Atom Age Vampire (1960)
In honor of the impending festival of shirtless were-boys, angsty vampires, and vacuous teenage girls that is New Moon, which my wife is seriously jonesing to see a dozen times, I thought I'd dig around in my DVD-R box and find some vampire movies to review this month. Atom Age Vampire is first up, mostly due to its cool 1950s title and pretty European girls, and if you get a chance to watch it (public domain!), I think you will be impressed with what they did on a limited budget. This is an Italian/French production, and my English-dubbed copy runs the full 108 minutes long. I've heard of other US television and video versions that are just 72 minutes long, which is a hell of a lot to cut out of any movie, let alone one that's already so short as it is.
And, yes, I know, there aren't actually vampires in this. Get over it.
On to the show...
First let's meet Jeanette Moreneau, a gorgeous young French theater star with long legs and luscious wavy platinum blonde hair that must have taken hours each day to get looking that good. [Editor Pam: Seriously!] She's played by Susanne Loret, who really didn't do much in the industry, but she was in the awesomely titled My Uncle the Vampire from 1959 and that's got to count for something (maybe she just did vamp movies?).
She's madly in love with Pierre, who is either already a merchant marine captain or is running away to join the merchant marine, but either way his love is the sea. Using the excuse that her work is more important to her than him, Pierre breaks up with her and walks out. Jeanette cries crocodile tears and clings to him, but he pushes her away. Pierre is a prick, and his head is quite blockish.
"Jeanette, you're a fine girl (such a fine girl!), what a good wife you will be (such a fine wife!), but my life, my love and my lady is the sea." Doo-do-ah-doo-do-doo!
As women tend to do when they have a bad break-up, Jeanette loses all sense of scale and reason and jumps in her car for a wild, speeding race down to the docks to catch Pierre and proclaim her undying devotion to him. Unfortunately, her tears cloud her vision (as they do her heart) and she accidentally runs the car off a cliff. The car rolls down the embankment and bursts into flames, and Jeanette's face is horribly burned in the fire before she's pulled to safety. Unaware of this, Pierre ships out and is gone for the rest of the first act.
Crashed car, which alternates between being a convertible and a hardtop between shots.
Three months pass and we go to a hospital in some random French coastal city. Jeanette has been here recuperating from her accident, though there's not much the doctors can do. The left side of her face and neck, perhaps down past her shoulder line even, is badly disfigured (but not that badly) and scaled with scars. Being a vain starlet in a beauty-obsessed industry, it's so natural that Jeanette is depressed and sullen, though at times she seems more upset about what Pierre will think of her now (even though he dumped her, she still pines for him). While I sympathize with her plight, truly I do, she still is in command of her faculties and has no physical impairments that would prevent her from still leading a full and happy life (even if her days in the theater are most likely over). It's not like she looks like Two-Face from The Dark Knight, or Steve Buscemi on a normal Tuesday, or anything, I think she'll be ok one day.
But not right now, because she's still got some serious moping and pouting to do first. Showing herself to be a prissy, self-absorbed bitch, Jeanette breaks mirror and a window, smashes a tea cup out of a nurse's hand, and generally makes everyone wish she wasn't there. This script was written by a bunch of Italian men in the late 1950s, remember, in a place and an era where the obsession with beauty was at an all-time high, and it's no surprise that Jeanette's role is written as such. She even contemplates suicide with a little snub-nosed Beretta. To steal a line, oh, wake up, Jeanette, you'd be killing yourself to an empty house, the audience left twenty years ago. Maybe she should go ahead and do it, maybe I'm wrong, maybe she is too vain to ever live a normal life.
She's not really ready for her close-up, Mister De Mille.
At her darkest moment, in walks Monique, a tall young woman in a stylish Parisian-cut trench coat, slouchy beret, and Audrey Hepburn horn-rim glasses. Monique brings the possibility of salvation as she's assistant to a great scientist who claims he can help her. It must be done in secret, however, and if Jeanette agrees, she will have to just disappear for a few weeks until the treatments are over. She leaves to let Jeanette think it over, but it's clear she doesn't have many other options (other than the bullet).
