Vampyros Lesbos (1971) d. Jess Franco (West Germany/Spain)
Lesbianism in horror films had been teased at as early as Dracula’s Daughter (1936), becoming slightly more overt in the ’60s with Claire Bloom’s bisexual medium Theo in The Haunting before baring it all in 1970 with a flood of Sapphic bloodsuckers led by the box office suck-sess of Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers. Once the luscious Ingrid Pitt had stepped out of the bathtub in her altogether and chased young Madeline Smith around the room, the fanged femmes launched an all-out cinematic assault, with titles such as Daughters of Darkness, The Blood-Spattered Bride, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, Vampyres, and Jean Rollin’s art-house horror efforts titillating the hearts and wallets of red-blooded hetero men (and a few women, no doubt) with a lethal combo of same-sex flesh and blood.
In the vanguard sits Jess Franco’s curious entry in the lesbian vampire sweepstakes, curious because while it features plenty of nudity and female necking (get it?), it is strangely unerotic, with Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab’s catchy lounge-act soundtrack providing a strident counterpoint to the onscreen imagery. (Like many of Franco’s films, there only appear to be four melodic refrains, subsequently played endlessly and seemingly at random.) Even so, it’s usually my go-to film for introducing people to the filmmaker, providing as it does an ample sampling of Francoisms: in addition to the factors just mentioned, we’ve got the requisite excessive zooming, long wordless sequences, endless pans and inserts of random flora and fauna, and the director showing up onscreen, usually as some skeevy type (here he’s a drooling hotel manager with a few literal skeletons in his closet).
Soledad Miranda, billed as Susann Korda for the sake of the German producers, is hypnotic in her first leading role for Franco, playing the haunted Countess Nadine Carody with a world-weary aspect, spurred to action by the prospect of a new companion in Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg). When not lounging by the pool (these vamps thrive in the sun rather than quailing from it), the countess performs an elaborate cabaret act where she doffs her duds and uses them to dress a living female mannequin on which she then puts the bite. Franco apparently liked the act so much, he has Miranda perform it twice in its entirety which hardly any variation. Somehow, I doubt that anyone in the raincoat crowd was complaining.
Coming off the previous year’s Count Dracula with Christopher Lee, it’s clear that Franco and his co-writers Jaime Chavarri and Anne Settimo are using the Stoker source material as inspiration throughout, while cleverly substituting sunny Spanish locations for dreary Transylvanian castles and giving Dennis Price’s Van Helsing character an un-death wish, his fierce knowledge of the occult fueling a desire to become a vampire himself! There’s also a Renfield type in the form of Agra (Heidrun Kussin) ranting wildly in Price’s madhouse while sharing a psychic link with her former mistress.
An onscreen metaphor is established between a scorpion and Miranda’s character, which actually works better than expected in the final reel, although the payoff is a long time in coming. Up until that point, viewers will be forgiven for wondering if Franco simply found a random desert dweller and stuck it on camera for B-roll purposes (and I’m still not entirely convinced that wasn’t the case). He also has a confusing obsession with a ship out on the horizon that never quite figures into the storyline – one gets the impression the infinitely resourceful director looked out on the water, saw the ship, and decided that, as well as adding production value, Stoker fans would read in the Demeter reference.
Severin’s Limited Edition Blu-ray release is a real treasure for Franco fans, packed with several terrific extras, as well as a separate disc boasting a rare, somewhat weathered-looking Spanish bootleg version of the film, Las Vampiras. (The pristine, newly remastered version we’re seeing is the German version, even though it curiously has French opening titles.) As mentioned above, for the Franco-curious, this is a great place to start, since Vampyros manages to be relatively accessible while still retaining its creator’s distinctive style.
The supplements include a lengthy interview with the late director, conducted not long before his death in 2013. Like the one on Severin’s Bloody Moon release last year, the conversation is lively (and subtitled – even though Uncle Jess is speaking in English, his age and accent are occasionally difficult to decipher) and filled with anecdotes and candor aplenty. (I kind of loved it when he calls Strömberg “not very good.”) This is followed by a lovely tribute to the film’s late star in the form of “Sublime Soledad,” as Amy Brown, web mistress of SoledadMiranda.com, who takes us on an affectionate tour of the actress’ life, career, and premature death by auto accident in late 1970.
One of our favorite genre scholars and author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jess Franco, Stephen Thrower, puts in time sharing some background intel on the film itself and its place in the director’s oeuvre, and the many collaborations he had planned with Miranda prior to her tragic end. Even though they only did six films together (and an unfinished seventh), it’s clear that Franco had finally found a subject that could sustain his eccentric stylistic flairs. Luckily, his most enduring muse, Lina Romay, showed up the next year to fill the void.
There’s also the endearing “Jess is Yoda” clip, which proffers the theory that Star Wars FX man Stuart Freeborn based his design of the iconic green-skinned Jedi master upon you-know-who. Whether the story is apocryphal or not – Freeborn has stated numerous times in public interviews that Yoda’s face was an amalgam of his own features and those of Albert Einstein – it does make for a great tale.
Franco also states in the snippet that he and Freeborn worked together on four films, but the IMDb has no record of this, so you just gotta wonder, since if Freeborn were the type to go burying credits, you’d think he would have done something about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
An alternate German opening title sequence and the original German trailer round out the extras.
Vampyros Lesbos is available now in a Limited Edition (7500 copies) Blu-ray (paired with the Las Vampiras DVD) and can be ordered HERE: