When the British independent studio Hammer Films hit on the idea of updating the Universal classics of the 30's with "The Curse Of Frankenstein" (1957) and "The Horror Of Dracula" (1958) not only did the films bring them great success around the world, they also had a great impact across the rest of Europe ... although in a completely unexpected way! In Italy the first Italian horror film was actually made one year before Hammer's seminal Frankenstein feature: Riccardo Freda's "I Vampiri" (1956) showed great craftsmanship and promising originality but, at the time, audiences stayed away since they were unaccustomed to the idea of a domestically produced horror film. Later on, directors of Italian horror would go so far as to give themselves anglicised pseudonyms in order to disguise the true origins of their films!
By 1960 liberalisation was beginning to take hold; Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960) nudged at the boundaries of acceptability while in England, Michael Powell was unfortunate enough to be judged to have overstepped the mark with "Peeping Tom" (1960): a serious and provocative study of voyeurism. Meanwhile, In Italy, the same year saw the release of Mario Bava's "The Mask Of Satan" (1960). Although Barbara Steele brought a great deal of sexuality to her role as the evil Princess Asa, the film was still relatively staid -- a traditional gothic chiller that harked back to the stylish old Universal films. But other European directors sought to exploit their new found freedom to the max as a method of competing with their more popular British and American rivals, and the amount of sex included in their films gradually began to rise. Piero Regnoli's "The Playgirls And The Vampires" (1960) is one of the first Italian "sexy" horrors. Although it contains about the same level of peek-a-boo nudity as Powell's "Peeping Tom", it's tone is much less serious, with a fairly straightforward gothic horror narrative and some surprisingly witty humour occasionally making an appearance.
On a dark and stormy night, a bus-full of busty strippers and their manager get lost and ask to spend the night at a foreboding castle that they happen to stumble upon. Although not exactly welcomed with open arms by Zoltan the grounds man and the female keeper of the castle -- the owner, Count Gabor Kernassy (Walter Brandi), decides they can stay and is especially taken with one of the girls, Vera (Lila Rocco), who appears to have an uncanny knowledge of the castle despite never having been in the area before. The girls settle in for the night, but one of them, Katia (Maria Giovannini) borrows Vera's coat and goes in search of a shower -- despite the fact that the girls had earlier been warned by the Count never to leave their rooms after dark! The rest of the girls are woken by a piercing scream and find Katia lying dead in the forecourt, having apparently fallen out of a window! Because the group are unable to leave — since the bridge leading from the castle has been declared unsafe because of the storm — they decide to let Count Kernassy bury Katia's body in the Castle grounds. However, strange things begin to happen: the girls' manager wakes up to find a completely naked Katia standing over him with fangs bared; and Vera finds Katia's grave has been disinterred! Later, Vera stumbles upon a secret door leading to a laboratory where Katia's body lies on an examination table! Kernassy appears -- and admits to removing Katia from her grave but then talks vaguely of an "evil" lurking in the castle that he is trying to combat. Vera is even more shocked to discover a portrait of one of Gabor's two-hundred year old ancestors (Margherita Kernassy) looks exactly like her! When Vera goes hunting about the castle once more, she discovers the shocking secret that makes sense of all the strange events!
The name Piero Regnoli probably doesn't ring too many bells even among fans of Euro-shock, but the man has actually played an important role in the establishment of Italian horror — since he was involved in scripting the first Italian vampire film: Riccardo Freda's "I Vampiri". Since then, his contribution has mainly stayed within the realms of script-writing; and although he seems never to have been involved in any really high profile work, many of the films he has written will certainly be very familiar to most Euro-horror fans: Umberto Lenzi's "Nightmare City" (1980), Andrea Bianchi's "Burial Ground" (1980), and several late-period Lucio Fulci efforts: "Demonia" (1990), and "Voices From Beyond" (1991) are among his works.
Although it might sound rather cheesy, "The Playgirls and The Vampire" (the title comes curtesy of US distributor Richard Gordon; the original Italian title translates as "The Last Prey Of The Vampire") is actually a surprisingly classy affair for the most part; the black & White cinematography is beautifully expressionistic and the sets suitably Gothic. The final showdown in the cobwebby crypt beneath the Castle is convincingly action-packed, and the story exploits expectations cleverly to deliver a satisfying twist in the final act. But the director obviously has other concerns besides delivery of a decent horror film ... namely sex! By today's standards of course, the film looks positively coy; but the night-gowns the women wear as they explore the castle are noticeably more transparent than is normally the case, and a huge amount of underwear is always on display as the girls seem to be forever in various stages of undress. Maria Giovaninni spends most of the film completely naked in what must surely be the first ever instance of a nude vampire in cinema. It's interesting to speculate whether the film had any influence on Jess Franco or Jean Rollin in later years, and the idea even brings to mind Tobe Hopper's "Life Force" (1985). Giovaninni is, for the most part, shrouded in shadow with only the occasional glimpse of breast made visible — but it is still a very memorable performance.
The DVD from Salvation presents the film in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I'm not sure if this is correct; there are a few scenes that look like it has been cropped, but generally it doesn't look too bad. I suspect it has been slightly cropped from a 1.66:1 ratio! The image quality is variable: sometimes it looks really sharp while at other times the image is very soft and blurry. The black levels are always extremely good throughout though. There are also many scratches and nicks in the print and the English dub track is very noisy at times although otherwise it is quite clear. The extras include a trailer, a stills gallery, filmographies and an essay by the film's US distributor Richard Gordon. There is also an unrelated short film called "Blood" included on the disc.
The film is a surprisingly worthwhile example of the early origins of the horrotica sub-genre and well worth investigating.