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Plot: in fascist Italy thirty-something Teresa awakens dormant sexual desires.

Giovanni “Tinto” Brass revived classy soft erotica in a time when the genre was considered all but extinct. From somewhere around the mid-sixties up until the late seventies the subgenre survived primarily thanks to the exploitation industry. In Italy erotica had died a protracted and torturous death at the hands of puerile commedia sexy all’Italiana (typically, but not always, featuring Gloria Guida and similar starlets) and just about every stripe of horror. Directors as Joe D’Amato, the Bianchi’s (Mario and Andrea), and Jean Rollin alternated between erotic horror and straight up porn proper. In Spain there was Jesús Franco who had singlehandedly kept erotica afloat - in both the hard and soft format - in the morass of mediocrity that is his 200-plus title repertoire. Brass’ second effort emerged around the time that the Spanish Cine-S was on the way out, and when American moguls as Zalman King reigned supreme on late night cable. After thirty years Italian exploitation had come to an abrupt and grinding halt but Tinto Brass was not just anybody. Brass was no ordinary smut peddler, no base sleaze merchant. Brass was, perhaps before everything else, a master technician.

Just like Hollywood darling Bernardo Bertolucci he too did not start making softcore erotica until working his way through the usual contract work in a variety of genres. Brass started off with a series of avant-garde and arthouse features in the sixties starring the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Anita Sanders, and Tina Aumont. After the il sadiconazista Salon Kitty (1976) Brass did principal photography on the big budget Hollywood peplum Caligula (1979) which infamously was stolen right from under him by Penthouse producer Bob Guccione. Guccione had the gall to add hardcore inserts and re-edit it from a political satire into a sex romp. Understandably both Brass and writer Gore Vidal fiercely disavowed it with a veritable avalanche of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits ensuing in the immediate aftermath. With Caligula (1979) stuck in legal limbo for several years Bruno Corbucci used the expansive (and expensive) sets and filmed the peplum sex comedy Messalina, Messalina! (1977) (with Anneka Di Lorenzo) and Joe D’Amato responded with Caligula: the Untold Story (1982). Tinto worked with Paola Senatore before her infamous descent into hardcore pornography. While there were others The Key (1983) was where, for the first time, all of the hallmark Brass signatures coagulated into their known and beloved form. Brass’ first erotic feature set the gold standard to which all of his works would be measured.

Like any good filmmaker Brass quickly developed his own style and visual quirks. As Radley Metzger and Joseph W. Sarno before him Tinto specialized in languid, hyper-stylized arthouse erotica that pushed the limits of softcore as far as he possibly could, often bordering on hardcore. Bedrooms ostensibly are blue, usually full of mirrors (an oval one above the bed) or other reflective surfaces, and sets will be riddled with phallic symbols (whether that are candlesticks, sculptures, or J&B bottles, to name a few of the most obvious) of just about every kind; there will be a bright-lit dream sequence in a nod to Fellini and Tinto’s camera will often capture his women bending over, changing clothes, or simply urinating and using a bidet; men are an unfortunate but necessary hindrance in life and they usually exist only in two varieties: either they are wanton perverts out to dominate the female lead or the kind of sullen, dopey studious types that were and are part and parcel in Italian comedy. The lead women universally and uniformly are the kind of the scantily clad, sexually insatiable and omnivorous femme fatales existing only in the fevered imagination of the hetero male. An ever-looming presence in the Brass oeuvre is the pushback against the repressive mores imposed by the dictatorial church or state; the constant battle between the mere hollow and mechanical act of intercourse to satisfy the senses, and the gentle act of making love that comes with romantic love. In many of his films the man is typically a repressed moralist or a doofus plain uninterested in his hot-to-trot wife – and she will in turn embark on a liberating journey of serial fornication in which self-discovery and gratification with different men is integral to her self-realization. Sex is both banal in its mundanity and the most magical bond man and woman can share.

