Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Naked and the Dead

A Virgin Among the Living Dead
1973 Belgium/France/Italy/Liechtenstein
Directed by Jess Franco
Image Entertainment DVD Region 1

And so on to the second part of my Halloween Horror double bill.

I always approach the films of Jess Franco with a certain amount of caution. He mostly, it has to be said, churns out a load of old codswallop for the most part. But it also has to be said that, as far as codswallop goes, he certainly covers the shiny, sparkly, upper echelons of celluloid codswallop because his product usually does at least have: vibrant, naked ladies... gory bloodletting... and a sometimes sublime gothic atmosphere rendered in such a way that some director’s just can’t do.

Now Franco is usually giving himself a lot of hats in his movies. He often writes, directs and gives himself a substantial on-screen role. He has also been known to operate the camera, do the music and perform many of a hundred other tasks but on this one he seems to have settled on just writing, directing and starring in. I remember an interview with an actor years ago where he mentioned that Jess had been directing himself in a scene starring himself and also operating the camera at the same time... reaching around his own headshot with his hand to shift focus and pan the camera!

All this may give you the impression that his movies can sometimes look and feel a bit lacking in their production values... and you’d be right. But lets not forget, also, that Orson Welles called Jess Franco the best assistant director he’d had at one stage... they’d worked together on Welle’s Chimes At Midnight and tried to make Don Quixote together (Franco did his own Welles version of Don Quixote in the 90s).

He also made the finest "lesbian adaptation" of the Dracula story that I’ve seen, Vampyros Lesbos. So it’s really hard to pin down just who Jess Franco is at any one time.

A Virgin Among The Living Dead is a vampire movie about a young girl, Christina, who comes into an inheritance of some property and goes to “meet the family” who she has never met before. The castle they live in strikes terror into the hearts of local neighbouring villagers and it’s clear, to the audience at least, that most of the inhabitants are blood sucking vampires who want to make Christina their next meal after the reading of the will. After a while, Christina pretty much figures things out for herself when she comes across opportunities such as an invite to lesbian vampire bloodsucking games in one of the bedrooms. Franco plays a mute servant to the vampires who is quite startlingly and unintentionally funny to watch. There is a lot of entertainment value to be had from his wild gesticulating and throaty grunts in his attempts to communicate with Christina during the movie and I can only assume that his “bedside manner” when it came to directing the actors in this little opus was not in a similar vein of grunting and pointing!

Neither of Franco’s regular muses, Soledad Miranda or Lina Romay, star in this film. I think Soledad was dead by this time and this might have been shot at a time when Lina wasn’t quite yet a regular fixture in his movies (to this day she still is, is my understanding). Instead, the clothes shedding duties are given to actress Christina von Blanc... I use the term actress in the loosest sense of the word I’m afraid. She does do, however, a very good job at removing her clothing at the drop of a hat... shedding her flimsy coverings at least five times throughout the course of the movie. And, to be fair, she's really no worse as an actress than anyone else in this movie... which I think speaks volumes about how I felt about this one.

If I had to describe this movie I’d have to say that it’s a poor man’s version of something which Franco’s “spiritual cousin” Jean Rollin might have knocked out. Both directors share diabolical performances and very bad scripts (when there has been a script prepared for the shoot) but Rollin saves himself by having absolutely stunning and surrealistic and usually quite beautiful visual vignettes scatter shot at regular intervals throughout his movies which lift them onto a much greater plain of art than many directors working in cinema to this day. Franco could probably have been this kind of director but you always get the feeling (or at least I do) that his movies are rushed out in a matter of days to hit budget and get into the next one. Which is a shame because he has done the odd stunning film or two.

Apparently, in the 80s when the original zombie boom was happening, this movie had some newly shot zombie scenes hastily added by director Jean Rollin (I didn’t know this until after I’d watched this movie and made the comparison). I haven’t seen this version of it but it’s apparently even more of an abomination than this restored director’s cut on the Image Entertainment label.

All in all a lacklustre effort saved only by some nudity and gothic atmosphere... and some really laughable acting by Franco. If you want to get into watching Franco then this is most definitely not a good place to start. Try his Vampyros Lesbos, Female Vampire or She Kills In Ecstasy instead of this mess of a movie. You’ll be much less disappointed.

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