Joseph Sarno was one of the pioneers of American sexploitation in the sixties. The writer-director helmed taboo tales of swinging suburban housewives and their sexually curious daughters, and explored their forbidden desires in ordinary, often mundane domestic settings for a series of films that frequently dealt with the underlying emotional psychology of sex operating behind the scenes of the softcore rutting that ostensibly sold the pictures. Sarno’s work was unusual in regard to the sheer amount of screen time that he was willing to dedicate to the depiction of the emotional as well as the sexual lives of his characters, particularly the women. Many of Sarno’s films play more like ordinary romantic melodramas about relationships (with an undercurrent of psycho-sexual ennui) for the majority of their run times, but minus the discreet pan away or the coy fade to black when it comes to the depiction of what goes on in the bedroom, which he would instead endeavour to depict as realistically as possible. As the seventies came into focus many of his films were operating on the edge of pornography, but at the same time they were too concerned with artistry and atmosphere to give themselves over fully to the prosaic demands of the pornographic genre. Although many of his films came to feature un-simulated sex acts, Sarno was more interested in painting a realistic portrait of the role sex actually plays in the lives of people and pondering the hidden emotional levers of desire motivating and influencing his protagonists, rather than in forensic displays of the basic anatomical mechanics of the process of the sex act itself -- although eventually the move into hardcore became inevitable. The apex of Joe Sarno’s career came in the early- to mid-seventies: a series of ground-breaking emotional dramas appeared in which the sex scenes could often be dimly lit and atmospheric, but also stark and quite torrid and abandoned -- but still not necessarily as explicit as hardcore audiences would come to demand of their smut flicks. During the late-sixties and early-seventies, Sarno divided his time between Europe and America and discovered many a soon-to-be renowned sexploitation starlet while working in Sweden -- such as Dyanne Thorne, Marie Liljedahl and Christina Lindberg. After his landmark Swedish films “Inga” and “Daddy Darling”, Sarno teamed up with Chris Nebe -- a former distributor who had profited from distributing dubbed versions of Sarno’s ‘60s American films in Scandinavia and was now branching out into film production as a next step. The two men made three films together in total, all of them shot in Switzerland. The first one in the series was the film that’s presently under consideration.
“Vampire Ecstasy” is very atypical of the rest of Sarno’s filmography; the ‘horrotica’ genre -- typified by the work of such luminaries as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin -- was not a natural stamping ground for him, but nevertheless Nebe wanted a horror film and so Sarno endeavoured to supply one -- as convincingly as he could. When it comes to incorporating sex and horror there is no sub-genre more suited to the job than the lesbian vampire flick, and “Vampire Ecstasy” (originally titled “Veil of Blood” and then later known as “The Devil’s Plaything” before being renamed again for a previous US DVD release) is exactly that – no more and no less. As far as the plot goes, Sarno didn’t exactly push the boat out when it came to the developing of his narrative muscle, choosing to stick closely to some well-worn tropes in a storyline that’s been seen countless times in various euro horror offerings, all the expected genre motifs duly being trotted out at some point. Basically, it’s a “Mask of Satan” plotline involving the descendants of a Countess Elizabeth Báthory-type called Baroness Varga who journey to visit the home of their evil ancestor after being informed that, as the last in the Varga line, they’ve inherited her remaining estates and tithes but that they have to spend a year living inside her middle-European castle in order for the inheritance to be rendered valid. The Baroness was a nasty piece of work from the middle-ages who used to bathe in the warm blood of her impaled victims, until the women from a nearby village ganged up and burned her at the stake! Legend has it that she will one day be resurrected in the body of one of her descendants … and she has a cult of devoted admirers who are determined to bring that day into being with the help of some naked dungeon cavorting in the castle vaults, usually in front of a burning cauldron as hypnotic bongo beats ring out!
Despite the director’s ill ease with the horror genre in general, “Vampire Ecstasy” is a modestly successful outing that holds its own with some of the key lesbian vampire euro-cult favourites of the seventies. Under the guise of a rather magnificent setting situated in the Swiss Alps (ensconced amongst dark, all-encompassing forests and backed by snow-peaked mountain tops) and a brooding medieval-looking castle owned by Nebe’s uncle that had its own dungeon on hand for supplying bags of decadent gothic atmosphere, Sarno was gifted the perfect location, and his director of photography, Steve Silverman, pretty much has only to point his camera in any direction to be able to furnish the film with at least some kind of strikingly atmospheric visual. The opening scene in which Marie Forså (another of Sarno’s Swedish discoveries) steps off the platform from a modern-day train and is transported into a world composed of quaint gingerbread-style Swiss chapels and medieval castles, via a coach and horses that has a driver incongruously kitted out in 18th century attire, instantly lets it be known that we’re entering the world more usually occupied by Franco and Rollin -- and indeed the candle-lit antique interiors of Castle Varga and its dungeon crypts (lit with delirious bright red gels) lend the film the feel of Franco’s “The Female Vampire” or Rollin’s “Requiem for a Vampire”. Sarno doesn’t have that duo’s knack for dreamlike fever dreaming though, and the clunky storyline sticks to the absolute basics, involving one of the two unsuspecting young women who’ve been lured to this remote castle manse looking the spitting image of her dead ancestor in the crudely drawn portrait that adorns the drawing room wall, and subsequently, being groomed by its coven of female devotees to be the host body when the vampire queen returns.
