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‘I Vampiri’ and the Birth of Italian Gothic Horror Cinema

‘I Vampiri’ and the Birth of Italian Gothic Horror Cinema
© Photograph by Sven Wagenfeld

With regard to the extemporaneous genesis of ‘I Vampiri’ (‘The Vampires’), in 1971 Riccardo Freda stated that he started making horror movies because of a bet. “I was talking with two producers one day, Donati and Carpentieri. I said that a film could be made in two weeks, and they replied that it was impossible. I insisted, so they phoned Lombardo, : they explained to Lombardo my proposal and asked if he wanted to distribute the film once it was finished. He accepted without much enthusiasm and I very quickly wrote a screenplay for ‘I Vampiri’, which was shot in twelve days. Then I quit the job because I had an argument with the producers, and they completed the rest of the picture in two days. The movie was set in Paris but, thanks to the miniatures and tricks I created with cinematographer Mario Bava, we shot it in the courtyard of Titanus studio, in Rome” (quoted in Cozzi, 1971, p 27–28).

In the early 1990s, Riccardo Freda repeated the anecdote almost word by word, insisting on the low-budget nature of the project: “I have always liked to be the first in filmmaking. ‘I Vampiri’ was born in quite curious away. I was in Donati and Carpentieri’s office, we were thinking about some stories to bring to the screen, and I somewhat casually proposed to make a horror film. They asked me if I had some ideas ready to pitch. I did not, but I told them that I could come up with something in twenty-four hours. So I brought them a story on the next day. I did not write anything, I just recorded my voice on tape. I also made all the sound effects myself, the creaking doors and so on. It was very funny. Donati and Carpentieri phoned Lombardo, who accepted my pitch right away. I guess it was one of Lombardo’s ‘good days’, and the fact that I did not ask much for my film helped: I agreed to shoot the movie in about ten days, demanding only Gianna Maria Canale as lead actress, Mario Bava as cinematographer and Beni Montresor as production designer” (quoted in Della Casa, 1993, p 60).

What Riccardo Freda perfected through countless interviews between the early 1960s and the late 1990s is the typical retrospective tale about post-war Italian genre cinema, in which skilled artisans do battle with the lack of money and time to break new ground for the generations of filmmakers to come (Faldini and Fofi, 1979; Faldini and Fofi, 1981). And of course, as in the American Western epics Riccardo Freda had loved ever since his childhood (Freda et al., 1981), there is no happy ending to reward the heroic pioneers: “There was no audience for horror films at that time in Italy. We hired a couple of ladies to scream their lungs out during a premiere screening of ‘I Vampiri’, but it was a half-fiasco and we laughed about it a lot ” (Freda, quoted in Pisoni and Ferrarese, 2007, p 43).

Official figures confirm Riccardo Freda’s version. According to the documents submitted by Ermanno Donati and Luigi Carpentieri to the government-run Italian State Cinema Bureau, the production of ‘I Vampiri’ started in November 1956 with a twenty-day shooting schedule. The final budget was 142 million lira — 120 million for the shooting and 22 million for post-production and publicity. Ermanno Donati and Luigi Carpentieri’s company Athena Cinematografica and Goffredo Lombardo’s Titanus invested a mere 16 million each. Additional money came from a 50-million state loan, on which the producers asked an extra 25. During its 1957–1964 exhibition tour around Italy — the second biggest market in the world for number of tickets sold and active movie theatres throughout most of the 1950s and 1960s (Quaglietti, 1980) — ‘I Vampiri’ collected only 125,261,726 lira (Rondolino and Levi, 1967, p 128), while the top-grossing Italian movies first released in 1957 were totalling between 700 and 800 million over the same period. As for foreign distribution, between 1957 and the mid-1960s, ‘I Vampiri’ circulated under various titles and in different cuts in France, West Germany and the United States of America, but neither foreign box-office receipts nor documents relating to international distribution deals are currently in the public domain. Thus, as it can be inferred from the “extemporaneous bet” anecdote, Riccardo Freda basically involved Ermanno Donati, Luigi Carpentieri and Goffredo Lombardo in a market test: they gambled on something new — an Italian film di orrore — and, as far as we know, the experiment did not turn out a smash-hit anywhere.

Quite ironically, much more successful in Italy was the Italian edition of Richard Burton Matheson’s 1954 sci-fi novel ‘I Am Legend’, first published under the Fredian title ‘I Vampiri’ in October 1957 by prestigious Milanese publishing house, Casa Editrice Longanesi. If the first “horror made in Italy” was a lost bet, though, Athena Cinematografica and Titanus were not gambling big money, as ‘I Vampiri’ had all the key-characteristics of a low-budget project: a tight shooting schedule (dramatically sped up by the Italian common practice of post-shoot dubbing), a crew of technicians expert at cutting costs, no expensive actors (top-billing Gianna Maria Canale, a fairly-popular sex symbol of Italian adventure cinema since 1948, was paid less than 8 million lira, more or less the same salary as the director). But in order to understand why Ermanno Donati, Luigi Carpentieri and Goffredo Lombardo poured 32 million cash into a Gothic potboiler whose only box-office appeal was the presence of Gianna Maria Canale, and why they ended up laughing about its mediocre revenues, it is necessary to describe the birth of the post-war Italian film industry as a state-subsidised, distribution-driven, rampantly speculative business.

