The works of Joseph Sarno are finally hitting Blu-ray with Film Movement Classics' double feature of VAMPIRE ECSTASY and SIN YOU SINNERS, the first volume of the "Joe Sarno Retrospect Series."
Originally titled VEIL OF BLOOD, VAMPIRE ECSTASY was Joe Sarno's opportunity to dabble with his interests in the sexual aspects of the occult in a less mundane, more overtly gothic setting when German distributor Chris Nebe (THE NAKED CAGE) hoped for a hit along the lines of Sarno's Swedish co-production INGA, availing themselves of an authentic medieval castle belonging to Nebe's aristocratic relatives. Raven-haired Monica (Ulrike Butz, THE SENSUOUS HOUSEWIFE) and blonde cousin Helga (Marie Forså, FLOSSIE) arrive at the Castle Varga deep in the mountains to claim the legacy of the blood-drinking Baroness Varga who was burned at the stake (actually at the impaling stake she used to bleed victims) three hundred and fifty years ago by the women of the village. The baroness bore a female child who was raised by her sister alongside her own child, but the specifics of the bloodline have been lost to time making it impossible to determine the identity of baroness' direct heiress. Seeking shelter at the castle after their car runs off the road are folklorist Dr. Julia Malenka (Anke Syring, SCHOOLGIRL REPORT 10) and her younger brother Peter (Nico Wolf, LOVE CAMP). Julia knows much about the Baroness Varga who is said to haunt the mountains since she was burned instead of staked, and suspects that head housekeeper Wanda (Nadia Henkowa, TEENAGE GAMES) is the latest high priestess of a cult devoted to resurrecting the baroness' spirit in the body of one of the girls. While Helga and Peter are driven to orgasmic distraction by the nightly chanting of the cult, Wanda reveals to Julia that she and Peter are descended from the family who persecuted the baroness and will be instrumental in her resurrection and revenge.
Although an actual vampire film seems like atypical Joe Sarno, the vampires of VAMPIRE ECSTASY mostly exert a hypnotic and psychological influence over the sexual desires of their victims including the unrequited feelings of Monica's friend (Flavia Keyt) who is easily inducted into the cult and Wanda tempting Julia with the possibility to realize her incestuous desires for her brother without judgment. Working in more picturesque landscapes and locations than upstate New York or chiaroscuro-lit apartments, the film's visuals – as lit by Sarno's brother-in-law Steve Silverman (ALL THE SINS OF SODOM) with costumes and set decoration by wife Peggy Steffens (THE LOVE MERCHANT) – are on par with contemporaries of erotic horror like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco. On the other hand, while most European films of this type strive for and often achieve a sense of dream logic, Sarno's entry is strongly driven by plot with the many couplings advancing the story as much as the wanderings through castle corridors, dungeons, and forests. While Peter and the two heiresses – and indeed, the incarnation of the baroness – are rather passive figures in the story, Sarno gives us two strong female characters in Wanda and Julia whose adversarial nature and alternating over-the-shoulder needling keeps the film from dragging in between more sensationalistic scenes (including lesbian gropes and penetration by stone phallus and suggestively-molded candles). The film was shot with live sound and performers are somewhat stilted by the accents and line readings but also seem more emotionally honest than if they had been dubbed as in other European exploitation. The film was the first of three Marie Forsa vehicles for Sarno and producer Nebe that also included BIBI (available on DVD as GIRL MEETS GIRL) and BUTTERFLIES with Eric Edwards and Harry Reems (in a softcore version with real sex photographed explicitly but without inserts and a hardcore version with badly-doubled inserts).
SIN YOU SINNERS is the story of Julie (Dian Lloyd), a sexually-frustrated young woman dominated by her mother Bobbi (June Colbourne), an aging stripper who is able to keep her audience and young lover David (Derek Murcott, SEXTETTE) hypnotically enthralled with an amulet made from a coin dipped in the blood of a human sacrifice and given to her by a Haitian voodoo priestess. Made to participate in séances and the spiritually-draining creation of love potions, Julie is further alienated from people her own age by her mother's reputation as a stripper. She initially resists the leering attentions of David, but soon comes to feel that he is the only person who she can relate to as the latest in a series of her mother's lovers (the last three having committed suicide after Bobbi hypnotically took away their will to live). David himself the object of affection for Bobbi's rival Gloria (Beverly Nazarow, THE FAT BLACK PUSSYCAT) who offer to bankroll his gambling in order to possess him. Julie starts to believe in the power of the coin when she and David try to run away from Bobbi but are compelled to return. When Bobbi decides that David has worn out his welcome, Julie must defy her mother and her dark powers.
