Terror in the Crypt

In the book Spaghetti Nightmares, Mario (Nightmare Castle) Caiano described director Camillo Mastrocinque as one of the "pillars of Italian cinema in the fifties". However, this reputation was mostly built on comedies like TotÚ in Hell. Mastrocinque only made two horror films before his death in 1969; the second of these, An Angel for Satan, is better known, since it stars Barbara Steele in yet another ghostly dual role. An Angel for Satan has its share of admirers in the English-speaking horror community, even though it's only been available in an undubbed Italian print. Mastrocinque's first attempt at an Italian gothic was 1963's La cripta e l'incubo,also known as Terror in the Crypt and Crypt of Horror. This movie has been treated less kindly by genre fans, in spite of its availability in English.

To be honest, the film does manage to take about an hour's worth of material and stretch it out to a slightly uncomfortable eighty-some minutes. Barbara Steele is nowhere to be found, but the movie does feature Christopher Lee in a rare, relatively-straight role (and, unlike many of his more famous Hammer Dracula outings, he actually has some dialogue). Lee plays Count Ludwig Karnstein, a nineteenth century nobleman who fears his daughter Laura may be the reincarnation of an executed witch. The presence of the name "Karnstein" probably gives you a good idea where the movie is headed, just as the absence of Barbara Steele isn't enough to make us forget how much this movie owes to Steele's other movies.

Laura has been having nightmares about the deaths of her distant relatives. She sees them being menaced by a black shape, almost as though she were there at the scene; much to the distress of Laura, her father and her slightly sinister duenna, Laura's dreams always turn out to be accurate. The anxious Count calls on a scholar named Friederich Klaus to help him find out more about his notorious ancestor, Sira von Karnstein. After the witch's death (not by burning, interestingly enough, but by crucifixion), all records of the woman's existence and all images of her were apparently destroyed, so that she would be forgotten and thus would be unable to return into the world. But the Count believes that some record of her appearance must be left in the Karnstein castle library. If he could see the witch's face, he reasons, he would know whether his daughter was her reincarnation or not.

Laura has her own fears, and turns to her maid for help. The old woman, like many peasant characters in the old folk tales, seems to have no trouble turning to the Devil for help when God seems otherwise occupied. She takes Laura down into the Karnstein family crypt, where an enormous pentagram has been revealed on the floor. The plan seems a little dodgy: Laura is to strip down and lie on the floor, while the old woman summons the spirit of the executed Sira Karnstein for a chat. However dangerous the plan may be, it certainly makes for compelling exploitation cinema: as the seminude girl writhes on the floor in the candlelight, we're treated to a flashback showing the trial and execution of the witch. Partly because Sira is tied face-down to the cross, and partly because my DVD print has been cropped to full-screen from an original 1.96:1 aspect ratio, we don't get to see Sira's face... in fact, the cropping makes it look like it's Sira's pantied butt that's crying out for revenge. Laura wakes up from her evident possession, and is far from reassured when the old woman tells her it was only for a little while...

In the meantime, Friederich gets to work restoring manuscripts, but almost immediately finds himself distracted by the lovely Laura. Now, since Laura is the pale and frightened girl in distress, and Friederich is the obligatory handsome-but-dull male lead, you'd figure the two were headed for the typical unconvincing horror movie love-match. That's obviously what Friederich was assuming, too — but just as he's making his first clumsy move, something happens: the movie remembers it's supposed to be an adaptation of Carmilla.

Just at the moment that Friederich is leaning forward, his lips in a foolish pucker, a passing carriage has an accident in the road right in front of them. A young girl inside is injured. Friederich and Laura go to help, and the injured girl's mother informs them she is much too weak to travel any further. Do they, perhaps, know somewhere nearby where the poor girl can recover in peace? Laura immediately offers the use of Castle Karnstein. Friederich watches, looking puzzled, as the mother drives off in the miraculously-repaired carriage. Behind him, Laura and the strange girl — her name is Lyuba — are gazing into each other's eyes. The intensity that was completely lacking in the contacts between Friederich and Laura is abundantly evident between the two girls. This is something that poor Friederich notes slowly and with great discomfort over the next several scenes.

The lesbian subtext of the relationship between the two girls is handled with a great deal of subtlety and understatement. This Italian film's approach is much more mature than Hammer's infamous Carmilla-inspired trilogy from the seventies... which is hardly surprising, consdering the film was made almost a decade before Hammer Films hit puberty and discovered boobies. Still, it's clear that the lonely Laura has found in Lyuba everything Friederich thought he could provide, and a good deal more.

