Vampire Machine

First, let me get this out of the way. The Bloodstained Lawn (Italian title: Il Prato macchiato di Rosso, 1973) is a haphazard mash-up of a genre film, but an entertaining one for Eurotrash completists. The English language title suggests it might be a giallo or a horror film or even a poliziotteschi (crime drama). Actually, it has some elements of those with some sci-fi flavoring added. The central premise involves a form of vampirism which is a complete departure from the old school mythology of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and much closer to the metaphorical horrors of Alain Jessua’s Shock Treatment (French title: Traitement de Choc, 1973) and Rod Hardy’s Thirst (1979). Oddly enough, director Riccardo Ghione seems much less interested in playing up the horrific aspects of the story than depicting bourgeois decadence and the exploitation of the disenfranchised as a quasi-political fantasy.

There is no need to issue spoiler alerts because Ghione reveals his hand at the beginning of The Bloodstained Lawn as we see undercover cop (Nino Castelnuovo) investigate a suspicious wine shipment. He opens a bottle and pours out, not red wine, but human blood. It seems someone is using a vineyard as a front for an illegal blood smuggling operation. Of course, it’s much worse than that and we soon learn that drifters, winos, sex workers and other people with no ties to family or friends are being lured to a villa/clinic with an offer of free room and board with no strings attached.

The unholy three from The Bloodstained Lawn (Italian Title: Il Prato macchiato di Rosso, 1973) are, from left to right, Claudio Biava, Enzo Tarascio & Marina Malfatti.

All of these “guests” are being procured for one purpose only – their blood – and the masterminds behind it are Dr. Antonio Genovese (Enzo Tarascio), his wife Nina (Marina Malfatti) and her brother Alfiero (Claudio Biava), whose role is not dissimilar to Alida Valli’s predatory medical assistant in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960). Despite recent reports of hitchhikers and other people missing in the area, Max (George Willing), a free-spirited hippie musician and his girlfriend (Daniela Caroli), accept an invitation from Alfiero to kick back and relax at the luxurious estate of his sister. After they are settled in, the couple meet the other lodgers – an alcoholic tramp (Lucio Dalla), a gypsy girl (Barbara Marzano) and a prostitute (Dominique Boschero) – but no one seems to question their hosts’ generous hospitality or even perceive that the entire setup is a bit strange.

Max (George Willing) and his girlfriend (Daniela Caroli, far right) don’t seem to detect anything strange about their host Nina (Marina Malfatti) in the oddball horror thriller, The Bloodstained Lawn (1973), directed by Riccardo Ghione.

Hiding in plain sight in the guest lounge is a metal sculpture-like object by the wall which looks look a robot with a cartoon face, vacuum cleaner tube appendages and metal incisor hands. Only Max’s girlfriend seems somewhat disturbed by its presence but this clunky-looking creation of Dr. Genovese is the film’s intended piece de resistance. When activated by the mad doctor, the vampire machine sinks its metal fangs into the victim and extracts the blood through a pump. As directed by Ghione, these sequences, which should be chilling, are as amusingly inept as Bela Lugosi wrestling with a rubber squid in the climax to Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955). And that’s part of the film’s goofy appeal.

The vampire machine featured in The Bloodstained Lawn (1973) is one of the more clunky and inept gizmos to ever appear in a horror film.

We’ll never know if Ghione might have been Italy’s answer to Ed Wood since he only directed three films which were distributed theatrically in Europe and never seen in the U.S. The Bloodstained Lawn was his final effort; the other two were La rivoluzione sessuale (1968), co-scripted by Dario Argento and focusing on a sexual experiment involving the theories of Wilhelm Reich, and A cuore freddo (1971), a drama of marital discord between a bourgeois husband and his rebellious wife.  Ghione was better known in the Italian film industry as a screenwriter and/or story contributor whose credits were almost always shared with other screenwriters on undistinguished commercial fare, usually erotic dramas (1985’s Scandalous Gilda) or sex comedies (1986’s Delizia). But if The Bloodstained Lawn is representative of Ghione in the director’s chair then the following qualities define his auteur approach: languid, semi-static pacing, conspicuous repetition of musical motifs, a general failure to suspend disbelief and erratic continuity (one character is dropped from the storyline without explanation or resolution while other characters are introduced but remain nameless throughout the film like Sam’s girlfriend).

