Tuesday, October 27, 2015

HubrisWeen 2015, Day 22: Vampyros Lesbos (1970)

It's kind of amazing to remember that there was once a time when the name Jess Franco could come up and I would have no idea what the person who mentioned him was talking about. Nowadays, while I have barely scratched the surface of his massive body of work, I consider myself a bit of a Francophile. If you tell me Jess Franco is involved in a film, I'm interested, and today's film is absolutely the reason why.

Back in the days when getting physical discs from Netflix was still something I did, I decided that it was time that I introduced myself and ex-wife to Jesus Franco. (And, no, that is not why I'm divorced now) I had zero idea where to begin, but I took a shot in the dark and decided to start with Female Vampire. By the film's end, both of us had managed to become bored with the intimate details of Lina Romay's genitals.

However, something about the film intrigued me, in spite of its utter awfulness. I honestly couldn't explain what it was, since I could not think of really any redeeming quality about the film at the time. So I decided to give Franco one more shot, and tried Vampyros Lesbos on for size.

I was hooked, almost at once.

Now, before I begin I think I need to clarify something about this film: I don't love it because Franco was any more competent in his direction here than in Female Vampire, aside from not hitting any of his actors with the camera and leaving the shot in. No, I love this film because Franco's worst instincts and decisions actually come together to work in the film's favor.

The film begins by introducing you to the hallmark of a true Jess Franco film: a soundtrack that does not seem to fit the movie. A numbers station-style recording of voices starts off the jazzy opening theme as the credits roll over footage of the bay of Istanbul and occasional glimpses of an ethereal woman (Soledad Miranda, who else?) reaching out to the camera as her red scarf billows outward. I also would like to note that Franco decided his footage of the bay should focus on some kind of tanker anchored there and--it is oddly creepy vessel, even if there appears to be nothing derelict about it.

And then, suddenly, we cut to a minimally dressed stage, occupied by nothing but a garish full-length mirror and a naked woman (an uncredited Beni Cardoso, I think) who is standing as still as a statue. Then the ethereal woman from the credits prances ontos tage in a flimsy outfirt with flowing red scarf, holding a candelabra. This is all part of a nightclub routine, because this film wants us to know up front that this is a Jess Franco film. The routine--set to a slow jam that sounds like it should be playing at a high school slow dance--involves the woman admiring herself in the mirror and then undressing herself and putting her clothes on the naked "mannequin."

Mannequin 3: Victoria's Biggest Secret
In the audience we see a couple watching this. He is Omar (Andrea Montchal), and she is Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stromberg, also back from our last Franco film). Linda is watching the performance, utterly entranced--and definitely a bit overcome with lust. Omar keeps glancing at her uncomfortably, so already the film is playing with male discomfort in the face of female sexuality--whether it was done on purpose or not.

The woman on stage kisses the "mannequin" and then lowers her to the stage--which is, naturally, very awkward since the "mannequin" has to try and pretend to stay stiff the whole way down--and on the floor she lustfully kisses the "mannequin" on the neck. When the audience bursts into aaplause, Omar notices Linda is excited but she passes it off as nothing.

As they lie sleeping in bed, later, though, Linda dreams of the woman's face saying, "Linda...Linda...I'm calling you." She dreams a series of disconnected images after that: a floating red kite, herself going to a boat, a house on an island, an empty chair, a moth trapped in a net, a scoprion, blood dripping down a window, the woman in her scarf now naked but for that scarf and reaching for her, and finally her own face moving down almost reluctantly between the woman's legs but not at an angle that would otherwise indicate what it clearly is meant to here.

She relates this dream to her psychiatrist, Dr. Steiner (Paul Muller, also returning), explaining that she has had the same dream every night. It feels oddly prophetic to her, even though she's never seen the woman before nor been to the place. Strangely, the dream also arouses her and more than once she's climaxed during the dream. This sequence is all shot like a typical cinematic representation of a psychiatrist visit, complete with her reclining on a red couch while he takes notes--except he isn't taking notes at all, but doodling random pictures.

