December 1, 2010

Rediscovering a Eurohorror Gem

Terror in the Crypt (aka Crypt of the Vampire; 1964)

I discovered Eurohorror in my early misspent teens watching the late, late show (yes, that was a long, long time ago). In contrast to the domestic product, this stuff was dark, atmospheric, exotic, disturbing, and… downright sexy. You were guaranteed to see at least one beautiful, bountiful starlet in a diaphanous white nightgown running screaming from some twisted, disfigured monster. And this being the late, late show, there was always the small hope-- never actually realized on American broadcast TV --  of seeing something… more. Later, I discovered that there were prints of these films that included scenes not shown on TV!  With all that going for them, one could excuse the bad dubbing and the wooden acting.

Terror in the Crypt, an obscure occult thriller from 1964, was one of the exotic flicks that lodged some pretty potent images in my impressionable brain: a disfigured, hunchbacked beggar; a bell tolling in an abandoned church in the middle of the night; a woman using a severed hand ("hand of glory") as a candelabra to light her way down a long, dark hallway…; and yes, the bountiful, raven-haired heroine in the almost-but-not-quite see-through nightie.

Over the years, and especially when I watched anything with B scream queen and Eurohorror specialist Barbara Steele in it, I'd think to myself, is this the one with the gnarly severed hand moonlighting as a candlestick? Inevitably, the answer was no (although Barbara's flicks were usually intriguing in their own right). Somehow I had gotten the beauteous, raven-haired Adriana Ambesi (working in American prints of Crypt as Audrey Amber) mixed up with the exotic, raven-haired Barbara. Black Sunday? Nope. The Long Hair of Death? Nope. Nightmare Castle? Nope.

So, imagine my surprise when quite by accident, I recently rediscovered the movie that had made such a lasting impression. Around Halloween I looked up Christopher Lee on Netflix, thinking I might line up a mini-Chris Lee film festival. Crypt of the Vampire (the alternate American release title) caught my eye, and in reading the description, I wasn't sure if I'd seen it or not-- a good reason right there to order the disc.

A few minutes into it, and I realized this was the film with the dark, haunting images that had stuck with me for so long -- no Barbara Steele, but this was it! And I had completely forgotten Christopher Lee's role. Not surprising, since Lee is particularly wooden in this one, wearing a one-note worried frown through the film's 82 minutes. Lee was making a ton of these things at the time, and I can imagine that he felt stuck in a "if this is Tuesday, it must be Italy and 'La Cripta e l'incubo'" kind of rut.

Lee plays Count Ludwig Karnstein, whose worries stem from an old family curse and recent, inexplicable disappearances and murders in and around the ancestral castle. It seems the Karnsteins have been haunted for years by the legacy of an ancestor, Sera, accused of being witch and murdering young girls. His daughter Laura (Ambesi) has been having vivid nightmares which foretell horrific events in uncanny detail. He fears that Laura may be under the spell of the long-dead malefic ancestor, or even be her reincarnation! In desperation, he hires an antiquarian scholar (Jose Campos) to research Sera, and especially to find out what she looked like. Other members of the household dabble in witchcraft themselves in an attempt to protect their mistress.

Just as Laura thinks she might go mad, a carriage carrying a prosperous mother and daughter breaks down in front of the castle. The mother worries that the daughter, Ljuba (ravishing Ursula Davis) may not be strong enough for additional travel, so Laura invites her to stay at the castle. Laura, right on the verge of falling for the hunky scholar, dumps him for her new, very special friend Ljuba. After a visit from a hunchbacked beggar, flirting by the two young women, more murders, dark occult rituals, tolling church bells, and strange encounters in the family vault, the real evil is revealed.

Crypt is supposed to be based on Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire tale Carmilla, but it's probably more accurate to say it was inspired by Le Fanu. Crypt exploits the Karnstein name and the theme of female evil, but there are no vampires per se in it.  Carmilla and the Karnsteins have popped up in numerous films over the years, some well-known and some not:  Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (1960), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Daughters of Darkness (1971), Twins of Evil (1971), and The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972).

Crypt's strength is its dark, forbidding atmosphere. It starts off in the dead of night, as an ethereal blonde in nightdress flees from a deserted coach, the door of which opens slowly and menacingly. She gasps, then screams, as the shadow of a nameless something envelops her. A moment later, she lies dead, her face frozen in terror.

Lawrence McCallum (Italian Horror Films of the 1960s, McFarland, 1998) describes Crypt as "atmospheric, but otherwise fairly ordinary," and speculates that it "might have been a winner had it been handled by Mario Bava or Antonio Margheriti."  While director Camillo Mastrocinque certainly cannot claim the horror credentials of those gentlemen, in Crypt he has fashioned some truly memorable, chilling sequences that compare favorably with the best of the genre.

On a dark and stormy night, Laura Karnstein (Adriana Ambesi) has another terrifying vision:

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