Brass had learned from the best (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Fernando di Leo, Brunello Rondi) and usually imbued his work with razor-sharp socio-political commentary and criticism. Tinto was vehemently opposed to censorship in whichever form and would combat it whenever possible in whatever way he saw fit. Brass was an iconoclast, a non-conformist, a subversive rebelling against the sacred institutions of church and state. His prime features through the 1980s and early 1990s were adaptations of erotic literature. In case of La Chiave (or The Key in the English world) that was Kagi by Junichiro Tanizaki. And while his best work may be rife with subtext, political and otherwise, he more than anything adored the female form – its shapes and curves. He’s frequently accused of being gynecological, almost medical, in the way he photographed his women. To which we’ll offer a dissenting voice and posit that Brass was a lot of things, but gynecological he was not. That’s strictly Jesús Franco territory and his frantic obsession with documenting every pore of Lina Romay’s nether-regions borders on the pathological. Sex, in the world of Brass, is a means to an end, a tool, a panacea to conserve, maintain, restore, or salvage that most sacred thing of all: marriage. And when Tinto really fires on all cylinders all of the above (or some recombinant thereof) is used to expose the rank hypocrisy of church, state, and society at large.

He also was in the habit of casting semi-forgotten exploitation starlets of yesteryear in supporting roles. Tinto obviously liked women of every sort, but preferred only a certain type: dark haired, doe-eyed, with a milky white complexion and full curves like the Aphrodite of Knidos. Brass sought not to launch the next big sex-crazed starlet but wanted a timeless beauty akin to vintage Italian belles as María Luisa Rolando, Graziella Granata, Rosanna Schiaffino, and imported beauties as Barbara Steele, Helga Liné, and Adriana Ambesi. More importantly, Brass liked his women the way nature had intended them. Unspoiled, unshaven, and not littered with tattoos and/or bodily modifications. Above all else, though, he had only one quintessential requirement: his girls had to have a plump posterior. After all, what’s more Italian than the adulation of ass? Mario Imperoli launched Gloria Guida and her legendary ass to superstardom with Blue Jeans (1975) some ten years before and The Key would do the same for Stefania Sandrelli.

Venice, 1940. Under the repressive nationalist regime of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party Italy is on the brink of entering into World War II. Senior-aged Nino Rolfe (Frank Finlay) is not only a studious (and somewhat stuffy) English professor, the old patriarch also happens to be the director of the Biennale Foundation that organizes The Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia) held annually in the Arsenale and Biennale Gardens in the sestieri of Castello. In other words, Rolfe is a busy man. As a result, he’s more preoccupied with his teaching and managerial duties than with the practical matters of his marriage. His much younger trophy wife Teresa (Stefania Sandrelli) operates a small pension in the heart of the city. She’s humble, chaste, and submissive to her husband. After twenty years, the couple find themselves in a romantic - and sexual impasse. The fire in their relationship has is subsided and to that end Nino keeps a diary in which he describes his most lustful desires. One day he deliberately leaves the key to said private drawer on the floor of his study.

Teresa finds the key to the drawer and takes to reading her husband’s secret diary. This in turn inspires her to write her own wherein she confesses to engaging in a steamy, illicit, and passionate affair with Laszlo Apony (Franco Branciaroli), the virile Hungarian boyfriend of her daughter Lisa (Barbara Cupisti). As the couple write diary entries to each other their reciprocal confessions reignite the raging fires of passion in their relationship once more. Nino’s diary has awakened a sexual beast previously dormant in his Teresa. Her unfettered sexuality and headstrong agency even manages to take him by surprise. During one of their more animated sexual games (Teresa orders him to wear her knickers, stockings and bra and make love to her and in another he drugs her into partaking in various kinky bedroom photo shoots) Nino suffers a debilitating stroke that leaves him bedridden and almost paralyzed. Upon reading her mother’s diary entries about her liaison with her boyfriend Laszlo to her dying father Lisa (who’s supportive of Mussolini’s fascist regime and administration), either directly or indirectly, contributes to the swifter passing of her pacifist father. The old professor’s funeral is held on 10 June 1940 around the same time as Mussolini announces Italy’s entry into World War II from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia.