Let's meet Doctor Alberto Levin, a hard-driven exacting scientist who is obsessed with his research to the exclusion of nearly everything else (for now). He's a big strapping Italian fellow with a taste for expensive suits and titanium-hard pomades, and whoever dubs him lays on the honey ham in inch-thick slices. Alberto begins as the stereotypical Noble Do-Gooder Scientist, but eventually fades back into the equally-stereotypical Power-Drunk Psychopath Scientist.
Alberto, his script pages are smeared with mayo.
To the doctor's laboratory, which is in the basement of his colossal mansion (and apparently privately funded). A helpful voiceover by Alberto (possibly added only in the English-dubbed version) tells of "Derma-28", a chemical byproduct of his "advanced atomic research". This untested formula has the potential to "spontaneously reproduce cells" in damaged living tissue. In a bit of foreshadowing, we also learn that Derma-28's earlier version, Derma-25, had a fatal chemical flaw in it that "turns people into monsters". How that works exactly is never said and it's probably best left that way, we don't need everything explained in a movie like this.
There are cages of fluffy bunnies in there, the horror! What is wrong with you scientists?!?
Monique is his faithful assistant, both in research and in his bed. She's so in love with Alberto, in fact, that we see her inject her arm with the monster-causing Derma-25, which causes her skin to shrivel up and get all nasty. She did this to force Alberto to finally try Derma-28 on a human test subject (her, though he wanted Jeanette to be the first). Alberto, faced with losing both his lab partner and his snuggle buddy, relents to her rash action. First she has to go into a "radiation chamber" which will stop the effects of Derma-25, and then he will try Derma-28 on her to make her icky skin turn back to normal again. It works, and Monique is overjoyed, though Alberto is strangely troubled, even though this is proof positive of his research. It should be clear to anyone that if this were a real life product, Alberto would win the Nobel Prize (though, since it's 1960, Monique's name wouldn't be on it).
Monique has injected herself, anything for love.
When Alberto first meets Jeanette, he's drawn to both her (hidden) beauty and her (way out in the open) emotional pain. But she's still a whiney little bitch, obsessed with her looks (kill me). She keeps saying that she'd rather die than live looking like this (do it!), and Alberto has to use tough love on her, alternating harsh reality ("you are condemned for the rest of your life") with tantalizing hope ("I can make you beautiful again."). Even in this first meeting, Alberto seems juuuust a bit too entranced with Jeanette, and Monique cannot help but notice.
First meeting, Jeanette in fur coat and Paris Hilton glasses.
The first treatment of Derma-28 is an astounding success, as right before our very eyes the scars heal, the cells regenerate, and Jeanette's once mangled face is now smooth and silky again. Perhaps it's the glow from the oscilloscopes, perhaps it's the soothing bubbling of the beakers, perhaps it's just the adrenaline power-rush of having done something that no scientist before has ever done, but Alberto's interest in Jeanette seems to instantly cross over the line into infatuation. While he's gushing and doting on Jeanette (oh that's trouble), he's all business with Monique, who is smart enough to notice that she's suddenly been sent to the bench (this isn't going to end well).
Jeanette is beautiful again.
However, Alberto is still understandably afraid of after-effects and not totally sure that the treatment will be lasting (good science). Jeanette awakes and is amazed that she's whole again. Yay for you, you whiney bitch. She's so overjoyed, in fact, that she gives Alberto a hug and a kiss, right in front of Monique, and even though Alberto has the good sense to turn her away, the damage is done. The smoldering pain in Monique's eyes tell the story well, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Jeanette is to be kept here at the house until Alberto is sure of success. To pass the time, Alberto wines and dines her, showering attention and affection on her in ever-so-increasing doses. Alberto's had a bit of a reawaking from his stagnating life as well, much like Jeanette from her own mental prison, and it's clear that he's falling hard for her. Jeanette, however, at first doesn't seem aware of the level of his feelings, but she's just pliable enough that liberal applications of sappy French chamber music, a chilled bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, and soft flowerly words of love and desire are enough to make her lose herself in the moment and submit to a single slobbery kiss. This, as initial physical contact seems to do with us men, bursts the damn holding back whatever shred of discretion Alberto had, and he begins to plan out their china patterns and their grandchildren's names. "You love me, you must know you love me." he says, "You are nothing if not mine, you belong to me."