Preoccupied with declining audience figures in the United States of America film market, since the end of World War Two, Hollywood studios had started dumping hundreds of films from their 1937–1945 backlist catalogues on the newly-deregulated Italian market, with the effect of precluding Italian films from any chance of wide domestic release. The chain-reaction on almost all sectors of the Italian film industry was dramatic: very few screenings of Italian films, meagre box-office receipts and no profit-making for Italian producers, no capital to invest in filmmaking, a resultant crisis and vast unemployment in one of Italy’s most lucrative economic activities (Wagstaff, 1998). The very same thing was happening in post-war France, to the point that in 1946 Italy and France started signing a series of bilateral agreements aiming to “oppose American prevarication” (Freda, quoted in AAVV, 1995, p 98) by pooling the two countries’ technical/artistic/financial resources and creating a single transnational film-market out of two separate national ones (Burucoa, 1995). Hollywood studios were not impressed by Italo-French co-production agreements, or by similar business partnerships subsequently signed between Italy and West Germany, Austria and Spain: North American companies simply kept flooding the European market with their movies, effectively maintaining a hegemonic position. This situation was harshly denounced in a 1948 manifesto written by Italian film workers and critics. Besides accusing the Italian government of turning a blind eye to Hollywood’s aggressive dumping policies and massive export of lira to the United States of America, film workers blamed the crisis on the inexistent bank credit for Italian film production (Quaglietti, 1980). In 1949, after the unrest of the various components of the Italian film industry had reached a boiling point, Christian Democrat Under Secretary to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers Giulio Andreotti was able to pass two laws aiming at breaking the Hollywood monopoly and boosting Italian film production while “acquiring the maximum consensus among conflicting categories (exhibitors, distributors, producers, facility workers) in order to gain political control over Italian film production” (Baschiera and Di Chiara, 2010, p 31): law 448 of July 26th 1949, also known as “leggina”, and law 958 of December 29th 1949, also known as “legge Andreotti”.

Relying heavily on Fascist-era legislation (Corsi, 2001), the system put in place in 1949 by Giulio Andreotti made “the Italian State the biggest cinematograph in Italy” (Andreotti’s 1950 public speech, quoted in Quaglietti, 1980, p 78). Firstly, the two laws created a state-managed “special fund for cinematography”, fed by a ten-year-fixed 2.5-million-lira “deposit” to be paid on each foreign film over 1000 metres that distribution companies wished to import and dub into Italian. Catching two birds with one stone, Giulio Andreotti managed to impose a restriction on Hollywood monopoly and find the resources to provide the bank credit that Italian film workers were asking for. Secondly, a special state commission was created in order to ascertain the nationality of the films shot on Italian territory. If a given film, in spite of foreign investments and the presence of foreign actors and technicians, was certified to be “of Italian nationality”, it could obtain two benefits: 1) the “mandatory scheduling”, as part of a “national quota” mechanism according to which Italian films had to be screened in Italian theatres for at least 80 days per year; 2) state incentives to production under the form of tax refunds (10% of the Italian box-office gross, plus an extra 8% for films that the state commission deemed artistically valid) (Di Chiara, 2009, p 23).

This system “remained virtually unmodified until 1965” (Baschiera and Di Chiara, 2010, p 31): law 897 of July 31st 1956 simply unified the 1949 laws into a single text, substituting the guaranteed-10%-plus-eventual-8% tax refund with an automatic 16% tax refund, and increasing both the “dubbing deposit” (from 2.5 to 5.5 million) and the “national quota” (from 80 to 100 days).

We can now begin to understand why Ermanno Donati and Luigi Carpentieri, the owners of a tiny production company, were so easily convinced by Riccardo Freda to back up an unprecedented experiment in terror such as ‘I Vampiri’. Not only the film was a low-budget effort but, according to the law, up to 60% of its budget could be covered by the State with money from the “dubbing deposit” of the over 200 foreign films imported every year in Italy from January 1st, 1950 onwards. For the loan to be granted, however, the State required a “garanzia” (an assurance to recoup at least part of the investment), and it is here that the role of Titanus becomes important.

As stressed by Riccardo Freda (quoted in Cozzi, 1971, p 27), Athena Cinematografica did not contact Titanus’ head as a producer: “ phoned Lombardo and asked if he wanted to distribute the film once it was finished”. In other words, Ermanno Donati and Luigi Carpentieri wanted first and foremost to secure their upcoming film a place on the domestic market via Titanus, one of Italy’s oldest and most prestigious distribution companies.

