PURE TERROR MONTH: Malenka (1969)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Van Ryn is the man behind the website Groovy Doom and the zine Drive-In Asylum. You should grab an issue after reading this.

Spanish filmmaker Amando de Ossorio will most likely be forever remembered as the creator of the Blind Dead series, but his first horror-themed film was 1969’s Malenka, which was eventually released in the US in 1973 with the title Fangs of the Living Dead. The movie predates the early 70s boom in Spanish horror films (for which the success of de Ossorio’s 1971 Tombs of the Blind Dead was partially responsible), although by the time it played in US theaters, Spanish directors were already cranking them out left and right. 

Malenka aspires to the Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer film, and in that regard it succeeds completely. Beautiful, buxom women in low-cut flowing nightgowns are everywhere here, as well as a creepy castle with a dungeon, a village tavern, a spooky graveyard, etc.  Set in contemporary times, the plot finds lovely Anita Ekberg as Sylvia, a young woman who is about to be married to a doctor named Piero. She receives a letter written by her uncle, informing her that her mother has died and she has inherited the title of Countess, with a castle to go along with it. When she goes to the castle, she finds that her uncle, Count Walbrooke, is a thin, pale man who is never seen during the day. Sylvia is startled to see a painting of her grandmother, Malenka, who looks just like Sylvia except as a brunette.

Also not fond of daylight is “Blinka” (or did she say “Glinka”???), one of those big-bosomed women I mentioned earlier, who appears in Sylvia’s room in the middle of the night. Blinka tells Sylvia that her uncle isn’t her uncle, and that he’s really over 100 years old. Walbrooke eventually tells Sylvia that he is a vampire, just like her grandmother Malenka was before the villagers burned her at the stake. He insists that Sylvia call off her engagement with Piero and assume the place of her deceased grandmother as matriarch of this den of vampires.  

There isn’t any of the overt nudity and graphic violence that often showed up in de Ossorio’s later work, but his movies all have a certain childlike quality that is definitely present here, especially in the way the plot is resolved. If you don’t want it to be spoiled for you, better stop reading here, but it’s really not that big of a deal because ultimately the whole thing is nonsense: Walbrooke captures the interfering Piero and chains him up, revealing that the whole thing was a ruse to have Sylvia declared insane so he can take her inheritance. Glinka goes rogue, however, and decides to tell Sylvia that the whole thing is a con. Sylvia already knows, though, and together they escape while Glinka has a catfight (batfight?) with another vampire wannabe. Inexplicably, the uncle’s body turns into an ancient corpse when Piero strikes him with a torch; his body and the portrait of Malenka burn before everyone’s eyes. Then, for some reason, when Piero and Sylvia leave the castle the next day, Piero’s accompanying friend suddenly turns into a vampire for no apparently reason and attacks a female villager.  

The double fake ending where the vampires ended up being real was apparently added without the involvement of de Ossorio, but even if it hadn’t been added, the movie still would not have made any logical sense — we see Piero examining the body of a dead woman who later turns out to have just been pretending, so he must be a pretty lousy physician. Also, there are numerous moments when Walbrooke and Glinka are alone, yet still pretending to be vampires. Maybe they were into some kind of vampire kink?

Malenka was given the title Fangs of the Living Dead when it was released in the US as part of the notorious Orgy of the Living Dead triple feature, alongside two other films given new titles containing the words “living dead”. It kept the title when it started to appear on TV, which is where I first saw it on Channel 11’s “Chiller Theatre” in Pittsburgh.  It’s an interesting vampire flick, even if it waffles back and forth about whether its vampires are real. De Ossorio’s unique treatment of horror tropes is also at its least transgressive here. There are hints of the sex and sadism that was to come, but it’s light enough here to make this movie seem more like a spooky fairy tale than a horror movie.

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