Monday 31 August 2015

She Killed In Ecstasy

Miranda Rights In Tights

She Killed In Ecstasy
Spain/West Germany
Directed by Jess Franco
Severin Films Zone A/B/C Blu Ray

Warning: Ecstatic spoilers within.

So this is another of those films I haven’t seen in a while and am just catching up to again because of the beautiful Blu Ray transfer just put out by Severin Films. In my previous review of the companion Blu Ray to this set, the famous Franco classic Vampyros Lesbos, I mentioned how this was one of the last few films that the inimitable Soledad Miranda made for Jess before her quite tragic and untimely violent death at the age of 27... in circumstances which surely go down in movie history as one of the most cruelly ironic twists of fate. For my review of that movie and a very brief history of that untimely end, please see my Vampyros Lesbos review here.

Now, She Killed In Ecstasy is a film I’ve always remembered, after first seeing it more than a decade ago, as being the poor half sister to Vampyros Lesbos. I recalled it as being quite fun but nowhere in the same league and, it seems, a lot of people would have agreed with me. However, now I see it again, looking utterly fantastic in Severin’s new, crystal clear transfer (which is the best it’s ever looked), I’d have to say that I actually prefer this movie in some ways and that Vampyros Lesbos, while absolutely great, runs it a very close second, now, in my estimation of these two movies.

The films begins with the famous Manfred Hübler and Sigi Schwab psychedelic and deeply groovy music but it’s playing over shots of really grim cabinets housing medical curios such as brains in jars and still born babies... totally undercutting the jollity of the score in a bizarre juxtaposition of sound and image which almost sets up a schizophrenic conflict in the intended audience. It’s a really strange choice.

A woman comes out of an amazing looking architectural home (the same one Franco uses in his later film Countess Perverse, reviewed here) and takes a long flight of stone steps onto a beach. Wearing a purple cape and with an air of cool confidence, she could almost be either Countess Carody from Vampyros Lesbos herself, or Lina Romay’s character in Female Vampire (reviewed here). When we see a close up of her face and she starts telling her story, via the main body of the movie, in flashback with her narrative voice over, her beauty hits you right in the eye like a big pizza pie... that’s Soledad. At least, I think it’s mostly in flashback... I’ll come back to that point a little later.

Once again, the movie is one of Franco’s most visually arresting and he’s up to his tricks of using flashy zooms and lots of reactive, moving camerawork here. With this one especially, Franco shoots the film is like it's being voyeuristically observed through a psychedelic fog. Like someone was standing on the other side of a hot wax lamp, almost, and watching the action through the glass distortion. Once again he uses lines and shapes created by the environments he shoots in to split up the performers into sections and have them interact with each other from different perspective planes within the same shot. And it’s rarely distracting enough that you’ll necessarily catch all this stuff within the first viewing... it’s all just shot perfectly without, for the most part, intruding on the consciousness of the audience.

Back to the story of the movie and we have Soledad Miranda’s character, Mrs. Johnson, being shown around her husband’s laboratory by the short lived character... um... Mr. Johnson, played a bit woodenly, it has to be said, by Fred Williams. Soledad is wearing an “almost not there” silver bikini in these earlier scenes and it really is quite something to see. Not many ladies could probably pull off wearing something this amazingly revealing but she is able to get away with wearing it and, combined with her absolutely amazing and powerful screen presence, I was wowed by her costume, rather than finding myself laughing at it.

Her husband, it turns out, is doing something medically revolutionary which can't help but look like mad and creepy science to anyone not inhabiting his or, possibly, his on-screen wife’s head. The medical panel who he seeks to approve his project thinks so too... in no uncertain terms. He is banned from continuing his experiments with embryos and his licence to practice medicine is revoked. His lab is smashed up, even, by the group of enthusiastic medical nay-sayers.

This, understandably, upsets the character a tad and it’s not long before he finds that he’s a man driven insane by the constantly corny repeating flashback dialogue of the medical council’s conclusions on the soundtrack. That is to say that, from this point, whenever he is on screen and being looked after by the wonderful Mrs. Johnson, he has the voices of those characters echoing in his head and is unresponsive. Those characters being played by regular Franco collaborators Paul Muller, Howard Vernon, Ewa Strömberg and, of course, Jess Franco himself in a fairly large role. Who wouldn’t be driven mad by these voices constantly following you around on the foley? It’s not long before Mr. Johnson slashes his own wrists and, after rolling awake and naked on her bed, Mrs. Johnson finds him in this state. The film very quickly turns into a revenge thriller, not a million miles away from François Truffaut’s movie adaptation of The Bride Wore Black (reviewed here), it has to be said... but Jess Franco style... which means it’s sexy, bloody and has a gorgeously 'swinging' soundtrack on it.

The rest of the film follows the otherwise un-named Mrs. Johnson as she tracks down the four above mentioned members of the medical council and sets herself up as a honey-trap to lure them to bed with her so she can give them her own brand of justice. While the film is full of little 'off the cuff' details like Howard Vernon’s character silently praying before he has sex with her, like he’s saying grace before dinner, it’s mostly a film of big, broad strokes, it has to be said.

