Deep in the bowels of a creepy castle somewhere in Europe, a Satanic cult gouge out the hearts and drink the blood of captive virgins as part of a ritual preparing for the return of their Great Mistress Isabel Drupel (Rita Calderoni), a witch/vampire staked through the heart and burned to death in the 14th century. Neither rumours of an ancestral curse nor reports of heartless virgins found dead around the village dissuade Jack Nelson (Mickey Hargitay) from purchasing the property, which intrigues the mysterious occult expert (Raul Lovecchio) who also inhabits the grounds along with his cackling, hunchbacked henchman (Marcello Bonini Olas). In fact, Jack is so unphased about the castle's reputation, he immediately hosts a lavish party celebrating the engagement of his lovely niece, Laureen (Rita Calderoni again, can you guess where this is going?) and hirsute local lad, Richard Brenton (William Darni).
And the reason why Satan's minions hold no fear for Jack Nelson is because he is actually Count Dracula out to revive his lost love Isabel, making this - among its many oddball feats - the strangest Dracula movie ever made. Writer-producer-director Renato Polselli began his career as a pretty ordinary Italian horror hack. Pedestrian early films like The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and The Monster at the Opera (1964) gave no hint of the craziness that was to come. Beginning with his deranged giallo Delirium (1972), continuing with The Gospel by Satan (1972) - both starring his oft-naked muse Rita Calderoni - and culminating in the bizarre mondo porno Revelations of a Psychiatrist on the World of Sexual Perversion (1973), Polselli's output grew increasingly experimental, psychedelic and subversive. Or to put it another way: stark raving bonkers.
The Reincarnation of Isabel is Polselli's cracked masterpiece and among the highpoints of Seventies Italian horror. Genre fans weaned on a diet of torture porn and slasher fare will likely find this impossible to take seriously, but horror films are capable of more than mere revulsion. They can be enchanting, mysterious or inspiring. Polselli conjures a heady atmosphere with his hallucinatory visuals, rhythmic (near subliminal) editing pulsating along with the voodoo beat, and sensual set-pieces featuring more beautiful Italian starlets hitherto gathered into a single Italian horror movie. Lensed in deliciously lurid comic book colours, this is the horror movie as fever dream, a stylish psychosexual nightmare set to an orgasmic soundtrack by Romolo Forlai and Gianfranco Reverberi that went on to grace a fair few acid jazz compilations and became a party favourite.
For Polselli, horror cinema seemingly offers the opportunity to switch off the rational part of our brain and embark on a dream journey, indulging our most fevered violent and sexual fantasies in a guilt-free environment. Rifling through bits of Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, old silent serials and Italian horror fumetti, the film's free-form procession of vampire seductions, Satanic rituals, lesbian gropings, Fellini-esque strangeness and cracked comedy - as with the light-hearted sub-plot wherein daffy virgin Steffy (Stefania Fassio) is merrily seduced into a bisexual threesome - renders titillation into abstract art. Its stream-of-consciousness story structure, punctuated by flashbacks and fantasies, is pure cinema, feeding viewers a succession of images as it invites them to assemble the narrative. Although the climactic explanation is pure gobbledegook, there is method in Polselli's madness. The film's answers first, questions later story structure details an intriguing mystery wherein each of Isabel's persecutors are slowly exposed as closet nymphos to the hysterical villagers whose mob justice renders them ripe for sacrifice to revive the Great Mistress. It also, quite pleasingly, extols the virtues of horror as a psychological catharsis, climaxing with a key character awakening from a dream, liberated from subconscious trauma.
Production design is among the most inventive in low-budget horror, an irresistible fusion of gothic gloom and groovy Seventies fashions, with Satanic cultists garbed in black capes and red spandex outfits pilfered from the Three Fantastic Supermen films, while their nubile victims go nude save for fetching rouge scarves. For a fine Rita Calderoni-Satanic sexploitation double bill watch this alongside Nude for Satan (1974).