Tempi Duri per i Vampiri (1959)

This Italian comedy would have long been forgotten – and rightfully so – had it not been for the fact that it stars Christopher Lee in a supporting role.

 

Count Osvaldo di Lambertenghi (Renato Rascel) is in a fix. In order to settle a huge debt with the taxman, he has to sell his ancestral home to a corporation that turns the castle into a hotel. The agreed price only just covers the count’s debt. And thus, adding insult to injury, the count is forced to work at the hotel, as he finds himself both home- and pennyless after the deal. When a mysterious uncle from Germany (Christopher Lee) announces his imminent arrival, Osvaldo hopes for an inheritance, but he gets much more than he bargained for.

 

So much for the premise. There even is something resembling a plot in this film, but only just. And unfortunately, the film fails to actually tell a coherent story, so premise, plot, and characters go to waste.

 

The film is set at the sunny Italian seaside, and cast and characters are what you’d expect from a Continental comedy from that era. These films are for the most part all harmless and entirely forgettable fluff. Because of these circumstances, there is little to be said about the characters, or the acting. The various actors and actresses that appear in this film do a decent enough job, I suppose, but within the ranks of supporting characters only one or two are memorable, and even those are not used for their potential and their scenes fall flat.

 

The film is entirely a vehicle for its lead actor, Renato Rascel. The short, odd-looking comedian was a star in his native Italy, and roughly half the film seems to be reserved for his “solos”. Rascel was famous for his nonsensical sentences, and in his mimic art and his gesticulation is very reminiscent of the style that a few years later would help Louis de Funès to fame. I therefore expect Osvaldo’s comical and nonsensical monologues to be fast-paced and absurdist, a source of comedy that probably works in Italian as well as French, but – at least in this case – does apparently not translate well into English. So what you get when watching an English dubbed version is a huge amount of scenes with monologues that are, at best, mildly amusing, and mainly have the effect of slowing down the action and robbing the film of what little momentum it has.

 

Next to Rascel, the film’s selling point was the appearance of Christopher Lee as the mysterious uncle, picking up from his role as Dracula in Terence Fisher’s film from the previous year. Lee does not have as much screen-time as one might wish, but his appearances still help to get you through this film. He is playing his role entirely straight, offering a great backdrop against which the comedy can unfold. At the same time, however, Lee’s acting takes the shenanigans around him into account and does not clash with the film’s humour.

 

Christopher Lee was of Italian descent on his mother’s side and is said to have spoken Italian fluently. But from what little information I can scrape together, it seems that he might not have done his own Italian lines in the film’s original. And according to imdb, the voice in the English-dubbed version is not Lee’s either – although it sure sounds a lot like him.

 

The striking difference in physical appearance between uncle and nephew is used for full comic effect. One the one hand Lee’s German Baron – tall, graceful, hauntingly handsome, and menacing. On the other hand Rascel’s Italian Count – short, slightly rotund, entirely lacking any grace or noble poise, and saddled with a battered demeanour and a funny face.

 

Rascel was 5′ 2”, Lee 6′ 5”, and seeing the two of them standing next to each other during their first encounter is something to behold. “Eight feet tall”, Osvaldo calls his uncle.

 

Apart from Lee, the only other thing worth mentioning is the music. I really like the score music employed in the “mysterious” scenes. Like many Continental films of the time, songs are mixed into the film. Tempi Duri per i Vampiri features only one song sung in full by a character, and another played from a record. But shortly before the end credits, there is another, rather famous song: “Dracula, cha-cha-cha” – a silly piece today regarded by some as a bit of a cult hit.

 

All in all, this film is rather disappointing. I can acknowledge that some of the humour might have been lost in translation, but generally speaking the focus on Rascel instead of Lee is a mistake from today’s point of view.

 

Premise and story could have been used in various ways, but the one the film finally settles on is unfortunate and leads nowhere. The obvious option, to make this a fish-out-of-water story focussing on Lee’s character, was not taken. It would have made for a far better film; more farcical perhaps, but still better than what we got here.

 

A whole bunch of people contributed to the development of the script, including Rascel and the film’s director Stefano Vanzina. But all involved take the premise and then do very little with it – and in doing so they manage to make the film seem longer than it actually is. The sad truth is that this film simply has no story to tell.

Rating: 2.5 to 3.0 out of 10

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