Alberto is either attempting to lay his alien eggs in her stomach or is giving her CPR.
Sadly, Derma-28's effects are not permanent and within a day Jeanette's face begins to show signs of cell degeneration. Alberto tries to keep this from her, to protect her from the emotional damage, as she's just a fragile little peach blossom and surely can't handle any more stress. To keep her away from mirrors until he can think of a new plan, he drugs Jeanette and takes her down to the lab to give her second treatment. But, oh no, there is no more Derma-28 left! He used all his existing stocks in the first test run. Alberto is really wigging out now, desperate to see his beautiful Jeanette whole again (his frothing rambling opinions on her beauty continue to irk Monique, who sees now that it's over between them). He thinks about radiation treatments, but he's not sure that will work. He then suggests that he could "transplant the glands from young women"! Because, if I didn't make it clear before, the Derma-28 compound is synthesized from a certain gland in the human body that's exposed to radiation. Why it needs to be from a healthy young beautiful woman is unknown to anyone but the scriptwriter, but it does give Alberto an idea. In a bit of sledghammer-obvious foreshadowing, Alberto swears, "I would kill a thousand times before I admit defeat." (She Demons, anyone?)
Drama in the lab (nothing good can come from lab-coated scientists with their flashy lights and push-button control panels).
Monique has had enough and she stomps out, goes to her room and starts packing. Alberto tries to convince her to stay, though I'm not sure if it's some hold-over romantic feelings for her or just that he needs a lab assistant or maybe he's afraid that she will go public with his research and take all the credit for herself. He makes all sorts of (empty) promises to her, saying that he'll send Jeanette away as soon as the treatments work. For her part, Monique is still susceptible to Alberto's smooth talking persuasions, though his argument that "Yes, I'm lusting after her, but I LOVE you!" seems like something that only works in the movies. And if it works in the real world, and I've not seen any direct observational evidence to suggest it does, then it's more proof that, when it comes to relationships with manipulative bad-boy men, the fairer sex has to take a hefty chunk of the responsibility for the disasters that befall them. In short, women suck.
Alberto has got game with the ladies.
The next morning, Alberto calls the local Police Inspector and the Medical Examiner to come to his house in a hurry. It seems that, sadly, Monique expired during the night due to "paralysis of the heart", a medical condition that she has had for some time (wink wink). Due to the nature of the death, and Alberto's unquestionably spotless reputation, the ME declines an autopsy (which will turn out to be a very unwise decision). Not giving away anything you haven't already figured out, but Alberto killed Monique, his former lover, to harvest her glands to keep Jeanette, his new lover, alive and beautiful. Crap, and all I got Suzie was some carnations and a double-bacon thickburger from Hardee's.
Monique, less than alive.
The Inspector has a whip-smart mind and a keen interest in the great scientific breakthroughs of the day (and in the late 1950s/early 60s they were coming one after the other). He and Alberto talk at length about the doctor's much-publicized recent stint in Hiroshima, where he was working with radiation exposure patients at a Japanese institute there. He also brought back a small sculpture made from Enola Gay-fused glass bottles, which would fetch a fortune on ebay. Exposition time! Alberto explains that he hopes to "exploit the horror" of radiation for positive benefits, which is indeed a noble endeavor. Alberto the shows the Inspector/us a book of photos of real Hiroshima victims, all horribly burned and scared (though, I should note, by thermal blast effects, not radiation, which is what he was studying in Japan and also what this movie is really all about). They end with a long and rambling discussion on the relationship between the body and soul, suggesting that trauma to the body can affect the soul more than medical science can measure.
A famous picture, surely in the National Archives by now.
