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Plot: newly wed couple fall under the spell of vampire in remote castle

If Roberto Mauri’s The Slaughter Of the Vampires is famous for anything, it’s for making the Italian gothic horror profitable. Riccardo Freda’s and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957) established the horror genre domestically and Renato Polselli’s The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) acted as the catalyst for the first wave of Italian gothic horrors. It was however The Slaughter Of the Vampire that did for the gothic horror what Pietro Francisci’s The Labors Of Hercules (1958) had done for the peplum at the end of the prior decade. Not only is The Slaughter Of the Vampires a beautifully photographed and atmospheric gothic horror feature, it also is graced by the presence of the elegant and patrician Graziella Granata. Granata is frequently bursting at the seams and she’s the standard to which all feature female vampires will be measured.

Granata debuted in The Pirate and the Slave Girl (1959) opposite of Lex Barker and Chelo Alonso. From that point onward she became a regular in comedy (Fernandel and otherwise), swashbucklers and peplum with the occassional venture into other genres. The Slaughter Of the Vampires is the only horror in ravenhaired Granata’s body of work and memorable for no other reason that she gets to wear very flattering dresses and corsets and that she goes from the obligatory damsel-in-distress to the fang-sprouting antagonist in a matter of a few scenes. Also at hand are prolific actor Walter Brandi – who was a vampire himself in The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) – and future pulp directors Alfredo Rizzo and Luigi Batzella. Batzella would find fame by helming the delirious erotic gothic horror throwbacks The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), The Reincarnation Of Isabel (1973) and Nude For Satan (1974). Rizzo on the other hand directed nothing of peculiar interest outside of providing stock footage for two very dubious Eurociné features in the next two decades.

In Vienna, Austria in the 19th century newlywed marquis Wolfgang (Walter Brandi, as Walter Brandy) and his marchioness Louise (Graziella Granata) acquire a spacious castle. Unbeknownst to them lying in wait interred in one of the coffins deep within the castle’s wine-cellar is a vampire (Dieter Eppler). In their new abode the couple is looked after by maid Corinne (Gena Gimmy) as well as two housekeepers (Alfredo Rizzo and Edda Ferronao) living on the estate with their young daughter Resy (Maretta Procaccini). To commemorate the occasion of having come in possession of such luxurious estate the couple decide to throw a house-warming party. At the party Louise performs a piano piece she has written for the christening of the castle. She and her friend Teresa (Carla Foscari) ostensibly attract everybody’s attention until a mysterious stranger, unknown to hosts and guests alike, makes his entrance and asks Louise to dance. The mysterious stranger is in fact the vampire hidden in the wine-cellar and who has found his sole purpose in making Louise his living companion, regardless of the cost. As Louise and Corinne both fall under the vampire’s spell Wolfgang sees no other solution than to call on the services of expert in the occult and part-time vampire hunter Dr. Nietzsche (Luigi Batzella, as Paolo Solvay) to exterminate the supreme vampyric evil.

Graced by both breathtaking photography and lush location shooting in and around tenth century Castle d’Aquino in Monte San Giovanni Campano in Lazio The Slaughter Of the Vampires certainly looks better than its kitschy plot would suggest. What it also has in the positively bra-busting Graziella Granata is a gainly leading lady, and later vampire bride, that few have been able to match since. Indeed, Granata exudes a sense of sophistication and aristocracy that could measure itself with the finest of Hammer Films ladies. Graziella owns, despite being dubbed in the international English version, every scene she in – and oozes with sensuality long before she sprouts fangs. The Slaughter Of the Vampire sizzles with eroticism, whether it is in the form of bared shoulders or heaving bosoms in tightly-fitting bodices and dresses. Coming from a more innocent time The Slaughter Of the Vampires is completely bereft of nudity and blood, even though both The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and Castle Of Blood (1964) would have some of its female cast briefly shed clothing. Dieter Eppler’s concrete coiffed vampire, who for hitherto unexplained reasons will remain unnamed, on the other hand looks somewhat as a mix of Ed Wood stock actor Criswell and Paul Naschy.

Graziella Granata is perhaps responsible for this movie’s enduring legacy. The Slaughter Of the Vampires, as kitschy and pulpy as it often ends up becoming, is a paean to Granata. Graziella is initially introduced as the virginal ingénue but the prerequisite damsel-in-distress soon turns into a comely seductress that stalks the darkened bowels of the castle to satiate her sanguine hunger. The restrictive and restricting limitations of the genre notwithstanding it’s puzzling that The Slaughter Of the Vampires is Granata’s only horror title. Graziella does so much with so little. An exposed shoulder in a tight-fitting dress, a bit of leg, décolletage so ample and abundant that it makes the average red-blooded male dizzy, and more than enough longing, sultry looks abound. Without shedding even a single article of clothing Graziella manages to steam up whatever scene she appears in. Even when she’s reborn as a vampire cinematographer Ugo Brunelli takes every opportunity to photograph her full feminine form in a dazzling play of light and shadow. In a last desperate bid to thwart the dwellers of the dark Dr. Nietzsche finds Louise fast asleep in her coffin and drives a stake right between her breasts. It’s the sort of production that makes one wonder why Sylvia Sorrente wasn’t cast. Compared to the equally top-heavy María Luisa Rolando, Graziella Granata actually exuded a sense of nobility in spite of her thoroughly Italian corn-fed allure and charm.

