Sometimes I watch a film that is so terribly written and sloppily realized that my mind drifts from what I am actually witnessing on the screen to what I imagine the creators – the writer, the director, the set designers, the costumers, the performers – discussed and observed while they prepared for and wheeled into reality their cinematic travesty.
What inkling of the disaster might be revealed in the words and minds of the very people who brought it forth?
I was besotted by such musings during Fangs of the Living Dead, otherwise known as Malenka, a supremely schlocky European horror film from the twilight of the sixties directed by Spanish director Amando de Ossorio and starring Swedish sex siren Anita Ekberg. It’s a wreck from beginning to end, especially the end, though I confess abandoning it never truly crossed my mind. The film has a certain, almost defiant je ne sais quoi stemming from its awfulness, a captivating charm in its failed production that draws me in closer rather than shuts me out.
If this is indeed a train wreck, then merely watching it is not enough. I want to travel back in time to the close of the 1960s and experience this metaphorical derailing in progress: the initial uneasiness with the screeching of the tracks, quickly building into a raw panic, followed by the thunderous crushing of the train cars and the screams from within. I want to know how cognizant the engineer and his passengers were of the impending catastrophe as they set out, and if said cognizance (or dread) grew as the journey stretched out toward that final take.
I’ll need an extended session with de Ossorio. First and foremost, I want to sound him out on what genre of picture he envisioned. Gothic horror with touches of comic relief? I think this was his intent, but given the finished product, I can’t really be sure.
Mr. de Ossorio, I understand the concept of a vaguely comic horror film, but the comedy here falls exceedingly flat, especially with the hero’s wisecracking best friend and the bumbling doctor. Did you consider the effect that a (supposedly) sharp-witted best friend offering (alleged) comic interludes might have on the tone of your otherwise brooding horror film? What about the idiotic doctor? Buffoonery to alleviate what you imagined as unbearable suspense? None of this was remotely funny, and failed comedy kills terror even faster than genuine laughs.
Sometimes I wonder if there some film directors need a TA, a Tonal Assistant, to keep them from allowing temptation to tamper with tone to the extent that a film ends up a failure in not just one but multiple genres simultaneously. Did you ever wonder that too, Mr. de Ossorio? Like when you were watching the rushes?
And Anita Ekberg, I love you, but let’s face it, at nearly forty, you are a bit long in the tooth for the ingenue role. I still stand in awe of your outsized, pan-European glamour and find you fantastic loads of fun to watch, but I must ask, was it awkward to take this part – that of an flirty swimsuit model/heiress – at a point when your contemporaries were beginning to play matrons? Are you clinging to a type here – or is this perhaps your conscious farewell to the blonde bombshell of the sixties before you hit true lurid squalor with the stunning Killer Nun ten years from now? (Well, I guess I can’t ask her that question in 1969, though I do wonder if the content of the truly depraved Killer Nun might shock/displease/disgust its future star even through the lens of the madness of the sixties. Maybe I need to interview The Ghost of Anita Ekberg for this line of career retrospective questioning.)
The other ladies in the film, all younger but nearly as bosomy as Ekberg, make for some hot horror eyeballing. Honestly, these buxom ladies seem just a step away from a Russ Meyer film, especially in the outfits they’re given to wear.
My favorite vampiress – and I quite enjoyed both vampiresses – is the mysterious Blinka, played by Adriana Ambesi / Audrey Abesi, who prowls the castle by night wearing a skintight black lace ensemble complete with veil, clearly for fashion rather than modesty purposes, given the outfit’s undeniable focal point, the actress’s outstanding rack.
Blinka is actually my favorite character in the film: a vampiress with a some sort of heart underneath the stupendous cleavage. She floats through the dark castle like a moth, silently fluttering in her gossamer get-up, ambiguous in her intentions, though it seems whenever she tends toward benevolence, she winds up bound and flogged, no doubt an appeal for the crowd in the lower echelons of cinema houses, not to mention drive-ins.
Ms. Ambesi, I wonder if you realized that you are the only performer in the entire movie who seems to sense the degree of humor that a horror film can hold without collapsing. You have the deft touch that the other performers lack, but I’m not sure the audience can see past your massive breasts to find your talent as a subtle horror comedienne.
A runner-up to Ambesi is her near doppelgänger, the lovely Diana Lorys, in the role of Bertha the busty barmaid. Before being turned into a vampiress, Bertha serves beer in anachronistic outfits alongside her fellow innkeeper sister, played Rosanna Yanni, whose chin looks so masculine that I was convinced some trans twist would come into play later in the show.
But no, instead the only twist we get is that the entire vampire scare has been a hoax to somehow scam Ekberg out of her castle-inheritance. The count confesses this near the conclusion to Ekberg’s bound boyfriend (he’s got a thing for tying up both women and men; intimates and guests; friends and enemies):
NB: Bonus points for Bertha fixing her make-up during the shocking exposition.
Immediately after the hoax revelation, however, the count is reduced to dust vampire-style, and in the conclusion, which functions almost like a tag, the unfunny best friend turns out to have been transformed into a vampire and “comically” chases Rosanna Yanni around the castle grounds – in broad daylight. It’s like a fuck-you to any moviegoer trying to grasp any thread of cohesive narrative.
Sr. de Ossorio, what the fuck? Did you just throw in the towel and decide to close the curtain with a nonsensical coda that completely defies the villain’s confession that immediately preceded it? Were there multiple endings shot and this one somehow got edited in by accident? How much is the audience expected to accept – or forgive? Even a child would reject this. Angrily. How can I, a connoisseur of trash, allow for such slop when a five year old would find unforgivable fault?
At least you staved off the sheer stupidity until the final two scenes. You relied on Anita Ekberg’s tawdry glamour and your bosomy vampiresses for sly humor to keep me interested, but in the end, you failed me. But I’m not sorry, Sr. de Ossorio, not for a moment.
Even through the absolutely atrocious dubbing, the relentlessly plodding harpsichord soundtrack, the frustratingly foolhardy finale, and the massive failure at commingling humor and horror, I remain charmed. Your wreck of a movie proves that even ineptitude, when accompanied by enthusiasm and, let’s say, pizzaz, actually helps some works rise above the rest – the mediocre, the passable, the well-crafted but forgettable.
Sometimes I’d rather watch the unforgettable train wreck. This was it! I thank you, Sr. de Ossorio, for taking me on this ill-fated journey.
And one last note: the huge henchman. Hot as fuck. The second he appeared onscreen, my knowing, somewhat disapproving boyfriend asked with resignation, “Ugh, you like him, don’t you?” Affirmative! But he needed at least one more extended keyhole peeping scene, preferably with suggested masturbation. And that really wouldn’t have interfered with the tone at all.
This could have saved the whole film. Just my final two cents for my 1969 interview with the magnificent makers of Malenka.