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Plot: an uncharted island, where nothing is forbidden.

In a 2000 exchange for the documentary "A Hard Look" Indonesian-Dutch softcore sex and Eurocult queen Laura Gemser once, quite offhandedly, remarked to British film director, journalist, and actor Alex Cox that, “any excuse is good to get naked.” She was, of course, referring to her tenure as Black Emanuelle that commenced with Bitto Albertini’s Black Emanuelle (1975). Not that Gemser was an exhibitionist but as a model she had done her share of nude pictorials for various men’s magazines in Belgium and the Netherlands, and la Gemser agreed on a whim. Partly because fashion photographer Francis Giacobetti asked her to and because it meant a free vacation to Kenya. The paycheck probably didn’t hurt either. While Albertini’s original helped in launching her star, it would be late consummate exploitation grandmaster, part-time smut peddler, and full-time pornographer Aristide Massaccesi (Joe D’Amato) who launched Gemser to cult cinema immortality when he took control of the Black Emanuelle franchise and found box office success with it. Gemser met her husband Gabriele Tinti on the set of Black Emanuelle (1975) and retired from acting after Tinti’s death in late 1991. Zeudi Araya and Me Me Lai were only minor celebrities compared to miss Gemser, who has been enshrined as the definite queen of Italo exploitation.

While history has mostly remembered her for her association and voluminous oeuvre with D’Amato, Gemser didn’t work with him exclusively. With an impressive three decades and covering a variety of genres (usually softcore erotica or horror, or some permutation thereof) Gemser would work with supreme hacks Bruno Mattei, and Mario Bianchi just as often. Everybody has a few skeletons hidden in their closet, and Laura Gemser is no different in that regard. In between (official and illicit) sequels to Black Emanuelle (1975) and Emmanuelle: L’Antivierge (1975), the first sequel to Just Jaeckin/Emmanuelle Arsan’s scandalous Emmanuelle (1974) (with Sylvia Kristel) Gemser appeared in A Beach Called Desire (released domestically as La spiaggia del desiderio), a little known (or remembered) Venezuelan-Italian co-production directed by the duo Enzo D’Ambrosio and Humberto Morales. A Beach Called Desire was one of six movies Gemser shot in 1976, three of which tried to pass itself off as a Black Emanuelle sequel. The most significant of those being Eva Nera (1976) which sort of laid the groundwork for D’Amato’s official sequels Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976), Emanuelle in America (1977), Emanuelle Around the World (1977), and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977). No wonder then that this little ditty has fallen into obscurity. “an uncharted island, where nothing is forbidden!” screams the poster. Not even a naked Laura Gemser can salvage this exercise in tedium. A Beach Called Desire effortlessly manages to fail both as a jungle adventure and as a soft sex yarn.

Shipwrecked junkie Daniel (Paolo Giusti), fleeing Caracas in a panic when a female friend of his OD’ed, washes ashore on an uncharted island somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, having been knocked unconsciousness trying to escape collision with an oncoming yacht. After exploring the shores, and trying to establish provisional help signals, one day he finds his palm tree branch SOS sign erased. Deducting that there are, no, must be other people on the island, Daniel naturally starts to investigate his immediate surroundings. His unexpected arrival throws off the balance of a fragile family unit consisting of patriarch Antonio (Arthur Kennedy); a man with a shady, possibly criminal past, and his two twenty-something children Haydee (Laura Gemser) and Juan (Nicola Paguone). Haydee, having never seen another male besides her father and brother, takes an immediate liking to Daniel. Soon Daniel learns that his presence raises the tension between all three males orbiting Haydee, as father and son maintain an openly incestuous relationship, or “game” as Juan chooses to call it, with her. Not helping matters is that Antonio fears that the presence of the shipwrecked interloper might alert authorities to his whereabouts. Wrought by paranoia and consumed by fear Antonio is inspired to an act of desperation, one that will have fatal consequences. Daniel, in all his infinite benevolence and wisdom, departs the island in the aftermath without taking Haydee with him concluding that "day by day, her smile will fade."

Arthur Kennedy was one America's most beloved character actors of the late 1940s through early 1960s, and he clearly was a long way from Barabbas (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Fantastic Voyage (1966). Obviously he was collecting any easy paycheck and following the box office success of Star Wars (1978) he could be seen slumming it up in The Humanoid (1979). A Beach Called Desire was probably the career highlight of Paolo Giusti, whose sole noteworthy other credit is Mariano Laurenti's Nurse at the Military Madhouse (1979) (with Nadia Cassini). Nicola Paguone, understandably, never acted ever again. Francesco Degli Espinosa was a second unit director, production manager, and editor. He occasionally moonlighted as a writer but that A Beach Called Desire was the last of just three credits says enough. Augusto Finocchi wrote a lot of spaghetti westerns and was clearly out of his element here. Even frequent Alfonso Brescia collaborator Marcello Giombini seems to be phoning it in with an even more one-note synthesizer score than usual. The only real big name here is director of photography Riccardo Pallottini. Pallottini had lensed, among many others, Castle Of Blood (1964), The Long Hair Of Death (1965), Lady Frankenstein (1971), Man From Deep River (1972), and The Killer Must Kill Again (1975). He’s able to line up a few artsy shots of Gemser frolicking on the beach, but it’s not as if a production like this inspires poetry very much.

