BLOODSUCKING FREAKS ON BLOODY SCREENS AGLOW - Fangs of the Living Dead (1969)
A blog series about Gothic horror media that inspired Project Vampire Killer, my novel about vampires, cinema-as-sorcery, space weed, and the glorious Gothic ascendant
The 60s and 70s vampire film revival often explored the idea of modern people encountering ancient terrors—a quintessential Gothic trope adopted from Dracula and its kin. With Hammer’s success pumping out new takes on the classic monsters came a number of copycat horror films (non-pejorative) produced on the continent, including Fangs of the Living Dead / Malenka the Vampire.
Italian model Sylvia receives notice that her estranged mother has died, leaving her a castle and a noble title of countess. Sylvia’s father took her away from that side of her family under mysterious circumstances when she was very young, but she is excited to reconnect with them when this notice arrives. Her doctor fiancee (who spends his time in the radiology lab chain-smoking while looking through microscopes) is more skeptical, but she heads off into the countryside without him to collect this inheritance. In classical fashion, Sylvia arrives at a rustic European village, complete with superstitious locals and a barmaid who is weirdly forward about her bizarre medical problems.
This film is supposed to be a horror-comedy, I think, but that is not always apparent to English-speaking audiences. Like many horror films of this period, an international crew producing a movie for multiple audiences across multiple languages leads to some bizarrely stilted dialogue, whether through mistranslation, non-native speaker actors—or just plain bad writing. These strange turns of phrase, odd timings, and flat or overcompensating deliveries can be quite charming, lending the film a sense of unreality and discomfort that helps heighten the atmosphere. We’re heading into unknown territory alongside the main character. Why shouldn’t we be confused, too?
“What’s the matter with these people? They’re all a bit crazy, aren’t they?”
Sylvia makes her way to her ancestral castle, which is gorgeous inside and out. Turrets and towers stretch into the sky, while trees and overgrowth creep up the walls. The stone interior is likewise impressive, augmented with garish colored lights to emphasize the mood and make the scenes pop with blue and purple vibrancy and green weirdness. Chandeliers, suits of armor, handcrafted railings and bed posts, crimson candles and curtains all work together to make the castle scenes visually appealing even when the film meanders a bit. Filmed in Spain (according to IMDB), the village and castle have a sense of place and history that lend authenticity to an otherwise low-budget production and are well-augmented by the lighting and set dressing.
Sylvia’s weirdo uncle slowly reveals details about their family history, particularly her connection with her ancestor Malenka, who is memorialized in a lifelike portrait in the castle. The two women could be twins, in fact. Sylvia is eager to trust her creepy uncle, who looks quite young considering their supposed age difference. He informs her that her mother died of “melancholy,” but he is over-eager to get Sylvia to remain at the castle with him, despite that sordid history.
What follows is a series of bizarre interactions. The uncle’s giant manservant peeps on Sylvia as she disrobes; a very hungry woman in a painted-on nightgown comes into her room in the middle of the night to talk about Sylvia’s mother.
“She was very blonde. And very sad.”
There’s some light whipping action in the dungeon, flashbacks to alchemical research and a peasant mob that burned Malenka at the stake, and more occult nonsense that seems to somehow convince Sylvia that she should become a permanent resident of the castle.
Naturally, her fiance comes searching for her, starting in the same village with a comic relief sex pest in tow. There’s a local doctor who has pet theories about bat physiology and occult science, victims of vampirism, a rubber bat shadow effect that had me hooting, hot vampire ladies in nightgowns scampering around graveyards, crypts, and castle hallways, and a conclusion (or two?) to the very silly plot that honestly isn’t all that important.
Everything about Fangs of the Living Dead is ridiculous and overwrought, with its vivid colored lighting, authentic sets, mis-timed comedy, and lurid subtext. It’s sleazy in the most innocent way possible, pulling its punches with sex and violence, but implying and showing just enough to be entertaining. While it may lack the class of a Hammer picture, its own earnest charms and sense of humor about itself make it worth a watch.
It’s a great example of Eurogothic horror—narratively ridiculous, visually stimulating, colorful, sexy, silly. I genuinely enjoy these types of pictures, despite their sometimes questionable execution, and do not watch them with some vile sense of ironic detachment or misplaced nostalgia, as I never saw movies like this when I was young.
Fangs of the Living Dead is a fun horror film to watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon alone or with friends, even if its aspirations are in many ways commercial and sometimes derivative. This is not a great vampire movie by any means, but it's certainly a lot of fun to watch. I enjoyed it even more on my second viewing. It was an influence on Project Vampire Killer in its unironic embrace of Gothic tropes, its playful use of sex appeal, its beautiful castle and crypt sets, and its theatrical tone.
Fangs is directed by Amando de Ossorio, who is most well known for his Blind Dead series, four highly atmospheric films about bloodthirsty medieval templars who rise from their tombs to tear apart the living. If creaky Eurogothic horror movies filmed in the Spanish countryside are your bag, those movies should be at the top of your to-watch list.