27 October, 2012


 FEMALE VAMPIRE: Redemption-Kino Lorber
 Blu-ray: 1920 X 1080p/2.35:1

Countess Irina Karlstein (Lina Romay) roams the misty mountains on the island of Madeira in search of victims to satisfy her thirst for body fluids (semen in the erotic versions; blood in the horror version) which sustain her unhappy, lonely existence. She seduces her victims through a kind of sexual hypnosis and takes their fluids at the point of climax, which she also makes into the point of their death. Le Petite Mort meets DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, the 1936 UNIVERSAL film which may be a predecessor of this, could be a quick way to describe this seminal Jess Franco film (originally shot as La Comtesse Noire and released in numerous versions with many different titles). Love and Death are intertwined for Irina and when she meets the Austrian writer Baron Von Rathony (Jack Taylor), who is also a lonely seeker of love and death, they instantly recognize a kindred spirit in each other and fall into a love which can only end in.....

FEMALE VAMPIRE is a rather banal title for this infamous blending of porno, vampire attacks, existential longing, melancholia, extended bi-sexual seductions leading to even more extended softcore/hardcore interludes, reeling telezooms of the magnificent vistas of Madeira, a police procedural subplot featuring the writer-director-DP as the investigating coroner and, most importantly, a transcendental love story between two lost souls. Those who first encounter it may see only an arty porno loop with a vampire conceit at its center or they may find it a boring attempt to meld porn, art, grade C vampire antics and pretentious dialogue and narration. I first encountered this film via the 1985 PRIVATE SCREENINGS VHS,  LOVES OF IRINA, which was a full-screen presentation, incomplete and containing a surprising glimpse of hardcore (which was eliminated from both the previous IMAGE DVD and this presentation along with about a minute of surrounding footage of Lina Romay and Ramon Ardid making love in a luxury hotel suite). I found it rather boring, incompetent and repetitive. "Why is this almost all out of focus?" I kept asking myself. It's a question that many viewers and critics have asked over the years and this release at least partially answers that query. .

One of the most interesting aspects of Franco's filmography is that each of his films offer an array of portals in which one can enter into their world. Just as Irina takes her victims to the land "behind the mist" (in the writer's phrase) this films takes us into a sort of deconstruction of the vampire genre. This isn't the stylish, psychedelic, jazzy version of Bram Stoker that VAMPYROS LESBOS is. Downbeat, mournful, featuring characters lost in emotional/sexual frustration, seemingly endorsing the possibility that the pleasure is worth giving ones life for, as the hippie-metaphysical investigator Dr. Orloff (French film critic-actor Jean-Pierre Bouyxou) suggests to Dr. Roberts during an autopsy. Rathony wants to be taken to the world "behind the mist:."  Ironically, the writer falls in love with Irina, who is the instrument of his demise and she will follow him behind the mist. What's more Romantic than that? Romantic with capital R. Some of the mirror imagery and the concept of a poet falling in love with a woman who is Death and who falls in love with him are evocative of Jean Cocteau's poetic fantasy ORPHEE (1950). That film, though, employed the more socially acceptable fantsy/film noir/melodrama/war movie matrix as a launching point rather than the sleazy, if highly marketable, 1970s European softcore romp genre.

 Jean Marais (Orpheus) and the Dark Princess, Maria Caseres (his Death) in Jean Cocteau's landmark film Orpheus (1950), a possible predecessor of LA COMTESSE NOIRE.

This is also, like all other Jess Franco titles, a film about watching and performing, how we as the audience watch a horror film and what our expectations are. Within the context of the film, Jess Franco is the watcher/voyeur (the director admits "I'm a watcher" on the documentary extra DESTINY IN SOFT FOCUS: JESS FRANCO REMEMBERS FEMALE VAMPIRE) as Dr. Roberts, obsessed with his target, Irina/Lina Romay, the actress whom the director had recently fallen in love with. The look on Roberts' face as he watches Irina drown in her bloodbath at the end speaks volumes without resorting to a word of dialogue, similar in effect to the finale of EUGENIE DE SADE (1970), in which the director also plays an investigator/voyeur who witnesses the last moment of performer/object of desire/dark haired transgressor Eugenie, played by the fated Soledad Miranda.

