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).