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Uncle Was a Vampire (1959)


 

It’s never impossible to be surprised. I was not expecting to enjoy Uncle Was a Vampire (1959) nearly as much as I did. It may seem that this fact contradicts my discomfort with horror-comedies; however, I don’t consider it horror at all. Unless I’m missing the carriage as it bursts out of an “abandoned” castle in Bramfurten, it’s a comedy-comedy that happens to feature a vampire. There’s no attempt to frighten the audience.

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Osvaldo Lambertenghi (Renato Rascel) is forced to sell his castle to escape debt, and it’s transformed into a luxury hotel. Missing the memo about the change in ownership, Osavaldo’s uncle, Baron Roderico da Frankurten (Christopher Lee), arrives seeking refuge when his castle is demolished by real estate developers. Learning that the family crypt has become a trendy bar, hilarious hijinks ensue.

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According to Jonathan Rigby in the book accompanying Severin Films’ terrific box set, The Eurocrypt of Christopher Lee Collection 2, although Hammer’s Dracula was released only the prior year, he was already a star who believed that the character of Dracula was “sacrosanct.” He agreed to make Uncle Was a Vampire only if the vampire was less specific than Dracula and was used in the context of comedy.

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He joined the production several weeks after it began and indeed appears in only a few scenes. He plays the Baron straight most of the time; however, there are some gems of humor like when he points to the sharpness of his fangs to prove a point… pun intended. He towers over his co-star and depicts an evil persona, but all he really wants is permanent rest. In this story, vampirism can be passed to another.

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Thus, for most of the movie, Osvaldo is running around the hotel biting no less that 42 women guests in one night. The twist is that the women love being bitten and want more of it. Instead of running from Osvaldo in fear, they run toward him in lust. This has their hunky, shirtless male counterparts stumped about why they would prefer this short (5’ 2”), goofy bellhop over them.

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Lee is probably the reason to watch, but Rascel is the reward you’ll receive. He was quite a star in Italy, appearing in 50 films over 30 years. While he was a comedian, he was also a musician, competing in the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest and writing one of the three most famous Italian songs of all time, Arrivederci Roma. I struggle with whom to compare him in the States. Comedically, he reminds me of Lou Costello with Lee as his foil instead of Bud Abbott.

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There are legitimately funny moments in Uncle Was a Vampire. For example, Osvaldo learns from grumpy German guest Professor Stricker (Franco Scandurra) that a vampire goes to sleep when the cock crows. Osvaldo asks, “Any specific kind of cock?” The joke returns later when Osvaldo frantically tries to wake a rooster early to stop his uncle. He also later comments, “A little garlic never hurt anyone,” then makes a funny face… of course it does… a vampire.

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The film offers precious little slapstick and stays with verbal humor. However, the image of Osvaldo swimming out to Professor Stricker’s dinghy with the Baron’s diary on his head is quite funny. Humor is subjective, but for a 63-year-old Italian comedy, I was thoroughly entertained. Plus, there’s a sweet story underneath with potential romance for our lovable loser and a happy ending for someone who deserves it. The movie is really fun.


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