Those looking for a 90-minute excuse to watch Laura Gemser prancing around in what little she happens to be almost wearing have plenty of better options. Her early filmography with Joe D’Amato, for one, is a good place to start. As is Bitto Albertini’s Black Emanuelle (1975) or D’Amato’s Eva Nera (1976), which has the additional bonus of somewhat inspiring the official Black Emanuelle sequels. A Beach Called Desire is a lot of things, but it’s an obscurity for a very good reason. For starters, it’s not very good (something which not even a naked Laura Gemser in her prime was able to remedy) and Gemser did plenty more, and plenty more interesting, things afterwards. Gemser was put to far better use in the Luciana Ottaviani romps Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987) and Top Model (1988) (keeping her clothes on both times, no less). That the woman who rose to fame due her sheer willingness to shed fabric would later find work as a costume designer must be one of life’s great ironies. To dispense with the obvious, A Beach Called Desire is ignored for a reason - you should probably too…

Plot: journalist accepts wager to stay overnight at a haunted castle

All through the 1960s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations were in vogue. The movement was started by a slew of Roger Corman productions starring Vincent Price as The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Premature Burial (1962), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). This in turn led to Poe-inspired productions as The Blancheville Monster (1963) and the German production The Castle of the Walking Dead (1967). The credits insist on that Castle Of Blood is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Danse Macabre” but instead it bears more of a resemblance to Poe’s 1827 five-part poem “Spirits Of the Dead”. Castle Of Blood bases itself on the French superstition that the dead rise from their graves on All Souls Eve, the subject of the titular poem by Henri Cazalis which was put to music by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in 1874.

Castle Of Blood was helmed by versatile workhorse director Antonio Margheriti from a screenplay by Bruno Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi (as Jean Grimaud). The project was initially slated to be directed by Sergio Corbucci but he passed it on to Margheriti due to scheduling conflicts. Second unit and assistant directing was future cannibal atrocity specialist Ruggero Deodato. The production was bankrolled to make optimal usage of the sets and locations that producer Giovanni Addessi had used earlier for the comedy The Monk Of Monza (1963). British horror queen Barbara Steele was in the midst of her conquest of Meditterranean horror cinema and Castle Of Blood is graced with breathtaking monochrome photography by Riccardo Pallottini (as Richard Kramer) and a waltzing harpsichord, piano and weeping violin score by Riz Ortolani. Castle Of Blood was shot in just 15 days and Margheriti remade it on a larget budget and in color as Web Of the Spider (1971) with Michèle Mercier in Steele’s role. Castle Of Blood is a spectacular little gothic exercise that overcomes it budgetary limitations through sheer talent, perseverance and ingenuity in using the resources that it has to its disposal.

In the gloomy Four Devils pub in Victorian era London vacationing American author of weird and macabre literature Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli, as Montgomery Glenn) is reciting his 1835 novel “Berenice” to his companion Lord Thomas Blackwood (Umberto Raho, as Raul H. Newman). Intersecting with the men is starving young journalist Alan Foster (Georges Rivière) who has been trying to secure an interview with Poe. Poe insists that all of his stories were based on events he experienced. The men discuss the nature of death and Foster explains his skepticism towards the supernatural. At this juncture Lord Blackwood proposes Foster put his skepticism to the test by staying the night at his remote castle. An easy enough wager that will score him 100 pound sterling for his trouble. Foster accepts the challenge, offering ten pound sterling as collateral and soon he is being transported to the fog-enshrouded manor by coachman Lester (Salvo Randone) in Lord Blackwood’s carriage. After passing through the huge iron gate, traversing a foggy graveyard and navigating through thick foliage and long tree limbs Foster, sufficiently spooked, makes his way into the Castle Of Blood.

After walking aimlessly through shadowy, cobweb-filled corridors with dusty candelabras and metallic suits of armor, desolate empty chambers with nothing but blowing, ghostly curtains Alan at long last makes his acquaintance with Elisabeth Blackwood (Barbara Steele). Foster is immediately smitten with Blackwood but he is spooked by a clock that chimes even though its pendulum doesn’t swing and an eerie looking portrait that acts as a centerpiece in the great hall. Julia (Margarete Robsahm) seems to materialize out of the shadows whenever he looks at her portrait. Julia warns Elisabeth not to befriend the handsome stranger, but Elisabeth insists that he will “bring her back to life”. As it turns out Elisabeth not only had a husband named William (Benito Stefanelli, as Ben Steffen) but also was in a tryst with strapping gardener Herbert (Giovanni Cianfriglia, as Phil Karson) and the unwilling recipient of Julia’s sapphic affection. Along the way Foster meets house guest Dr. Carmus (Arturo Dominici, as Henry Kruger), an expert in the supernatural. According to the good doctor every year on All Souls Eve the lost souls of Castle Blackwood re-enact their fates lest they are able to claim the warm blood of the living to sustain them until the next year.

