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Plot: girls in a Parisian brothel are brutally murdered by unseen assailant.

Even for those in the know of such things director Ferdinando Merighi is a nobody. Judging from the company he kept it’s not exactly a surprise. His association as assistant director to legendary hack Alfonso Brescia is enough to kill anybody’s prospect of a career. Was he responsible for making Kill Rommel! (1969) as halfway tolerable as it was? If it wasn’t for The French Sex Murders (released back at home in Italy as Casa d'appuntamento or Appointment House, a euphemism for brothel, and under a similar title in France) nobody would even remember Merighi today. Over the years The French Sex Murders has garnered a something of a reputation. Mostly for being a poor man’s giallo, one that has the propensity to lose itself in psychedelic diversions whenever the screenplay experiences a lull. What is certain is that it has become retroactively famous (or infamous) for the sheer concentration of talent, both on-screen and off. The French Sex Murders manages the daunting task of being both unequivocally wretched and terminally boring no matter how many starlets take their clothes off generously. To its credit, what this stylish but ultimately hollow aberration does feature is an exploitation ensemble cast that has remained unsurpassed, before or since. Some were on the way up, others were on the way down, and the rest was probably content just to be there no matter how impoverished the production.

In a Parisian bordello run by Madame Colette (Anita Ekberg) jewel thief Antoine Gottvalles (Pietro Martellanza, as Peter Martell) gets into an argument with his prostitute girlfriend Francine Boulert (Barbara Bouchet) and ends up murdering her in a fit of rage before fleeing the premises. In short order Gottvalles is tried, sentenced and convicted in what appears to be a very open-and-shut case. The thief insists that he’s being wrongfully imprisoned and vows to have his revenge, in this life or the next. He manages to force an escape but is accidently decapitated by a tractor-trailer during his improvised getaway. Law enforcement and authorities consider the case closed until another of Madame Colette’s prostitutes, Tina (Piera Viotti), ends up gruesomely murdered. There are plenty of shady figures who could all have motives for murder. First there’s author Randall (Renato Romano) who is in the midst of writing an exposé on prostitution in Paris, then there’s prostitute-lounge singer Marianne (Rosalba Neri), Gottvalle’s former paramour, who is currently having a relationship with nightclub owner Pepe (Rolf Eden). There’s magistrate George (William Alexander) who convicted Gottvalles for the first homicide. George is in a tryst with Eleonora (Evelyne Kraft, as Evelyne Elgar), the former lover of professor Theodore Waldemar (Howard Vernon), much against the latter’s will. Who are the mysterious hooded figures that frequent the house of appointments? Is Gottvalles’ curse really happening – or is there another murderer in their midst? Inspector Fontaine (Robert Sacchi) is here to crack the case.

Where else are you going to see Anita Ekberg, Rosalba Neri, Barbara Bouchet, Evelyne Kraft, Piera Viotti, and Flavia Keyt together? For good measure Humphrey Bogart imitator Robert Sacchi and Jess Franco regular Howard Vernon are also on hand. By the time Anita Ekberg came to do The French Sex Murders she was a long way from La Dolce Vita (1960), the pulpy excess of the Terence Young Arabian Nights romp Zarak (1956) (wherein she performed a tantalizing bellydance) and the grimey, decaying atmosphere from Amando de Ossorio’s superb Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969). Former peplum and spaghetti western fixture Rosalba Neri was reinventing herself as a sex kitten with roles in Top Sensation (1969), Lady Frankenstein (1971), The Beast Kills In Cold Blood (1971), and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973). German-born Barbara Bouchet started out as a model and tried to break into Hollywood for a few years. After playing Miss Moneypenny in the Val Guest James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) and appearing in the Star Trek (1966-1969) season two episode “By Any Other Name” in 1968 Bouchet moved to Italy. There she became a fixture in commedia sexy all’Italiana, giallo murder mysteries and poliziotteschi. In that capacity she appeared in diverse offerings as The Man with Icy Eyes (1971), Black Belly Of the Tarantula (1971), Amuck (1972) (with Neri), The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972), Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972) and Wife on Vacation… Lover in Town (1980).