The first Golden Age of Italian horror was initially imitative of Hammer Films’ rejuvenation of the horror genre with The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) from director Terence Fisher. Hammer in the fifties modeled itself after the 1930s Universal horror canon and before long Italy would be carving out its own distinct niche in horror. Sweltering with Mediterranean romanticism and bearing enough of a semblance to Bram Stoker’s classic novel The Slaughter Of the Vampires is gothic horror kitsch at its best. It does in shadowy black-and-white cinematography what Gerardo de Leon would do with Blood Of the Vampires (1966) and what Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) and The Dracula Saga (1973) would do a decade later in lurid, bleeding color. It makes the best of what little resources it has by having characters walk endless in and around the castle. Granata and Carla Foscari are memorable thanks to the dresses that are barely able to contain their bountiful bosoms. There are dusty hallways, candlelabras, shadowlit corridors, coffins buried by time and dust and the heart of the production is a tragic doomed love triangle. Granata makes a most formidable vampire bride and the conclusion is not nearly as laughably inept as that of The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960).

The Slaughter Of the Vampires is Hammer Horror all’Italiana and through its rustic charm and perhaps old-fashioned sense of style it beautifully sets the stage for later, more delirious exercises of the genre to come. It sports two directors one who would become famous for his absolutely batshit insane gothic horror throwbacks with Rosalba Neri and Rita Calderoni. Alfredo Rizzo, the less innately talented half of the duo, directed his own addition to the gothic horror pantheon with the well-intended The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance (1975), but the only thing Rizzo is remotely remembered for is his loveably dopey Eurowar debacle Heroes Without Glory (1971), graciously plundered for footage by Eurociné for their cut-and-paste feature East Of Berlin (1978) and the proxy-Jess Franco exercise in tedium Oasis Of the Zombies (1982) almost a decade later. Ah, Rizzo always was a better actor than he was a director. The Slaughter Of the Vampires comes from a more innocent and much simpler time when everything was classier. It’s might be a bit strong to call Roberto Mauri’s The Slaughter Of the Vampires an overlooked classic of the genre, but it certainly pushes all the right buttons and has atmosphere in spades.

Plot: a troupe of showgirls is terrorized by a vampire in a distant castle

Italian gothic horror became something of an industry as a response to the success of Riccardo Freda’s and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957) and the Hammer production The Horror Of Dracula (1958). The Playgirls and the Vampire was part of a shortlived cycle that pitted ditzy showgirls against one or more vampires. The same cycle also included The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and The Monster of the Opera (1964). The Playgirls and the Vampire is the more pulpy half of the already very kitschy The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960). This time it aren’t ballerinas that are terrorized by the ancient undead but a troupe of brunette and blonde, firmly-bosomed playgirls, or burlesque dancers. Who better to write and direct such a romp than Piero Regnoli, the prolific scribe who would pen a number of Gloria Guida comedies a decade later? Released domestically as L’Ultima Preda del Vampiro (or The Last Prey of the Vampire) Regnoli’s bawdy romp was, rather unexpectedly at that, prescient of the erotic fantastique that would become commonplace in Mediterranean genre cinema in the following decade with the most defining and enduring works of French, Spanish and Italian directors as Jean Rollin, Jess Franco, Luigi Batzella and Renato Polselli.

The most recognizable name of the cast is Walter Brandi, who already delved into similar territory with The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and would do so again with The Monster of the Opera (1964) and 5 Graves For A Medium (1965). Lyla Rocco, who looks like a young Soledad Miranda, debuted in the Dino de Laurentiis produced melodrama Anna (1951) that had a young Sophia Loren in a bit part. Rocco appeared in over thirty productions, mostly French and Italian comedies and dramas, and The Playgirls and the Vampire arrived near the end of her career. Marisa Quattrini starred in both The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and The Playgirls and the Vampire. Here Quattrini was given the dignity of a name part and dialog. Corinne Fontaine debuted in The Playgirls and the Vampire and her biggest role was an uncredited part in the fumetti Barbarella (1968). Erika Dicenta largely exists by grace of her platinum blonde hair and bountiful bust. No wonder she was given a modest strip routine to make the most of her very limited appearance. Tilde Damiani was one of the Amazons (along with Giorgia Moll, Daniella Rocca and Mariangela Giordano) in the peplum Colossus and the Amazons (1960), a likely precursor to Terence Young’s breasts-and-games spectacular The Amazons (1973). In a blitz career that spanned a mere 4 years The Playgirls and the Vampire was the final movie for the leggy Maria Giovannini and it probably explains why Giovannini’s part is the only to require any nudity.

