’ film, one that follows the rules, but of making a choice not to. Though THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is certainly more classical and conventional than Polselli’s later work, the traces are there. The film can also thereby be related to wider developments in the cinema around 1960. This was, after all, also the time of Godard’s BREATHLESS, Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA, and other more self-consciously modernist films.
THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (a.k.a. L’amanti del Vampiro ["The Vampire's Lover], 1960). Directed by Renato Polselli. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi, Giuseppe Pellegrini, Renato Polselli. Cast, Helene Remy, Tina Gloriani, Water Brandi, Isarco Ravaioli, Gino Turini, Pier Ugo Gragnani, Brigitte Castor, Lut Maryk, Maria Luisa Rolando.