Cinematic surprises are the best kind of surprises. When I found out that the late Joseph W. Sarno, the erotic film pioneer behind 1964’s Sin in the Suburbs among many, many other titles, had also helmed a vampire film, I was immediately intrigued. Sarno is better known for crafting tales of arty sexual soap-operas often tinged with such themes as incest and emotional roulette. Sensual vampires residing in gloriously gothic castles in the middle of Europe is something that was more in the directorial wheelhouse of filmmakers like Jean Rollin, not the man who made Deep Throat II. But the beauty of an artist like Sarno was that he possessed a naive, in the firmest and pure way, approach to story and themes. He was fearless but not reckless, mixing in key Sarno obsessions often in a dizzying array of stories. This is the golden thread of truth when watching his 1973 film, Vampire Ecstasies aka Der Fluch der schwarzen Schwestern. (The latter loosely translates to The Curse of the Black Sisters. Which doesn’t really make sense, however, I digress.)
Mixing blatant eroticism with the theme of vampirism is the chocolate and peanut butter of the horror genre. Few literary or cinematic monsters have been emboldened with such sensual fervor quite like the vampire. (Granted, where are the sexy wendigo stories? Probably nestled on the dark web, between the goblin orgy subgenre and luscious Fouke monster seductions.) Sarno, an American filmmaker with a European approach to sex mixed with a stateside puritan obsessiveness, taking the horns on this powerful horror subgenre, is an intriguing, almost intoxicating concept.
Vampire Ecstasies begins with a gothic castle and jungle drums, two aesthetics that should clash but prove fascinating here. While most erotic-tinged horror will make you wait a little bit before the nudity and writhing-tributes-to-Sappho begin, not Vampire Ecstasies. As soon as we enter the castle, there’s a group of beautiful women, dressed as what only could be described as “Jean Rollin’s Bellydancing Troupe,” and engage in a mix of topless blood drinking rituals and group pleasure. Oddly enough, the latter is a positive sexual theme that was a consistent occurrence in Sarno’s work, where multiple parties all hone in on one woman, all in the name of her sole pleasure. (Confessions of a Young American Housewife (1974) and Laura’s Toys (1975) are two examples among others.) Given that in both “mainstream” films and erotica, the focus of pleasure is typically male-oriented, Sarno was one of the few, along with fellow pioneers Gerard Damiano and Radley Metzger, that were good about highlighting a woman’s pleasure. (Even if the leader of the vampire cult, Wanda, played by Nadia Henkowa who was also in Sarno’s 1975 film Butterfly and 1974’s Bibi, approaches breast fondling with all the vim and vigor of a horny bread-maker. A woman’s bust deserves a little more respect, Wanda!) It is not a Joe Sarno film without one loving close-up of a woman in sheer ecstatic glory.
The next day, the Castle is greeted with new visitors, in the form of heirs to the late Baroness Varga, who was a vampire that was burned to death centuries ago by some of her female victims, as well as a traveling brother and sister, Peter and Julia Malenkow (Nico Wolf and Anke Syring) whose car has broken down nearby. (Allegedly.) Anyhow, Wanda and her lovely disciples, now all clad in neck to toe funereal black and severe pinned-back hair, welcome everyone to the castle.
The majority of the guests are wholly blind to the sexual witchcraft Wanda is employing to help bridge the spirit of the Baroness with her lithe and living heir, Monika (Ulrike Butz). Well, that is save for Julia, who has made it her life’s work to study the history of the Castle, especially its deceased vampiric namesake. Will Wanda realize Julia’s ultimate weakness, which involves her deep-rooted lust for her own brother? Will Julia be able to save Monika from her possible undead fate? Also, will the film’s nymphomaniac version of Renfield, Helga, played with arms and legs akimbo aplomb by Marie Forsa, stop humping various people and objects around the Castle? There might be at least one yes to one of those questions and, spoiler alert, it’s not the latter.
Vampire Ecstasies is such a strange bird, with the eroticism and horror elements being incorporated more like somewhat chummy neighbors than sweaty co-mingling bodies. The gothic horror aesthetic does shine firmly sweet and strong, included some light blood drinking, an old painting of the Baroness that operates as a connector from beyond to her direct descendant, and the castle itself. Filmed in a real-life centuries-old castle in Germany that belonged to producer Chris Nebe’s family, it is absolutely fantastic looking. The location has that right mix of seasoned aristocratic polish and a lingering whiff of decay. It helps that it is beautifully lit, especially all of the scenes framed by dusk and night time, utilizing shadows with dusky violets, blues, and orange-tones via candlelight. The ribbon around that package was tied by the great cinematography courtesy of Steve Silverman, who also worked on a number of Joe Sarno films before and after Vampire Ecstasies, including Laura’s Toys (1975) and All The Sins of Sodom (1968).
The non-sexual scenes of Wanda and her female acolytes feature a religious zealot type approach that is a fantastic cliche-preventative. When they are not mostly nude with a few sheer scarves tossed about, they are dressed like grim visions of a spiritual sect that is more Amish or Pentecostal than witchy-wanton-sex-vampire-cult. The women roam around the house, chanting in unison, committing sing-songy acts of ritual magic. It is one of the strongest features of Vampire Ecstasies. It actually brings to mind the eccentric twin sisters that are briefly featured in Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin (1990), another unique and far more intense work of vampiric-themed cinema. If only the multitudes of sex scenes incorporated this more captivating and severe occult approach. The closest we get is Wanda doing a fiery shimmy while assorted group pleasures commence. That and the occasional implementation of a large stone as a phallus-of-sorts, which looks like the worst kind of carnival ride one’s uterus can hitch onto. Noooooooo.
Vampire Ecstasies has had a fairly storied history of titles and cuts, being released in the past as The Devil’s Plaything and Veil of Blood. Thanks to Film Movement, we have it fully uncut and looking pristine. There’s also a handful of nice supplements, including a trailer, an interview with Sarno himself, liner notes from legendary writer and Video Watchdog founder Tim Lucas, and commentary with producer Chris Nebe. Speaking of which, this commentary is a total and nearly unprecedented hoot. Some great background info is shared, as well as some hilarious and charming candor, with at one point the man pretty much saying the only people that “behaved” themselves during the shoot were Joe and Peggy Sarno. One can easily imagine the colorful and frenzied bacchanal that went on during the twenty-two-day shoot.
Also featured on this set is the second feature of Sarno’s 1963 film, Sin You Sinners. While Vampire Ecstasies has some pacing that plods a little bit, Sin You Sinners is tight, fun, and with a mere 73 minutes running time, there is nary a chance for any of the proceedings to get a little too leisurely. Like many a Sarno-attached film that would follow it, the heart of the story is centered around an unhealthy family dynamic. There’s the matriarch, Bobbi (June Colbourne), a middle-aged stripper and Voodooienne, her grown daughter whom she still controls and always utilizes in their pay-for-play pagan rituals, Julie (Dian Lloyd), and the skeeziest stepdad in all the land, Davey (Derek Murcott). Bobbi exudes queen bitch confidence and all of the motherly love of a narcissistic rattlesnake. She doesn’t even blink an eye when Dave’s barely hiding his horn-dogging on her own daughter, and then makes blatant love with him in the living room, all within small apartment earshot of poor Julie. Listen, sex is a beautiful, shared gift until it involves your family. Then beauty instantly becomes the psyche-scarring beast. Nightmare fuel is a gift compared to such wrongness.
Bobbi has been mutton serving lamb for a long time, with her secret being a special amulet traced back to a fully legitimate Voodoo priestess back in Haiti. Julie is constantly struggling to employ some kind of independence and normalcy to her life, often with heartbreaking results. A cute young man named Billy chats her up at a soda shop. She’s resistant at first, but soon gives in and the two have a sweet and normal night out until Billy’s friends, including one mook and a girl, show up and attempt to rape Julie, recognizing her from the seedy mother and daughter nightclub act.
Things are hard all over for Julie when she ends up having feelings for her bongo-playing, lecherous stepdad Davey, whom she warns about the dangers of staying with her mother. All of Bobbi’s past lovers ended up destroying themselves as soon as she had grown bored with them. (Talk about a maneater!) The two begin the most inexplicable and depressing affair ever, but it is quickly apparent that Julie will never find happiness of any stripe until she gets control of her out-of-control narcissist matriarch and her magical Haitian amulet.
Despite featuring zero nudity, Sin Your Sinners is more gloriously lurid and sleazy than the full-on sex shenanigans of Vampire Ecstasies. The nightclub that Bobbi and Julie work at is everything you could want in an early 1960’s swanky-bleeding-into-sleazy hot spot. There’s fake palm trees, men in the audience wearing black sunglasses inside a dimly lit, smoky nightclub, their pissed off girlfriends, and even some barely closeted (for 1963) lesbians. In short, fantastic. We also get a good peek into the seamy world that surrounds the gamine and lamb-like Julie, including prostitution, backstabbing, and pagan rituals that may or may not be a money-oriented scam headed by the ultimate sexy grifter herself, Bobbi. The fact that even when she tries to stray from that world a little bit and hangs out at the soda shop, damaged characters with bad intent, like Billy and his crew, follow her like a grease stain that you can never wash out. Speaking of which, Billy’s friends are involved in a particularly messed up scene, with the girl encouraging the sexual assault of Julie. When the latter flees before things can get real nasty, she ends up having a menage a trois with the two boys. Heady stuff for the early 1960’s, to say the least! They are a precursor of sorts to the kind of men and one woman dynamic gangs looking for vice-filled kicks that would go on to appear in titles like 1965’s Satan’s Bed and later on, Last House on the Left (1972).
Dian Lloyd, who bears a striking resemblance to Dark Shadows actress Grayson Hall, exudes both a physical grace and innate fragility as Julie. You truly feel bad for her as she is submerged in the quicksand of emotional abuse and rotted morals. June Colbourne is a delight to watch as the yang to Lloyd’s yin, having a blowsy blast as the sexed-up worst mother of the year. Experienced British actor Derek Murcott is appropriately icky as sleazy Davey, even when he has to handle the sudden character arch of becoming the male protagonist as opposed to the super-gropey antagonist.
Whether you’re a Joe Sarno fan, an overall enthusiast of the stranger sides of erotic cinema’s past, witchy vampire women, or slattern voodoo queens via the Lower East Side, this double feature is one exquisitely presented fun ride that I cannot recommend enough.