Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Devil’s Plaything - review

Director: Joseph W Sarno

Release Date: 1973

Contains spoilers

Joseph W Sarno was a softcore filmmaker who was asked to create a horror film and this is the result: “The Devil’s Plaything” also known as “Veil of Blood” and “Vampire Ecstasy”.

The first thing to say is that this is a pure sexploitation flick. Naked girls with strange body paint who sway to the voodoo beat of bongo drums, candles carved as phalluses, spells that create nymphomania, various sexual acts (all softcore) that depict not only heterosexual couplings but also lesbianism and even incest. As you might guess I had fun trying to gather blog-friendly screenshots for this review!

Yet beneath it all, does there lay a good story of gothic persuasion. Well, quite frankly, not really. The story goes a little like this. Some 400 years ago there lived a Baroness Varga who had a penchant for impaling people and also drinking their blood. It was said that she was a vampire. She was betrayed and the local peasant women rose against her and burnt her at the stake – using her own impalement stake for the task. As she died she vowed revenge, swearing that she would return by inhabiting the body of one of her descendants. As she was only burnt, without being staked through the heart, her spirit remained waiting for her priestesses to draw her soul into a new host in a ritual that could take place once every 9 years. We also discover that her spirit is retained in the fires that killed her, fires that her cult has kept burning ever since her death.

Before I go on, I’ve got to say that I might struggle with character names and the actors who played the roles as there are no end credits on the DVD, the dialogue is in English but sometimes gets lost under thick German accents (and less than pristine sound transfer) and the imdb cast list is not particularly complete.

The ritual had to be performed by a woman who was a strong medium and it just so happened that the housekeeper of Castle Varga is just such a medium. In fact all the staff are descendants of the priestesses and knights of Varga and all part of the Varga cult. This does lead to some nice mind control moments as the female staff wander around chanting spells beneath their breath.

The owner of castle Varga has died and her two nieces, cited in the will, arrive. They are Monika (Ulrike Butz) and Helga (Marie Forså) and they will share the inheritance having stayed at the castle for one year. Monika travels with her female ‘friend’. The housekeeper tells them that one of them is descended directly from the Baroness, though they do not know which. It becomes clear, later, that they knew all along that Monika was the descendant and also that Helga is descended from one of the women who killed the Baroness. This is important as the Baroness must feed on the blood of one of her attackers’ descendants when she takes possession of her new body.

Also arrived at the castle, seeking shelter as their car has crashed, are brother and sister Peter (Nico Wolferstetter) and Dr Julia Malenkow (Anke Syring). Julia is researching local superstitions and is, conveniently, an expert on the history and myth of the Baroness.

Anyhoo, as things progress the evil coven starts casting spells at the guests in order to facilitate the ritual. This includes a spell to make Helga a nymphomaniac, which makes her credited name of ‘Helga the virgin’ rather amusing. Julia knows exactly what is going on and makes sure that she and Peter are protected through amulets that are actually garlic crosses. Now that’s really what I call double bagging. These amulets not only make them immune to mind control but can also ward off the priestesses (even though they are not undead). We also discover that the siblings are, conveniently, direct descendants of the one who betrayed the Baroness.

Much of the film consists of naked rituals, with not a lot of time for plot, but essentially Peter is persuaded to give up his amulet by Helga, it is the only way that the coven will remove the nymphomania spell from her, and he becomes an (un)willing servant of the cult of Varga and the Baroness is reborn. The cult tries to use Peter and Julia’s incestuous attraction against them. The vampire bites are amusing, this is so low budget that I don’t even think they could afford fangs and so we simply get a bit of neck biting that leaves a little blood on the neck in two small smears and some blood around the mouth.

It ends up with Peter wearing an amulet and a Hobson’s choice of whether it is Helga or Julia who gets impaled. However it is Julia who, ultimately, makes herself the victim and the Baroness decides to drain her before impalement. This proves her undoing as Julia is able to pull a shard of wood from the impaling stake during a bite and then stake the Baroness. As their mistress is finally destroyed the cult members wander off as though nothing happened.

Now you are thinking, this sounds awful, I know you are, but there are two scenes that make this a must see for all fans of B movie horror. Julia is attacked by bats and the genius of how the bats were done cannot be underestimated. When she is attacked outside we hear the noise of the bats and see her arms flailing wildly and yet we see no bats. I guess rubber bats would have been too expensive to use. In the second scene she is attacked by them whilst indoors, as they rip her clothes off, and this time we see them. It is quite clear that they are hand puppets! This is B movie gold, my friends.

The acting is average to poor, though there is a wonderfully sinister presence to the housekeeper, who turns from austere matronly figure during the day – all the female staff wear something akin to puritanical black dresses during the daylight hours - to wanton, body-painted, chiffon loin-cloth wearing voodoo priestess at night. Then again I doubt the cast were chosen for their acting ability, the willingness to shed their clothes would have been much higher on the casting director’s list of prerequisites.

Now, as I have said, the bat scenes alone are worth the price of admission. Also, if you like sexploitation cinema this is worth a look as it is a prime example. However, as a vampire movie it lacks… well almost everything (the garlic crosses are a good idea, it has to be said). Other makers of this sort of sexploitation vampire movie, such as Franco, add a surreal quality to their films that, though it tries, this film cannot match – I think perhaps because it tried too hard. It actually seems a shame to mark this down but I really don’t have a choice in the matter. 2.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

No comments: