Horror Bites - Blood and Steel


This is a story which has 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 airship. Though admittedly that's pretty good too. Anyway, I digress. We can call it La maschera del demonio or Revenge of the Vampire if you prefer a more straightforward description. But whatever the title card says this is Mario Bava's first foray into the horror genre. Although he'd taken the reigns during production of the interesting feature I Vampiri, uncredited, this is the real debut. And what a debut it is.  Let's get into this high contrast super stylish take on the classic themes and legends.

The film plays it fast and loose with the established ideas about vampire lore and mixes in some of its own new elements that are pretty interesting. Some ideas are kept while others have been altered. A stake to 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 any biting is off camera. The most interesting part is the element of a witch hunt introduced before the credits have even rolled. A vampires and a witch has been merged into one evil creature, as Satanist Katia (Barbara Steele) 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 multiple versions are all available thanks to the modern releases. This mixture of ideas about witches and satanic cults is carefully placed inside the classic vampire story framework, as we jump forward in time centuries after the execution. Soon enough two travelling doctors come across the cursed tomb of Katia and things quickly go awry. It's an eerie place where the coffins are designed so that the eyes of the dead are always able to see out, forcing them to look at a crucifix which is said to prevent their revival. It's one of many memorable design choices. Of course these bumbling trespassers soon screw up the seal and evil begins to return.

The effects for the vampire resurrection and later de-ageing scenes are really good considering when this was made. Elsewhere minimal make-up effects and classic models are put together with great lighting and stark black and white photography which results in several eye catching sequences. There's a questionable use of the ever present fake bat on a string... but it's done quickly with the narrative in mind so I'll forgive it. There are also 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 offers a great sense of atmosphere a single lantern floats along in the dark. It's this kind of choice which fills each moment of the story with unease.

The plot itself is fairly typical as the present day ancestors of the Satanists find themselves under attack as their family members being rising from the grave. The current Princess, Asa (also Barbara Steele) soon finds out that her lineage is going to be the death of her. The younger Doctor Gorobec (John Richardson) must race 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. The romantic associations with ancient beings offering immortality are still here but it's never over done, and overall it's a film that contains many standard tropes balanced with a good amount of striking horror moments that still feel fresh and interesting after all this time. Like the best of the bloodsuckers this retains a strong sense of being able to live forever.