Of course, the movie knows that many of the people in the audience will be familiar with LeFanu's original story; to its credit, it manages to convey the spirit of the relationship between the two girls in very much the way we read it in the original story. It also manages to recreate several of the most familiar passages of the story with reasonable accuracy, while expanding the general outlines of the story to fit the expectations of the Italian horror audiences of the time. But even more to the movie's credit, even though it knows we know what's really going on, even though there's really little doubt who the reincarnated witch-vampire really is, we're still given lots of evidence that Laura may be the monster after all. In fact, the Count's housekeeper (with whom he's sleeping) also falls under suspicion. We may even entertain momentary doubts that the movie is really going to follow the original story after all.

Even if our doubts are only momentary — even if we're sure Laura's troubles are hallucinations inflicted on her by the vampire, both to weaken her and to cast more suspicion on her — "entertain" is the right word for them: it's during her visions, possessions and dream sequences that the movie really starts to come alive. In one dream sequence, Laura finds her bed surrounded by the ghosts of her recently-dead relatives. Each of them is carrying a large glass chalice, filled with their blood: they urge her to drink the blood and slake her dreadful thirst. Then the ghosts fade, and Laura sees Lyuba sitting in the shadows. The relieved Laura goes to her friend, kneels and kisses her hand... but when she looks up...!

Toward the climax of the film, Lyuba takes Laura out, in the middle of the night, to investigate the mysterious tolling of a bell in the deserted village of Karnstein. Lyuba has convinced Laura that the explanation is probably innocuous, and thatonce she sees what it is she'll no longer be afraid. But then, they find out why the bell is tolling, and it's ghastly — an image, in fact, that is still a litle disturbing even now, over forty years later.

This turn of events leads to a whole series of horrible supernatural occurances. Unfortunately, instead of buiding to a tremendous climax, the movie gets sidetracked just as it's getting its second wind; the energy it's built up dissipates quickly. The very end, though it's reasonably faithful to the conclusion of the LeFanu story, is not a terribly convincing grand finale, especially considering the buildup we've been given.

For all its problems, Terror in the Crypt is still a good solid example of the Italian gothic horror film. Mastrocinque, old pro that he was by 1963, demonstrates a keen eye for light and shadow. The movie may lack the stylistic confidence of a Black Sunday or a Nightmare Castle, but it's still a fun movie with a few genuinely thrilling surprises in it. Some will find the pace too slow, and for once I might be tempted to agree with them... the story seems stretched a little thin in spots, and the awful translation doesn't help. Others will be bothered by the movie's constant attempts to insist that Laura is the real monster, since we know the obvious solution is never true in movies like these... while I, on the other hand, think the supernatural digressions are perfectly explainable and are, in fact, the high point of the movie. Still others will be upset at the apparent waste of Christopher Lee in a role that gives him few opportunities to shine. There is one clever moment, when Mastrocinque cuts from a lengthy close-up of Lee to the blank stone face of the angel statue over Laura's bed; but otherwise Lee is mostly here for marquee value. All these criticisms are valid, but I think the film has more than enough strengths to redeem itself. It's far from the disaster many reviewers have claimed it is.

One other note: I'm not sure who provided the Anglicized names for the end credits of the American International TV version — whether it was the Italian crew themselves or the U.S. production team — but in any case, the person or persons responsible were obviously still upset about the Hollywood blacklists of the 1950s. Several of the American-style surnames chosen are those of people who were blacklisted or who were vehement in their opposal of the blacklist: Miller, Corey, Lardner... Lardner, for crying out loud... and the writer's credit: "Julian Berry" for Ernesto Gastaldi? Surely that's a reference to John Berry and Julian Halevy.

This creative renaming might have been the act of someone on the American side, thumbing his nose at the legacy of the blacklist; but it could also have reflected the wishes of the Italian crew, since many of the talented Italian directors and technicians identified themselves as Communists during the early 50s (though many changed their minds after Krushchev's speech on Stalin, and after the brutal response of the Soviet Union to the Hungarian Uprising in 1956), and ended up working with many of the Hollywood expatriates (heck, Halevy even ended up co-writing Horror Express for the Spanish).

I have no idea where the pseudonyms came from — maybe they were real people on the U.S. team. Maybe I'm even hallucinating about the connection to the blacklists. I guess I'll never know, but it's still an interesting curiosity.



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