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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: American heiress returns to the old family seat in Scotland.

To understand where from Huntress: Spirit Of the Night came and how it relates to the genre from whence it sprung a look at the history of gothic horror and the current trends surrounding it is in order. At least since the early seventies the erotic aspect became more emphasized with Mediterranean (primarily Italian, French, and Spanish) titles as The Night Of the Damned (1971), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), Black Magic Rites (1973), Vampyres (1974), and the early work of Jean Rollin. A decade’s worth of erosion had led the subgenre to succumb to its erotic aspect with the most infamous examples the nearly-identical Malabimba (1979), and Satan’s Baby Doll (1982) from the Bianchi brothers, Andrea and Mario, that went as far as to include hardcore inserts. On the other end of the spectrum was The Red Monks (1988) from Gianni Martucci that was neither atmospheric nor erotic despite featuring plenty of disrobed Lara Wendel and aging Eurocult queen Malisa Longo. All focused heavily on the exposed female form, and the softcore revival of the eighties (Tinto Brass in Italy and the Cine-S movement in Spain) and nineties (the king of late night cable Zalman King in North America). It briefly re-emerged in Hollywood with prestigious big budget offerings as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), the Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire (1994) and The Haunting (1999) before Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and the meta-slasher revival made it instantly redundant.

Unlike many other subgenres gothic horror never truly went extinct and Huntress: Spirit Of the Night (released as either Huntress or Spirit Of the Night before coalescing into its current form, in addition to rolling into some North American markets as The Beast Inside Her) is very much the logical next step from Jim Wynorski’s The Haunting Of Morella (1990), and Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1992). This little seen Charles Band produced ditty is not only a contemporary reworking of Cat People (1942 and 1982) with a lycanthropic bend and a dash of A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973). Huntress: Spirit Of the Night (simply Huntress hereafter) was originally intended to be made in 1986 under Band's previous studio Empire Pictures. David Schmoeller was attached to write and direct with Pino Donaggio providing the score. In 1988 Empire collapsed and Band moved back from Italy to the US. It was released around the same time as Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak (1995) and is one of Full Moon’s more enduring features despite not spawning a franchise. Huntress is helped tremendously by having Borovnisa Blervaque - the sultry babe from the opening gambit of Albert Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) - as its headlining star. Blervaque was easily the best thing about Nemesis (1992) (although there certainly was no shortage of explosive action and good-looking actresses in that one) even though she had a scant few lines and was the only female in the cast not to lose her clothes. Three years removed from that Borovnisa apparently was no longer encumbered by such inhibitions and she, along with softcore queen Jenna Bodnar, is probably the only reason why Huntress has attained any sort of longevity and is considered something of a minor cult hit. Bodnar was among the regulars in 90s late night television and in a blitz career that lasted a mere 8 years (from 1995 to 2003) and saw her starring in some 18 titles. She’s often forgotten among more illustrious names as Shauna O'Brien, Shannon Tweed, Julie Strain, Kari Wuhrer, Maria Ford, Landon Hall, Shannon Whirry, and Wendy MacDonald.

Tara (Jenna Bodnar, as Jenna Bodner), an architect, has come to her ancestral home of Brecon, Northern Wales to attend the funeral of her father Kenneth Wexford (Mircea Cojan). Her father had sent her to America out of fear for animal attacks in their rural environs. Tara’s plan is to get her father’s belongings and affairs in order and then return to America. Through her butler Geoffrey (Constantin Cotimanis) she obtains a diary containing her father’s recorded thoughts, newspaper articles, and photographs and deducts that a panther was behind said attacks. A local witch cursed the female populace with carrying the panther’s spirit when her pet animal was shot by a Brecon local. At the funeral service she runs into her childhood friend from France, Michelle (Borovnisa Blervaque, as Blair Valk) who has power of attorney over the Wexford matter and will stop at nothing to enrich herself by selling the estate to interested parties. To lower her guard Michelle invites Tara to a party that will also be attended by her old crush and Michelle’s current boyfriend Alek Devane (David Starzyk). Once the necessary wine has been consumed and Michelle has spiked Alek’s drink with aphrodisiac they almost end up in a threesome, but Tara hesitates despite her urges.

There’s commotion in town because of the persisting animal attacks and a torch and pitchfork-wielding mob has gathered to find and kill the animal. Inspecting the estate she finds a naked young girl (Alina Turoiu) hiding in the wine cellar. The sight awakens her primal instincts and as she tears the clothes off her body she witnesses the spirit leaving the girl’s body and taking up residence in hers. Its presence not only gives chaste and sexually repressed Tara superhuman sense and agility but, more importantly, whets her dormant sexual appetite and latent carnal desires. In town antique dealer Tyrone Bodi (Charles Cooper) believes in the panther legend but Michelle is quick to brush him off as just another old and superstitious coot. Now acclimated to her new surroundings Tara expresses her wish to stay but Geoffrey and Bodi worry about her well-being and the village’s ancient curse, respectively. It’s around this time that Tara meets American expat Jacob (Michael Wiseman) who’s photographing wild life in the area for a magazine. She accepts his offer to pose for him and willingly sheds all of her clothes as well any inhibitions she still has. Tara’s change of heart gets in the way of Michelle (who’s in the habit of lounging on the piano naked) forcing her to resort to more drastic measures to get her hands on the Wexford estate.

Arguably Huntress is probably the earliest example of the kind of late night softcore dreck that Jenna Bodnar would excel at. Our weakness for ginger women is perhaps not as well-documented as it might be and while we were drawn to Huntress because of Borovnisa Blervaque, Jenna Bodnar is no slouch either. Bodnar has the curls and curves and, like Jessica Moore in Italy before her, she was not shy about wielding either when and where it matters. She acquits herself wonderfully well especially in light of how she had done but two features prior. Blervaque is the more athletic of the two and by and large more in line with the icy and mysterious beauties of European weird cinema. Being the nominal star Bodnar is who Huntress understandably gets the most mileage out of. To their credit Blervaque and Bodnar can be seen entirely nude, including full frontal. Likewise, Bodnar can hardly be called the stereotypical late night softcore starlet. For one she isn’t blonde (she would adopt that in her later oeuvre) and while she certainly has the curvaceous body her pneumatically-enhanced curves (she’s no Cat Sassoon, thank fuck) aren’t as startlingly, blindingly obvious.

Borovnisa Blervaque is barely recognizable from her turn in Nemesis (1992) four years earlier. Why Pyun chose Sue Price over her for any of the Nemesis (1992) sequels is a question for the ages. The opening gambit showcased her potential of becoming a low budget action star, but none such thing ever materialized. None of which stops Huntress from inventing enough excuses for Blervaque to disrobe and cavort around in the nude. The piano scene, while brief, does a lot with very little. Bodnar has her somewhat legendary nocturnal seduction scene that has her writing and gyrating around clad only with the sky. Believe it or not, the biggest star here is actually David Starzyk. Starzyk would build an extensive career as the perennial guest star on just about every major American television series. Huntress is decent but there are plenty of other softcore flicks that do this thing better. Huntress is out to titillate and is a resounding success. As a horror, gothic or otherwise, it’s completely bereft of both tension and scares. Not to mention that it never shows its monster.

There’s something fundamentally different about how European and American filmmakers frame and photograph nudity, especially of the beloved female kind. Whereas Europeans see the naked body as a canvas the median American director is deadly afraid of offending the frail sensibilities of a general audience. Compare this to Vampyros Lesbos (1971), The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), Black Magic Rites (1973), Vampyres (1974), or even Top Sensation (1969) and the difference couldn’t be more stark. Europe is generally more relaxed and liberated when it comes to sexuality and on-screen nudity. Despite its acres of skin Huntress is desperately, terminally afraid to truly explore the exposed female form as a canvas and, as such, never gets really steamy to any notable degree. That Huntress was filmed by a puritan American is maddeningly obvious. Moreso Mark Manos a year or so hence would direct a bunch of videos for Playboy – and that’s exactly what this looks like. An extended, 90-minute Playboy video, with all the good and bad that entails. Besides the usual boob fondling, neck-kissing and writhing of glistening naked bodies you’d expect of a softcore romp the horror element is practically non-existent or pityingly underdeveloped. Unlike Annik Borel in The Legend of the Wolf Woman (1976) Bodnar won’t be turning wolf and Huntress hardly, if ever, turns up the sleaze. If nothing else, it’s painfully clear from Huntress how far and how deep the gothic horror had fallen. While it certainly has the fog-enshrouded, shadowy atmosphere thanks to its lush Romanian locations there’s very little to actively stay awake for. It’s far from the worst in the Full Moon Features catalog and this is well before the puppets and gimmicks became Band’s entire raison d'être.

Huntress is pretty much a product of its time. The nineties were notoriously unkind to horror (a few exceptions notwithstanding) and late night softcore erotica was always a pretty toothless affair to begin with. At any earlier decade in b-cinema history this would have been a recipe for success, or at least nominal fireworks. Joe D’Amato’s Eleven Days Eleven Nights (1987) and Top Model (1988) was better than this. Even Black Cobra Woman (1972) did more with less. The Legend of the Wolf Woman (1976) was sleazier and any Paul Naschy El Hombre Lobo feature from any decade prior actually qualified as a horror. Imagine what José Ramón Larraz, Joe D'Amato or even Jesús Franco could have done with a premise like this. It’s faint praise indeed that it featured an actress who was in a minor home video hit and one that was about to become a regular warm body on late night cable television. It’s even fainter praise that Huntress has the good fortune of making The Haunting Of Morella (1990) look expensive. Then again, that one had Lana Clarkson and Nicole Eggert disrobing. As much as we have a weak spot for Borovnisa Blervaque, her career never went anywhere beyond guest roles and “Yugoslavian girl” in Critical Decision (1996).