Ireland, 1902: a theatrical troupe are invited to a remote castle belonging to handsome, wealthy and recently widowed Count Richard Marnack (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) who has become infatuated with lead actress, Evelyn (Patrizia Webley). Most likely because she bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife, save for her blonde hair. Evelyn arrives at the castle along with slutty fellow actress Cora (Krista Nell), much abused stage hand Samuel (Leo Valeriano) and secret lesbian lovers Penny (Lidia Olizzi) and Rosalind (Marzia Damon) to a less than auspicious greeting from the Count's haughty housekeeper, Sybil (Femi Benussi). While romance blossoms between actress and aristocrat, sundry sexual shenanigans prompt Jeffrey the bible-thumping butler (Mario De Rosa) to pray that someone or something will punish these godless sinners. Sure enough a mysterious killer begins bumping off guests one by one.
Made at a time when the Italian horror scene had largely shifted away from period pieces to more contemporary giallo, zombie or cannibal movies, The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance is something of a throwback. Yet though often marketed as a gothic chiller or period giallo the film barely qualifies as either. A lot of silly soft-core groping takes up two-thirds of the running time while the film is oddly uninterested in its own clumsy, nonsensical, frequently ludicrous murder mystery. Alfredo Rizzo directed eight movies in a variety of genres but was more active as an actor. Aside from a small role as a taxi driver William Wyler's classic romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1953), Rizzo acted in two notable "babes in a castle" gothics, The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) that may have inspired his variation on a proven exploitation formula.
Yet several aspects suggest Rizzo held ambitions beyond the sexploitation-horror realm. For one thing, away from the various kinky couplings, the tone is decidedly sombre. Diffident dubbing and shoddy lead actors (Patrizia Webley is especially poor) take their toll on the love story but some scenes come across like an interesting, sexed-up version of Upstairs, Downstairs contrasting the callous yet uninhibited aristocrats with their repressed servants. Gorgeous Euro exploitation staple Femi Benussi essays an atypically un-glamorous role as the embittered housekeeper. Rarely called upon to do much besides disrobe and die, it is a shame the few films that gave her meatier roles are so poor, e.g. the giallo Deadly Inheritance (1968) as she is quite good in them. Interesting to see Femi try to play dowdy and prim though she is clearly so much lovelier and charismatic than anyone else in the cast it becomes obvious her character has something to hide.
Rizzo springs one genuinely unexpected, if no less stupid, twist that tips its hat to the gloomy romance of Jane Eyre by way of Luchino Visconti. Yet for the most part his ineptitude curtails any real trashy fun. A little style goes a long way in Italian exploitation. Mario Bava made films with even less plot that were significantly more entertaining. Rizzo's direction is theatrical in the worst sense, static and detached. All the murders occur off-screen, possibly because the budget would not stretch to any gore effects beyond the occasional bloody severed head. What scant incidental pleasures the film does have in its favour include the hilarious parlour room climax wherein the police inspector, who otherwise barely figures into the plot, pulls off feats of outrageous deductive reasoning that would leave Hercule Poirot green with envy. Also the moment when the maid is so aroused at the sight of two lesbians in bed she insists her friend fondle her breasts. Even as trashy horror films go The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance is lethargic, unmemorable and a disheartening waste of Femi Benussi. Your average horny teenage horror fan could concoct something far more titillating from their own imagination. Lord knows, I have.