Written by: Jess Franco and Elisabeth Ledu de Nesle
Directed by: Jess Franco
Starring: Alice Arno, Howard Vernon and Kali Hansa
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Do you like our favorite meat, Silvia?"
Countess Perverse is a nearly forty year old Jess Franco movie, but very few people have actually seen it in its original form, as, after the infamous sleaze director delivered his first cut, producers took the film and added in more sleaze and inserts to turn an erotic, softcore horror movie into a hardcore porno. This is the version that’s existed ever since, and the original version was only recently restored for release by Mondo Macabro, so the appeal here is that many people will be seeing a “new” Jess Franco movie from his glory days. Not only that, but it’s the Spanish auteur’s kinky, sexed-up take on “The Most Dangerous Game,” a silly concept that’s really not all that silly compared to much of Franco’s oeuvre.
The film begins when a young couple finds a naked woman washed up on their beach. After bringing her inside, the woman sounds feverishly insane as she claims to have been victimized by an aristocratic couple on a nearby island. She went there in search of her twin sister, but she was taken in by the Zaroffs, who introduced her to their perverse pleasures. The couple isn’t surprised to hear this at all, though; in fact, they’re the middle men for the Zaroffs that are in charge of procuring the aristocrats their prey, and they’ve just ensnared young Silvia (Lina Romay) and are preparing to serve her up--literally.
Countess Perverse is among the best-looking Franco films I’ve seen; I often find it difficult to get past the warbling, roughshod nature of his photography, but it’s generally just something you just have to accept in a lot of cases. Not so here, as the director largely abandons his affinity for random zooms and imprecise framing, as he gorgeously captures the film’s surroundings. The film’s exoticism is staggering, as we’re taken to remote islands that are populated by post-modern Xanadus with impossible architecture; the inside of the Zaroff house is almost labyrinthine, which foreshadows the couple’s thrill of the hunt. From a purely visual perspective, Countess Perverse is alluring and even dazzling at times, as Franco’s fish-eye lens and long shots create a cock-eyed eeriness to the ordeal. Something is just a little off about the whole experience, which puts us in the same position as the Zaroffs’ ill-fated targets.
That’s the good news; I suppose the bad news is really only bad news if you’re not remotely familiar with Franco’s work, but the beauty of Countess Perverse runs contrary to the seedy, trashy plot that doesn’t so much capture the horror of Richard Connell’s original story so much as it discards it in favor of sleaze and dark humor. It’s also not very graceful while doing so--the film’s structure is altogether wonky, as the episode featuring the Zaroff’s previous mark feels unnecessary, and the actual plot only seems to be a shoestring connecting the various softcore scenes that populate the film. It’s absurd to think that producers added more of this stuff to the hardcore version of the film, as Franco didn’t exactly skimp on it himself, treating viewers to egregious crotch-shots during the numerous make-out sessions. There are few scenes where the women are clothed, as most of the film features them completely disrobed or at least in the act of being disrobed. In fact, for much of the run-time, it seems like the Zaroffs are just a couple of weirdos who like bringing girls to their island to have sex with them.
Only towards the latter part of the film is their true purpose revealed, though the aristocrat couple do have a fondness for chowing down raw meat and complimenting themselves on their prime cuts. Those conditioned to immediately distrust the consumption of meat in exploitation movies will know their secret from the start, so Franco injects some morbid humor during the scenes where these unwitting marks are consuming human meat, unaware of their place in this vicious cycle that’ll have their remains slabbed across the table. Like so many of Franco’s films, there’s something unsettling about the excess; while all of the sex scenes kind make the film plod along, the cruelty of the libertine debauchery is a Franco staple, and Countess Perverse owes about as much to De Sade as it does Connell. The titular Countess is portrayed by Alice Arno, who makes for a memorable pair along with on-screen husband Howard Vernon. These two are perversely assured and take delight in indulging in their twisted games; even when Silvia stumbles upon them dismembering a body, Count Zaroff takes pleasure in discussing the difficulty of the task before slyly revealing that Silvia’s body will make for fine meat.
Romay’s Silvia is ultimately what makes Countess Perverse work; we often associate virginity and purity in horror with those girls who keep their clothes on, but Romay’s grace and projection of innocence often transcended the fact that her husband’s camera adored her naked body. Countess Perverse is among Romay’s most memorable turns, as the wide-eyed Silvia’s horror upon her discovery sells the film’s terror. She’s an enigmatically beautiful presence who manages to charm both audiences and the other characters, and, given that the film really comes down to the climactic chase scene where she’s being hunted by Arno, her performance is the key that keeps Countess Perverse from being an empty sex show. The film’s somewhat absurd twist ending is similarly effective for this same reason, as Silvia seems to represent the direct opposite of the mass of libertine vices that entangle her.
At only 78 minutes, Countess Perverse manages to skid its way to effectiveness--the story is admittedly thin and sometimes slow, but the visuals and performances keep things afloat just long enough. Films like Countess Perverse have to be met on their own terms, and Franco hasn’t crafted a scary movie here so much as a lurid, almost psychotronic one whose sleazy excess compensates for the relative lack of on-screen violence. Enthusiasts should be glad that Mondo Macabro has managed to restore the film to its rightful glory, as I’m not sure the extended version would pack the same punch it does here. Their DVD features an absolutely stunning presentation, too; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Franco film restored to this sort of condition, as it’s a razor sharp, crisp transfer taken from an HD restoration. The French soundtrack is likewise strong, while the set of extras include interviews with Robert Woods and Franco, an introduction from critic Stephen Thrower, and some trailers for other Mondo releases. Those who have acquired the distinctive taste of Franco should hunt it down. Buy it!
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