Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Atom Age Vampire (Leone Film, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First on last night’s movie menu was Atom Age Vampire, a 1960 horror/sci-fi thriller which turned out to be surprisingly good despite some problems with the overall cheapness of the production and the relative familiarity (to put it politely) of the plot. The print we were watching was a U.S. edition with English dubbing, and when Charles saw the separate credits for the American version — the original director was Anton Giulio Majano but Richard McNamara got credit for directing the English-language version — he groaned, thinking that McNamara had shot additional footage the way Terry Morse did to turn the 1954 Japanese masterpiece Gojira into the piece-of-schlock Godzilla we got two years later — but in this case all McNamara seems to have done was supervise the dubbing. The running time of this film roams all over the map — imdb.com lists the original as 107 minutes, with a 72-minute VHS version and DVD’s at 69 and 96 minutes, while the version we watched, from an archive.org download, timed out at 84 minutes — but the story seemed coherent enough and without any obvious lacunae.

The plot centers around beautiful blonde bimbo Jeanette Moreneau (Susanne Loret), who hangs around at a local bar and whose boyfriend is sailor Pierre Mornet (Sergio Fantoni). The imdb.com synopsis says she’s a stripper but that’s nowhere apparent in the film itself — at least in the cut we saw — though later on at the bar there’s a hot dance by a scantily clad woman, and when Jeanette disappears Pierre at least transitorily transfers his affections to two of the other girls who work there on the love-the-one-you’re-with principle. Anyway, Jeanette’s life unravels when she’s in a terrible car accident; she survives with no internal injuries but one of her cheeks ends up looking like someone pressed a waffle iron against it. She’s taken to a regular clinic but the doctors there say there’s nothing they can do for her; the scars are too deep for normal plastic surgery and she’s going to look like that for the rest of her life. (There are some problems with the continuity here — no continuity person is credited and maybe director Majano was on his own in that department — Jeanette’s horrible disfigurement looks different between takes and sometimes it’s on her left cheek, sometimes on her right.) Then she gets a visit from a rather chilly woman named Monique Riviere (Franca Parisi), who tells Jeanette that her boss, Professor Alberto Levin (Alberto Lupo), has a remarkable new treatment that will heal her scars completely. So Monique takes her to Professor Levin’s house, where he’s got a lab set up in his basement where he gives her a treatment called “Derma-28” that he based on atomic energy, using discoveries he made when he was working for the Japanese government as a consultant on the injuries to the original atomic-bomb victims at Hiroshima. Alas, a previous version of this serum, “Derma-25,” had the unfortunate side effect of turning people into monsters. (One can readily imagine the direct-to-consumer TV ad for that drug!)

Levin keeps injecting Jeanette with Derma-28 and he manages to get the scars on her face to disappear — but only temporarily — and he soon runs out of supplies of his serum. What to do? A hardened horror-film watcher might assume that at this point he would use Derma-25 and turn Jeanette into a monster, but no-o-o-o-o, instead of that old cliché writers Piero Monviso, Giulio De Santis, Alberto Bevilacqua and Anton Giulio Mojano decide to use the old cliché that the doctor injects himself with Derma-25 and becomes a Mr. Hyde-style creature, using his monstrous super-power to kill “ladies of the night” and extract their glands or something to transplant into Jeanette so he can make her cure permanent. His first victim is Monique, who was in love with Levin and was getting jealous of his growing attachment to, or at least lust for, Jeanette, so she made the mistake of complaining to Levin about this — and instead of winning him back, she got herself killed by him. While all this is going on — and while Jeanette finds her attempts to escape from the doctor’s home and get word to Pierre systematically frustrated by Pierre’s mute assistant, Sacha (Roberto Bertea) — I guess it was obligatory in the horror-film contracts of the time that a mad scientist had to have a mute assistant — Pierre is working with the local police (considerably more competent than they usually are in films of this genre) to find Jeanette and learn what has happened to her. Ultimately they figure it out and there’s a climactic scene in which Pierre rescues Jeanette — whose treatments have finally taken and restored her face to its natural beauty — while Sacha has a hissy-fit and ultimately strangles Levin in the professor’s greenhouse.

The most interesting credit on Atom Age Vampire is that of the producer, “Mario Fava,” which the people who uploaded this film to archive.org concluded was a misprint for Mario Bava, master Italian horror director whose 1959 film Black Sunday, starring Barbara Steele as a reincarnated witch, was one of the most successful films in Universal’s old Gothic horror style since Universal itself stopped making them in the early 1950’s. Though Bava/“Fava” is credited only as producer, not director, there are certainly quite a few scenes, especially the ones taking place outdoors at night, that show his visual flair and make it believable he was connected with this film. Atom Age Vampire — the title is a bit of a misnomer since Levin’s procedures don’t involve actually consuming blood — is a quite good movie within the limits of the genre and the era; it’s hardly a deathless classic but it avoids most of the unwittingly risible elements of most horror (or would-be horror) films of the time. It’s not clear what country produced this film originally; the English version contains a fragment of the original soundtrack — a street singer briefly singing in French — though imdb.com identifies the original language as Italian and the credits are a mash-up of Italian-, Spanish- and French-sounding names, suggesting it was filmed at a studio on the Riviera (maybe Rex Ingram’s old digs at Vittorine in Nice?) near where southern France, Spain and northern Italy meet up on the map.