Tuesday, 28 July 2015
VIEWING NOTE: Although the review below was written after a viewing of the (excellent) 2015 Severin blu-ray of ‘Vampyros Lesbos’, the screenshots above are by necessity taken from the (perfectly serviceable) 2000 Second Sight DVD.
In addition to variations on its most common title (extended in the film’s original West German release to ‘Vampyros Lesbos: Die Erbin des Dracula’), IMDB also currently lists the following, mostly without further details: ‘El Signo del Vampire’, ‘The Heiress of Dracula’, ’The Heritage of Dracula’, ‘The Sign of the Vampire’, ‘The Strange Adventure of Jonathan Harker’, ‘The Vampire Women’, ‘City of Vampires’. The substantially different (and substantially less good) Spanish version went by the name ‘Las Vampiras’, and German language working titles are listed as ‘Das Mal des Vampirs’, ‘Im Zeichen der Vampire’ and ‘Schlechte Zeiten für Vampire’.
First of all, some background. I know I have claimed elsewhere that ‘Kiss Me Monster’ was the first Jess Franco film I watched, but actually, I’m pretty sure ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ beat it to the punch. In fact, I saw ‘Vampyros..’ well over ten years ago, long before the director’s name meant anything to me. For a variety of reasons (in particular, the heavy cult rep garnered by the film’s soundtrack in the late ‘90s and the mainstream-friendly packaging of Second Sight’s DVD release), ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ was by far the most high profile Franco title available to UK viewers in the early ‘00s, reaching an audience that expanded beyond the learned euro-horror cognoscenti to eventually include even clueless young rubes such as myself, who happened to see its magnificent title (surely one of the best in exploitation movie history) on the shelves of a high street chain store, noted the heavily discounted price, and thought, “well, *that* looks like a good evening’s entertainment”.
Fateful words indeed. Predictably perhaps, my initial reaction to ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ was pretty negative. Basically I think, I just wasn’t ready for it. Largely unschooled in the ways of continental horror, I was probably expecting either a more traditional gothic horror movie or some sort of kitschy softcore sex flick, and needless to say, I got neither. With a field of reference that mainly consisted of British and American horror films, the idea of making vampire film full of bright sunshine, swimming pools and seaside hotel rooms just seemed absurd to me. Rather than recognising this as a conscious choice and an established part of Franco’s aesthetic, I assumed that the film’s crew must have been busy sunning themselves down in the Med, and simply couldn’t be bothered to inject any proper gothic atmosphere into their movie.
This impression was only exacerbated by the film’s technical shortcomings (yes, the zooms), its repetitious use of seemingly random footage, and the almost total lack of a conventional storyline. An utterly disconnected plot strand in which Franco himself seems to be torturing women in a hotel basement like some kind of sordid gnome didn’t exactly do much to win me over (I had ‘standards’ back in those days, y’see), and by the time a confused looking Dennis Price turned up, muttering bewildering litanies of vampire lore whilst staring into the middle distance in some cheap looking guesthouse, the film just seemed pathetic to me – a shameless cash grab from some cynical hack, whose apparent determination to avoid censorship issues by teasing on explicit sexuality and graphic violence without actually delivering a satisfactory quantity of either proved the final nail in the coffin of my attention span. *Fuck this Franco guy*, I thought, not for the last time in my early days of horror movie fandom.
How things change. Watching the film today, it’s difficult to comprehend why my reaction was so negative, as ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ now strikes me as a hugely enjoyable work, packed with stuff that, even in my youthful ignorance, I should surely have appreciated. The stark, stylized mise en scene and dissociative, almost psychedelic editing rhythms? The raging sitars of Hübler and Schwab? The neo-gothic elegance of Countess Carody’s costume and décor and the deep, dark eyes of Soledad Miranda? Man, I should’ve loved this shit! Why couldn’t I see it? What was I thinking?
Whereas on first viewing I remember dismissing ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ as a whole film cobbled together around Soledad’s iconic opening striptease act (that being the only bit that much impressed me), nowadays I think I actually find that scene to be one of the *least* interesting parts of the film – which is saying something, given that the sight of Ms Miranda prostrating herself beneath a mannequin in her full fetishistic finery whilst ‘Vampire Sound Incorporated’ go mental on the soundtrack must surely rank amongst the finer experiences life has to offer.
In fact, after revisiting the film, I think I’m apt to echo the general consensus that ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ is one of Franco’s all-time best, and certainly an essential cornerstone of the unique cinematic world he would go on to built for himself over the next fifteen years. Necronomicon and Venus In Furs may have seen him branching out beyond straight genre cinema toward the churning waters of psycho-sexual delirium, and the previous year’s self-financed and barely released ‘Nightmares Come At Night’ may have seen him jumping in at the deep end for the very first time, but ‘Vampyros..’ is where it all comes together into a wholly successful, tonally consistent, 100% proof example of everything we now mean when we say “a Jess Franco film”.