Max’s unidentified girlfriend (played by Daniela Caroli) is comforted by undercover police detective (matinee idol Nino Castelnuovo) in Riccardo Ghione’s The Bloodstained Lawn (1973).

There are also blatant gaffes, possibly due to a rushed shooting schedule and low budget, such as a scene where the door to a cold storage morgue is opened and we see one of the corpses close her eyes. And Ghione’s staging of some key would-be erotic sequences (mostly fixated on female nudity) are so awkward you can almost feel the actors’ embarrassment, particularly the sequence where Max joins his girlfriend in the shower when the water turns to wine and they grope and wallow together in the red liquid. There is also an over-the-top scene where three of the guests get drunk on champagne in a hall of distorted mirrors and strip while their hosts observe them like laboratory rats. It sounds promising in theory but comes off like a bad night at the actor’s improv.

Water turns to blood red wine in the infamous shower sequence from The Bloodstained Lawn (1973), starring George Willing and Daniela Caroli as the bathing couple.

As a result, The Bloodstained Lawn often seems like an unholy union of exploitation film and art movie pretension. Yet the film’s uncertain tone and deadpan absurdity make it both laughable and dumbfounding. And there are things to savor here for Italian cinema cultists.  Take, for instance, the music score by Teo Usuelli, a composer who has worked many times with director Marco Ferreri over the years, starting with The Conjugal Bed (1963) and continuing with The Ape Woman (1964), The Wedding March (1966), The Man with the Balloons (1968), Dillinger is Dead (1969) and others. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, you might recognize one of his most famous movie themes which was played in the background in The Big Lebowski (1998). It’s the scene where the Dude (Jeff Bridges) crashes a party thrown by pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). The addictive, hypnotic tune featuring vocalist Edda Del ‘Orso chanting the word “sexually” over and over again was first heard in the 1972 Silvio Amadio giallo Alla ricerca del piacere (aka Amuck) and Usuelli creates a similarly propulsive, driving theme song in The Bloodstained Lawn, utilized most effectively while Alfiero is cruising for new victims. Usuelli’s score definitely perks up several inane sequences and even exudes a tongue-in-cheek quality with a sugary, bubble gum pop motif (featuring the raspy vocals of Lucio Dalla) that is used during scenes where the hippie couple frolic on the villa’s lawn or in the bucolic countryside.

An outrageous set design from The Bloodstained Lawn (1973) which seems inspired by a somewhat similar scene in Piero Schivazappa’s The Frightened Woman (1969).

The production design by Arrigo Equini has some inspired bad taste moments. One involves a tautly stretched fabric wall used as a room divider which is designed to look like an abstract female nude with a vagina-like opening in the center. Naturally the uncouth house guest Max plunges through it head first followed by the other partygoers. This set piece seems heavily influenced by similar woman’s-body-swallowing-a-man symbolism from the far superior psycho-sexual melodrama, Piero Schivazappa’s The Frightened Woman (1969) aka The Laughing Woman.

A shocking discovery is made in the basement of a vineyard owner’s villa in The Bloodstained Lawn (1973).

And the scene where the hippie couple discover previous victims of their hosts, artistically arranged as a pile of nude male and female bodies like some surreal Weegee photograph, is memorably odd.

Nino Castelnuovo (left) plays an undercover police detective in this scene from The Bloodstained Lawn (1973) featuring one of several non-professional actors from the Italian village of Castell ‘Arquato.

Another point of interest is the setting for The Bloodstained Lawn which was filmed in the quaint town of Castell ‘Arquato in the province of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna. Ghione populated a lot of the supporting roles in his film with the local residents, especially in two scenes with Nino Castelnuovo – one in which he visits a nightclub and the other as he tours the winemaking facilities of the Genovese family, which was filmed at the Testa wine cellars.

Marina Malfatti stars as the diabolical Nina, a wealthy vineyard owner who fronts an illegal blood operation in The Bloodstained Lawn (aka Il prato macchaito di rosso, 1973).

But the real draw here is the cast starting with the iconic Marina Malfatti as the haughty Aryan mistress of the villa who, while listening to Wagner, declares, “I really love German music. It makes us feel bigger, more important. It is music, without a doubt, for a superior race.” Later in the film she rationalizes her crimes to her surviving guests: “Whenever there are wars and injured people blood is worth a lot. More than petrol or gold and it’s needed to save the lives of those who can afford it. You’ve seen my victims. Prostitutes, drunks, gypsies, drifters like you. People without roots. No one will cry for them.”