Alberto and Jeanette are now out driving along a coastal highway in his stylish Mercedes convertible, enjoying their first daytrip away from the stuffy lab. While Alberto's heart and soul (and loins) are with Jeanette, the sight of the ocean brings her thoughts back to her long-lost soul-mate Pierre. On the radio comes a report of a woman found dead in a park, and the announcer off-handedly suggests that an escaped gorilla from the zoo is responsible (ah, Murders in the Rue Morgue ref?). Jeanette's face starts burning and tingling, signaling that, just like before, the treatments are failing and her damaged cells are popping up again. Alberto frantically rushes to get her back to the lab in time.
Alone in his lab, Alberto is pacing around in a frustrated circle, fidgeting like an addict and talking to himself. He's badly conflicted, he knows that he must save his dear Jeanette at any costs, but he's already lost so much of his soul in doing so. Killing Monique really pushed him over the edge, and while he's fine when things are going well, when they fall apart (like when Jeanette's face starts to melt again), his fragile conscience just can't take it. He realizes that the only way to save Jeanette is to gather more glands to synthesize more Derma-28, and that means finding more young ladies to be (unwilling) donors. He remembers then the radio report about the gorilla on the loose and realizes that this could be his cover story. This next part really makes no sense. Alberto injects himself with Derma-25, which will cause him to turn into a monster. The transformation is fairly quick, and we see a time-lapse sequence of his face turning into what might best be described as a werewolf. This is an excellent scene, by the way, the actor turns his face and emotes between takes, giving the illusion that he's suffering while changing (and it's vastly better than the traditional b-movie way of time-lapsing a mannequin). Again, though, why is he doing this? Perhaps he knows that he can reverse the effects later and that he can't afford to have anyone recognize him, or that he looks like a gorilla (a bit) once the transformation has taken hold. He takes a scalpel and heads off into the night.
The monster awakes.
Alberto shambles out into the night, dressed in a Darkman-like high coat and hat. He lures a young lady of the world's oldest profession into a tunnel and kills her and takes her glands (presumably performing delicate surgery on the woman, in the dark, with just a scalpel, without any assistance, and managed to get the excised gland home without it being hopelessly contaminated by pocket lint and bubblegum wrappers). He then goes into the octagonal radiation chamber to return to his normal self, via a cloud of dry ice fog and a jump-cut. I shouldn't bag on it, though, it's a nicely done visual effect for such a limited budget (something maybe today's filmmakers have forgotten, how to do more with less). He's physically weakened from the transformation and, by my calcuations, he's now 17% more batshitcrazy than ever due to the effects of the radiation (dataset available upon request). Oh, yes, this movie's working the whole Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde angle pretty hard, but it's good source material, so that's ok. [Editor Pam: See, a fake moustache would have been a lot better!]
The radiation chamber.
Alberto tells Jeanette in the vaguest of terms about the "transplants" that have been keeping her skin all alabaster, in a moment of conflicted confession that only makes him sound more I-collect-your-hair stalker-crazy. "You can never understand what it has cost me to make you beautiful again." he stammers, nervous ticks making him wave his hands around like he has ADD. Jeanette is terrified, he's coming on really strong and she doesn't know how to handle it. Sure, she does have some feelings for Alberto, but they are mostly platonic, and she's only now realizing that his for her are more along the lines of I've-carved-your-name-on-my-arm obsession.
Mirror effect, nice.
Alberto has an old mute assistant named Igor...er, I mean Sasha, who does the henchman work of carrying corpses and digging holes. He is, however, deeply upset with all the killing and how Alberto has become a nutjob (though he stays at the house, for some reason). Sasha comes to Jeanette and tries to help her, but backs out at the last moment, wracked with doubt and fear.
Sasha (wow, he's the spittin' image of my dad).
We step away for a second to see that Jeanette's former lover Pierre has now returned to France from the sea. Pierre has changed his mind and now wants Jeanette back, but she's disappeared following her accident and he doesn't know where she could be. He goes to her old song-and-dance troupe and talks with the ladies (he actually says to one, "Am I wrong or are you getting fat?"). Then we almost, just almost, get a musical number as the band begins to warm up a funky jazz tune. Thankfully, we cut away before I have to throw a cinder block at my TV.