(If nothing else, the opening strip-tease certainly provides the definitive example of such a scene – the benchmark against which the innumerable similar scenes Franco filmed over the years must be measured against and inevitably found wanting.) (1)
Fans often talk about Franco films “casting a spell” over them, but rarely is this feeling as palpable – or as literally applicable – as it is in ‘Vampyros Lesbos’. Working (as usual) from almost nothing vis-à-vis budget or production design, Franco drags us down with him into an unfamiliar milieu that soon becomes completely intoxicating, ditching almost entirely the concessions to cinematic convention that kept ‘Venus..’ and ‘Necronomicon’ to some extent anchored in late ‘60s picture-house reality, and surrendering fully to the drifting currents of his own strange, sensualist vision.
As in several later films (including 1981’s partial remake Macumba Sexual), Franco here almost seems to be practicing a form of primitive, improvised magic through his camera lens. All it takes is a few disconnected ‘trigger’ images, presumably shot on the fly as they wandered into the director’s vision (a red kite flying through the Istanbul sky, a scorpion prowling the bottom of a swimming pool, a thin trickle of blood dripping down a glass windowpane, a fishing boat heading out to sea at sunset) and Ewa Strömberg’s Linda (our nominal protagonist / Jonathan Harker stand-in) is forcibly thrust beyond the threshold of her already somewhat hazy reality as the film’s magic circle closes around her, and, by extension, around us.
The repetition of these images as signifiers of supernatural / psychic influence is reiterated to such an extent during the first half of ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ that it starts to recall the ‘visual spells’ of Kenneth Anger’s magic(k)ally charged cinema. Whilst the notional ‘symbolic’ meaning of each image is a little blunt in view of the film’s storyline, Franco’s emphatic, montage-like repetition suggests that these images are intended to function less as ponderous thematic commentary, and more like subliminal flash-cards, marking a gateway from one realm of consciousness to another.
(In keeping with the film’s obvious debt to ‘Dracula’, it also occurs to me that these trigger images seem perhaps like some weird variation on the ritualistic pattern that signifies the journey toward the supernatural in so many more conventional vampire movies – the benighted inn, the coach-ride, the castle door etc.)
The idea of a powerful character’s will roaming far and wide beyond her (or his?) body is a notion that obviously runs rampant through most of Franco’s filmography - indeed, the slightly goofy idea of the seducer repeatedly whispering her victim’s name across some psychic breeze (“Linnnnn-da..”) would surely be one of the first things a parodist would pick up on if making some hypothetical ‘Carry On Franco’ project. This rather nebulous concept is rarely expressed quite as convincingly as it is in ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ though, as Jess allows the oneiric, melancholic headspace of Miranda’s Countess to gradually consume the film’s landscape completely, impacting the behaviour even of secondary characters (Andrea Montchal as Linda’s hapless boyfriend, or Franco’s psycho-sadist hotel porter) to such an extent that the fact we too are under her spell must be obvious to even the most dim-witted of viewers by the halfway point, without the need of any explanatory babble about ‘psychic powers’ or somesuch.
“I bewitched them; They lost their identity; I became them”, the Countess says of her victims during her confessional monologue in the film’s second half, which explains things succinctly enough, even as the fate she describes could easily be extended to the film itself, and its viewers.
Once you’ve grasped it, I think that this idea of seeing the world through the lens of a ‘supernatural’ character’s perspective is one that proves helpful in understanding whole swatches of Franco’s best cinema. From ‘Necronomicon’ onwards, when we watch one of the director’s more personal sex-horror films (as opposed to his straight genre efforts), what we are often seeing is a vision of events as filtered through the subjective viewpoint of an altered or entirely non-human consciousness – a consciousness that, as Stephen Thrower notes in the essay that opens his new book, often mirrors the heightened sensation and temporal drag of sexual arousal. Such is certainly the case in ‘Vampyros Lesbos’, as the dreamlike pace of the Countess’s languorous, vampiric half-life gradually intoxicates every aspect of the film’s style.
