I’m not sure how much of my ecstatic reaction to the 1960 Italian horror cheapie The Vampire and the Ballerina had to do with my pitifully low expectations going in, but the film bowled me over. Where I expected lazy, thoughtless schlock, I happened to find something deliriously strange and carefully made. The Vampire and the Ballerina resembles so much cheaply made cult classic trash of its era, from the burlesque horror of Cat Women of the Moon to the vampiric kills & stock footage reliance of Plan 9 from Outer Space to the rubber mask monsters of The Brainiac. And yet, for a film so silly & so rooted in the context of its time, this throwaway horror title paradoxically feels ahead of the crowd in terms of where horror was going to go in the future. Hammer House horror, style over substance giallo, and, especially, over-sexed European vampire films of the 60s & 70s all feel somewhat indebted to the weirdly off-kilter shocks, scares, and titillation lurking in this strange little genre film. This is the exact kind of rare gem I’m looking for when I’m digging through piles of trash cinema and, as usual, I found it in a place I least expected it.
A group of young, attractive, scantily clad dancers are “preparing a ballet” while guests at a wealthy man’s estate near a remote village. There are several mysterious murders coinciding with their stay, explained by local superstitions to be the work of a vampire. The film’s rules adhere to traditional vampire lore: deadly sunlight, stakes through the heart, garlic, crosses, the whole deal. It only adds the caveat of the monsters needing to feed under a full moon to that dynamic, a little flavor borrowed from werewolf pictures. At first, the girls’ wealthy host (who wears capes & seems to know an awful lot about vampire history) or one of their macho beaus seem like prime suspects for these murders, but this film is anything but a murder mystery. As soon as the vampires appear onscreen, posing as gracious hosts of a crypt-like castle, you know for a fact that they’re the perpetrators. Where The Vampire and the Ballerina (a title that really should be pluralized) gets weird is in the strange revelation of how the two vampires’ relationship works. It’s a bizarre glimpse into one of cinema’s most toxic codependent relationships, a weirdly unromantic back & forth that’s far more satisfying than any who’s-the-undead-killer mystery could have possibly been.
The film’s thematic weirdness is only amplified by its strikingly thoughtful (although cheaply produced) cinematography. Images of silhouettes growing on cave walls, passing sky & falling dirt seen from the POV of a freshly bit victim being buried “alive,” and the vampire’s legitimately upsetting rubber mask & plaster visage all combine to make for a much more striking visual experience than you’d typically expect from this kind of work. Where The Vampire and the Ballerina shines best, though, is when it combines this visual thoughtfulness with the tawdry horniness that drives its most base thrills. The movie makes no excuse for oggling at the dancers as they lounge around in flimsy underwear and perform in revealing tights.The shameless butt shots in the dance scenes, which fuse ballet with world music & burlesque, crowd the screen in a leering cacophony of hip shaking, leg flashing filth. This combines in other scenes with the film’s more lyrical ambitions to make for some truly strange, sexually charged imagery: a victim shot from between her killer’s legs (a la Slumber Party Massacre), stock footage trees thrashing in the wind as hypnotized women writhe in sexual frustration, a woman sunbathing on a rock as a background waterfall flows the frame’s attention directly to her crotch. The Vampire and the Ballerina is in every way cheap, artful filth and I’m in awe of how much memorable imagery it was able to generate in spite of being such a slack jawed work of horror-minded eroticism.
I don’t want to make this sound as if it’s some long lost masterpiece that could rival the heights of a Bava or a Corman-Cycle Poe. It’s a deeply silly movie, one that features several nonsensical minutes of women chasing each other through the woods to big band music for reasons I couldn’t explain if I tried. I do, however, believe that The Vampire and the Ballerina has some strong, untapped cult classic potential. Cynically made as a cash grab in the wake of Christopher Lee’s Dracula finding popularity in Italy, this is a deliberately over-sexed work that anyone under the age of 16 was banned from watching at the theater. You can feel those trashy origins in every frame of The Vampire and the Ballerina, but the film still manages to be a surprisingly artful experience for me. Anyone who regularly enjoys a slice of cheap black & white schlock should get a kick out of the film’s creature designs & shameless, theremin-scored burlesque. What’ll really stick with you if you’re on that wavelength, though, is the strange relationship dynamics between its vampiric killers & the artfully odd images the film manages to pull out of a seemingly nonexistent budget. If you watch enough of these kinds of horror titles, they start to blend together and everything begins to feel monotonous; The Vampire and the Ballerina is an exciting reminder that there’s still weirdo outliers out there waiting to be discovered. There’s still gems lurking in cinema’s discarded trash.