The Gothic bet: Riccardo Freda’s I vampiri (1957) and the birth of Italian horror cinema from an industrial perspective

Michael Guarneri

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Abstract

Scholars tend to agree on Riccardo Freda’s I vampiri (1957) being the first Italian horror film. Indeed, prior to Freda’s Paris-set Gothic potboiler, which mixes the Erzsébet Báthory legend with the Frankenstein myth, no horror movie proper seems to have been made in Italy. Drawing from a series of interviews given by the director over the years, the existing literature about Italian horror cinema conceives of I vampiri as a film appearing out of the blue, born on the fly because of an alleged bet and shot at breakneck speed in a couple of weeks. Freda’s use of the word “bet” in these interviews, and the film’s meagre returns at the domestic box-office, have led academics to see I vampiri as an epically brave, if commercially unsuccessful, challenge to the dominant taste—an experiment carried out by inventive yet unlucky pioneers, skilled artisans too ahead of their time. Resultantly, a great deal has been written about “the supposedly non-industrial quality” of Italian horror movies, “which apparently relied only on the craftsmanship of talented directors” (Di Chiara, 2016, p 30), such as Freda, Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti. By revisiting Freda’s often-quoted anecdotes about the extemporaneous genesis of I vampiri in the light of the film’s production and distribution data preserved at the Archivio Centrale dello Stato in Rome, the present article seeks to shift the focus of discussion from the ‘Great Men’ to the broader economic, political and cultural context in which I vampiri was manufactured. The article reveals that it was the very nature of the post-war Italian film industry as regulated by the Christian-Democrat laws of 1949 that allowed Freda and his producers Ermanno Donati, Luigi Carpentieri and Goffredo Lombardo to place their bet on an unprecedented ‘Gothic made in Italy’. By adopting this materialistic approach, Freda’s experiment in terror ultimately emerges as a minor, low-risk speculation, and a market test confirming a long-standing Italian bias against home-grown horror narratives, to the point that it is more appropriate to consider Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958) as the ‘originary film’ of Italian horror cinema.
Original languageEnglish
Article number29
JournalPalgrave Communications
Volume3
Issue number1
Early online date14 Nov 2017
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 14 Nov 2017

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