The equation is simple: striking a distribution deal before production even starts means having a fair chance to recoup the production costs via box-office gross and pay back the state loan necessary to make the movie. What Athena Cinematografica was looking for, though, was not an affidavit. More concretely, Ermanno Donati and Luigi Carpentieri wanted an advanced payment from the future distributor of their film, under the form of minimo garantito, i.e., a certain sum based on a rough, “minimum estimate” of the net box-office receipts the movie would collect over the course of its two-or-three-year tour around Italy’s theatres. And they got it, as testified by the expression “Titanus, minimo garantito” appearing in a financial plan submitted by Athena Cinematografica to the Italian State Cinema Bureau: since Titanus was active in both production and distribution, Goffredo Lombardo almost certainly reckoned that financing a “certified-Italian” feature would give him the possibility to avoid paying the “dubbing deposit” on a foreign film he wished to import in the future, as the “leggina” allowed for this dispensation and even legalised the “dubbing fee-waiver” trade among film companies (Quaglietti, 1980; Corsi, 2001).

Official documents report a 16-million cash investment by Goffredo Lombardo followed by the concession of a 50-million state loan, which confirms what scholars have so far written about Italian genre cinema as a distribution driven business in which “producers could obtain money in advance from distributors in exchange for domestic or foreign distribution rights; using these distribution rights as garanzia, producers could easily gain access to state credit” (Di Chiara, 2009, p 25).

Finding a distributor willing to grant the minimo garantito and thereby asking for a state loan was only half of the producers’ job. The other half consisted in demonstrating to the state commission created by the “legge Andreotti” that the film was “of Italian nationality”, to obtain the “mandatory scheduling” and “tax refunds” benefits. The procedure to get an “Italian nationality” certificate was more or less the same as the one to ask for a state loan. To access state credit, Ermanno Donati and Luigi Carpentieri had already submitted to the Italian State Cinema Bureau the following, mandatory documents: the screenplay of ‘I Vampiri’ (in order for government officials to enact censura preventiva, a “preventive censorship” discouraging the making of movies that may clash against Christian Democrats’ ideology); the estimated budget; financial plans to cover said budget; the shooting schedule; a complete list of cast and crew with personal data and contracts thereof (a certain number of Italian workers had to be employed for the film to qualify as Italian); contracts for the rental of Italian film studios, dubbing facilities and film labs (a minimum number of days was required); contracts relating to possible foreign coproductions and domestic/international distribution agreements. After the film was greenlit (read: financed by the State), shot, edited, dubbed and had obtained from the government-run Italian Censorship Office the permission to be publicly screened (“visto di censura”), the final step for Ermanno Donati and Luigi Carpentieri to take was merely bureaucratic, namely submitting to the Italian State Cinema Bureau the cost statement for ‘I Vampiri’, the “visto di censura” and proof of first public screening in Italy via the designed distributor.

So upon ‘I Vampiri’s premiere on April 5th, 1957 (Anonymous, 1957a), Athena Cinematografica obtained the “nationality certificate” for the first Italian horror movie, and accessed the “mandatory scheduling” and “16% tax rebates” benefits. This is not surprising. Aiming at making the various categories of the industry prosper only at the condition of focusing on light escapism and avoiding explicit sexual content and political issues that would have hurt the Catholic principles and centre-right agenda of the ruling party, the highly-centralised “Andreotti system”, with its multiple layers of censorship, targeted supposedly “politically reactionary” works by alleged “Communist Sympathizers” such as Pietro Germi and Vittorio De Sica (Argentieri, 1974; Quaglietti, 1980; Barattoni, 2013), while leaving genre cinema of all kinds a relative freedom, especially when movies were set in remote historical epochs and/or in foreign countries. Consequently, although much ridiculed at the censura preventiva stage for its adoption of the tritest clichés from “certain crude, unrefined nineteenth-century British and French popular literature”, ‘I Vampiri’s screenplay was approved by state officials and the finished film was passed uncut by the Italian Censorship Office as VM16 (forbidden to people under the age of 16), thus confirming that, after 1949, “for an adventurous though inexperienced producer it became very easy to make movies , also because Italian cinema could count on many well-trained professionals skilled at containing costs. Once a picture had been sold in advance to a distributor, it was relatively easy for its producer to access the governmental loan fund. Then, as a rule, the producer actually made the movie using about half of the original estimated budget, keeping the rest as his wages; the distributor was left to face the uncertainties of the market” (Baschiera and Di Chiara, 2010, p 31).

In view of this state-patronised “anti-risk cushion” and the producers’ tendency to “generate profits not by investing money, but by subtracting it from the film’s budget” (Bizzarri, 1957, p 1380), Riccardo Freda’s “bet” anecdote and its “we all laughed so hard about it” coda can finally be put into the right perspective and ‘I Vampiri’ defined as a minor, low-risk speculation rather than an epically brave, if unsuccessful, challenge to dominant taste launched by a “wild bunch” of pioneers.

In Italy both small producers like Athena Cinematografica and big companies like Titanus would be encouraged to invest in film production for purely financial reasons, as “tax refunds on box-office receipts always assure a minimum margin of profit, even if the film barely manages to cover its production expenses” (Corsi, 2001, p 53).

Indeed, an issue of cultural magazine Il Ponte contemporary to the Italian premiere of Riccardo Freda’s film featured a polemic essay titled ‘Cinema senza industria’ (‘Cinema without an industry’), heavily criticising the 1949 laws for handing Italian film production over to companies owning nothing but their names, speculators who make films without risking anything from their own pockets.


Also published on Medium.




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