What were you doing in 1977? The gorgeous Olivia Pascal and director Hubert Frank had just finished making VANESSA for Lisa Film- GmbH in Hong Kong. Look at the castle in the image below. Does it look familiar? More about that later.
VANESSA features BLOODY MOON's Olivia Pascal in the title role of the sheltered young lady who inherits real estate in exotic Hong Kong on her 21st birthday. Leaving the Alpine convent where she was raised by nuns after her parent's death she has to deal with some unpleasant family secrets when she arrives. She will discover that Hong Kong is a place of danger, duplicity and sensuality and that there is a lot more than meets the eye in the real world outside of convent walls. That last line is an intended pun since Olivia Pascal would go on to the classy nunsploitation of Boro's BEHIND CONVENT WALLS (1978) and, along with director Hubert Frank, ISLAND OF 1000 DELIGHTS.
When Vanessa is told that her late uncle's holdings included a bordello which serves female clients, she decides to pay a visit resulting in one of the film's more amusing scenes. Then there is the distant relative who claims he really now owns the farm [plantation] since he was uncle's illegitimate son. But he has other interests, which including shooting holes in burlap rice sacks, giving his whore a slow motion shower. It's all rather like the first Emmanuelle film, as Frank points out in Uwe Huber's excellent documentary interview, and it's elegantly lensed by Franz X. Lederle (also on hand in the featurette). One of the many Jess Franco connections is that the sought-after DP was also credited on the German version of NECRONOMICON (1967), for quota purposes, according to director Franco. My favorite character is a psychic who is able to have sex with women without physical contact! This is demonstrated in another highly amusing episode. The great Anton Diffring (1918-1989) was a master character actor, and is a very welcome presence here as a sadistic cad who gets Vanessa is a very tight bind before all ends happily. Unfortunately, Diffring was post dubbed to give him a British accent, and one misses the distinctive Teutonic menace imparted by his real voice. That voice can be heard in one of Diffring's last roles, as the ruthless, sentimental Nazi surgeon, Dr. Karl-Heinz Moser, in Jess Franco's FACELESS, one of his best and most chilling performances.
I was thinking at the end of VANESSA that this is a film which is just too nice and too conservative (the heroine doesn't even lose her virginity) compared to today's sex/slob comedies. A disco-symphonic score by Gerhard Heinz (which incorporates Bach and Strauss themes) also helps temporarily lift the film a bit above the category of Euro-sleaze, or at least points to the taste of the director, who requested the composer mimic Strauss famous theme heard at the opening and closing of Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But that's what I liked about it. Uwe Huber's interview featurette proves that Hubert Frank (b. 1925) is just as nice as the film he made. An engaging octogenarian and a gentleman in the European sense of the word, he proves to be an intelligent craftsman who took his work very seriously. He and DP Lederle go into fascinating detail on how they shot without a completed script and had to scramble to find appropriate locations in the closed city of Hong Kong. He is also candid about dealing with the inexperienced Lisa-Film employee Olivia Pascal, who remains very lovely and composed in various hot situations but shows little sense of characterization. It's also good to hear something about another Lisa Film employee, Otto W. Retzer, who appears here as the paramilitary coconut slasher and joined Franck and Pascal in ISLAND OF 1000 DELIGHTS. Retzer was also a valuable character actor-production manager on several Lisa Film-Jess Franco coproductions, usually playing thugs in such titles as BLOODY MOON, SADOMANIA, and LINDA (all 1980). Retzer still works for Lisa-Film, directing episodes of such German TV series as TRAUMHOTEL (2004-2007). Olivia Pascal also went on to a prolific career appearing on German television. And look out for Eva Garden from Franco's THE VENGEANCE OF DR MABUSE (1971).
In fact, looking closely at Jess Franco's aforementioned LINDA* one notices that the first shot of the Alpine convent where the title character (Katja Bienert) is sheltered is actually footage from VANESSA, as are all the shots of Mother Superior in the following scene where closeups of Ms. Bienert are intercut with the exact same footage. These scenes first appeared at the opening of Hubert Frank's film where Vanessa is scolded by the convent staff for reading the book EROS IN POMPEII (the book is in plain sight in Franco's film) before being informed of her inheritance. Lisa Film obviously made Frank's film available to Jess Franco and it must be stated that the story and character's in LINDA owe an awful lot to VANESSA. But that's Jess Franco. He made his own film by cannibalizing another.
VANESSA remains a class act from another era and Severin Films have done another expert job in giving it a glowing DVD debut. A high definition 1.78:1/16:9 transfer from pristine elements, the film literally shines with rich tropical hues and intimate flesh tones. The Mono English track is crisp and clear and gives Gerhard Heinz's delightfully nostalgic score its full measure. Another much appreciated supplement are several reels of Super 8mm on set footage which show intimate details on how some of the softcore situations were set up, how the sets were kept cool and the intensive activity of Hubert Frank and Franz X. Lederle. The original theatrical trailer is included in the package.
*DIE NACKTEN SUPERHEXEN VOM RIO AMORE/CAPTIVE WOMEN ( US video series)
(C) Robert Monell, 2007