Friday, January 24, 2014

Vampyros Lesbos – review

Director: Jess Franco

Release date: 1971

Contains spoilers

As I write this we are only a couple of months away from the blog’s 8th birthday. During that time I have reviewed a whole array of vampire movies from around the world. Many of those films I had on DVD (and sometime vhs) before I ever contemplated writing Taliesin Meets the Vampires. Most of those I had before have now been reviewed. There are a couple of notable exceptions.

burlesque interpretative performance
So, very recently I received an email from a blog reader asking about a missing review; specifically, wondering where the Vampyros Lesbos review had got to. It wasn’t missing however - I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet! This is, of course, unforgivable on my part as it is arguably Jess Franco’s best known vampire film (it’s either this or Female Vampire). Now I have to admit a love/hate relationship with Franco. I find myself drawn to his films and then being disappointed. My expectations and anticipation, more often than not, utterly overwhelm his execution. Vampyros Lesbos is no different really except that it is from the golden age of Franco films.

Linda and Omar
Spurred on by the email I sat down to dip into the world of Franco and revisit Vampyros Lesbos. After opening shots of the Countess Carody (Soledad Miranda, Count Dracula), boats and the minarets of Istanbul we shift into a night club and see the Countess (not revealed as such until later) offering a burlesque interpretative performance. The music has to be mentioned as Vampyros Lesbos has a wonderfully surreal acid jazz soundtrack that is perfectly evocative of the time it was shot. In the crowd are the lovers Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg) and Omar (Andrés Monales) – Omar has a thin moustache and eyes that dart like an “eagle eyes action man”.

telepathically calling Linda
We see Linda dreaming, and get images as the Countess calls out telepathically to her, such as blood drops on a window, a moth and a scorpion. Franco places these key symbols – and a kite – through the film. We cut to her on a psychiatrist’s couch and she admits having recurring dreams about the woman and an island beach house, neither of which she knows, and was shocked when she saw the performer as it was the woman from her dreams. She admits that the dreams both scare and arouse her. The psychiatrist simply doodles and then puts it all down to sexual frustration and tells her to get a better lover.

victim of a serial killer
Linda works in the Istanbul office of the law firm Simpson & Simpson and has to go to visit Countess Carody about an inheritance. She gets so far on her journey but misses a boat and has to stay in a hotel where a creepy man called Memmet (Jess Franco) warns her away from the island as it is a place of madness and death. He asks her to meet him in the wine cellar and she goes there to see a bleeding, tied woman – later we discover that Memmet is a serial killer. This, however, does not seem to trouble the lawyer who gets the next boat to the island without raising the find with the authorities!

Seconds before passing out
At the beach house – which is all too familiar – she finally meets the Countess, who is sunbathing. This is one of the interesting things about Vampyros Lesbos, Franco overturns the gothic for beaches and beach houses, darkness and moonlight for sand and sunbathing. Rather than get straight down to business the two women go skinny dipping and sunbathing (observed secretly by the Countess’ servant Morpho (José Martínez Blanco, also from Count Dracula)). At dinner they talk about the complex inheritance left to the Countess by Count Dracula – he was a Hungarian, the Countess correctly confides. Some wine (maybe drugged, maybe blood) and Linda suggests she has a headache and then passes out.

José Martínez Blanco as Morpho
She is carried to her bedroom by Morpho and then seduced by the Countess. In the morning she awakens and finds the Countess’ body floating in the swimming pool, passes out and wakes in a private hospital run by Dr Seward (Dennis Price, Son of Dracula (1974), The Horror of it All, The Magic Christian, Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein & Twins of Evil). She has amnesia but a newspaper advert leads Omar to her. Also in the hospital is Agra (Heidrun Kussin) – Agra is interesting as she is kind of a female Renfield, she had been to the island and is psychically linked (and obsessed) with the Countess. She was Memmet’s wife and so it seems that her obsession was that which caused him to become a serial killer.

wine or blood?
Franco playing with the genre was fun. Seward is the vampire hunter but he is more interested in becoming a vampire than hunting them. There is very little in the way of religious aspect but he manages to hurt the Countess (who, of course, was not dead in the pool) with a Latin chant. He also tells us that a vampire must be killed by giving the brain a deadly blow – suggesting a hatchet or iron bar. We have the drinking of wine that is really blood (later in the film, though it may have also happened on the first meeting too). We discover that the Countess was a mortal in Istanbul and was attacked and raped by soldiers and rescued by Dracula. It is the rape that made her hate men and become a lesbian.

embarrassing tussle
The film is languid but that adds to its dreamlike quality and it is perhaps the dreamlike quality that enables us to forgive some of the plot contrivances. It doesn’t descend into silliness like a lot of Franco films (except, perhaps, during a brief fight between Seward and Morpho). There is a fair bit of nudity but nothing particularly hardcore and some of it is actually tastefully done. Certainly it is unlikely that Soledad Miranda ever looked more beautiful than in some of the shots in the film.

Soledad Miranda is at her finest
The frustration is that Franco made some incredibly intelligent plays in the film – such as his handling of the move from Gothic to beach – but these moments become lost in some of the contrivances (as much as the dreamy quality allows those). If I say that this deserves 4 out of 10 then I am probably being very fair but I do have to say that it is worth more than the sum of its score.

The imdb page is here.


Alex. G said...

I for one understand you not being to eager to watch this sooner. This one is so slow-paced it's a chore to watch. You wouldn't think a movie about lesbian vampires would be so boring, but Franco found a way.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I think I would be kinder and call it dreamlike, but I can see where you're coming from :)