New To Blu: Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series: Volume 1 Vampire Ecstasy (1973) / Sin You Sinners (1963) - Reviewed

Joseph W. Sarno has been referred to as “the Chekov of Softcore,” a pioneer of the sexploitation film subgenre who was delivering adults only cinema to audiences since the early ‘60s. He would direct a great deal of hardcore sex films under various pseudonyms during the ‘70s and ‘80s, but is best known for his early ‘60s pre-pornographic films that include Inga and Sin in the Suburbs. Along with Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger, he is one of the few sexploitation filmmakers to receive critical attention and recognition. Most of the ‘60s softcore films focused on nudist camps, Sarno instead chose to explore “the sexual dimension of adult relationships” way before many mainstream films were able to do so. Film restoration and preservation organization Film Media has been restoring his films, collecting them in its critically acclaimed Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect series. Newly restored from the original film elements and presented for the first time to home entertainment in high definition is Sin You Sinners (1963) and Vampire Ecstasy (1973), compiled in Volume 1 of the Sarno Series.

Sin You Sinners is believed to be the earliest film still available in Sarno’s long filmography. While there is no actual nudity, it still is an extremely graphic noir tale that takes the femme fatale construct and pushes it beyond the Hays Code restrictions of prior film noir. What is particularly noteworthy are several kissing scenes that are far more lewd and graphic than similar scenes from both then and even now.

Bobbi (June Colbourne) is an aging stripper who wears a powerful Haitian voodoo medallion that maintains her youth and beauty, while also helping her control the people around her. She lives with her lover David (Derek Murcott) and her adult daughter Julie (Dian Lloyd), who conspire together to steal the medallion from Bobbi. Sex is a major component for all three of them; Bobbi uses it to entice and seduce customers during her shows and to control both David and Julie, Julie takes on the femme fatale role and uses sex to lure David into her plan to steal the medallion, and David lets his sexual urges turn him into a pawn in both of the women’s plans. As with most noirs, all of this sets off a chain of events that ultimately leads to murder.

The restorations aren’t perfect, as there is still degradation of the film stock that couldn’t be restored to its original state. That it even still exists should be considered a minor miracle. This is by far the best version of the film to date and likely to be the best it will ever be. Despite the imperfections, the film is a visually striking piece of black and white cinema that exceeds what you would typically expect to see in an extremely low budget film from this era. The combination of great lighting and smart camerawork lends to some visually interesting moments in the film, and shows that Sarno knew what he was doing early on in his career. The jazzy score really adds another level of seediness to the dark and gritty world that these sinners inhabit.

The acting is perfectly fine for what would have been considered an extremely low budget film of that era, and would have been the kind of picture that did the circus style roadshow tours from town to town. For many viewers, the age of actress June Colbourne as the seductive stripper Bobbi may be too unbelievable, but I don't think that it’s an issue because she has the power of the amulet to seduce people who come near her. Lloyd is mesmerizing and her facial characteristics remind me somewhat of Barbara Steele, and she is tragic character that is yearning for some real love and attention from anyone willing to give it to her.

There is no nudity, but Sin You Sinners still manages to be highly graphic and sleazy in it’s own special way.

Contrasting Sin You Sinners is Sarno’s moody and atmospheric take on the lesbian vampire subgenre, Vampire Ecstasy AKA The Devil’s Plaything. This beautiful piece of cinema is propped up by its amazing location, superb cinematography and colors, and highly graphic and mature sexual situations. The film is noteworthy for its stunning cinematography that easily resembles the lesbian vampire cinema of French director Jean Rollin, and it being the first collaboration between Sarno and Swedish actress Maria ForsÃ¥.

The story sort of mirrors Dracula at first, with a group of visitors arriving at a castle only to discover the inhabitants disturbing rituals. Three young women arrive at the castle for the reading of a will left by the castle’s Baroness. They are also joined by by two motorists, the brother and sister Julia and Peter Malenkow (Anke Syring and Nico Wolf). Julia is a doctor studying the folk superstitions of the region, who ends up taking on the role of Van Helsing. They are all greeted by the castle’s caretaker Frau Wanda (Nadia Henkowa), who has her own nefarious plans for the group.

There is no denying the fact that this picture looks rather gorgeous, thanks to the combination of terrific cinematography and the gothic castle that they filmed in. Without even needing to do anything but film inside this wonderful location, the castle itself evokes a sense of dread and fear that you come to expect from vampire films and classic gothic horror. Adding additional layers to the visual feast is the moody lighting that results in strong shadows and colors, a number of long takes and striking close-ups, and the excellent overall composition of the film.

The acting is decent as well, with everyone doing their best to deliver sincere and believable performances in this take on Dracula and lesbian vampires. While it’s not one of Sarno’s X-Rated porno films, the nudity and sex scenes would still garner earn this a hard-R rating. From the opening orgy scene to an impassioned masturbation scene, this film is overly erotic and raw and features some intense nudity and sexual situations.

Even though there isn’t any graphic horror scenes, fans of the lesbian vampire subgenre will not be disappointed with Vampire Ecstasy's abundance of nudity and highly graphic and powerful sexual encounters.

Overall, the Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series Volume 1 is an excellent beginning for cinephiles and cult film fans to begin venturing into the director’s work. 

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