Directed by Camillo Mastrocinque
Christopher Lee, Adriana Ambesi, Ursula Davis, José Campos, Vera Valmont, Nela Conjiu, Carla Calò, John Karlsen
J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla has inspired a slew of enjoyable vampire flicks, from Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960) to the Hammer favorite The Vampire Lovers (1970). Camillo Mastrocinque’s Crypt of the Vampire is hardly one of the more famous adaptations of Le Fanu’s novel and probably not the best one either but it’s nevertheless an enjoyable little gothic chiller that benefits greatly from the casting of horror legend Christopher Lee in the leading role.
In a slightly surprisingly twist, Lee does not play the vampire this time around. Instead he is Ludwig Karnstein, a widowed count who is growingly concerned for the well-being of his beautiful daughter Laura (Adriana Ambesi). Lately, several female members of the Karnstein family have been discovered dead – with bite marks on their necks – and Laura has witnessed each of these murders in her nightmares. The question is whether or not Laura has the gift of "second sight" or if she’s actually the one responsible for the deaths.
An unlucky victim...
...seen in an unsettling dream
Count Karnstein is further worried by the fact that a curse was placed on the family 200 years ago - by their ancestor Sira Karnstein, who was executed for witchcraft. Due to Laura’s increasingly unstable behavior, the count fears she might be a reincarnation of Sira, and these suspicions are urged on by his icy mistress, Annette (Vera Valmont), who has a great dislike for Laura. The problem is just that nobody actually knows what Sira looked like as her portrait has long been removed from the castle walls. In an attempt to rid his family of the curse, Count Karnstein summons a scholar named Friedrich Klauss (José Campos) and assigns him with going through the family records to try and find Sira’s portrait and where her tomb might be located.
But in the meantime, Laura makes her own bid to learn why she is witnessing the deaths of her relatives in her dreams, so she gets the faithful but Satan-worshipping housekeeper, Rowena (Nela Conjiu), to perform a black magic ritual. Unfortunately, this well-meaning attempt to help Laura instead ends up evoking the spirit of Sira Karnstein, who speaks through Laura - promising revenge for her death.
The housekeeper performs a black magic ritual
The execution of Sira Karnstein
Before long, Laura and Friedrich witness a passing horse carriage being accidentally knocked over. Rushing to the scene to help, they find that inside the carriage are a noblewoman (Carla Calò) and her beautiful daughter Ljuba (Ursula Davis), who has been mildly injured in the incident. The mother insists that Ljuba is in no condition to continue the trip and asks if it would be alright for her daughter to stay at the Karnstein estate until she returns. Laura immediately agrees and quickly forms a strong friendship with Ljuba that seems to lifts her spirits. But the happiness is short-lived as it doesn’t take long before Laura experiences more nightmares…
This Italian/Spanish co-production was released theatrically in the UK as Crypt of Horror, whereas in the US it went straight to television under the title Terror in the Crypt and over the years this TV print has been the most commonly seen version of the film among Euro-horror collectors. Luckily, I was able to catch the full European version courtesy of Retromedia’s DVD release, which is thankfully one of their better-looking releases.
For those already familiar with the more well-known film adaptations of Le Fanu’s novel, the plot here will offer few surprises but even if you’re not familiar with the story, it doesn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out who Sira’s reincarnate really is. One of the more surprising aspects to this vampire film is actually the fact that it hardly contains any vampire action at all. There are no fangs on display – only bite marks seen on the victims when they are discovered. In short, there’s not a whole lot of violence here at all. Likewise, the lesbian relationship between Laura and Ljuba is only strongly implied – it is never explicitly shown on screen, but that’s only to expected considering when the film was made.
But Crypt of the Vampire is nevertheless a pretty enjoyable chiller. What it may lack in terms blood and vampire action, it more than makes up for in visual style. It’s rich on gothic atmosphere and contains the requisite thunder and lightning, skeletons, secret passageways and cobwebbed crypts, as well as several scenes of bosomy, nightgown-clad beauties roaming the dark hallways with candelabras. The film also earns plus points for some of its more unusual touches, such as the discovery of a hunchbacked peddler dangling from a noose tied to a bell, and the severed hand used as a candelabra by the housekeeper in one of her occult rituals.
Severed hand candelabra!
A bit of classic gothic imagery
The exquisite black and white cinematography by Giuseppe Aquari and Julio Ortas captures the dark crypts and shadowy hallways perfectly and really enhances the gothic mood. Another factor that contributes greatly to the film’s atmosphere is the decision to use genuine locations instead of studio sets. Authentic, creepy ruins are employed to eerie effect, and the impressive castle used for Karnstein estate is the famous Balsorano castle, which has figured in a large number of Italian horror films.
The wonderful Balsorano castle
The film’s only really notable flaw is that it’s too slowly paced and contains a couple of long stretches where there is too little going on. It does, however, perk up considerably during the last half hour and the director, Camillo Mastrocinque, does show a lot of promise here with his first horror film. He would later return to gothic territory with the superior An Angel for Satan (1966), starring Barbara Steele.
Acting-wise, Christopher Lee does a good job of heading the cast and even though he isn’t the villain this time, he is still a great presence and brings an admirable sense of authority to the role.
Chris Lee never disappoints
The female cast isn’t given quite enough material to work with but they all look gorgeous – particularly the sultry Ursula Davis as Ljuba. Davis later performed for Mastrocinque again in An Angel for Satan, and popped up in Roberto Mauri’s irresistible Euro-turkey Kong Island (1968). Adriana Ambesi had previously appeared alongside Christopher Lee in another gothic horror film – the ultra-obscure Katarsis (1963) – and was later in Amando De Ossorio’s Malenka the Vampire (1969). She is pretty good here as the tormented Laura, even though her frightened/hysterical routine is repeated a few times too many. The supporting cast includes a memorable performance by Nela Conjiu, who steals all the scenes she appears in as the morbid housekeeper, as well as a small turn by loveable British character actor John Karlsen, who makes a welcome appearance near the end of the film as a ghoulish-looking Karnstein relative.
In short, Crypt of the Vampire is an enjoyable vampire flick with plenty of delightful gothic atmosphere. Easily recommended for fans of Christopher Lee and gothic Italian horror.
© 2009 Johan Melle
Christopher Lee as Count Ludwig Karnstein
Adriana Ambesi as Laura Karnstein
Ursula Davis as Ljuba
José Campos as Friedrich Klauss
Vera Valmont as Annette
Nela Conjiu as Rowena
Carla Calò as Ljuba's mother
John Karlsen as Franz Karnstein