At 37 Stefania Sandrelli was a good ten to fifteen years older than every Brass babe that would follow in her footsteps. At just 14 years old Stefania had starred in Luciano Salce’s The Fascist (1961) as well as Pietro Germi's Divorce Italian Style (1961) (opposite of Marcello Mastroianni) and Seduced and Abandoned (1963) (with Lando Buzzanca). In the sixties and seventies Sandrelli worked with directors Luigi Comencini, Ettore Scola, Carlo Vanzina, and Sergio Corbucci and on several occasions with Salce and Germi. In France she worked with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Claude Chabrol. Almost twenty years after Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well (1965) Sandrelli was amidst something of a career revival. In the prior decade she could be seen in the giallo The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), the comedy Alfredo Alfredo (1972) (opposite of Dustin Hoffman), Devil in the Brain (1972), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s legendary epic Novecento (1976). After Brass reinvigorated her career Stefania made appearances in the Bigas Luna romantic comedy Jamón Jamón (1992) (where a young Penélope Cruz exposed her own hams and gams), and then again with Bertolucci for the arthouse drama Stealing Beauty (1996) (back from the days when Liv Tyler was the Aerosmith girl, not the Hollywood A-lister). Sandrelli continues to act in Italy to this day. Winning multiple David di Donatello Awards in 2006 Stefania was given the Nastro d'Argento Lifetime Achievement Award by Sindacato Nazionale dei Giornalisti Cinematografici Italiani (Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists) as well as the Pietro Bianchi Prize at the Venice Film Festival as recent as last year, in 2022, for her contributions to the cinematic arts.

The Key heralded the last decade of the great Italian starlet with Sandrelli in company of illustrious contemporaries as Ania Pieroni, Cinzia Monreale, Eva Grimaldi, and Daniela Doria; Stefania however was in a class all her own. In the form of Serena Grandi and Donatella Damiani as well as lesser goddesses as Pamela Prati, Lara Wendel, Loredana Romito, Luciana Ottaviani, and Angela Cavagna the doe-eyed Italian sex kitten of yore was replaced by sex-crazed hourglass-figured models. Times were changing and Sandrelli was one of the last of her kind. By the time she came to undress in front of Brass’ loving camera Stefania not only was a dyed in the wool veteran of the screen but she was also a good fifteen years older than any of the Brass babes of the future. Sandrelli was already established when she worked with Brass, and she wore his stamp of approval with pride and joy. Brass explicitly wanted her (and nobody else) and he was willing to wait for Sandrelli to age into the role had envisioned for her. Being the consummate professional that she was Stefania never disowned The Key (1983) as erotic pulp from and for the arthouse. As near as we can tell it gave her career a second lease on life and for that reason (and others, in all likelihood) Stefania Sandrelli has always vigorously defended her association with old Tinto, il maestro of erotica. He acknowledged and thanked Sandrelli for her unyielding loyalty remarking that The Key (1983) demonstrated to everyone that, "she too can act with her ass." That might not sound like much but, as far as we can tell, Brass was never the complimentary type so miss Sandrelli getting his stamp of approval was something of a big deal.

Plot: who or what lurks within the darker bowels of the English countryside?

The 1970s were a decade of constant and grand innovation in horror and exploitation. No other subgenre went through greater evolution than the vampire movie. Hammer, the British film studio that once led the charge in revitalizing classic horror, found itself falling behind the times. Continental Europe and Latin America were pushing the envelope by infusing the old-fashioned gothic horror with a healthy dose of blood and boobs. The earliest example of the form probably being monochrome shockers as The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962), Emilio Vieyra’s Blood Of the Virgins (1967), and Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1969). What really led to a veritable deluge of erotic vampire horrors were two little genre exercises from France and Spain, respectively. It were Jean Rollin's The Nude Vampire (1970) and Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) that introduced some of the most enduring innovations to classic vampire lore. Their impact was so profound and immediate that it compelled Hammer to respond with the Karnstein trilogy of Vampire Lovers (1970) (with Polish bombshell Ingrid Pitt), Lust For A Vampire (1971) (with Danish ditz Yutte Stensgaard), and Twins Of Evil (1971) (with marvelous Maltese minxes and Playmate of the Month for October 1970 Mary and Madeleine Collinson). Rollin and Franco were fringe filmmakers who could appeal to an arthouse audience if they were so inclined. The Nude Vampire (1970) and Vampyros Lesbos (1971) not only were beautiful to look at, above all and before anything else they extolled the virtue of the female form, preferably disrobed and gyrating.

When he came to make Vampyres José Ramón Larraz had perfected his female-centric, sexually-charged formula to its most poignant form. While his debut Whirlpool (1970) and Deviation (1971) showed the occasional limitations in budget it was with Scream… and Die! (1973) and Symptoms (1974) where Larraz found his footing. Vampyres was hardly the first of its kind. It was preceded by Daughters Of Darkness (1971) and The Velvet Vampire (1971) (with Celeste Yarnall) on each side of the Atlantic and by Paul Naschy’s Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) and The Dracula Saga (1973). It was consummate horror enthusiast Amando de Ossorio who had truly kicked open all the doors with his delightfully old-fashioned Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969). Vampyres was a culmination of everything that Larraz had done at that point and the added benefit of experience allowed him to execute his vision in the ways he desired. Vampyres deconstructed the vampire film as much as it innovated upon it. The anemic premise was more of an excuse to work around limitations in budget and locations. What it lacked in production value it made up with acres of skin and lesbian histrionics courtesy of professional nude models Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska. Larraz was as much of a provocateur as he was a businessman. He filmed where the money took him and what was fashionable on the market. In case of Vampyres the money took him to the pastoral, fog shrouded English countryside for an erotic vampire romp. Vampyres made no qualms about what it was and neither did Larraz for that matter. Against impossible odds Vampyres would become the quintessential Spanish vampire epic. In other words, Vampyres was, is, and forever will be, a stone-cold classic of European weird cinema and there was no immediate need (or want) to have it remade.

How often does a remake attain the level of the original? Practically never, a few rare examples notwithstanding. Regardless, Víctor Matellano has done just that and it conclusively proves that remakes, especially if they arrive some forty years after the fact, are as futile and pointless as these things usually tend to be. Which doesn't take away from the fact that Vampyres gets most of everything right. Perhaps the biggest difference is that this Vampyres opens with the quote, "she sprang from the bed with the force of a savage animal directly to my wound, sucking my life's blood with indescribable voluptuosity” from the short story La Morte Amoureuse (or The Dead Woman in Love) by Théophile Gautier. If nothing else it immediately sets the tone for what you’re going to get. Boasting two hot new stars, a swathe of young talent and half a dozen ancient Iberian horror icons Vampyres has its black heart in the right place and never is afraid to claw for that nostalgia itch. Regardless of one’s own feelings about the necessity of remakes of beloved classics the good thing is that Matellano obviously has a deep love and kind appreciation for the 1974 original. His well-intended and lovingly crafted remake of it is an enjoyable enough homage if you come to it with metered and measured expectations. While we hold the original as an untouchable and unsurpassed highpoint of nudity-laced Spanish fantaterror Matellano happens, by design or by happenstance, upon a few improvements by tweaking a few minor variables in his modern treatment. Is Víctor Matellano the Álex de la Iglesia or Alejandro Amenábar of the Instagram and Tiktok generation? Only time will tell.

Harriet (Verónica Polo, as Veronica P. Bacorn) and John (Anthony Rotsa) have travelled to the English countryside for a vacation and to shoot a documentary on local superstition concerning forest-dwelling witches. Harriet is the most pro-active in regards to the documentary while John just sees it as a convenient excuse for a little relaxing getaway. The young couple has brought along their mutual friend Nolan (Víctor Vidal) who hopes to make amends with his jilted ex-girlfriend Ann (Alina Nastase). In another part of town Ted (Christian Stamm) has checked in in his hotel, and decides to explore the environs. The receptionist (Lone Fleming) and hotelier (Caroline Munro) wax philosophically about what fate awaits him. Ted spots Fran (Marta Flich) wandering along the road, and offers to drive her to wherever she’s going. Fran directs him to a nearby mansion, offering him a drink to relax and immediately starts to seduce him. When he wakes up the following morning he has a nasty gash on his arm. Bewildered he stumbles into the tent of John and Harriet who take to looking after his injury. The following night he runs into Fran again, but this time she’s in company of her friend Miriam (Almudena León) and a man called Rupert (Luis Hacha) and his lady friend Linda (Remedios Darkin). When he wakes up the next morning Ted finds it odd to discover the lifeless and naked body of Rupert in what appears to be a car accident. This prompts him to investigate the darker bowels of the aristocratic mansion and somehow he manages to get himself locked in the cellar.