Pierre sits with a pair of pretty young showgirls in short skirts, but his heart is with Jeanette.
Jeanette escapes the house, and acting on impulse, goes down to the harbor to where Pierre's ship is docked (and no, I don't know how she knew that he was back in France, or even where his ship was docked). In the foggy dark, they reconnect and he tells her he's always loved her. He's amazed that her face isn't scarred like the papers said, but he doesn't make too big a deal about it, he's just happy to have her back (ok, he's not such a prick). They kissy-kissy and Jeanette begs him to take her away from this place.
But she's too late, Alberto and Sasha have found them. Pierre is knocked into the water and Jeanette is kidnapped and driven back to the house to be put under lock and key. Pierre fishes himself out of the bay and goes to the police station to tell the Inspector his wild story about his girlfriend's amazing new look and her bewildering kidnapping. The Inspector, to his credit, is initially not so sure Pierre's talking about the same woman, and even doubts his sanity. But then a cop comes in to tell of how Alberto's car was detained briefly that night and there was an unconscious woman in the backseat (they let him go when he lied that he was taking her to the hospital, which is poor policework).
The Inspector and Pierre (posing as a cop), with some other cops, go to Alberto's lab on a fake courtesy call. They try and trick Alberto into giving up some clue that might point the bloody finger of incrimination at himself, but he's too wise and quick for that ploy. The Inspector even tries to bait Alberto by showing him two pictures of Jeanette, one disfigured and one pretty, and asking if he knew what might have caused such a transformation. Alberto deflects any insinuations with aplomb, he's not going to let slip anything of value to them. Goodness, everyone in this movie smokes like fiends! Men, women, little kids, everyone seems to have a ciggy dangling from their mouths in every scene. As Alberto fields questions, there's a funny bit about how the Inspector is a non-smoker now, a single lily in a field of ragweed, to mangle a metaphor, and he's always barking at his men about them smoking too much.
That's Pierre sulking there in the background.
The Inspector and Alberto visit the doctor's greenhouse before they leave. Alberto says he doesn't entertain much as he's "enjoying a period of repose". There are several sly camera-pans to the blossoming flowers while they talk of rebirth and beauty, which are nice. Once the cops leave, we see that the unconscious Jeanette was hidden in a false-wall in the greenhouse! Alberto and Sasha bring her inside.
In the greenhouse.
Working on a hunch, the Inspector orders Monique's body exhumed and examined. This conversation is overheard by a plucky reporter (you can tell by his fedora with the little card in it, why don't they still do that?) who is looking for a story. Some time is spent setting up this reporter's backstory and his often-contentious relationship with the police, but, most oddly, nothing more is done with him. If you are going to spend valuable screentime on ancillary characters, at least have them play some sort of role in the resolution of the plot.
Jeanette is locked in her room now and when she wakes up, she really starts freaking out. She tries to get Sasha to help her, as he's shown some kindness to her at times, but the old man is too scared of Alberto. The doctor comes in and they fight. He works her soggy noodle-weak mind over, convincing her that "the final application" will be the one to make her new beauty last. Despite the fact that she should really just kick him in the batteries and run like hell, Jeanette's overriding personality trait, her seen-from-space logic-blinding narcissism, gets the better of her and she agrees to stay with him for a while longer. When she mentions Pierre, Alberto rages that she would be "ungrateful to leave me for a man who has done nothing for you." He does, however, give Jeanette back her gun as a sign that he really means to cure her (risk taker!).
Alberto leaves his house and quickly notices that the cops are tailing him. To shake them, he goes to a theater to see a war movie, sitting down near the front as the cops try and act all inconspicuous in the back. Two things I noticed here, one is that Alberto sits next to a black man, which doesn't seem like much now, but in 1960 in our own country, you wouldn't see that. The other thing I couldn't help but notice is that every single person in the theater is smoking like chimneys, and a great cloud of smoke hangs over their heads like a rain-heavy cloud (damn, I'm glad I don't live in 1960). Alberto takes advantage of the dark (and the smokescreen) and pays a guy to switch coats with him so he can slip out (nicely done).