In the new millennium Bouchet appeared in the Martin Scorsese crime epic Gangs of New York (2002). East-European import Evelyne Kraft debuted in The French Sex Murders and from there would move on to the West German The Love Bug (1968) knockoff Superbug, the Wild One (1973), the Shaw Bros giant monster extravaganza The Mighty Peking Man (1977) and the Franz Josef Gottlieb made-for-TV horror comedy Lady Dracula (1977) (which, admittedly, is very funny). Flavia Keyt might not command the same kind of notoriety as German softsex superstar Ulrike Butz but by 1972 she had starred in three Graf Porno (1969-1970) romps, The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried (1971) (with Sybil Danning) and would figure into Joe Sarno’s gothic horror throwback Vampire Ecstasy (1973) as well as a West German Emmanuelle (1974) knockoff from Hubert Frank called Vanessa (1977) (with Olivia Pascal). Keyt’s bid with the mainstream came with the season 3 episode “Kalkutta” of Derrick (1974-1998) in 1976. Robert Sacchi appeared in a bit part in Die Hard 2 (1990). Eva Astor and Piera Viotti were relative nobodies compared to the rest of the cast. Piera was the sister of Patricia Viotti from The Night Of the Damned (1971) and Eva Astor was to become a minor star in the German Lederhosen sex comedy cycle. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from trash pillar Gordon Mitchell as a drunk patron that harasses Piera Viotti in the nightclub where Neri moonlights as a lounge singer.

Behind the camera there’s legendary American shlock producer Dick Randall contributing to the screenplay. Randall co-wrote the screenplay to Lady Frankenstein (1971) and produced The Mad Butcher Of Vienna (1971), Supersonic Man (1979), and Pieces (1982), among others. The film was edited by Bruno Mattei and co-produced by none other than Daniel and Marius Lesoeur from Eurociné! Mattei edited a great many Jess Franco films in the sixties and who just two years prior had made his directorial debut. In 1980 Mattei would partner with director/writer Claudio Fragasso and for the next two decades the dynamic duo would expell some of the absolute worst of Italian exploitation from their creative colon. On his own (usually with Fragasso writing) Mattei unleashed The Other Hell (1980), Rats: Night of Terror (1984), Strike Commando (1987), Zombi 3 (1988) (which he took over from an ailing Lucio Fulci), the Predator (1987) imitation Robowar (1988), The Terminator (1984) cash-in Shocking Dark (1989), and Desideri (1990) with a pre-Melrose Place (1992-1999) and the made-for-TV thriller Mikey (1992) Josie Bissett. Bruno Nicolai was another Franco regular who scored a few gialli and his talents can be heard in Eugenie (1970), The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), She Killed In Ecstasy (1971), All Colors Of the Dark (1972), Nightmares Come at Night (1972), The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972), and Eugenie de Sade (1973), among many others. Nicolai’s score for The French Sex Murders recycles cues and stings from All Colors Of the Dark (1972). Is there an unspoken convention in Italian cinema that all madames in fictional brothels are to be called Colette? There was also one in Tinto Brass’ Paprika (1991).

Special effects artisan Carlo Rambaldi had worked (albeit uncredited) on Mario Bava’s Planet Of the Vampires (1965) and Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) as well as the gialli A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971) and Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Deep Red (1975). The turning point for Rambaldi came with the Dino de Laurentiis production King Kong (1976) which led him to Hollywood for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Dune (1984). Everybody has to start somewhere and Carlo Rambaldi managed to transcend his humble roots. Given the budgetary constraints Rambaldi is able to lend an air of legitimacy to what is otherwise a dreary and convoluted exercise in the giallo genre. Suffice to say The French Sex Murders shows Rambaldi’s handiwork in its rough, embryonal stages. Ferdinando Merighi hasn’t much in way of an individual style and manifests no creativity to speak of. The French Sex Murders is technically sound and prone to engage in psychotronic diversions whenever the screenplay hits a wall, which is often enough. Merighi makes Andrea Bianchi, Claudio Fragasso, Umberto Lenzi, Luigi Cozzi, Ciro Ippolito, and Alfonso Brescia look competent in comparison. Since this was an international co-production (between Italy, France and West Germany) each country had a cut highlighting its domestic stars. Retroactively this meant that there was no possibility of a director’s cut and most restored editions are composites cobbled together from whatever footage was on hand from each regional cut.