This sense of seeing the world through the distorting mirror of a sluggish yet sensually heightened being – whether a vampire, a witch, an avenging spirit, or whatever – is something that went on to inform most of Franco’s excursions into ‘other’ consciousness, reaching its apex perhaps in the disturbing sci-fi abstractions of 1977’s alienating ‘Shining Sex’
The feeling that ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ is drawing us into some kind of esoteric ritual – or at the very least, the deliberate conjuring of a very particular, pungent atmosphere – is only enhanced by the Countess’s curious use of untranslatable vampiric incantations (“kovec nie trekatsch”, anyone?) as she attempts to ‘turn’ her victims, and the rambling occult blather given voice by poor old Dennis Price as the ubiquitous Dr. Seward (a function he also fulfilled a few years in Franco’s two oddball Frankenstein films, of course)
Tying ‘Vampyros..’ in to some extent with these occasional comic book ‘monster bash’ flicks (Dracula: Prisoner of Frankenstein and ‘The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein’ foremost amongst them), I’m not sure whether Jess just banged all this stuff out off the top of his head during shooting, or whether it improvised later by the dubbing crew, but either way, the lack of context and sheer strangeness of all this vampiric claptrap, together with Price’s zonked out, affectless delivery, inadvertently works wonders vis-à-vis creating the suggestion of hidden depths of psychic / magical intrigue. (2)
To the uninitiated, Price’s scenes will no doubt seem extraordinarily shoddy, but for those of who have already crossed the Franco threshold, their mystifying oddity proves quite charming – a familiar part of the director’s world, and a wonderful example of bizarre logic and warped humour that runs through his work.
Curiously, ‘Dr Seward’ – the only character in ‘Vampyros..’ whose name is carried across from Bram Stoker - went on to become a bit of a recurring player in Franco’s own personal mythology; having already cast Paul Muller in the role in his adaptation of ‘Count Dracula’ a year earlier, Franco seems to have developed a bit of a fascination for the character.
Whilst the good doctor’s appearance in the form of Alberto Dalbes in the marginally Stoker-derived ‘Dracula: P of F’ and its sort-of sequel ‘Erotic Rites..’ seems understandable enough, he continued to lurk in the corners of the Francoverse long after vampiric subject matter had departed, his appearances usually coinciding with the director’s weird fixation with dubious mental institutions in which tormented, writhing women display a psychic connection to whatever unpleasantness is transpiring in the respective film’s main plot – an idea that we might suppose to be loosely inspired by the behavior of Seward’s patient Renfield in some iterations of Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. (3)
Quite what these scenes brought to the films, or why Franco so obsessively reiterated them, remains a mystery, but for what it’s worth, the Dr Seward of ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ seems to provide the model for all the dubious seekers into the mystery that followed, just as the film as a whole provides a handy index of so many of the other themes and techniques that Franco would continually revisit through the ‘70s and ‘80s.
As has often been remarked, Soledad Miranda’s performance in ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ is magnificent. Exuding a kind of primal charisma and commitment to her role that more than matches her legendary beauty, she is utterly convincing as the predatory Countess Carody, her mesmerizing, inky black gaze conveying depth of experience that could well hold centuries of undead torment. Comparable to Barbara Steele’s equally iconic turn in ‘Black Sunday’, her very presence on screen is enough to leave horror fans speechless.
What particularly got under my skin upon revisiting the film is the Countess’s confessional monologue to her servant (named Morpho of course, and played here by José Martínez Blanco). Staring upward from a kind of futon in a red-hued, curtained room as the camera roams around her, she describes her initial encounter with Count Dracula (“Was it a hundred years ago, or maybe two hundred? I was young and all alone..”) amid an outbreak of violent looting that saw her family home sacked by soldiers in some unspecified war, and her brutal initiation into the ways of vampirism, as the Count ‘saved’ her from gang rape before taking the place of her attackers himself.
Franco films are rarely celebrated for their dialogue, but this soliloquy is both evocative and tragic, allowing Miranda’s character to attain a depth that is rarely given voice in Franco’s narratives. In fact, it manages to cut right to the heart of the kind of vampiric angst that writers like Anne Rice would make a career out of without sinking to the level of whinging self-pity, and in giving real form to the tragedy underlying all of Franco’s supernatural female predators, it in particular casts a whole new light on Miranda’s fellow Countess in 'Vampyros Lesbos’s semi-sequel ‘La Comtesse Noire’ / ‘Female Vampire’ (1973). (4)
As the Countess describes her domination by Dracula and the way he ‘turned’ her following her ordeal, the implications of childhood abuse and the cycle of dysfunction it can inspire in adulthood are hard to miss, even buried under layers of pulp gothic cushioning. Even whilst the waters are muddied somewhat by a rather unnecessary “..and that’s why I hate all men” comic book lesbian twist, this is neither the first nor last time the shadow of such issues can be found lurking in Franco’s better films, ensuring that, beyond all the sexadelic tomfoolery, there is a crushing sense of sadness and emptiness at the film’s core.
In fact, a big part of the film’s atmosphere – injected subtly, and easy to miss at first – is its overwhelming feeling of melancholy. Whilst part and parcel of any vampire story that invites sympathy toward its monster, this is an element that would grow increasingly prominent in Franco’s sexual domination narratives as the years went on, reaching a crescendo of gut-wrenching despair in films like Lorna the Exorcist and Doriana Gray. At this stage though, that darkness simply shimmers on the horizon - a delicious, bitter undercurrent beneath the film’s luscious, multi-hued surface.
