Pros: Expressionist style, intentional and unintentional comedy
Cons: Cheesy stuff
The Playgirls and the Vampire: What a title! What a concept! I actually stumbled upon it cruising around Netflix a couple of nights ago for a horror movie recommendation. I was in two minds as to whether I should waste my time watching this, but at 80 minutes and noticing that no one had reviewed it on Epinions yet, I figured there was nothing to lose. And then there’s the fact that vampires are always master seducers, so what better fodder than five hot Italian playgirls.
This movie dates to 1960, the beginning of an era of classic Italian horror. It took its cue from the popular Hammer horror of the UK and sparked an interest in erotic horror. I was interested to learn when reading the background on this movie that the UK horror producers would often shoot sexually evocative scenes for use in the foreign edits that were too risqué for the British market. It’s clear that the title was something of a marketing gimmick, since the Italian title, “L’ultima Preda del Vampiro” translates simply as The Last Prey of the Vampire. Incidentally there’s also a shorter US TV edit that goes by the toned down title Curse of the Vampire. Piero Regnoli writes and directs The Playgirls and the Vampire. He’s better known for his writing than his directing having being involved in many Italian horror movies, most notably Italy’s first vampire film, “I Vampiri.”
Did you want to hear a plot on this one? Five showgirls, nightclub dancers, or whatever it is they do are driving through the Italian countryside in a bus with their manager and driver/musician. Either they’re not too talented (later to be proved) or their manager is incompetent (also later to be proved) but amid their squabbling we learn that they’re not having much success. Well, a storm brews, the bridge is out of service and despite the warning of a local they find themselves looking for a place to sleep at the nearby castle owned by the reclusive and mysterious Count Kernassy. He’s only too glad to entertain them, not least for the fact that one of the girls resembles an old family ancestor. Despite all the usual vampire movie warnings, “stay in your room, don’t wander around at night, etc, etc, etc …” one of the girls decides to go looking for the shower and finds herself the vampire’s first victim.
I’m being intentionally vague on the plot, because if you have an idea of these kind of movies you’ve pretty much seen it all already. But there is a plot twist that caught me by surprise. It was something I was glad to see but seemed to make little sense of earlier incidents. The premise is about as cheesy and cliché as you can get but it certainly does have some good elements that make it worth checking out.
There’s the expressionistic cinematography and dark Gothic sets. The director throws in a couple of cool shots while his use of shadows are something to be admired. Often the shadows seem to take on their own entity, looming large and suddenly growing in stature or moving faster than their projector. Even the low quality sound interference seems to work, adding an air of eeriness to the quiet scenes.
The horror certainly has its moments too with a couple of really cools shots. The scene of the vampire’s first victim is an impressive one. We don’t see the vampire, just a close-up of the shocked countenance of the victim, and her hopeless attempt to throw up her arm to keep her attacker away. Occasionally the tension builds to no result, with one notable prolonged but undramatic scene. You can call this a missed opportunity or clever Hitchcock style suspense.
Then there’s the simple fact that sex sells; sex works. The title might suggest a little more than the movie delivers but this was probably pushing the limits of sensitivity and eroticism in its day. The girls constantly seem to be undressing, adjusting their stockings or running around in transparent nightgowns. The lighting is dark which masks a lot, but there’s no mistaking the lack of undergarments and the fact that the castle is a pretty cold place. Maria Giovaninni, having become the vampire’s first victim spends the rest of the movie walking around naked with one clear full frontal shot, one that might well be the first ever instance of a nude vampire. But by today’s standards it could hardly be considered as soft porn. It serves more as ridiculous amusement.
But the comedy element works well too. It’s probably what makes this movie most interesting to modern audiences. Intentional or unintentional humor? A mixture of both. The premise creates the comedy in itself: you throw five dumb playgirls into a horror set and the jokes will come naturally. There are plenty of intentional anecdotes and witty one liners thrown in, most often by Alfredo Rizzo playing the girls’ manager. His attempts at leading a dance practice are hilarious, clueless in choreography and merely throwing out random words of encouragement. But it’s in the monotonous acting, the clichés and the stereotypes that we get the best laughs. The creepy groundskeeper with a limp and the cold as ice housekeeper wouldn’t be half as funny if we hadn’t seen them in dozens of later movies or in Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein.
Anyone who appreciates classic European or UK horror should appreciate The Playgirls and the Vampire too (anyone else should stay away). It’s cheesy and campy with a good mixture of classic horror, erotica and comedy thrown in. It’s certainly worth a mention as part of the history and transition of European horror. I’d certainly give it another watch.
Note: the movie is filmed in black and white. The English version is dubbed.
Verdict: 2 ½ Stars Recommended