The French Sex Murders is what happens when the marginally talented are given a production that requires a degree of finesse. Under the auspices of a better director a movie becomes more than a mere sum of its parts. The French Sex Murders somehow manages to be terminally boring and completely deranged in equal measure. It has an early example of the eye gouging that would become de rigeur in Italian exploitation, its women are either undressed, dying or both at once and the plot is sufficiently labyrinthine and convoluted as per the known giallo genre standard. A typical giallo is a highly stylized murder mystery with high end fashion, beautiful women, groovy music and over-the-top murder setpieces. None of which The French Sex Murders really has, except for the beautiful women. The French Sex Murders never comes within the proximity of Argento’s best and couldn’t hold a candle to Mario Bava’s worst. It is and was an opportunistic cheapie thrown together quickly to capitalize on the giallo cycle. Barbara Bouchet and Rosalba Neri were in a much better giallo in 1972 and that was Amuck from director Silvio Amadio, he who famously directed (and courted) his muse Gloria Guida in commedia sexy all’italiana offerings as That Malicious Age (1975).

Plot: twin brothers fall under the spell of a mysterious countess.

The Devil’s Wedding Night (released domestically as Il Plenilunio delle Vergini or Full Moon of the Virgins) was another cheapie bankrolled to capitalize on the gothic horror revival craze in the marquee year of 1973. Directed by spaghetti western specialist Luigi Batzella, with second unit direction from Aristide Massaccesi, The Devil’s Wedding Night is the logical continuation of everything (and frequently more) that kitschy fare as The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), and The Monster Of the Opera (1964) only dared hint at. Batzella himself had starred in The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962) and he seemed hellbent on making sure that The Devil’s Wedding Night was to the wicked and wild seventies what The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962) and Emilio Vieyra's Blood Of the Virgins (1967) were to the sixties. As such this is a veritable phantasmagoria of gothic horror atmosphere, sweltering Mediterranean erotica, with a framing in ancient mythology.

In the 1970s Rosalba Neri was everywhere. She had been a regular in spaghetti western and peplum through out the sixties - and as tastes shifted Neri too felt she had to go with the times. Her first step into that new mindset came by starring in a trio of Jesús Franco productions with the likes of Luciana Paluzzi, Maria Rohm, and Christopher Lee, but more importantly her partaking in the subtextually rich offshore giallo Top Sensation (1969) with fellow starlet Edwige Fenech (who was in the process of reinventing herself after a stint in German sex comedy). Just two years prior Neri had starred in Lady Frankenstein (1971) and a number of gialli including, but not limited to, The Beast Kills In Cold Blood (1971), Amuck (1972), The French Sex Murders (1972), and Girl In Room 2A (1974). Neri and Mark Damon had worked together earlier on the spaghetti western The Mighty Anselmo and His Squire (1972) from director Bruno Corbucci.

The early-to-mid seventies saw the European gothic horror boom in full swing with France, Italy, and Spain contributing alongside the glamour years of the then-ailing Hammer. Around this time Jean Rollin released his most enduring work and Jesús Franco helmed Vampyros Lesbos (1971), arguably single-handedly kicking off the vampire craze in Europe. In a five-year blitz Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (1971), The Wolfman Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), Necrophagus (1971), Daughters Of Darkness (1971), Count Dracula's Great Love (1973), The Dracula Saga (1973), Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), The Loreleys Grasp (1973), Bell From Hell (1973), A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), and Vampyres (1974) were released. Seven Women For Satan (1976) was comparatively late, but not any less important. Even America got in on the craze with The Velvet Vampire (1971), decades later inspiring The Love Witch (2016).

Karl Schiller (Mark Damon), a 19th century scholar and archeologist, concludes after extensive research that the mythical Ring des Nibelungen lies hidden somewhere in the Carpathians. Feeling that the artefact belongs in the Karnstein Museum of Archeology, he sets out to finding the Ring at Castle Dracula, under the pretense of architectural inspection. Meanwhile his twin brother Franz (Mark Damon), a libertine and gambler, quoting the Edgar Allen Poe poem The Raven, encourages him not to undertake the long and arduous journey to Transylvania. When that doesn’t work Franz steals his brother's Egyptian amulet as he prepares, and takes off into the Carpathians. Before long both brothers have fallen for Countess Dolingen de Vries (Rosalba Neri, as Sara Bay) with Franz taking an interest in Tanya (Enza Sbordone, as Francesca Romana Davila), the innkeeper’s daughter.

De Vries’ majestic castle is inhabited not only by the Countess, but also her loyal servant Lara (Esmeralda Barros), a Mysterious Man (Gengher Gatti, as Alexander Getty), and the monstrous Vampire Monster (Xiro Papas, as Ciro Papas). While still pursuing Tanya, libertine Franz falls for the considerable charms of Countess de Vries, who every five decades, on the Night Of the Virgin Moon uses her Wagnerian magic ring to summon virgins to her castle. In Bathory fashion she bathes in their blood to retain her youth and immortality in a pact forged with the dark lord himself. De Vries seduces Franz and eventually turns him into a vampire. In a black mass wedding meant to “consecrate their union” Karl, who has followed his brother to the Carpathian mountains, must now face the horror of his malefic undead brother, the fang-bearing Countess, and her legion of evil servants.

The majority of The Devil’s Wedding Night was directed by Luigi Batzella, who was primarily known for his work in spaghetti westerns and the Django! franchise. Batzella would gain infamy for his nunsploitation vehicle Secret Confessions Of a Cloistered Convent (1972), that also featured Neri and Damon in lead parts, his batshit insane gothic horror throwback Nude For Satan (1974), and a pair of il sadiconazista offerings including, but not limited to, The Beast In Heat (1977). Principal photography took place at Piccolomini Castle in Balsorano in the south central region of Abruzzo in the province of L'Aquila, Italy. Second unit director Aristide Massaccesi (under his English nom de plume Joe D’Amato) shot the opening chase sequence, and Neri’s bloodbathing scene, the latter of which is bristlingly erotic thanks to Neri’s curvaceous figure and luscious writhing as she is doused by Esmeralda Barros. Several different versions exist, most notably a standard 90 minute version with small variations, and a definitive 130 minute cut. The screenplay, written by Ralph Zucker and Mark Damon (under the pseudonym Alan M. Harris), was based on the story “The Brides of Countess Dracula” by Ian Danby.

The strength of The Devil’s Wedding Night lies not merely in that it pushes the envelope in terms of eroticism and on-screen grue, it plainly is more atmospheric and involving than Javier Aguirre’s glacially paced, and rather stuffy Count Dracula's Great Love (1973), or Amando de Ossorio’s conservative Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969). The Devil’s Wedding Night positions itself closer to León Klimovsky’s The Dracula Saga (1973) as far as atmosphere and production design is concerned. Rosalba Neri exudes the same kind of nobility and timeless charm that Narciso Ibáñez Menta had in the Klimovsky movie, and that Paul Naschy and Julián Ugarte missed in theirs. On the whole The Devil’s Wedding Night is a lot more lively than the stuffier entries in the gothic horror genre from this period. The presence of Rosalba Neri and Enza Sbordone make the plot contrivances and Damon’s virtually indistinguishable double role slightly more tolerable.