Soledad Miranda’s character starts off by stabbing Howard Vernon in the throat and cutting off his genitals before leaving a typical serial killer style note on the wound left by Vernon’s castration... or as Franco’s own character puts it... “his penis was severed”. It’s interesting because you can see the history of the censorship issues this film has had over the years in the way the stock changes to a slightly different quality a little towards the end of the scene where Franco find’s Vernon’s body. He walks into the hotel room and we see him standing over the bed and we register the shock and horror on his face. Then the stock has a bizarre shift in quality which Severin were obviously unable to fully compensate for (but believe me, compared to other versions I’ve seen of this movie, they’ve done a really remarkable job here) as the camera pans down to the bloody aftermath of Soledad’s sexually charged crime.

Next up is the lesbian seduction of Ewa Strömberg’s character, perhaps recalling similar scenes between the two actresses in Vampyros Lesbos. Here, the girl’s love scene is once again shot in such a way that it feels like Franco is looking through surrealistically tinted glasses... quite literally in one small sequence where, at the start of the gal’s scene, Soledad very specifically places a half full glass of sherry in front of the camera, obscuring about a half of the screen in the middle of the shot and carrying on the tactic of making things look dynamic and interesting There also seems to be a lot of shadow work in the film, It’s not blatantly overt like an old 1940s noir thriller or even an Indiana Jones homage to such, but the shadow element is there, set up by the way the light is thrown onto the actors in certain scenes such as this one.

This scene is completely wonderful because Soledad kills her victim by smothering her with an inflatable, stripey, transparent pillow which magnifies her victim’s struggle as the camera looks through the pillow at her magnified face. It’s a bit like the smothering scenes you see in the TV show The Prisoner, when the Guardian known as Rover smothers an actor and you see his face pushing through the plastic... but it’s a more colourful and transparent version of that here. It has to be pointed out, though, that the scene does look fairly implausible. Ewa Strömberg puts up virtually no struggle and it seems very strange to think that Soledad could possibly hold her down... and she’s not even trying. The struggle on Ewa’s magnified face is completely at odds with what her flailing arms are passively doing in the long shot here. You know what, though? It really doesnt matter because the aesthetics of this particular murder win out over the implausibility of the crime anytime in my book

The third crime, where Soledad “scissors” Paul Muller’s head and then contemplates him and all else that has happened in her recent past, is notable because it gives us a slow pull back from Soledad’s face to finally end up with the absolutely iconic shot of her that is usually the first one that anyone of my generation remembers of her; the one for which Severin have had a new illustration painted for the new cover. It’s the one shot of Soledad Miranda which has burned itself into my brain over the years from its repeat usage by various companies on video and CD covers.

After this we get another of many brief scenes where Soledad is having an internal conversation with the corpse of her dead husband on their bed, going so far as to make love to it in this part of the movie. Which I find really odd, actually, as the police have been investigating his death and everybody knows about the character’s suicidal demise... so why they let Soledad keep the body, which they evidently did because they find it in her car at the end of the movie, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps  post death laws in the country in which this is set are less stringent than they would be in the UK? Or, you know, perhaps the movie is completely implausible in the details of its storyline.

Franco himself is the fourth and final revenge victim and, frankly, he really leaves himself open for it after swooning upon finding his wife dead at the hands of Soledad’s character. He ends up tied to a chair so Mrs. Johnson can carve him up a bit before stabbing him repeatedly to death... Miranda’s always deeply expressive eyes showing the hate for her victim as she completes her final act of vengeance before... driving her car off a cliff with herself and her husband in it.

Wait. What?

I thought the film was being told from a flashback of her standing on the beach looking lovely at the start of the film. Okay so, if this is the case, how is she dead at the end of her story. Is it a case of the flashback ending at a certain point in the narrative and just being fairly unclear where this takes place? Well, yeah, I would guess so. Not quite sure where that opening sequence comes in unless it’s after the third victim’s demise but... I’m sure I missed a trick here which, you know, is okay because this certainly won’t, I hope, be the last time I watch this beautiful movie.

So there you have it. A beautful work of art with nudity, death, vengeance, some insanely gorgeous looking compositions and a groovy soundtrack by Manfred Hübler and Sigi Schwab... with the very occasional musical insert by Bruno Nicolai, it turns out. Perhaps tracked in from one of his scores for Franco’s other films? Who knows? If you do, just let me know via the comments section at the bottom of this review. The film would be nothing, however, or at least a lot less, without the truly divine presence of the late and very great Soledad Miranda... an actress with amazing screen chemistry who was definitely going to be going places, if not for her truly tragic demise. She Killed In Ecstasy is one of her's, and Franco’s, best films. If you see any of either of their films, make it one of these last few they did together. They truly are a great team... Franco and his original muse, before he found his lifelong partner and star Lina Romay. Especially make a point of buying this excellent new Severin two disc limited edition Blu Ray of the film because the second disc in it is an extended CD of the music from Vampyros Lesbos, She Killed In Ecstasy and The Devil Came from Akasava... which is even longer than the expanded version of the Vampyros Lesbos Sexadelic Dance Party CD put out some years ago. It’s gorgeous music for putting on at swinging, psychedelic parties and your ears certainly won’t regret the purchase.

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