Then there's the stylistic aspect, or perhaps the lack of style which is characterized by the dependence on slow paced, dilatory scene structures, an obsessive use of the telezoom (particularly what has been termed the "vaginal zoom"), the inclusion of many soft focus and plainly out-of-focus images. The most outrageous example of this is Lina Romay walking forward from an out-of-focus shot and seeming to crash directly into the camera lens. Bumping into the camera happens to actors on film sets all the time, of course. Usually the result of rushed blocking/chaotic shooting conditions. It doesn't only happen on low budget films. But, invariably these shooting accidents are cut from the final release prints. The question always asked is why it was left in. I wonder if it was indeed accidental. Looked at another way it can be taken as a transgressive breaking of the "fourth wall" of cinema which the audience always takes for granted. It throws us out of the context of the film and allows us direct "contact" with the performer/character. It doesn't matter if it was an accident or an arty experiment or the result of sloppy editing of quickly shot footage. Perhaps they confused rushes meant for the bin with what were designated as printable takes. Who knows? In the contest of this particular film, though, it works as an [involuntary?] reality check. And in a film with little or no recognizable reality a bump in the aesthetic road can be seen as an interesting development. I always find it both amusing and a way to enter into this vague, poetic, dream world while holding on to the reality that it's only a film. It's a moment which would never have appeared in, say, a Hammer lesbian vampire movie. They would have immediately trashed it forever. I, for one, find it a refreshing slap in the face to the concept of the "well made" horror movie. At over 100 minutes, the film may seem slow and repetitive to many, becoming even more static during the regular lapses into softcore sex preceding the orgasm and death of the victim. But these lapses are also indicative of its special fantasy matrix of sex and death within a format of a 1970s Euro softcore epic.

FEMALE VAMPIRE succeeds for me as a tragic love story at the center of a no-budget Euro vampire project which dares to be experimental and different; Shot in a week of frantic filming on Madeira, with subsequent shooting in Brussels and France, this is not by any means a handsome looking, fast moving, breezily entertaining horror romp. It takes some getting used to, and repeat viewings, to fully appreciate its subtle and varies pleasures. This is also a near silent film in terms of dialogue. Irina is mute as is her towering he-man majordomo (Eurowestern regular Luis Barboo). Her silence seems to give her a kind of power over the humans she encounters. Lina Romay, only 19 and in her first starring role for the director, captures the melancholy, the terror, the allure and the mystery of the character in a completely natural (some would say unprofessional) manner. She doesn't "act." She simply is the character. Daniel White's eerie, lyrical score featuring a moody female vocal acts as a kind of musical representation of Irina's romantic longing and becomes her voice.

VIDEO: The Redemption presentation did not go through any sort of restoration and is taken from the same element as the previous IMAGE DVD. The many examples of print damage remain. Vertical scratches, horizontal marks, flecks, frame and sprocket damage abound from first to last image. Some sequences are color faded while others are too dark or grainy. The remastered Blu-ray, significantly sharpens most of the images and adds a world of detail, note the detail in those long lensed shots of the forests of Madeira and the surrounding sea or the fact that one can read the cards with which the Inspector plays solitaire while conferring with Dr. Roberts. The colors are significantly improved. What just seemed like an endless blur of faded greens and blues is now alive with bursts of bright natural hues. Note the electric green of the foliage in the outdoor lounge where Von Rathony and Irina have their first meeting. The aquamarines the hotel swimming pool and nearby ocean sparkle with sunlight, and now its possible to appreciate the flashes of  floral arrangements bursting with primary colors along the byways of the tropical island.