Out in the city, Alberto sneaks up to the apartment of some random lady and breaks in. He attempts to murder her, but her dogs come running in to nip and bark, forcing him to pull away and flee. The dialogue is unclear here, but it seems like he then goes elsewhere and finds another, less feisty, victim and takes her gland. Perhaps it's just the English dub, but there are a few places in this movie where it's easy to get lost.
Attacking the woman.
The police order a state of emergency due to the suspected serial killer on the loose (thought it seems a stretch to connect a few random murders this way, and what about that escaped gorilla?). The Inspector goes to the theater to chew out the two cops who were supposed to be tailing Alberto but lost him (one had a buxom dame distracting him and the other snuck out to buy some smokes). The Medical Examiner shows up there, he says that tests have confirmed that Monique was murdered and that a certain (never-named) gland was removed "just like the others".
Cops at the theater.
Alberto comes once again into Jeanette's room, this time as she sleeps (in skimpy little lingerie, if I was being held captive by a madman I'm not sure I wouldn't sleep fully dressed with my shoes on). He's beside himself with sorrow, both because he knows he's a serial killer and crazy as a loon and because he just can't seem to convince Jeanette to overlook those two facts. He laments that, because of his love for her, he has "unleashed a horrible force inside me that I cannot control".
They talk a lot in this movie, but rarely does it seem too much.
The drugs and the radiation now out of control in his system, Alberto begins to turn into the monster right before her eyes. Er...Wasp Woman, anyone? Jeanette, being a female in a 1950s sci-fi movie, of course begins to scream and cry uncontrollably, holding her hands up to her face as she wails with all her might. Alberto rages with malice in his eyes, "You're mine! I'll kill you first before I let you go!"
Alberto the monster.
Alberto is now certifiably full-blown totally pants-shittingly crazy now, and there's no going back for him. Frantically, Jeanette yells out the barred window for help, and as luck would have it, her beloved Pierre just so happens to be walking nearby and hears her cries. He jumps the wall and runs to her aid, and a fight explodes. It's a lame fight, with more choking and shoving than any real punching, biting, or shanking, but that's probably so as not to mess up the actor's monster make-up. Jeanette, being Jeanette, just stands there and lets the fight happen, no effort to run, no effort to help, just stands there gasping with her hands to her cheeks.
With Pierre out cold for a minute (glass jaw), Alberto advances on Jeanette, who promptly faints like a good 1950s woman should. Seriously, do women really faint this easily when confronted with conflict, or is this just a Hollywood thing? What ever happened to the flight-or-fight reaction? For women, is it scream-or-faint? Alberto takes her in his arms (in the time-honored tradition of monsters and maidens everywhere) and brings her to the greenhouse (why?). The police have arrived by now and surround the greenhouse. The Inspector orders a cop with a submachinegun to "Fire a volley through the window panes!", which you just don't see happen anymore, especially in America where cops get suspended for even pointing their gun at someone.
She's light as a feather.
It's the mute hired-help Sasha that delivers the killing blow with a knife to the back (you gotta watch the Igors, the silent types are the most dangerous, and rarely does a mad scientist take good care of his Igor). Alberto seems to thank Sasha for releasing him of his burden, perhaps finally realizing that he can never have a normal life again after all that has happened. As he expires, the monster turns back into the man (uh, why?). Pierre rushes in to save Jeanette and they slobber, the Inspector starts smoking again, and some cool jazzy Mickey Spillane music plays us out as the credits roll.
Sasha is later arrested for his part in all this.
All in all not a bad flick, not what I was expecting from the title, but still worth the time. It should be apparent by now, however, that if you were expecting an actual fangs-and-cape vampire movie, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The English version title was surely an attempt to cash in on the vampire craze of the era, and it does disservice to what is a pretty entertaining movie. Watch it.
[Editor Pam: Mario Bava generally did manage to do a good job on a limited budget, as he did with this movie. It's in the public domain, although the only version I could find online is 86 minutes long. It doesn't seem to be too badly hacked up, though, and it's still a good movie.]
Written in August 2009 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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