Popular Italian singer Lucio Dalla plays a homeless wino who becomes an unwitting victim of his host’s weird experiments in The Bloodstained Lawn (1973), co-starring Enzo Tarascio (right) as the demented Dr. Genovese.

What is particularly strange about The Bloodstained Lawn is how little sympathy or interest is generated by Ghione for the victims. They are a dim-witted lot, self-indulgent, lazy and opportunistic. It is almost as if the director is making a case for Nina’s master race rants.

Marina Malfatti stars in the 1972 giallo Seven Blood-Stained Orchids as pictured in this German lobbycard.

Malfatti manages to make the most of this poorly written role and convey volumes with a glance, whether it be contempt for her infantile husband or unrequited lust for her brother Alfiero. The Bloodstained Lawn was made toward the end of Malfatti’s peak years in Italian cinema and some of her best known work was already behind her including seminal giallos like The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971), Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972), All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972). Malfatti also appeared in some spaghetti westerns such as Gunman of One Hundred Crosses (1971) and A Noose is Waiting for You Trinity (1972).

Italian character actor Enzo Tarascio has appeared in numerous films such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971).

Providing comic relief, which may or may not be intentional, is Enzo Tarascio as the highly eccentric Dr. Genovese. Sporting an ever-changing wardrobe of outrageously oversized bow ties in psychedelic or earth tone hues, Tarascio has fun with his mad scientist character, often bemoaning his wife’s indifference to his genius. “Why don’t you understand my poetic world? Science is poetry. I’m not interested in money.” The few glimpses we get of Dr. Genovese’s genius, however, suggests he is not really a scientist at all but a outre gag gift inventor. Besides the ridiculous vampire machine conception, we get brief shots of a revolving, life size human head that cackles like a witch, an inflatable, beating heart with attached blood capillaries and a mechanized grinning teeth gadget that giggles.

A close up of the absurd vampire machine from Riccardo Ghione’s The Bloodstained Lawn (1973).

Tarascio has the look of some jaded aristocrat straight out of one of Jean Rollin’s erotic vampire films but he has never appeared in one of those. Among his more famous supporting roles are Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), the Strangers-on-a-Train inspired The Designated Victim (1971), the spaghetti western Trinity is STILL My Name (1971) and the gory gallo, The Dead Are Alive (1972).

Nino Castelnuovo plays an undercover police detective who investigates a suspicious wine shipment in The Bloodstained Lawn (1973).

Nino Castelnuovo is easily the most high profile actor in the cast of The Bloodstained Lawn but his character, a police detective posing as a UNESCO agent, is relegated to a subplot and comes off as a plodding, barely competent investigator. He does arrive to save the day in a very flat, unsuspenseful climax but the role is beneath Castelnuovo’s talents and he clearly looks bored. In his early years he was quite the matinee idol and appeared in such art-house award winners like Rocco and His Brothers (1960), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Les Creatures (1966). He later branched out into a variety of European genre and exploitation films such as Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000 (1969), The 5-Man Army (1969) and Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975).

Nino Castelnuovo co-stars with Daniele Gaubert in Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000 (1969).

Probably the most curious casting coup of The Bloodstained Lawn is Lucio Dalla. He was considered one of the most popular musicians/singers in Italian pop music in the second half of the 20th century reaching superstar status in the 80s. He also composed the music scores for several films including Mario Monicelli’s I Picari (1987) and winning David di Donatello awards (the Italian equivalent of the Oscar) for Borotalco (1982) – Best Music – and Il Frullo del passero (1988) – Best Song. Why he wanted to play a drunken tramp in Ghione’s film is a mystery but he treats the role as a comic stereotype. To his credit, he appears to be the only houseguest who figures out what is actually going on behind the scenes but his alcoholic state renders him useless.

Lucio Dalla, the popular Italian singer/musician, plays an alcoholic tramp in The Bloodstained Lawn (1973).

The Bloodstained Lawn was originally released on DVD on the CineKult label in 2012 under the Italian title Il prato macchiato di rosso. It is the Italian language version and may still be available through various international DVD distributors if you own an all-region DVD player. A better option is a version with English subtitles available through European Trash Cinema.  Other website links of interest:

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