Given what an excellent vehicle Dracula-derived storylines provided for Franco’s exploration of sexual domination and mind control, it’s surprising how few vampire films he actually made. Not counting his ‘90s/’00s shot-on-video projects, I count only five films centering on vampirism in his core filmography, and of those, two (the aforementioned ‘Dracula: Prisoner of Frankenstein’ and 1970’s ‘Count Dracula’) feature more traditional villainous male Counts and largely eschew the story’s sexual angle, leaving only a central trilogy of erotically charged vampire movies, within which ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ stands preeminent alongside ‘Female Vampire’ and the somewhat lesser known ‘Daughter of Dracula’ (1972). (5)
As per the inexplicable proliferation of Dr. Sewards, this relative neglect of vampiric subject matter in the Franco canon remains a mystery, as all three of the above mentioned films reveal Jess to be a perfect chronicler of such tales, whose unknowable, ennui-ridden sexual predators not only provided him with endless opportunities to ruminate upon his preferred themes and scenarios, but also a solid base of box office appeal.
Maybe, as with so many other things, he just got bored. Whilst his far more numerous DeSadean stories and crime/mystery focused sex dramas usually found ways to try to put a new spin on the material, perhaps he realised, with particular reference to his oft-expressed distaste for the crusty old gothic horrors many of his contemporaries were still knocking out, that there was only so much he could do with a menu of fangs, blood and candelabras, and quit whilst he was ahead.
When taking about this kind of euro-horror movie, myself and other writers are constantly abusing the term ‘dream-like’, whether in reference to filmmakers who deliberately seek such an effect, or those who merely stumble upon it, but it is rare that either Franco or any of his contemporaries achieved a mood that was so literally dream-like as that of ‘Vampyros Lesbos’.
It is the kind of film from which, if you lower your guard and let it wash over you, you will emerge ninety minutes later as if waking from a coma. Its cracked logic and intriguing non-sequiturs, its blurred contours, hypnotic repetitions, random drifts of intangible emotion and the strange hints of unseen significance lurking beneath its tides of light and shadow… ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ is an exploitation movie as dream machine that richly deserves its reputation as one of Franco’s finest works, and as one of the cornerstones of ‘70s euro-horror in general. It is recommended without reservation, and if you don’t like it, well, I dunno… try coming back in ten years.
Pulp Thrills: 3/5
Altered States: 5/5
Sight Seeing: 4/5
(1)I sort of like the idea that the reclusive Countess Carody emerges from her sun-blessed island lair to perform exotic strip routines in seedy bars. Her pastime is never mentioned by the characters outside of these sequences, perhaps implying that Linda – watching with vacant, glazed eyes is simply hallucinating the whole thing – a vivid premonition of the sexual obsession she will soon be initiated into by the Countess - whilst her boyfriend, adopting a leering smirk, is enjoying an altogether more conventional sleazy floor-show (until later in the film of course, when it is his turn to be similarly be-witched).
(2)I’ll try to refrain from saying anything unkind with regard to Dennis Price’s widely documented alcoholism, but let’s just say that if you were to tell me he’d been submerged in a barrel of brandy for several hours prior to each of his appearances in Franco films, I’d certainly believe you. He’s still a trooper though, delivering his absurd dialogue with admirable decorum, and, given that he appeared in a number of films for Franco over several years, spanning both the reasonably budgeted Harry Alan Towers productions and some ultra-cheap quickies that presumably only offered the very slimmest of pay cheques, we can at least hope he was a good sport and enjoyed the experience, rather than considering such work a stain upon his rapidly diminishing dignity, or somesuch.
(3)For examples of this, see for instance ‘Lorna the Exorcist’, where the doctor’s questionable establishment features gaudy wallpaper and plush interiors extremely similar to Price’s rather squalid HQ in ‘Vampyros..’, and the utterly surreal ‘Shining Sex’, wherein Franco’s wheelchair-bound doctor seems to be running his experimental psychiatric research unit from the upper floors of an Alicante resort hotel!
(4)Watching the two films in close succession, it’s difficult not to get the impression that Miranda’s Countess Nadine and Lina Romay’s Countess Irina are in some way sisters, cousins, or in some way different manifestations of the same character, both wrestling with the same back story, the same compulsions and inner loneliness. It’s a shame they never got together for the ultimate Jess Franco slash fiction team-up, but maybe it’s for the best… poor Jess might have suffered a heart attack right there behind the viewfinder.
(5)I know, I know – only when referring to Jess Franco could you claim that a director had limited interest in a subject on the basis that he only made five films about it! But nonetheless, it’s interesting to reflect that, despite often being pigeonholed for years as “one of those lesbian vampire guys”, Franco actually probably made more movies about people getting lost in the jungle than he did about vampires.