The next night Fran and Miriam bring in another victim to exsanguinate. When they are done with him they discover Ted locked in the cellar, and their weakened guest doesn’t mind the prospect of a potential threesome, even if the two women end up draining him of more than just his seed. After they’re finished with him and he’s in a dazed and confused state of phlebotomized stupor, Fran and Miriam feast on each other. Harriet has experienced going-ons at the mansion, mostly in the form of a mysterious scythe-wielding man (Antonio Mayans) skulking the environs, and decides to investigate. Her curiosity leads to her to mausoleum beneath the mansion, and the crypts wherein Fran and Miriam reside during the day. John returns from his morning excursion to find Harriet investigating the mansion, and leads her back to their tent moments before she’s bound to find the captive Ted. Fran and Miriam surmise that Harriet and John are posing too much of a threat and zone in on them. It might just be enough for Ted to plan his escape. The morning after his escape Ted is woken up by a real estate agent (Hilda Fuchs) and a senior couple (Conrado San Martín and May Heatherly) and learns that the mansion has been abandoned for decades.

In what turns out to be a very respectable remake this new incarnation follows the story faithfully and loving re-creates all the signature scenes and moments. Perhaps it's faint praise but by changing a few variables around and slightly altering the lead character dynamic somehow has managed to improve on the Larraz original. The most important change here is that this Vampyres focuses on the kids first and only then introduces the motorist as a more abstract secondary viewpoint character. It also helps that the kids are actual young adults and not grown-ups like in the original. Less original is perhaps the reason why these kids are on their little excursion. They are out camping on a quest to document a tale of witches in local superstition in what can only be described as the umpteenth retread of The Blair Witch Project (1999). Reflecting the drastically lower budget the camper has been downgraded to a simple tent. And then there are the two incredible leads, Marta Flich and Almudena León. If you want to nitpick, Matellano has not kept the blonde-redhead duo intact. Perhaps there’s a point to be made that the supposedly aristocratic homestead isn’t sufficiently palatial and time-worn enough. What considerably bogs down Matellano’s homage is that it’s shorn of that vivid color palette and warmth of old-fashioned 35mm with hard/soft lighting and in its stead is that desaturated color scheme and washed out grey cinematography of digital video. It’s surprising how much this looks like the median Rene Perez indie or Arrowstorm Entertainment feature but these are truly minor criticisms.

Marta Flich and Almudena León throw themselves into the roles made legendary by Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska and do so convincingly and completely. Whereas Morris and Dziubinska were professional nude models that allowed Larraz to use their bodies – contorted, exposed and otherwise - as canvas, Flich and León are acting professionals up for a challenge. To their everlasting credit (and like their predecessors some forty years earlier) they are absolutely not shy about baring their skin and getting covered in blood. Also not unimportant is that Matellano was wise enough to change the age brackets of the vampires around. Marta Flich is the youngest of the two and her seduction of the motorist makes more sense in that regard in contemporary times. When Almudena León finally joins in the whole thing becomes ever so more potent. Vampyres also gives Eurocult fans something to chew on with a host of familiar faces from Mediterranean pulp cinema. Caroline Munro, Lone Fleming, Antonio Mayans, Conrado San Martín, Hilda Fuchs, and May Heatherly represent several decades’ worth of some of the finest Spanish exploitation. It’s great seeing beloved old screen veterans paid respect to with major or minor supporting roles.

The prominence of La Morte Amoureuse (or The Dead Woman in Love) gives Vampyres a beautifully poetic undertone rendering it broadly French, narrowly fantastique, and specifically, Jean Rollin with its hazy oneiric atmosphere and very minimalist premise. As far as remakes go Vampyres is one of the better examples of why such an exercise occasionally yields worthwhile results. For one, it gets the tone right and stays very close to the original with only minor deviations here and there. Marta Flich and Almudena León have some obvious chemistry on-screen and are separately (and together) as beautiful as actresses like them come. Yet how hard they might throw themselves into their respective roles and the filth and the sleaze they get to partake in they never quite attain the same sizzling sensuality as the original duo of Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska. Is this remake perfect? No, obviously not. It would be folly to expect such a thing. Something like this was never going to be able to capture that impossible to explain sweltering atmosphere of dread and sleaze that the 1970s as a decade so perfectly encapsulated. Yet the last thing Vampyres can be accused of is not trying to channel the spirit of the original. While it may not quite get there exactly it’s never for a lack of trying.