Vampyros Lesbos (1970)
Studio: Severin Films
Release date: May 12th, 2015
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
If we consider auteurism as court cases, surely few directors have presented as much sheer evidence as Jess Franco, Spain’s preeminent sleaze export. Over the course of a staggering 200 films, audiences have become well-acquainted with the idea of a Jess Franco looks and feels like. Anyone who has born witness to even a handful of them can’t deny their singular style and their rather pronounced preoccupation with blending erotica and gore into entrancing fever dreams. If there’s a Mount Rushmore for Eurohorror, surely he’s in contention for a spot.* Vampyros Lesbos, one of his most prominent pieces of evidence, lays his obsessions rather bare—I mean, it’s right there in the title, after all.
A cursory glance at the film—which firmly marked Franco’s arrival to the 70s—makes it easy to laugh off. By this point, Franco had already tackled the Dracula mythos and surrealist erotica in separate features, so his decision to blend the two is an early indicator of his desire to shoot seemingly anything and everything that came to mind. Essentially a gender-bending reimagining of the Stoker’s bare bones, Vampyros Lesbos finds Linda Westinghouse (Eva Stromberg) in the Harker role as a clerical worker summoned the estate of the enigmatic Countess Corody (Soledad Miranda). Her arrival induces déjà vu, as Linda’s recurring dream involving the Countess slowly begins to come true.
Enthusiasts will recognize this as the rough outline of other Franco films—certainly, he had some notion that the aristocracy lived to prey on the proletariat—and it’s predictably more of a scenario than an actual plot here. Considering it opens with a lengthy burlesque sequence, it’s hardly surprising that Vampyros Lesbos is deliberately paced and suggestive in its themes and moods. As Linda falls into Miranda’s orbit, the film does lean on some familiar lore by invoking Dracula’s role in the Countess’s backstory, yet it only seems like an incidental reinforcement of its loose framework. Franco is not interested in retelling Dracula beat for beat but is rather more invested in transplanting the essentials, like an insane asylum lorded over by a doctor Seward (Paul Muller) or the Countess’s devoted manservant (Jose Martinez Blanco), into an impressionistic rendering.
Discerning just what Franco is interested in proves to be more elusive. While its forays into erotica has it teetering on smut, Franco is searching for something beneath the carnal pleasures and forbidden lust between Linda and Corody. The opening striptease is an incredible prelude that captures the sheer ecstasy of repressed sexual longing: Franco’s camera holds its gaze on Miranda as she gracefully prowls across the stage in a seductive dance with both her own reflection and an eerily passive blonde. Occasionally, he turns his eye to the crowd, where Linda watches on, her lip trembling in awe. Franco’s signature zooms carry a rush of sexual exhilaration here as they move in on Linda’s tremulous delight. If there’s ever a case of Jess Franco, Auetur vs. the Court of Public Opinion, look no further than his fantastic sequence: with no dialogue, mesmerizing visuals, and a dazzling, psychedelic score, Franco effortlessly captures primal urges.
But there’s more to Vampyros Lesbos than that, even, as Franco twists the ecstasy into a fugue state through a fractured narrative that loses grip on reality once the Countess feasts on Linda’s jugular. A master of this brand of incongruously sun-splashed nightmares, Franco sifts through plot intricacies to find more dazzling images: a red scarf that trails the Countess, the portentous recurrence of a scorpion, the ethereal glow of the mansion’s bowels. Crimson smears in dazzling, painterly fashion, and, in one particularly daring instance, drips from the Countess’s mouth as if it were a sexual fluid. Vampyros Lesbos is a sumptuous visual feast with an alluring but deceptive palette that enables viewers to identify with Linda, a woman who has finds herself standing somewhere between a nightmare and a daydream.
A direct descendent of the likes of Dracula’s Daughter, Vampyros Lesbos obviously explores untamed feminine sexuality within the context of vampirism. What the film lacks in narrative meat it more than makes up for with its thematic suggestions: Linda is bored by domestic life, her mysterious dreams something that simply needs to be fucked out of her system according to an ineffectual psychologist who doodles away as he doles out prefabricated advice. In Corody, she senses something exotic but frightening, and the courtship between the two plays out as something of a lesbian parable. At every turn, the patriarchy around her seeks to restore order: both her boyfriend and Seward attempt to rescue her from the Countess’s clutches, with the latter additionally hoping to become one of the undead himself. It would seem that a woman inheriting Dracula’s estate is an affront as well.
Franco treads into some murky waters as he wades towards a conclusion that seems less anarchic than his other efforts unless you consider its satiric implications. Ultimately, the film reinforces traditional dynamics, though one can’t help but sense a tinge of sadness haunting the characters’ fates. Corody feels less like a predator and more like prey as outside forces close in and influence Linda to break a cycle of quote-unquote madness. Each woman that escapes the Countess’s clutches becomes overcome with hysteria and is committed, yet an unhinged psycho (Franco himself) roams free and attempts to slaughter those who survive.
Eventually, it seems obvious that the world surrounding Carody’s island paradise is just as corrupt, if not more so—if nothing else, the Countess’s intentions seem to be more pure, so a hint of tragedy cements her in the Dracula mold. Franco’s true interests lie in exposing how society expects women to conform, even if it means one has to stab another in the eye to quell the tides of sexual chaos. When their passion is made public for an audience of men gawking at a burlesque performance, it's acceptable; in private, it's a transgression that can only be snuffed out with violence.
*Fulci, Bava, and Argento are shoe-ins, leaving plenty of candidates to vie for that final spot.
One of Franco’s most notorious films, Vampyros Lesbos is a prime candidate for a Blu-ray upgrade, and Severin Films has complied with a wonderful limited special edition. The high definition transfer is immaculate, so much so that it has forced me to reconsider my relationship with Franco’s aesthetic: for over a decade, his work has been consigned to transfers that did it few favors, but this release reveals just how gorgeous Franco’s films could be, even if they were macabre and sleazy. Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab’s famous score benefits from a strong stereo presentation, which preserves the original German language tracks.
Separate interviews with Franco, Amy Brown (cited as a Soledad Miranda historian), and Stephen Thrower (a renowned Franco scholar) form the meat of the supplements along with a fun bit that reveals Franco’s unexpected connection to Yoda. The film’s original trailer and an alternate German title sequence round out the extras on disc one, while the second disc features an alternate Spanish “bootleg cut” on DVD. Severin has housed this edition in sleek, classy packaging with striking, hand-painted artwork to boot.
With this release, Severin has justly highlighted a standout effort in Franco’s oeuvre, one that finds the director on the precipice of a decade that would produce his most notorious work. In Vampyros Lesbos, you sense the dam waiting to burst: it is not Franco’s most unrestrained picture, but it anticipates more lurid work on the horizon. From its psychedelic aesthetic to its hypnotic muse, Vampyros Lesbos is vintage Franco, and proof that he had more to offer than an overwhelming body of evidence in his favor. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: