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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: Polish nobleman is bitten by wolf during hunting expedition

Jacinto Molina Álvarez was born in 1934, and thirty-four years later he was a champion weightlifter, former architect student, graphic designer, failed pulp western novelist, and occassional film extra. Álvarez came from a line of men with artistic inclinations. His father, Enrique, was a renowned fur and leather craftsman and Emilio, his grandfather, was an acclaimed sculptor of religious iconography. Álvarez wrote the screenplay in a month with inspiration coming from a feature he saw at a matinee when he was 11. He hoped for it to go in production, but in 1962 Spain chances were slim as the country had no horror cinema culture worthy of the name. The once almost respectable Jesús Franco had made a few attempts, but a fantastique and straight up horror were unheard of. A take on the classic Universal Monsters, or an escapist fantasy, was what Álvarez’ werewolf was envisioned as instead of some profound rumination on mortality or the human condition. The Mark Of the Wolfman - the first chapter in the epic, multi-decade spanning saga of cursed Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky - became a box office succes, making Paul Naschy a household name in his native Spain - and launched a lucrative franchise spawning no less than a whopping 11 sequels over multiple decades.

The road from conception to execution for The Mark Of the Wolfman was beset by troubles from all sides. The story was originally meant to be set in Spain, but the oppressive regime from Generalissimo Francisco Franco would ensure it would never find proper funding. Salvaging Álvarez’ fantastique from looming obscurity was West German production company Hi-Fi Stereo 70. The company initially approached faded icon Lon Chaney, Jr. to play the cursed nobleman, but advanced age and throat cancer forced him to politely decline. In view of the situation Álvarez would play the character himself. To accomodate the changes the nationality of the lead character was changed from Spanish to Polish. Hi-Fi Stereo 70 urged Álvarez to adopt a non-Spanish alias as an actor. Thus was born Paul Naschy; a portmanteau of then-current pope Paul the Sixth and Hungarian weightlifter Imre Nagy.

The alias allowed Alvarez to write screenplays under his own name and act under his international alias Paul Naschy. One of the directors offered the project was Amando de Ossorio who passed on it, believing that horror would never take off in Spain. Upon the box office success of The Mark Of the Wolfman de Ossorio would start his own horror productions with with gothic horror potboiler Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), The Loreley’s Grasp (1974), The Night of the Sorcerers (1974) and the memorable Tombs Of the Blind Dead (1972), the Knight Templar zombie movie birthing the (mostly consistent) Blind Dead franchise. In 2001 Naschy was given Spain’s Gold Medal Award for Fine Arts by King Juan Carlos I.

Realizing Naschy’s werewolf screenplays were directors Enrique López Eguiluz, Carlos Aured, Javier Aguirre, Miguel Iglesias, and former Argentinian dentist León Klimovsky. Klimovsky would direct Naschy in The Werewolf and the Vampire Woman (1971). In the Enrique López Eguiluz directed The Mark Of the Wolfman, the first Waldemar Daninsky epic, Nashy attracted some of the most recognizable talent of the day, including Julián Ugarte, Ángel Menéndez, Carlos Casaravilla, Dyanik Zurakowska, and Rosanna Yanni. Argentine actress Rosanna Yanni would cross paths with Carlos Casaravilla and Julián Ugarte in Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), with Naschy in The Hunchback Of the Rue Morgue (1973) and Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973). Yanni would be one of many continental belles to partake in the sports comedy Las Ibéricas F.C. (1971) as well as Terence Young’s breasts-and-games peplum spectacular The Amazons (1973). Antonio Jiménez Escribano was in Necrophagus (1971). Ángel Menéndez would play men of science in The Devil Came From Akasava (1971), an Eurocrime romp from Jess Franco, and in Amando de Ossorio’s The Loreley’s Grasp (1974). Dyanik Zurakowska and Aurora de Alba would co-star with Naschy again in the León Klimovsky directed Vengeance Of the Zombies (1973). The Mark Of the Wolfman was one of the last acting parts for Manuel Manzaneque, who would bid the acting profession farewell and become a respected wine maker in Spain.

In The Mark Of the Wolfman Polish aristocrat Waldemar Daninsky (Jacinto Molina Álvarez, as Paul Naschy) finds himself attending a period-costumed masked ball at the estate of Count Sigmund von Aarenberg (José Nieto, as Jose Nieto) in Germany in honor of his daughter Janice (Dyanik Zurakowska, as Dianik Zurakowska) 18th birthday. Von Aarenberg wants her to marry her respectable friend Rudolph Weissmann (Manuel Manzaneque), son of judge Aarno Weismann (Carlos Casaravilla) whom he is friends with. After the prerequisite dance Janice is attracted to the diminutive Daninsky instead. Meanwhile a gypsy couple Gyogyo (Gualberto Galbán, as Gualberto Galban) and Nascha (Rosanna Yanni, as Rossana Yanni), whose horse-drawn caravan was driven off the road earlier by Weissmann, break and enter into the delapidated castle Wolfstein. Gorging on wine found in one of the cupboards the two drunken troublemakers, or the fairer half of them at least, desecrates one of the tombs by removing a silver cross.

Unbeknownst they have released long-dormant lycanthrope Imre Wolfstein from captivity and into the peaceful countryside nearby. As Wolfstein claims several victims among the populace a hunting party is mounted, led by forestkeeper Otto (Ángel Menéndez, as Angel Menendez). It is under these circumstances Daninsky and Weissmann make their acquaintance, with Daninsky killing the wolfman with a silver dagger – but not without sustaining serious injury himself during the altercation. In search of a cure he meets experts in the occult Dr. Janos Mikhelov (Julián Ugarte, as Julian Ugarte) and his beautiful assistant Wandessa (Aurora de Alba). As Daninsky comes to grips with his wolven affliction, Rudolph becomes enchanted with silky seductress Wandessa and Janice is instantly spellbound by the very metrosexual Janos Mikhelov. As these things tend to go Mikhelov and Wandessa have their own plans for Daninsky...

There's a sense of pathos to Daninsky that far outweighs Naschy's tendency to overcompensate in dramatic gesticulating and overcompensating for his lack of height. Dyanik Zurakowska, Rosanna Yanni, and Aurora de Alba steam up every scene they are in. Yanni, a former model in Italy and before that a chorus girl in her native Argentina, wields her most formidable weapon, which is her deep cleavage and heaving bosom. Zurakowska provides the necessary youthful exuberance and her attraction to the vertically-challenged Daninsky is as inexplicable as anything else. Neither Yanni nor Zurakowska were ever particularly shy about baring their bust if that was required. Aurora de Alba was the original Wandessa, and she would torture Daninksy again in The Werewolf and the Vampire Woman (1971), at which point Patty Shepard had taken on the role and again in The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) where Silvia Solar inherited the part. Location shooting at the El Cercón Monastery in Madrid, later used in de Ossorio’s Tombs Of the Blind Dead (1972), lush usage of Mario Bava-esque colors (blue and red feature prominently), as well as shadowy, cobwebbed interiors, and earthen Spanish locations add tremendously to the production value. The Mark Of the Wolfman has all elements of a good Mediterranean European gothic horror venture.

As expected from a screenplay written in a month there's more than a few interesting creative choices made. First, the pitting of Waldemar Daninsky (who in a Hollywood script would be the bad guy) against a pair of well-preserved vampires. Julián Ugarte’s metrosexual Janos Mikhelov was several decades ahead of its time. It's an especially daring move on Naschy's part making Mikhelov a metrosexual as homosexuality was illegal in Spain in the 1970s. That Naschy wrote a few scenes of his character frolicking with Dyanik Zurakowska, and Aurora de Alba is everything you'd expect of a novice screenwriter, and who could honestly blame him? Rosanna Yanni and Dyanik Zurakowska were some of the most desirable actresses of the day and that both became stars in their own right speaks volumes. The inclusion of Rosanna Yanni is purely to raise the temperature even further and, as always, Yanni doesn’t disappoint. Well, Rosanna seldom disappoints.

Compared to any of the later installments The Mark Of the Wolfman is conservative and restrained, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t go completely off the rails. A lycanthrope nobleman is beset by a pair of vampires while a young maiden and the fairer half of the vampire couple lust after him, one of them quite literally? Rosanna Yanni’s very low-cut dress inspires poetry and the dusty, cavernous locales give a delightfully old fashioned (as, say, something of a decade earlier) look that adds immensely to the authenticity. Barrel-chested Paul Naschy was never much of an actor but he displays the hunger you’d expect of a young actor starring/writing in his own vanity project. Daninsky would cross time zones and continents, face off against a variety of supernatural enemies to varying levels of success, and always have one (or more) buxom belles inexplicably drawn to his hairy masculine chest. The Mark Of the Wolfman has the distinction of being the first to introduce Waldemar Daninsky to the world and catapulting Paul Naschy to international cult superstardom. For all the criticisms that could be leveled at Jacinto Molina Álvarez as an actor, writer, producer, and director Iberian horror would have been a lot duller if it weren't for his presence...