I just saw this Mario Bava movie (one segment of the trilogy “Black Sabbath. I’ve been thinking about proliferating horror movies (ones where one person turns into a monster, then infects someone else, then someone else, etc.) like The Thing and Romero’s zombie films. In most of those, the anxiety or horror seems to surround the body or fear of the body — Cronenberg’s Shivers, where the protagonist is literally pursued throughout the movie by people who want to have sex with him — is maybe the most obvious example.
Anyway, this is a pretty interesting variation, I think. In the story, the father (Boris Karloff) turns into a Wurdulak — basically a kind of vampire. The twist is that the Wurdulak is particularly interested in feeding on those he loved in life. So (spoilers ahead!) Karloff eats his son first, then works his way thorugh the rest of the family.
The idea of wanting to drink the blood of those you love has pretty straightforward metaphorical connotations, and the movie seems to me like a really brilliant take on the selfishness of love — as well as a kind of familial nightmare. Karloff gives a really great performance; he seems demented, but within bounds. Until he actually starts biting people, he could just be a dictatorial father, demanding that a dog be shot, insisting that he be allowed to hold his grandchild.
The film’s protagonist is a young noble who stumbles onto the house on the night when Karloff is transformed. The noble falls in love with Karlof’s unmarried daughter Sdenka. As Karloff methodically feasts on his nearest and dearest, the noble urges Sdenka (quite reasonably!) to leave the house and (a little more of a leap after a few hours aquaintance) to marry him. Sdenka eventually gives in, and the two of them flee. This is probably the best part of the film; the noble’s reactions seem weird and off in a way that’s not exactly categorizeable. He urges them to stop, when, you know, why on earth would he, and he seems almost callous towards Sdenka, urging her to marry and get over the trouble she’s seen even though, you know, her father has just eaten her brother and her nephew. I thought for a minute that perhaps the noble had already been turned into a wurdulak himself, which is entirely appropriate; his attitude towards Sdenka seems more self-centered than tender.
When Sdenka’s zombiefied family does appear, she begs for mercy, declaring “this man loves me” (or some such, in translation.) Karloff replies by eerily declaiming, “no one loves you more than we do ” — or, in other words, he may be rapacious, but he can’t be more rapacious (and certainly not more incestuous!) than us.
At this point, the film could be seen as about patriarchal control of female sexuality; the father refusing to step aside for the husband. But in an epilogue, the young man declares he would rather die than lose his love — and Sdenka of course obliges by sucking his blood. It’s not that the father won’t let the daughter go; it’s just that the husband has to bow to the family mores. In other words, in this movie, sexuality isn’t terrifying because it’s linked to bodies, but because it’s linked to in-laws.