As well as Forså as the fresh-faced girl-next-door-type Helga, there’s also Monika (the perfectly named Ulrike Butz) – a pretty brunette who’s the innocent unknowingly being set up to donate her luscious young curves to her vampire ancestor in the film’s final act. She brings along a lesbian friend called Iris (Flavia Keyt), who signposts her persuasion well in advance by dint of turning up dressed in a pinstripe suit with a jauntily angled fedora positioned atop her marcel wave (bringing a little bit of the stylishness of Harry Kümel’s “Daughters of Darkness” to the Sapphic party). Also in attendance is folklorist and would-be female Van Helsing Dr Julia Malenkow (Anke Syring), who arrives in the middle of a storm seeking shelter at the castle with her slightly dim brother Peter (Nico Wolferstetter), already suspecting something untoward is afoot and determined to put a stop to it with the help of pendants made out of gloves of garlic in the shape of crosses. The castle is run by a troupe of apparently prim & stern, black-clad female servant staff that work for housekeeper Frau Wanda Krock, who’s played by Hungarian actress Nadia Henkowa looking like a slightly gone to seed Barbara Steele but sounding like Bela Lugosi. The European cast all speak their lines in phonetic English, making the exposition-heavily dialogue in the first act fairly hard to follow (so it’s lucky in that respect that the story is as perfunctory as it is!)
With everyone in attendance at Castle Varga, Sarno gets down to conducting the main business of the day, which is ensuring that barely three minutes go by before he finds some sort of excuse to have at least two or more of the extensive female cast take all of their clothes off, until everyone’s had at least one nude scene by the end of the proceedings. Lesbian vampire films are primarily driven by a preoccupation with the idea of supernatural seduction, and it’s not long before Wanda and her coven of euro totty lovelies are casting hypnotic spells left right and centre: poor Helga gets the worst of it, and is afflicted with an unquenchable ‘throb’ in the nether regions that involves much self-pleasuring, moaning and rolling about in the hayloft with a more than willing Peter. You can have too much of a good thing, or so it turns out -- and the enslaved Helga becomes the coven’s Renfield, carrying out its wishes in return for making her sex cravings abate for a while (everyone needs a breather from relentless frottage or groping now and again.) Helga’s rendezvous with Peter brings a certain amount of pain to Julia, for it transpires that the Dr has secret incestuous feelings for her own brother – and once the vampire servants of Varga get wind of that little morsel of information they go all out to try and corrupt the pair while they prepare themselves for the return of their mistress.
Luckily for the viewer, the main method Wanda and her gang implement in pursuit of their determined attempts to hypnotise the other occupants of the castle involves casting spells in the dungeons with their sex magik, while naked and covered in body-paint. There’s also an awful lot of breast fondling involved in these rituals (whoever thought casting spells could be so much fun?) and caressing candles carved in the shape of a phallus; they also keep a muscle-bound fella tied up down there and occasionally wheel him out, strap him to an altar and get down to some full-on orgy business. When Dr Malenkow is menaced by invisible bats summoned up by Wanda’s malign powers, the little critters manage to shred and remove every last stitch of her clothing; and finally, when Monica (who doesn’t feature for much of the film at all until the last act) is at last made the vessel of Varga’s return to the material world, she and her devotees waft around naked apart from transparent chiffon shrouds. The generally awkward performances of most of the cast -- a mix of soft and hardcore performers (many of whom didn’t survive the rest of the seventies) attempting to do proper acting -- lends the film a rather charmingly amateur hue but the beautiful Swiss setting and decaying gothic interiors helps to paper the cracks created by the feeble dialogue and wafer-thin plotting (which exists only to glue the joins between the frequent scenes of nudity and sex) and anyone familiar with the seventies work of Rollin, Franco and offbeat entries in the lesbian vampire genre like José Ramón Larraz’s “Vampyres” will find this effort equally as engaging and atmospheric -- although Marie Forså and Nadia Henkowa clearly own it with their respective performances as girl next door turned sex hungry wild thing and naked dungeon witch with flaring nostrils!
The UK DVD from Medium Rare presents an initially speckled but thereafter otherwise clear and colourful rendering of the film in 1.78:1 widescreen with an English mono audio track and a secondary German mono audio track option (although there are no sub-titles and the film was shot in English originally anyway). The only extra is a six minute featurette in which the late Sarno talks about the visual art of the film in terms of its lighting and the helpfulness of the location for establishing the appropriate mood for a horror film. “Vampire Ecstasy” is actually fairly insubstantial and insufficient as a horror film, but is more than adequate as an example of mid-seventies softcore euro-cult horrotica, lacking the fairytale ambiance of Rollin maybe, or the yearning sexual existentialism of prime Franco, yet full of evocative imagery, and host to a distinctive-looking female cast that has character even when its members still have clothes on (which, admittedly, is not very often.)
Read more by Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!