Wednesday 1 July 2015

Vampyros Lesbos

Fluids And Soledads

Vampyros Lesbos
Germany/Spain 1971
Directed by Jess Franco
Severin Blu Ray Zone A

Whenever the name Jess Franco tends to come up in polite, and often not so polite, conversation it usually conjures up an insane director who prolifically wrote, shot, directed and acted in low budget exploitation movies, sometimes even reaching around a shot to operate the camera while filming himself in some of the more extreme but, completely believable, stories I've heard about him. The man who Orson Welles once called his best Assistant Director and a man who churned out films of various quality and comprehensibility over his long career, usually starring his muse and partner Lina Romay. The films which may at first come to mind would possibly be Female Vampire, Countess Perverse (reviewed here), She Kills In Ecstacy (perhaps) but certainly one of these which will almost certainly spring to the front is this key work, Vampyros Lesbos.

Part of that is to do with the fact that it’s a pretty cool movie with some nice photography and female nudity... which there’s still a big market for these days. The other reason is that it was one of the last three films of his to star Soledad Miranda, who has since become a bit of an icon of an actress due to her tragic demise, which took place before any of these last three films were even released into cinemas a year later. A demise which hit Franco hard and it’s no wonder as she was, from the look of the way he photographed her in this and certain others of his films with her, his original on screen muse. A kind of Lina Romay Mark 1, so to speak.

The story goes that Miranda had retired from acting to have a child but came out of retirement when she got a small part in the Hollywood western 100 Rifles. After that, Franco kinda discovered her and started using her in small roles in his own films, like Franco's attempt at a more serious counterpart to the Hammer Dracula movies, Count Dracula, where she starred as Stoker’s character Lucy Westenra opposite Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom. After a few films like this, Franco put her in more starring roles in films like The Devil Came from Akasava, Vampyros Lesbos, She Kills In Ecstacy and Eugenie De Sade, usually billed as Susann Korda to divert attention from her name due to the sexually charged nature of her roles. It says something about Franco’s pace as a director that there were three films in the can and not yet released before the actress met her dreadful fate.* A fate that came along under the guise of opportunity when she, her husband and her child were on their way to Franco’s house by car. Franco had just received news that his producer would sign a contract with Soledad and make her a big star and she was rushing over to Franco’s house to finalise the deal when a collision with a lorry crushed her car. Her husband and child escaped serious harm but she received injuries which put her in a coma from which she never awoke. A few hours after the crash she was dead. Life can be unbelievably cruel and ironic at times.

Vampyros Lesbos is a great movie. It’s confusing and unspecific in its direction at points, sure, but not as much as some of the worst of Franco’s movies and, out of all of them, I think this film could be classed as one of his great masterpieces.

It opens with a shot of the sun burning orange at dusk on a sea scape and then alternates this during the credits, with a shot of Soledad Miranda as the main antagonist/protagonist (take your pick) of the movie, Countess Nadine Carody. She is either being looked down on or up at by the camera and her presence is full on and in your face as she waves her hands around in an expression of vampiric mesmerism which, okay, sounds a bit rubbish but, because she has such a remarkable presence, it all just kind of works. It also helps that it’s set to one of the most insane but grooviest pieces, Countdown To Nowhere, from the score by David Khune, Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab and... yeah... David Khune is another pseudonym for Franco helping out with the music too.

After this we are treated, straight away, to another gorgeously scored scene where Soledad is performing a kind of “reverse strip” routine in sexy clothing with a naked mannequin. She gyrates slowly as she removes her clothing to dress the mannequin in separate bits and it’s not very long before we realise the mannequin is actually a another 'real' naked woman, a lesbian bond formed between the sensual Countess Carody and her nude puppet. An audience watches the scene attentively in the nightclub in which she is revealed to be performing this routine, including the other main protagonist of the film, Linda, played by Ewa Strömberg (another Franco regular at this time) and her boyfriend. The scene is all raw raunchiness but Soledad manages to still retain her elegance as she performs her piece, writhing naked between the legs of her puppet lover.

The next morning, disturbed from her slumber, Linda is mentally lured by the Countess, apparently in her dreams but it’s all a bit vague an interpretation and Franco’s imagery is, probably quite deliberately, fairly hazy with the details of the narrative. She finds herself in Soledad’s massive island estate where we see blood on the window pane and a scorpion scuttling. We then cut to later when Linda is describing the scene to her psychiatrist. It soon becomes clear that he is not taking her too seriously when we see the pad he is “taking notes” in is filled with his own doodles... which is a nice little sight gag and done, like I’m sure many other films have probably also done over the years, decades before a similar note pad revelation was made in The Cohen Brothers’ greatest movie, The Big Lebowski.  

It is soon revealed that  Linda’s full name is Linda Westinghouse, in vague deference to her origins in the Lucy Westerna role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a character already played once by her co-star Soledad Miranda, as detailed above. Actually, by the time Linda is sent by her place of employment to see the Countess on her island estate to discuss the legalities of an inheritance left to the Countess, it must be pretty clear that the film is, in many ways, a remake of the stage version (at the very least) of Stoker’s legendary play, loosely based on his own novel. To be fair, most of the movie versions tend to be riffs on the play as opposed to the novel, at least in my experience of them. In this first part of the film then, and presumably in deference to the name of the more commonly used title of the piece, it’s clear that Linda is also, at this point in the movie, a partial stand in for the Jonathan Harker character too (a role satisfied by Renfield at this stage of the story, in some iterations).

