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Thursday, October 13, 2016
Joe Sarno was one of those exploitation directors who was talented enough so that his films often transcended their rather sordid genres. With VAMPIRE ECSTASY (aka "The Devil's Plaything, 1973), he made a Gothic horror film whose graphic eroticism perversely enhances its genuine mood and atmosphere.
Sarno's producer, Chris D. Nebe, had access to a castle in Germany which serves as an ideal location for both exteriors and interiors and increases the film's production values immeasurably.
The cinematography takes excellent advantage of these locations. Some shots, in fact, are suitable for framing, as when three primly-dressed women in black silhouette await a carriage's arrival at the gates of the castle early on.
Some visuals have a surreal, dreamlike quality, others a formal composition that's subtle but effective. Rembrandt lighting against stark shadowy backgrounds results in a number of striking close-ups.
The story begins similarly to DRACULA, with a group of strangers arriving at the castle only to find it and its inhabitants strangely disturbing. In this case, a trio of young women have come for the reading of a will left by the castle's mysterious Baroness.
Greeting them in stern fashion is the head housekeeper, Frau Wanda (Nadia Henkowa), a severe woman whose sly smile hides sinister secrets. We already know a few of them from the witchy pre-titles sequence, in which she and the other four women of her staff cavort naked in the castle's dungeon and engage in mutual, shall we say, "ecstasy."
Also arriving at the castle are two stranded motorists, brother and sister Julia and Peter Malenkow (Anke Syring, Nico Wolf). Julia is a doctor studying the local mountain-folk superstitions, and will later become the film's Van Helsing equivalent when her knowledge of vampirism and the will to fight against it prove crucial.
Peter, on the other hand, will become sexually entangled with one of the young heiresses, Helga (Marie Forså), further involving himself and his sister in the evil events to come--namely, the reincarnation of the vampiric Baroness in the form of one of the young women.
As for the film's sexual content, there are several lesbian encounters (the loft in the barn proves a popular spot for a roll in the hay) as well as those between Peter and Helga, whose libido is increasing uncontrollably under the influence of Frau Wanda and her minions. There's even a hint of incest in the relationship between Julia and Peter.
No X-rated action takes place (Sarno's first hardcore film, SLEEPYHEAD with Georgina Spelvin, would be made the same year) but what there is rates a pretty "hard" R. And if you enjoy female nudity in itself there's quite a pleasing variety to be seen throughout.
As in another of his films I got to review some years ago, CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, Sarno is able to integrate the sex scenes into the plot well enough so that they don't stand out like a sore thumb or bring the story to a halt. They're employed to good effect--tastefully, one might even say--and never as padding. Most of the time they barely even seem gratuitous.
Performances are uniformly good, with Nadia Henkowa's Frau Wanda the unchallenged center of attention as we're waiting for the impending reincarnation of the Baroness. She's marvelous, reminding me of a theatrical cross between Martin Landau and Theda Bara, with a slyly expressive face that skirts the edges of overacting without ever going over. Prim and straightlaced in her black housekeeper's outfit and tightly-wound hair (all the women on her staff dress this way), her transitions from matronly to wantonly gorgeous are stunning.
Sarno's script is somber, never campy--intentionally or otherwise--all the way to its somewhat abrupt ending (which Sarno seems to favor). In look and mood it's as though a Hammer production and a Jess Franco film met halfway to a screening of Roman Polanski's DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES (aka "The Fearess Vampire Killers") and decided to spend the weekend together.
The surprising thing for me is the degree to which this is a genuine, sincerely-wrought horror film, and not simply sexploitation with horror elements. As a sort of female DRACULA reimagining, it more than carries its own weight alongside many of the mainstream vampire tales I've seen.
"SIN YOU SINNERS"
The second film on the disc is a fervid and wonderfully lurid 73 minutes of sleazertainment entitled SIN YOU SINNERS. It was released in the pre-nudity era of 1963 when naughty movies relied more on shock value and pure, unadulterated sleaze to titillate adult audiences.
We get plenty of that here in the form of an over-the-hill stripper named Bobbi (June Colbourne) who, inexplicably, keeps wowing her male audiences in the dive where she works even though she looks like she should be playing somebody's psycho-mom on "Leave It to Beaver."
Not only that, but she keeps a studly young gigolo named Dave (Derek Murcott) at home, where he indulges her with wet, sloppy kisses whenever she feels randy. (Murcott reminds me of porn actor Eric Edwards, who would co-star in Sarno's CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE.) Bobbi's spinster daughter Julie (Dian Lloyd) also lives with them and reluctantly helps in Bobbi's illegal fortune-telling scam that she has on the side.
Why men still lust after her, and why Dave and Julie stick around despite her being a spiteful, narcissistic old bag, is revealed when we discover the truth behind the strange amulet Bobbi obtained in Haiti and alway wears. When the secret of the amulet is revealed, everyone including various prostitutes and other acquaintances from the club start plotting to get it away from her, with betrayal and death as the result.
June Colbourne is a hoot as super-sleazy Bobbi, impressive whether chewing the scenery like a female Edward G. Robinson or delivering the soliloquy in which she describes her mystical experience in Haiti with evocative intensity.
Equally good is Dian Lloyd's sensitive performance as Julie, a lonely, fearful girl yearning for love from both abusive strangers she meets in coffee shops and also from her mother's live-in lover Dave. Lloyd is fine in the role and helps make the film as watchable as it is. The rest of the cast are, for the most part, unpolished but enthusiastic.
Direction is credited to Anthony Farrar--it's his only IMDb credit, with Sarno listed as an uncredited co-director. The film is competently and sometimes even stylishly directed, with good use of the extremely low budget and shoddy sets. The editing is a bit iffy at times.
In addition to simple pulp exploitation, Sarno's script is an engaging character study steeped in lowlife desperation. The stark, shadowy black-and-white photography is ideal for such a dreary and often nightmarish world, and so is the fact that the battered, ravaged print used here--apparently the best one available--seems to be on its last legs.
It's as though the film has been rescued from the junk heap with moments to spare, its images clinging desperately to the celluloid, and we're lucky to have what's left despite its many flaws including constant scratches and several alarming jump-cuts where scenes have been pieced back together.
Since I grew up watching films in this condition, both in theaters and on the late show, I find it wonderfully nostalgic and even strangely comforting to be able to enjoy a film with old-fashioned imperfections.
Many modern viewers may find SIN YOU SINNERS a difficult film to sit through due to these factors alone, while others, hopefully, will appreciate its genuine "grindhouse" appeal. The best thing about it, in any case, is that it's just so endearingly, life-affirmingly sleazy.
The Blu-ray disc from Film Movement Classics comes with an attractively illustrated booklet containing an essay by author/critic/film historian Tim Lucas. Both features (2K digital restoration) are in 1.78:1 widescreen with stereo sound. No subtitles. In addition to trailers for both films, extras include a commentary track for VAMPIRE ECSTASY by producer Chris Nebe and two informative interview featurettes, one with Joe Sarno and one with both Sarno and Nebe.
Film Movement Official Website
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Street date: October 25, 2016