EROTIKILL, the 71m horror version, which has both covered inserts and alternate vampire attacks where Irina bites her victims on the neck and drains blood instead of sexual fluid, looks slightly better in terms of print quality, with less scratches and speckling and is certainly a brisker watch while eliminating much of the film's intended extra-narrative drift and blank verse aesthetic. It should be noted that about 30 minutes of mostly erotic footage is missing, including the famous opening vaginal zoom and aforementioned camera bump. It's good, though, to finally have both versions available on HQ DVD for comparison/contrast sake if nothing else. If FEMALE VAMPIRE is poetry, EROTIKILL is prose. Onscreen title: LA COMTESSE AUX SIENS NUS (The Bare Breasted Countess).

AUDIO: Both the English and the [superior] French soundtracks are included. The French dialogue is more literate, leaning toward the poetic, while the voice casting is much, much better than the risible dubbing heard on the English track. Both tracks sound fine to me in terms of technical quality, but the French track has a bit more atmosphere, clarity and detail. The better written and delivered French dialogue is rendered in easy to read English subtitles. .

EXTRAS include two short documentaries. In David Gregory's moving and fascinating "Destiny in Soft Focus: Jess Franco Remembers Female Vampire" Franco describes his desire to make a film "based on the strange love of a vampire lost in Madeira who falls in love... and the love happens,,, she needs to kill... and she does."  He stresses he wanted to make a film "with heart" about a "nice" vampire. Admitting that he may be an unconscious "watcher" with a preference for lesbian vampires, he confesses that he's not proud to have made a film about a vampire who suck sexual fluids of victims but wanted to do something different. He wanted to make a love story first and foremost. He also confirms that original shoot lasted for a week on Madeira with some pick up footage shot in France and Belgium. Franco points out that he deliberately kept dialogue to minimum to leave motivations in the "shadows" and in an attempt to create a special mood. This is a crucial point since much of the film's strength is due to its almost silent-film quality.  The interview concludes with a detailed description of his first meeting with Lina Romay, the experience of falling in love with and working with her over four decades and how her untimely death set his resolve to continue to make films no matter what. The 13m 35s segment is punctuated with well-chosen clips from the film to illustrate key points. Franco also notes a planned female vampire film with a cannibal twist! There's a lot of insight and information packed into this interview, and it's worth the price of admission.

 Daniel Gouyette's "Words for Lina" is a personal memoir of Lina Romay by critic-actor Jean Pierre Bouyxou, who acted opposite her as Dr. Orloff in FEMALE VAMPIRE. Bouyxou notes his shock at learning of her death and how she was the primary, lifelong personal and professional support for the prolific filmmaker.. He reminisces about the real character of the non-conformist actress and her witty upbeat nature. He speaks in French for the interview, English subtitles are provided as they are for Franco's interview, although he speaks, heavily accented, English. An 1m 15s original theatrical trailer, for LA COMTESSE AUX SIENS NUS (the onscreen title of the covered EROTIKILL) is also included as well as trailers for Franco's EXORCISM as well as Jean Rollin's THE RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE, THE NUDE VAMPIRE and REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE, all of which have been released on Blu-ray by Redemption.

This much anticipated Blu-ray version is a welcome HD upgrade and improves on every single previous video version and is several notches sharper, more colorful and detailed than the DVD version, supported by the welcome bonus package of EROTIKILL and two new documentaries.

[Other variants of LA COMTESSE NOIRE include the 59m THE BARE BREASTED COUNTESS (UK release); the Italian Un Caldo Corpo di Femmina-video title: EROTIKILLER; the French Les Avaleuses, an 82m hardcore version; the Force Video EROTIKILL (which is actually slightly longer than the horror version on this presentation);  the Finnish video Verentahrima Morsian; the German variants, Entfesselt Berlerde and the 2001 Code 2 release LADY DRACULA 2, the X-Rated Kult disc which is also hardcore with a run time of 105 +9 m. Other titles include Jacula, The Last Thrill.

(C) Robert Monell 2012

1 comment:

scott said...

For some reason this Franco title always fell short for me in terms of the usual greatness bestowed upon it. I admit liking some of the scenes and some of the atmosphere & music but on the whole, more of a curiosity. Maybe when I see this new release with subtitles, I can catch something I missed before? Sad to see that Redemption didn't do any kind of restoration but will be worth it for the French audio and subtitles. I don't have Blu-Ray so will be going with the DVD release