Billed as the first post-silent era horror film in Italy, I Vampiri / Devil's Commandment borrows from Dorian Gray and integrates the story of a Duchess, an obsessed narcissist with modern allusions to vampirism, who steals the life-blood from pretty girls to stay young and eventually win the heart of a punk-reporter.
In classic film illogic, the reporter manages to shame the police, horde clues with impunity, join the police in on-site investigations, and remain an unwilling love interest for any woman.
I Vampiri marked the beginning of Bava's move into the director's chair, and alongside Caltiki, Vampiri was the first of Riccardo Freda's efforts to give Bava experience, confidence and clout as a director by apparently 'tricking' him into taking over a production Freda found meh, and beneath him.
In the liner notes to DigitMovies' soundtrack CD, author/Bavaphile Tim Lucas explains that horror films were quite verboten by Mussolini during the dictator's reign, and it's rather startling that the country's premiere sound thriller made it to the screen with such grand style when the budget wasn't as massive as a glossy Hollywood production.
I Vampiri was shot in CinemaScope, and Mario Bava's eye's as cinematographer is extraordinary: while some Hollywood cinematographers struggled to fill the frame with objects and movement, Bava's lens coveys the wide ratio with a confident, pleasing naturalness, and he slowly adds bits of compositional business to gradually build up the film's slide into heavy gothic atmosphere. It all takes place in Paris , but once the Duchess' doctor dies, the film embraces crypts, passages, stone carvings, and splendorous hallways with billowing white sheets in every giant window.
Colour may have enhanced the film's production values, but Bava might not have been able to emphasizes so much shadow-play. A brief scene where the doctor is summoned from an operation is economically filmed outside a frosty office window, through which we see the eerie, diffused shadows of an ominous operation; and the reporter's flight down a castle staircase goes expressionist when the shadows of his pursuers dance across the wall, and extend over his head like mutant hands. Even the predictable searches through the tunnels and grimy passages of the castle are triumphs in set design, and Bava's camera trickery effectively follows the Duchess' sudden aging in single takes, with minimal makeup.
Ignoring the truncated and recut English dub version, Image's source is a near-pristine 'scope print, and the PAL to NTSC conversion is fairly smooth, with minor speed variations among the actors' movements. The original mono Italian dub track comes with optional English subtitles, and Roman Vlad's overbearing score relaxes during the film's middle, before he re-applies the film's unsubtle main theme of TERROR! SHOCK! and FEAR! (or somethin like that).
This title is part of a Mario Bava wave from Image that includes I Vampiri, Black Sunday, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Black Sabbath, Five Dolls for an August Moon, Twitch of the Death Nerve (Bay of Blood), Baron Blood, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Lisa and the Devil, and House of Exorcism.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan