DIRECTOR Joseph W. Sarno WRITER Joseph W. Sarno STARS Nadia Henkowa; Anke Syring; Ulrike Butz DVD 3 February
REVIEW UncleBob Martin
Vampire Ecstasy, The Devil’s Plaything, Veil of Lust, or Veil of Blood… Whatever you call it, the first of three features New York exploitation kingpin Joseph Sarno made with German producer Christian D. Nebe is far more interesting as an artefact than as a film. Right off the bat, the film starts with a troupe of nude and sparsely body-painted young women, shot in the murky depths of a castle’s dungeon, undulating to a bongo beat; all of them face the camera rather than each other, so not much interpersonal heat arises on screen, and the next 102 minutes will be heavily leavened to cutaways of the same undulations, sometimes with the addition of candles moulded in penis shapes for the devotees to caress with fingers and lips, always to the same four bars of endlessly looped bongo rhythm.
Writer-director Joe Sarno’s prime was in the first half of the 60s when his early sexploitation pictures depicted America’s suburban lifestyle as a giant pressure cooker always near to bursting its welded seams with an explosion of repressed sexuality. Infidelity, incest, rape and ruin were always just one bad decision away for the denizens of the high-key black-and-white worlds of Anything For Money, The Bed and How to Make It!, Sin in the Suburbs and many more made during his heyday from 1961 to 1972.
But 1972, the year Vampire Ecstasy was conceived, marked a sea-change for Sarno, and for the whole of the exploitation film industry. In the summer of that year, the film Deep Throat opened in New York City, starting a new era of sexually explicit exploitation, making the complete body of Sarno’s work quaint and irrelevant to the Times Square audience that had been his prime market. Sarno would eventually yield to the trend, producing hard-core erotica for the last 30 years of his career, but he did not surrender quickly. The popular notion in the US was that Europe allowed filmmakers much more license in the realm of eros, but, aside from Denmark, there were few European capitals where full-blown sex on screen was legal at the time. To continue his soft-core career, Sarno had to turn to Europe.
Sarno had previously worked in Europe, having made his landmark film Inga (introducing teenaged sex bomb Marie Liljedahl) and some lesser works in Sweden. Inga, under the title Inga: Ich Habe Lust, was a smash in Germany, causing distributor Chris Nebe to seek out and import Sarno’s earlier works. Nebe soon learned that German audiences were appreciative of Sarno’s caustic view of America’s postwar suburban lifestyle. In 1972, Nebe approached Sarno, promising that if he came to Germany to film, he would supply him with cast, crew and a unique location: a gothic castle that belonged to Nebe’s titled uncle, complete with a 12th century dungeon. The two agreed that a mix of eros and the supernatural would be ideal for this setting. Nebe returned to Germany to make the needed arrangements while Sarno drafted his script in New York. The scenario Sarno came up with is a near cousin to an earlier film, Red Roses of Passion (1966); both films concern lesbian cults engaged in esoteric ritual and predatory behaviour toward men. In the present case, the purpose of the cult, apparently accomplished by their incessant bongo dance, is to maintain the spirit of the Baroness, a long-dead vampress who is awaiting a fit receptacle for her return to life.
I can’t guarantee that I followed all the intricacies of the plot, even after three viewings. The problem is that the plot is mostly carried by exposition scenes during breaks in the dancing, and all of this is in thickly accented English from the mostly amateur German cast. Another problem is that in the film’s denouement, the Baroness makes an unspectacular appearance and is too simply disposed of, after all the build-up. With each viewing, however, I did grow more fond of Nadia Henkowa’s performance as Wanda, the cult leader and devoted servant to the Baroness, who seems to be having fun here, in a role that comes across as a lesbian Christopher Lee. The film also brought the debut of Maria Forså, a fresh-faced ingenue, who brings some erotic heat to the film, particularly to a lesbian make-out session in a hayloft. NYU film scholar Michael J. Bowen, who has been working on a biography of Sarno since before his death two years ago, tells us that Forså was even more of a firecracker off screen than on, having notched her belt with virtually every member of cast and crew, excepting Sarno, who always worked closely with his wife, adult film star Peggy Steffans [a.k.a. Cleo Nova]. Sarno’s decision to capture that lightning in a bottle led to his next two pictures with Forså and producer Nebe, Bibi and Butterflies. For both of these films, Forså performed sexually before the camera, though none of the clinically explicit sort of shots associated with the hard-core genre were included in either release.
After I had viewed Vampire Ecstasy as many times as I could stand, I had to put on Red Roses of Passion to restore my respect for Sarno, and found it in every way superior… Stark black-and-white photography that’s far more engaging than the murky colour of DP; cultists caressing one another with roses in a trance-inducing sequence that is far more effective than caressing penis candles while gazing into the camera lens. Even the wardrobe of cheap lacy peignoirs give the cast of Roses more fleshly presence on screen than Vampire Ecstasy‘s boring barrage of endless nudity. Sarno, I believe, did his best while working against the obstacles of obscenity laws and budgetary constraints. Ecstasy was probably a much easier project for him than Roses, but the latter is far more engaging. The balance of Sarno’s career was spent in the pornography business, a field that still remains largely untouched by critical evaluation.