En route to their next engagement a bus carrying manager Lucas (Alfredo Rizzo), pianist Ferrenc (Leonardo Botta) and five comely burlesque dancers – Vera (Lyla Rocco), Katia (Maria Giovannini), Ilona (Marisa Quattrini), Magda (Corinne Fontaine) and Erika Dicenta (Erika di Centa, as Erika Di Centa) – find that the road has been blocked by a landslide. Not only is there the landslide blocking the road but a sudden storm forces them to seek shelter in the nearby Kernassy Castle after defaulting their hotel bill. For reasons she can’t explain Vera feels strangely familiar with her new surroundings. The mysterious castle is inhabited by world-wary nobleman Count Gabor Kernassy (Walter Brandi), his steel-faced housekeeper miss Balasz (Tilde Damiani) and groundskeeper Zoltan (Antoine Nicos, as Antonio Nicos). The Count extends his hospitality and agrees to let the troupe stay in his castle until they can continue their journey. There’s one caveat, under no circumstance is anybody, nor the girls or anybody else, to leave their chambers during the night.

That night Katia goes wandering about the castle and is attacked by an unseen assailant. The next day the group sees to it that Katia is given a proper burial. The group mourns the loss of one of their number, but Lucas ensures that the girls can focus on something else and has them practicing their dance routines. Vera’s fascination with the Count continues and she’s drawn to a portrait depicting one of his long dead ancestors, Margherita Karnessy. At this point Vera is bitten by the same shadowy figure that attacked Katia earlier. Katia herself returns as a vampire and in turn attacks Lucas. The remaining dancers come running to Lucas’ chambers, but the girls shrug if off as a figment of their manager’s apparently very vivid imagination. When the vampire (Walter Brandi) tries to claim Vera - who bears a striking resemblance to Margherita Karnessy who has been dead for two centuries and for whose return he has been pining - as his bride against the wishes of both the vampirized Katia and Count Gabor Kernassy, a man of science on the verge of discovering a cure for the affliction that has stricken his ancestor, a confrontation between the both parties of Kernassy bloodline is all but inevitable.

Moreso than The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) takes The Playgirls and the Vampire the opportunity to ogle its assorted cast of young women. After an atmospheric opening scene that recreated a shot from Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931) the first thing we see is Maria Giovannini pulling up her skirt and adjusting her suspenders and stockings. It’s the sort of shot that tells exactly what sort of production The Playgirls and the Vampire is going to be. The production capitalizes heavily on its attractive cast and there's many a scene of the playgirls in translucent sleeping gowns, lingerie, or corsets. When Giovannini makes her return she’s not only a vampire, but completely naked to boot. Director of photography Aldo Greci keeps her form wrapped in shadow but when she advances to exsanguinate Lucas there’s a brief glimpse of her exposed breasts. Quite possibly Maria Giovannini was one of the earliest actresses to do nudity in a continental European gothic horror production, pre-dating Sylvia Sorrente in Castle Of Blood (1965), Barbara Steele in 5 Graves For A Medium (1965) and Soledad Miranda in Vampyros Lesbos (1971). Eroticism had always been a staple of gothic horror, no one better to embody that than cleavage-wielding María Luisa Rolando in The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and the positively bra-busting Graziella Granata in The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962).

Despite no shortage of belles The Playgirls and the Vampire has a few rather glaring shortcomings. For starters is Regnoli’s direction professional but without much in the way of individual style or any kind of visual flair. Walter Brandi’s two roles as both the world-wary Count and his undead ancestor is a double-edged sword. His portrayal of the vampire isn’t exactly threatening or imposing in any shape or form. His turn in the principal dual role is important enough, as it precedes Barbara Steele’s many dual roles in the same decade, as well as Mark Damon in The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) and Paul Naschy in Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973). The screenplay is kind of shaky. Once the love triangle involving Vera, Gabor, and the vampire is established the remainder of the dance troupe as well as their male aides are relegated to the background and pretty much forgotten about. The lone effects shot in the entire production is an endearingly cheap piece of time-lapse photography of a pencil drawing that has to be seen to be believed. It easily equals the pencil drawings in Ib Melchior’s skid row science fiction epic The Angry Red Planet (1959) from the year before. To make matters worse The Playgirls and the Vampire is cursed with one of the most laughably terrible English language dubs this side of a Filipino post-nuke or Thai action movie.

If it weren’t for the interior scenes shot at Palazzo Borghese in Rome and the selection of bodacious belles this piece of gothic horror pulp would’ve been long forgotten. Piero Regnoli wasn’t too shabby a director but his passion clearly lie in writing. For that reason The Playgirls and the Vampire is but a footnote in Italian gothic horror history. In the wild and eccentric seventies there would be a minor gothic horror revival with increased levels of blood and nudity. The Playgirls and the Vampire is much of a precursor to that although you’re hardpressed to remember it for anything else. It’s not exactly scary, the screenplay capitalizes heavily on the humor and the English dub is knee-slappingly juvenile, not to mention flat out terrible, with its choice of dialog. For a majority of its duration The Playgirls and the Vampire is stunningly mediocre and there were far better Filipino and Mexican gothic horrors than this Italian romp. Not all Italian early gothic horror was created equal – and this is a good example just why.