As Foster comes to grips with the realization that he is doomed Lord Blackwood has invited a couple of newly-weds on the pretext of the same wager. Before they arrive Foster first has to see how Dr. Carmus met his demise as he walks through the ancestral crypt and is eventually overcome by the walking corpse of gardener Herbert as one of the coffins disgorges its decaying cadaverous contents. By this point Elsi Perkins (Sylvia Sorrente, as Sylvia Sorrent) and her husband (John Peters) have arrived and are all over each other. Elsi is frightened by the strange noises inside the castle’s bowels and urges her husband to investigate. This doesn’t stop her from taking off her bodice and changing to a see-through hoop skirt. Elsi is choked by the hulking Herbert as she takes off her clothes in front of the fireplace. Her husband befalls a similar fate when he comes to her rescue. Having witnessed the grisly ends of all residents Alan is barely holding on to his wits. Elisabeth urges him to escape the castle premises but insists that she cannot go with him. Alan forcefully takes her with him only for Elisabeth to dissolve to ghastly skeletal remains on her own gravestone. On his way out of the premises Alan is impaled by one of the spikes of the iron fence as the wind blows. In the morning Poe and Lord Blackwood arrive at the castle. “He’s waiting, so you can see he’s won the bet,” Poe intones jokingly. “The Night of the Dead has claimed another victim” retorts Blackwood sardonically. ”When I finally write this story…. I”m afraid they’ll say it’s unbelievable,” a morose Edgar Allan Poe concludes.

As a French-Italian production Castle Of Blood boasts two stellar leads and a number of prominent supporting players. Barbara Steele had established herself with her double role in Mario Bava’s excellent Black Sunday (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962) and worked with Margheriti earlier on The Long Hair of Death (1964). Steele would continue her conquest of Meditterranean horror cinema with appearances in 5 Graves For A Medium (1965), Nightmare Castle (1965), An Angel For Satan (1966) and in the following decade in Shivers (1975), the debut feature of body horror specialist David Cronenberg. Georges Rivière had been in The Black Vampire (1953), The Longest Day (1962) and The Virgin Of Nuremberg (1963) prior. Arturo Dominici was a reliable supporting actor that was in The Labors of Hercules (1958), Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959), The Trojan Horse (1961) and the Angélique series (1964-1968). Silvano Tranquilli was in, among others, The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962), the Silvio Amadio comedy So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious (1975) with Gloria Guida and Dagmar Lassander as well as Star Odyssey (1979), the concluding chapter of Alfonso Brescia’s abysmal science-fiction quadrilogy following the success of Star Wars (1977). Finally, Umberto Raho was in The Last Man on Earth (1964), the superhero fumetti Satanik (1968), The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and the Tsui Hark actioner Double Team (1997) with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman.

Like a lot of gothic horrors of the day Castle Of Blood is a slow-moving affair that takes its time setting up its characters and building atmosphere. The Four Devils pub scene does some excellent economic storystelling. It sets up the main characters, lays out the premise of the movie and sets the plot into motion. Each character is given just enough shading to be believable. Foster is a man of reason and logic, Poe initially comes across as a raving lunatic (but in the third act will turn out to be the most sympathetic character) and Lord Blackwood is a member of nobility that will stop at nothing to take advantage of the poor classes for his own personal enrichment/entertainment. Written not quite as well as the love arc between Foster and Barbara Steele’s Elisabeth. Within moments of their initial meet-cute the two are declaring each other their eternal love. Margarete Robsahm’s stern villainess contrasts beautifully with Barbara Steele’s wide-eyed and innocent Elisabeth. The colors of their gowns should clue anybody in as to what their alliances are. The brief topless scene from Sylvia Sorrente in the international version is worth the price of admission alone. The entire framing device in the Four Devils pub, having all three principal male leads detailing what the movie will be about, is surprisingly effective given the ridiculousness of the central premise.

Castle Of Blood was prescient of where gothic horror was headed in the ensuing decade and pushes the envelope in terms of violence and eroticism. Barbara Steele looks absolutely dashing with her pulled back ravenblack hair, huge eyes, lowcut dresses and heaving bosom. Norwegian actress Margarete Robsahm has that stern, icy Scandinavian look and Sylvia Sorrente is by far the most curvaceous of the assembled cast. Several of Steele’s love scenes are a lot more explicit than others from the period and Sorrente’s brief topless moment in the French print considerably raises the temperature. The sapphic liaison between Julia and Elisabeth was quite risqué for the decade for the same reason. It are not mere allusions that Robsahm’s character makes towards Steele’s Elisabeth but overt advances. The explanation for the castle’s curse is something straight out of H.P. Lovecraft or Nathaniel Hawthorn instead of the supposed repertoire of Edgar Allan Poe and Algernon Blackwood. In the following decade gothic horror would remain a staple in continental European cinema and experience an infusion of bloodshed and erotica to make it more appealing for the new decade. Castle Of Blood, as these old gothic chillers tend to go, delivers exactly what it promises.