Co-directed by Anthony Farrar – hence the "Farno" production company name – but obviously the work of Sarno (who gets the screenwriting credit), SIN YOU SINNERS is light on the skin (Bobbi strips down to pasties) but psychologically compelling. Whereas other nudie films might employ magic trinkets as a means of getting female characters unclothed and hot for the male lead, Bobbi's voodoo coin allows her to psychologically and sexually dominate her lovers, her daughter, and her customers. One does wonder how much of Bobbi's power is in her own mind as she seems to lose confidence when without the medallion, and Julie's attraction to David is intentionally rendered suspect when she has the medallion by the attention to Bill (Burtt Harris, NIGHT OF EVIL), a young man too hung up on his ex-girlfriend to even come to Julie's aide when his friends attack her. There are some arty camera setups of an angsty Julie walking along the beach or silently suffering in the foreground or background of the action, but the film is largely staged in static setups. The film is set in Amityville, New York where Sarno grew up.
Released stateside in 1974 as PLAYTHING OF THE DEVIL and then again in 1978 under the original VEIL OF BLOOD title, VAMPIRE ECSTASY got its first tape release in 2000 by Seduction Cinema who sort of brought the Something Weird Video/Sinister Cinema/Alpha Blue Archives Sarno renaissance into the mainstream. The same cropped and murky fullscreen tape master was the source of Seduction's DVD release initially part of a four-disc set with the other Nebe/Sarno films BIBI (titled GIRL MEETS GIRL) and BUTTERFLIES along with a soundtrack CD cribbed from the films' mixed audio tracks, and then as a solo release. When ei Independent Cinema finally got around to a brighter anamorphic upgrade, it was in the form of the film's R-rated version with the newly-generated title card THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHING that ran seventeen minutes shorter. Overseas, the film's original VEIL title prevailed through two German DVD releases (although the cover bore the German title which translated as "The Curse of the Black Sisters") while uncut version made its anamorphic bow in France from Artus and then in Scandinavian territories from Another World Entertainment.
Arthouse distributor Film Movement is distributing this first volume of the "Joe Sarno Retrospect Series" under their "Film Movement Classics" banner. The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray of VAMPIRE ECSTASY loses some picture information on the top and bottom of the frame while adding to the sides over the fullscreen master. It is brighter but without marring Sarno's preferred lighting schemes, and the darker exteriors and some of the castle interiors now reveal subtle blue gel lighting while the warm oranges of the dungeon scenes and the red gels of the tower scenes are undistorted here. The title card has once again been replaced with VAMPIRE ECSTASY, although it is the more stylish card that appeared on the foreign DVDs, suggesting that the HD master dates from a couple years ago, which is still certainly the best the film has ever looked on home video. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is still lossy but the sound design seems clearer here with an emphasis on the tribal drums and the chanting (which can now be heard underneath some scenes making more sense of the reactions of the characters).
Extras for VAMPIRE ECSTASY compiles those of the Seduction Cinema DVD and ei Independent Cinema releases. Producer Nebe appears on the audio commentary track ported from the boxed set in which he discusses the film's status as being the first German sync-sound film in English, the shoot in freezing locations (including nude scenes in the dungeon), the cast having nothing to do but fool around with each other in the hotel (and suggesting that some of the women were more amenable to doing lesbian scenes and experimenting off-camera because the cult's only male actor could not get an erection), Steve Silverman's lighting and the use of the blimpless Arri BL camera which was lighter and allowed handheld photography, the use of Forsa, as well as tragedy suffered by Syring whose family farm burned down killing one of her parents. Nebe demonstrates knowledge of some of Sarno's rarer pre-INGA films and attributes the actress' willingness to do racy things on-camera to Sarno's handling of them and the more experimental period. From THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHING release comes "Joe Sarno: A Touch of Horror" (6:36) in which Sarno discusses his love of the Universal horrors, vampires and sexuality, and his style of lighting. The Joe Sarno/Chris Nebe Interview (6:58) from the Seduction Cinema in which the producer hashes over distributing Sarno's films in Germany, meeting Sarno in New York and offering up his uncle's castle for a shooting location. Separately recorded, the two also discuss the film's casting with actors who could speak English, discovering Marie Forsa, and the film's reception. A theatrical trailer (2:02) with the VAMPIRE ECSTASY title added along with the film's German trailer (3:10) are also included.
Released theatrically by Joseph Brenner Associates (long before their seventies heyday of Eurocult and crime films), SIN YOU SINNERS was quite the obscurity until Something Weird Video and Alpha Blue Archives put it out in less than optimal condition. One of these masters was ported over by Alpha Home Video onto DVD in a double feature with DANCE HALL RACKET. The scratchy print source was full of splices and jump cuts (a few of which might but be blunt edits) but they seemed to be the result of print damage rather than the removal of salacious material. Sadly, this same source appears to be the same one used for Film Movement's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 encode; albeit crisper and clearer in high definition to the point that it is easier to ignore the flaws and get into the store. The sole extra for SIN YOU SINNERS is the film's trailer (1:25). Tim Lucas contributes a liner notes booklet and it is not a reprint of his reviews for the two films published in early editions of Video Watchdog, focusing on the stylistic touches and themes of the two films within the context of Sarno's body of work. It would have been nice to include the essays written by Michael Bowen for the earlier DVD releases would have been nice, but much of the anecdotal information is on the commentary track or interviews. (Eric Cotenas)
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