La maschera del demonio or Revenge of the Vampire if you prefer a more straightforward title is Mario Bava's first foray into the horror genre (although he'd taken the reigns during production of I Vampiri, uncredited) and what a debut it is. It's been given many titles over the years, so to be clear this is the one about vampires and castle crypts, not the Robert Shaw movie with the terrorist needle bomb inside an airship. Though that's pretty good too. Anyway, I digress. Let's get into this super high contrast super stylish take on the classic themes and legends.
The film plays it loose with established ideas about vampire lore and mixes in new elements that are pretty interesting. Staking the heart is replaced with a more wince inducing version which 'releases the soul' of the undead. Vampires still spread by contaminating the living, but it's all rather more ethereal and the biting is off camera. The most interesting part is the element of a witch hunt introduced right away before the credits have even rolled. Merging vampires and witches into one, evil Satan worshipper Katia is tied up to be burned alive, not before being forced to wear the titular mask. It's a real shock opening that was inevitably cut on its initial release outside of Italy, luckily for us either version is available thanks to the likes of Arrow Video.
This mash up of different genre pieces is carefully placed inside the classic vampire story framework, as centuries later two travelling doctors come across the cursed tomb of Katia and her Prince. The coffins are designed so that the eyes of the dead are always able to see out onto a crucifix, preventing their return - another memorable design choice. Of course these bumbling trespassers soon screw up the seal and evil begins to revive. The effects for the vampire resurrection and later de-ageing scenes are really good considering when this was made. Minimal make-up effects and models put together with great lighting and stark black and white photography result in several eye catching sequences. There's a questionable use of the ever present ultra fake bat on strings... but it's done quickly with the narrative in mind so I'll forgive it.
The plot itself is fairly typical as the present day ancestors of the Satanists find themselves under attack from those rising from the grave. The current Princess Asa soon finds out that her heritage is going to be the death of her and young Doctor Gorobec has to figure out what happened to his older colleague and how this all ties in with the sudden death of her father before it's too late. There are lots of great graveyard sets, castle corridors and hidden passages, all shot with the same eye for silhouettes and Gothic locations. One particular walk down a stone hallway lit by a single lantern floating in the dark offers a great sense of atmosphere, something which fills each moment in the story. The romantic associations with those offering immortality are here but never over done, and overall it's a film that contains many standard tropes with a good amount of horror moments that feel fresh and interesting after all this time. Like the best of the bloodsuckers this retains a strong sense of living forever.