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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.

Plot: a troupe of ballerinas is terrorized by vampires in a distant castle

Following the success of Riccardo Freda’s and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957) a stream of more kitschy gothic horror productions followed. Among the earlier ones to profit from the renewed interest in the genre were Renato Polselli’s The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and the campier Piero Regnoli companion piece The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960). The Vampire and the Ballerina is, of course, an elaborate excuse to have a group of attractive girls performing semi-sensual dance routines in tight-fitting leotards and have them walking around in short low-cut evening gowns. Some sources allege that a very young (and uncredited) Femi Benussi can be seen among the ballerinas, although all official sources indicate that she didn’t start acting until at least 5 years after. Despite, or in spite of, its pulpy nature The Vampire and the Ballerina can be very atmospheric – and even occasionally artsy – when it stops focusing on the titular ballerinas for a bit. Polselli would do the same thing again with The Monster of the Opera (1964) that mixed vampire lore with the 1910 Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom Of the Opera.

In a remote European village young maidens are found drained of blood, inevitably leading to illness and death. In the environs a troupe of ballerinas are training with their choreographer Giorgio (Gino Turini, as John Turner) at the estate of a professor (Pier Ugo Gragnani, as Ugo Gragnani). When a young blonde by the name of Brigitte (Brigitte Castor) is brought to the mansion for medical treatment, it is the perfect opportunity for the old professor to tell the wide-eyed and almost child-like ballerinas about the old folklore tales of the region. Francesca (Tina Gloriani) takes a special interest in the stories even if the rather serious Giorgio wants to hear nothing about it, as it will scare the other ballerinas witless for no good reason. Giorgio - who not only is the troupe’s choreographer but also the professor’s grandson - proposes to Luisa (Hélène Rémy) and Luca (Isarco Ravaioli) is close to doing the same with Francesca. They retreat to their chambers and the next day they find themselves lost in the woods as a thunderstorm breaks out. They seek refuge in the nearby Damian Castle, a remote and somewhat dark château hidden deep within the Lombardy poplars forest, until the storm passes.

In the castle they are greeted by the aristocratic countess Alda (María Luisa Rolando), a woman from another age decked out in a sixteenth century dress and untouched by the passage of time. In the castle halls the couples are drawn to an ominous portrait of what Alda refers to as her 400 year old ancestress. The countess and her servant Herman (Walter Brandi) offer their guests food and shelter until they can continue their journey. Alda and Herman both take an interest in the group and ensure that the ballerinas and Luca each make their seperate returns to the castle. As Luca becomes increasingly spellbinded by the alluring countess, Alda confides in him that she is, and has been, in fact Herman’s prisoner for the past several hundred years. Many a moon ago Herman vampirized her and the two have been living a symbiotic slave and master relation since. Alda drains Herman’s blood to retain her youth and vitality, which in turn forces him to feed on the pure blood of innocent maidens to hide his monstrous appearance resulting from the countess’ sanguine feeding habits. Soon Luisa and Francesca are stalked by an eerie shadowy figure haunting the bowels of the castle. As the group comes to realize they are being preyed upon by a vampire and Luca comes to grips with the dire hopelessness of Alda’s situation, it’s up to him to stop the menace.

Director Renato Polselli may not exactly have been controversial but a constant through his filmography is his striving for freedom from convention. Polselli pushed a distinct narrative on psychology, sexuality and morality. He frequently found himself as the forefront of pushing the boundaries in Italian cinema for two decades. As many of his contemporaries he started within the confines of gothic horror in the sixties but in a decade hence would be pulling into weirder and wilder realms. In wicked and wild seventies Polselli helmed a string of erotic horror productions (usually starring Rita Calderoni) that weren't so much concerned with narrative cohesion as they were with atmosphere and gratuitous female nudity. The original treatment for The Vampire and the Ballerina was written by Giampaolo Callegaris, but Ernesto Gastaldi found it unsatisfactory – and rewrote it with Polselli. Gino Turini was one of the production’s financiers and was given a role for that reason. Tina Gloriani was Polselli’s girlfriend at the time and she landed her role that way. The Vampire and the Ballerina was originally slated to be a French co-production and thus Hélène Rémy was brought in. Ombretta Ostenda, Stefania Sabatini and Franca Licastro were bit part actresses cast for their radiant looks.

Isarco Ravaioli was in the fumetti Diabolik (1968) and Satanik (1968). Walter Brandi was in the peplum Ulysses (1954) and graduated into gothic horror with The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), The Monster of the Opera (1964), and 5 Graves For A Medium (1965) with Barbara Steele. He would act as the production manager on Luigi Batzella’s The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) and the Bruno Mattei zombie debacle Hell of the Living Dead (1980) as well producing the little seen Alfonso Brescia action yarn Cross Mission (1988). The Vampire and the Ballerina was shot over three weeks in late 1959 in and around the 16th century Palazzo Borghese in Rome, Lazio, where once famous poet and later politician Gabriele d’ Annunzio lived ‘in splendide miseria’. The same location would also be used in Piero Regnoli’s more playful The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960). The score from Aldo Piga contains plenty of ominous theremin and clarinet. The cinematography by Angelo Baistrocchi is workmanlike and not particularly riveting.

The Vampire and the Ballerina and The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) are two largely similar features that take a more playful approach towards gothic horror. Of the two The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) is the most all-out campy. The Vampire and the Ballerina on the other hand has a few atmospheric moments and spooky scenes among its seemingly endless shots of nubile women doing sensual dance routines for absolutely no other reason than it can. Hélène Rémy and Tina Gloriani are frequently seen wearing very low-cut dresses, similarly do the ballerinas wear tiny sleeping gowns. María Luisa Rolando is barely able to contain her considerable assets in her medieval dress and there’s plenty of decolettage. The Vampire and the Ballerina sort of makes you wonder what could have been. Imagine what a gothic horror ensemble piece with the likes of Graziella Granata, María Luisa Rolando, Sylvia Sorrente and Helga Liné acting as vampire queens could have been. It’s unfortunate that no production company rose to the task of providing just that. To say that this would’ve been a memorable high point of Meditterranean horror cinema regardless of the actual screenplay and director would be putting it mildly. At least we got The Dracula Saga (1973) in the following decade which, more or less, was a who's-who of Spanish horror -  and cult cinema.