Friday, June 9, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Playgirls And The Vampire (1960)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The bus carrying a group of five showgirls, their manager (Alfredo Rizzo) and their driver comes to a stop on a blocked road during a storm while traversing a nameless Central European country. The next town is far away, and the last town holds an angry hotel owner, so our heroes are only too happy when they stumble upon a castle. Having never seen a single horror film in their lives, everyone thinks it a grand idea to ask for shelter there.

At first, the place's owner, Count Gabor Kernassy (Walter Brandi) is quite displeased by the group's appearance, but as soon as he lays eyes on Vera (Lyla Rocco), one of the girls, his demeanour suddenly changes and he is willing to let them stay the night. But the Count has a few rules for his guests. Chiefly, he doesn't want to see them leave their rooms at night under any circumstances, and urges them to lock their doors from the inside. Nobody seems to think this the least bit suspicious, and so not everyone does what the Count asks.

Not surprisingly to anyone not a character in the movie, the next morning finds one of the girls dead, supposedly fallen to her death from the castle ramparts. And oh, look at that, the rain falls over night have made the way to the next town to hold the police - or for the guests to leave the castle - impassable.

Obviously, there is something strange going on in the castle. Might it have something to do with Vera's feeling of having been there before and the weird, quite changeable behaviour of the Count, whose at once cooing at Vera and urging her to get away as soon as she can? And where does the dead girl's corpse disappear to the next night? Only the movie's title and time will tell.

The Playgirls and the Vampire is not as good a film as one would hope for, but it's still an interesting part of the minor wave of Italian horror films of the early 60s trying to put the tropes - and some of the style - of the gothic vampire film into contemporary times (compare for example with the very similar - even to the use of Walter Brandi - The Vampire and the Ballerina). Unfortunately, it's also a film desperately trying to show as much supposedly titillating content as possible, without spending much of a thought on where and how to place the sexiness best. This random adding of what was probably called "risqué" when this was shot to where it doesn't work in the context of anything going on around it tends to strain one's patience with the film's permanently see-through nightie-clad protagonists. At least Vera - as the heroine - does put a leather jacket on once we all have seen enough of her breasts and her panties peaking through her gown. The most desperate and ill-fitting, and therefore most funny, moment of "sexiness" here must surely be shortly after the burial (yeah, they're fast with that, here) of the dead girl Katia. The logical reaction (if you're a character in an Italian exploitation film) of one of her friends to the shock of death and burial is - obviously - to do a (frightening looking) striptease. It's probably the way of her people instead of keening. Or a godawful moment in the history of screenwriting. In any event, this particular scene shows The Playgirls' lack of coherence, or rather, its puzzling absurdity. Who would think including a striptease in that way to be a good idea?

However, once you take a look at the name of The Playgirls' writer and director, and the body of work coming later in his career (mostly as a screenwriter), everything becomes clear. It's Piero Regnoli, writer of classics of Italian exploitation with extra sleaze like Burial Ground, Nightmare City or (the actually pretty swell) Malabimba. Of course, these films are quite a bit more effective and far-reaching in their sleaziness than The Playgirls is, but it's quite clear that Regnoli goes as far as the year of production allows (he even manages to smuggle a few seconds of naked vampire breasts in). Unfortunately, that's not far enough to let the film's attempts at titillation look anything more than desperate, and makes a good argument for the honesty of Regnoli's later work.

The Playgirls is a more interesting and effective film when it doesn't try to arouse its audience with showing either too little or too much. The movie's gothic melodrama aspect isn't exactly original (even in a film made in 1960), but works perfectly fine if you enjoy the style (as I do). From time to time, Regnoli even manages to build up a suitably spooky mood. The scenes with the vampirized Katia, always half dressed in stark shadows, are quite strong, as is Vera's encounter with the male vampire outside by night. With the help of some solid photography by Aldo Greci and in often very beautiful, noir-ish frame compositions, these scenes build up the film's vampires as a surprisingly creepy supernatural menace, only to be too soon interrupted by another reason for a girl to show off her nightgown. The gothic horror film and the would-be sexploitation one are permanently stepping on each other's toes, with Regnoli only once (in a scene between dead Katia and the manager) seeming to realize that the sex and the horror belong together in a scene and not in separate ones.

Fortunately, that's a lesson Regnoli would have learned well later on, as the full-grown psychosexual freak-out of Malabimba and Peter Bark's role in Burial Ground prove, to my delight, and the pain of many others.

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