A Christopher Lee vampire movie that I hadn’t seen is interesting enough, but this is one I hadn’t even heard of until recently.
Crypt of the Vampire (La cripta e l'incubo) starts as it means to go on, throwing every gothic cliché in the book at us. Mysterious castles, thunderstorms, ancient manuscripts, brooding heroes and glamorous and possibly vampiric women.
This Italian-Spanish co-production is one of the earlier movies to be based on Sheridan le Fanu’s vampire classic Carmilla and to explore the lesbian vampire angle. The first was probably Roger Vadim's excellent 1960 Blood and Roses. There were to be many many more in the 70s. Being a 1964 movie the lesbianism is implied rather than explicit, but you can’t film Carmilla without at least a suggestion of lesbianism.
This movie sticks closely to le Fanu’s story than most. Which means it doesn’t stick very closely to it, but le Fanu’s plot is at least recognisably there.
A brooding nobleman (Christopher Lee) whose name just happens to be Karnstein hires a young scholar to investigate one of his female forebears. He has become obsessed with the idea that his daughter is a reincarnation of this notorious ancestress who had been executed for witchcraft, vampirism and general wickedness. Baron Karnstein hopes the scholar can find a painting or a drawing of this ancestress, to establish whether his daughter really is the same woman come back to life.
While this is going on a noblewoman and her daughter are involved in a minor accident with their coach. The noblewoman suggests that the daughter, who has been upset by the accident, should stay at castle Karnstein for a while to recuperate. The younger son soon becomes very friendly indeed with the daughter of the household.
Of course there are mysterious murders in the neighbouring countryside, with the victims drained of blood, and Baron Karnstein’s suspicions are growing steadily.
While director Camillo Mastrocinque lays on the gothic atmosphere pretty thick, he does it fairly effectively as well. There are some genuinely quite creepy scenes, especially the ones involving a hand of glory with candles affixed to the fingers. There are some almost Rollinesque scenes of the two young women wandering through the castle grounds, some subtle suggestions of surreal or at least dream imagery. There are also suggestions of witchcraft combined with vampirism that were obviously influenced by Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Mastrocinque doesn’t quite have Bava’s visual flair but he certainly gives it his best shot and the results are reasonably impressive.
Christopher Lee is good but he isn’t really the centre of attention. Fortunately Adriana Ambesi and Ursula Davis turn in fine performances as the two young women linked by what might well be all manner of unnatural attractions and obsessions.
If you enjoy the Italian gothic horrors of the 60s, when atmosphere and style were still a lot more important than gore, then there’s much to enjoy in this film. Camillo Mastrocinque went on to helm the excellent 1966 Barbara Steele horror vehicle An Angel for Satan so his gothic credentials are not unimpressive.
Retromedia’s DVD presentation lacks extras but it does boast a decent widescreen transfer. I’d recommend both the movie itself and the DVD release.