Monday, October 6, 2008

The Devil's Plaything (1973)

(aka: Fluch der Schwarzen Schwestern, Der/Vampire Ecstasy/Veil of Blood/Schloss der schwarzen Hexen, Das/The Curse of the Black Sisters )

Nestled in the mountains of present day Germany, a grim and secluded castle stands - the haunted legacy of the beautiful medieval vampire Baroness Daniella Varga. Executed centuries earlier because of her ravenous lust for female blood, the Baroness uttered a curse that she would return one day to satisfy her unnatural lust. When four unwary women convene on the castle, they are unaware that the dark and mysterious housekeeper is a satanic high priestess presiding over a coven of delectable minions who perform wild orgiastic rituals and sensual lesbian acts each night to keep the Baroness' profane spirit alive. The women are drawn deeper and deeper into the erotic nightmare, succumbing to torrid and evil fantasies of the flesh, as Daniella and her servants attempt to use one of the house guests as a vessel for the baroness's return so that she might continue her evil reign of terror.

American sexploitation giant Joseph W. Sarno (Confessions of a Young American Housewife, Inga) and producer Chris Nebe teamed up in the mid-'70's to make a trio of exploitation films. The first of these was the softcore vampire nudie The Devil's Plaything in Nebe's native country of Germany. I find it a bit difficult to write about this film, because Sarno was so erratic. There were numerous scenes that were obviously inspired by Hammer's erotic "Karnstein" vampire films (The Vampire Lovers, Lust For A Vampire, Twins Of Evil) as well as Countess Dracula, and despite the opinion of many reviewers who say that Sarno was incapable of creating and capturing that "Gothic" atmosphere, I'd have to disagree. No, it's certainly not Hammer (nobody could make films like Hammer), but there were plenty of scenes which I thought were moody and atmospheric. Most of the exterior scenes outside the castle were spectacular (the castle, a 12th-century Munich bastion, was supposedly owned by producer Chris Nebe's uncle), and many others, including the one where Marie Forsa's character creeps nude through the shadows into the room of another guest to hover over his bed, is proof that cinematographer Steve Silverman (Passion in Hot Hollows) was more than capable. On the flip side, there were almost as many scenes that seemed rushed and sloppily composed. Another factor which I found a bit irritating and off-putting was the character's heavy German accents. Sarno shot the movie with English dialogue instead of German or Swedish so as to make it more presentable to U.S. and other English speaking markets. In doing so, in many of the scenes you have to pay close attention to understand and follow what the characters are saying, and even then, it is touch and go. However, I thought the heavy accents lent some air of authenticity to the film, whereas shoddy English dubbing would have only cheapened it. So...

Sarno's story is entertaining enough, and the director waste little time in getting things rolling having four young woman and a man arriving at the misty and ominous Castle Varga within the first few minutes. Two of the ladies, Helga and Monika, have been summoned to the castle for the reading of an inheritance, which gives them rightful ownership of the abode provided they reside there for an entire year (Helga has also brought along her best friend). The other two, a female anthropologist who specializes in the occult and ancient folk-lore and her brother, show up after their car breaks down near the castle. The five are greeted by the dark and mysterious "housekeeper" Wanda, who promptly shows them to their rooms. That night, the five guest hear peculiar chanting coming from the bowels of the castle and, on the ensuing nights, each falls victim to torrid sexual fantasies brought on by Wanda and a coven of nude disciples bent on bringing the 400 year-old Baroness Daniella Varga back to life. It seems that Wanda (Hungarian actress Nadia Henkowa - Butterflies) has the power to hypnotize and cast spells that "set your nipples on fire." If you've ever seen a Sarno film, you might have a pretty good idea of what the director is going to present. Wanda and her coven engage in nightly orgiastic rituals below in the castle's dungeon, gyrating nude in front of flaming cauldrons, masturbating with penis shaped candles, and having sex with the two sole male members of the group (lucky bastards). Sarno also introduces us to Swedish sexpot Marie Forså (Justine And Juliette), who was only 17 at the time and plays the part of Helga. Forså isn't the most attractive actress in the world, but there were a couple of scenes, one where she fellates a candle and a couple where she moans and writhes while rubbing her crotch and moaning, "Oh please...make it stop. Make this throbbing stop," that might have some squirming on their couches. German actress Ulrike Butz (she appeared in a number of Walter Boos' early 70's sex comedies, like The Swinging Co-eds) plays Monika. Butz's character is a relatively minor one up until the last third of the film, after which "Monika" suddenly becomes a rather important facet of the story. Dr. Julia Malenkow (Anke Syring-Girl Meets Girl) and her brother Peter (Nico Wolferstetter-Love In 3-D), are the siblings whose car breaks down near the castle. Julia, an anthropologist, is the only one intelligent enough it seems to suspect something odd is going on within the castle. Dr. Julia, who also has an "unnatural" relationship with her brother, tries to warn him and gives him a crucifix made of garlic. So what does Pete do? Gives it to the little tart Helga for whom he has the hots. Others in the cast include Flavia Keyt (she appeared uncredited as a prostitute in The French Sex Murders), Alon D'Armand (The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse ), Claudia Fielers (Caged Women), Natasha Michnowa (Bittersweet Love), and Christa Jaeger (Girl Meets Girl).

Surprisingly, I really liked The Devil's Plaything. A lot of things could have been better--Sarno's choppy editing, the often incomprehensible dialogue, the fact that most of the actresses were unattractive and hard-looking (yes, I know, I'm shallow)--but overall, I was pleasantly surprised. I've loved female vampire movies from the very first moment I saw Hammer's Brides Of Dracula when I was eight or nine years old. Unfortunately, The Devil's Plaything doesn't come close to comparing to those classics of Hammer. Sarno was certainly no Terence Fisher and Nebe was no Anthony Hinds, but considering Sarno's specialty was cheapy-nudie flicks...I thought the film turned out okay. As much as I like nudity in films, I think that if Sarno would have focused more on the vampire elements and catching that moody, Gothic feel he would have produced a far more substantial and enjoyable movie. I would have liked to have seen more sexy vampires roaming the shadowy foyers in flowing sheer negligee or gallivanting across the countryside or through the misty woodlands, and fewer repetitive scenes of the coven swaying behind a burning cauldron. And if your going to make a film about female vampires, give them fangs for godsakes, and show us a lot more neck-biting and blood.

Retro Shock-O-Rama Cinema offers this film in two different versions. The Devil’s Plaything is the R-rated cut of the film, which Sarno shot as Veil of Blood. The DVD comes with a coupon you can send in to get the "unrated" version (titled Vampire Ecstasy) for the cost of S&H. My coupon is still
tucked away inside the sleeve.

Ready to buy The Devil's Plaything ?

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