Once Linda arrives to talk through the legal proceedings she realises that the Countess is both the lady she saw performing the lewd dance routine and also, quite literally, the girl of her dreams. It becomes even more of a metatextual mystery in terms of the story line when we find that the estate that has been left to her, a castle and so forth, is willed to her by her former lover... one Count Dracula. So this is both a sequel and a partial remake of that earlier story, it would seem. The two get on pretty well and it isn’t long, a matter of minutes, before the girls are shedding their clothing and inhibitions in the sea and on the beach... all lovingly photographed with Franco’s passionate eye for the female form.

When the Countess finally takes her pleasure of Linda, and bites her neck in the time honoured tradition of vampires, it is in a direct metaphor of the nightclub routine earlier in the movie, even utilising some of that same music. However, when Linda awakes, she is confronted with a vision of Carody’s death, floating in her swimming pool. Things then get a bit hazy for a while as Franco tries to keep a shape to the story after this...

Linda wakes up in Dr. Seward's sanitarium after having gone a bit loopy. In this version of the Stoker source, Seward is played by movie veteran Dennis Price, with a strangely inconsistent tone due, I suspect, to possible changes in the scripting which may have been why the structure of the film is a little shaky in the second half. Seward’s role is much more similar, in actual fact, to the Van Helsing role in the original novel, in that he’s much more interested in the supernatural and the occult than you might comfortably expect him to be. There's also a female version of the insane Renfield character from Stoker’s story at the sanitorium called Agra, played by Heidrun Kussin.

After going a bit Renfield-loopy herself, Linda then starts to properly fulfil the Lucy Westenra role that is her “almost namesake” in the original. Or Mina, depending on which adaptation you are taking as your source material for this one, the characters have occasionally switched to fulfil each other’s roles in the cinematic history of the Dracula story (as I point out in my review of the Hammer Dracula here).

At the sanitarium, she flashes back to her boyfriend who she returned to after her "incident". At some point, for no apparent reason, Linda’s boyfriend momentarily takes over the Lucy role with his own loss of blood and... things get a bit confused, I feel. There’s lots more sexuality on display with Linda and the Countess by now and it includes a scene where Linda is fully aware, by this point, that the wine she has been drinking in the company of Carody is, in fact blood. Perhaps Linda’s boyfriend is the source of said beverage but it’s never really made clear, considering Francos slightly surreal mixing of flashback and present but, in the words of William Hurt in The Big Chill... “Sometimes you have to let art wash over you." However, the countess is also suffering from her own dilemma because she is, as she puts it, under Linda's spell also. Something which has never happened in any of her previous vampiric conquests.

By the time the film rushes to its doom laden and crowd pleasing conclusion, the course of the plot line tends to get on a more even keel but story isn’t really the point in a Jess Franco movie, to be honest... hence why I don’t mind revealing some of the details of the tale here. There’s nothing particularly complex about the plot or even the visual metaphors in this movie, but it is stunningly beautiful with lots of fantastic reds, flesh tones and rich blacks, brought to life the best they ever have been in Severin’s new Blu Ray edition of the film. Simple and elegant compositions which are, it has to be said, very erotically charged.

Quite a lot of the film is shot at a slight angle in respect that the camera tends to be placed just slightly above or below the eye line of the actors involved in the set up and, certainly, I think this movie marks one of the times when Franco is at his most visually poetic but, also, his most in-your-face. There are lots of predatory images edited into the main body of this film at key moments, like the scuttling scorpion, to indicate hunter and prey, the drowning scorpion and, at the end, a kite that comes crashing down to earth. However, even when Franco is being quite overt with his metaphors, the shots are so well put together that you can forgive him a lot for any little bumps this movie has at certain points.

There's an impressive shot, for example, with Linda’s boyfriend and the escaped Agra in conversation. Agra is pressed up against a glass window, they are both facing the camera as we look in from outside while they talk. The camera, again looking just slightly up at them, slowly pulls back to reveal the full length of the glass pane. We then see one of the workers at the sanitarium in a reflection of the window opposite on a higher floor, as he sees that Agra has escaped, even though the two in conversation don’t notice and, it’s an almost blink and you’ll miss it moment. Stuff like this is pretty cool and easily worth the price of admission.

At the end of the day. Vampyros Lesbos is a groovy movie with a Francophile pleasing turn by the director himself as a psychotic, sexual killer driven mad by the state of his wife Agra and a full on jazztastic, psychedelic score that was previously released with cuts from this film and She Kills In Ecstasy by the record label Crippled Dick Hot Wax as Vampyros Lesbos Sexadelic Dance Party (one of my favourite albums). There was later a more expanded version of the same album... just a few years ago, in fact. It was also on a rare Lucertola recording of an even more expanded version called Three Films By Jess Franco, which also included music from The Devil Came from Akasava. If you get the new limited edition Blu Ray Severin version of She Kills In Ecstasy at the moment, a reissue of this CD is included inside as the second disc... so that was an instant purchase from me. Also, if you like the music that much, there was also a CD issued by Sideburn Recordings of modern remixes of the tracks from these albums called The Spirit Of Vampyros Lesbos... but it has to be said that, like the majority of these kinds of remix albums, it’s a bit of a hit and miss affair and not nearly as fun as you might think... having the effect of sending you straight back to the original recordings when you’re done listening.

But I digress. Basically, in a nutshell, Vampyros Lesbos is a beautiful looking movie full of extraordinary music and gorgeous looking naked women gyrating around each other as the camera caresses them on your behalf. It’s also one of Franco’s best movies so, if you are a lover of his work and you’ve not seen this... shame on you, go grab the new Severin edition now. If you’ve not seen any of this director’s work before... well this would definitely be one of your best introductions to it too... so definitely look this one up as soon as you get a minute. It’s one of the great sexploitation movies of our time and... Soledad is just perfect in it.

*He directed at least 203 films before his death in 2013 and has a lot more credits besides director on a lot of his movies. Low budget tends to mean you do everything yourself.

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