Linda then reveals the biggest shock for her was seeing the woman of her dreams, literally, at that night club show the previous night. Even Steiner stops doodling at this, except he then tells her that the issue is that she is sexually frustrated and needs to find herself a better lover. Linda's expression at this is priceless--partially incredulous and more than a bit confused. She goes back to her room at the Istanbul Hilton to reunite with Omar. She doesn't tell him what Dr. Steiner said, of course, but does tell him she's scared and hopes he'll stay with her for the next few days.

However, when she goes to the office she gets an order from the boss, that she is told y the secretary is very confidential. After reading it, Linda's eyes stare off into the middle distance she says she must go to the island of Anatolia to see Countess Carody about an inheritance. She takes a boat and arrives at a harbor near the island and goes into a local inn to announce herself to its keeper. He is supposed to take her onward to the Kadidados Islands. Unfortunately, she just missed the last boat for the day. Luckily, Countess Carody has already booked her a room and he orders Memmet (Jess Franco himself) to show her to her room.

Memmet walks a little strangely and defiintely seems a bit off. (Honestly, I don't think Franco had to do much acting to be off-putting) Linda tries to sleep but is awakened by a nightmare, possibly her recurring dream. She goes wandering in the hotel and Memmet suddenly grabs her wrist, frightening her. He leans close and whispers in her ear, apologizing for scaring her but telling her she must not go to the island. Madness and death rule the island, he claims. He tells her to come to the wine cellar later, then has to run off.

Linda goes to the wine cellar as instructed--and thus interrupts Memmet as he is doing something to the bloody body of a dead woman tied to a chair. She doesn't hang around to find out what he wanted to talk about, of course. We next see her on the boat to the island, so I'm not even sure if she felt it necessary to alert the authorities.

"Okay, I know this looks bad, but..."
Amusingly, the estate on the island is about as far from an ancient mansion or castle as it could get. It looks very modern. She doesn't notice a strange male figure (Jose Martinez Blanco) lurking about in sunglasses and watching her, but she does notice a scorpion crawling on the terrace and a moth fluttering against a window. When she wanders into the house, though, she gets a hell of a start when she sees blood dripping down a window pane. As the numbers station kicks in again, Linda turns and bolts--only stopping when a female voice calls to her in greeting. She turns and sees the Countess Nadine Carody, the woman from her dreams and the nightclub act. And the countess is currently sunbathing in a pair of gigantic sunglasses that only Soledad Miranda could pull off without looking like a bug.

All these modern vampires and their sunbathing and giant sunglasses.
Linda calms down slightly at the sight of her hostess and introduces herself as being from the firm of Simpson & Simpson. Amusingly, when Linda tells Nadine that she feels she's met her before and been to this place before, Nadine merely says that she has that feeling sometimes--it happens a lot. This calms Linda down, but what really calms her down is Nadine asking her if she'd like to go for a swim.

Well, Linda didn't bring her bathing suit, but Nadine assures her there is no one around to see her, so Linda happily strips nude--while the mysterious man watches from the shore as Linda and Nadine frolic in the surf. And they actually do some swimming, unlike other nubile young women I could name. Then they sunbathe together and Nadine decides to join her guest in not having to worry about tan lines. They talk about fun and relaxing it is to lounge on the sand naked--especially with someone else.

At dinner, Linda arrives in a nice white semi-casual pantsuit. Nadine pours her some wine as they talk about the will that Linda is there to go over. It's a very curious will and hard to transfer the estate--so Linda asks what Nadine can tell her about the Dracula family, since it was the late Count Dracula who left the estate to her. Nadine explains they came from Hungary, like her, and that Count Dracula considered her the woman who brought the most joy into his life. And, as an aside, I love how they're having dinner by candelabra and talking about Dracula--but they're on an open deck on a sunlit beach with netting behind them.

Nadine mentions she would love to pass the Dracula estate on to someone else some day, and Linda asks if she can help. Nadine tells her that she certainly can, perhaps sooner than she thinks. nadine walks over and they clink glasses, but somehow Linda's wine isn't sitting right and she has ha headache. Nadine tells her to go lie down in a room she has prepared for Linda, but Linda then just passes out on the table. Nadine tenderly strokes her neck before calling for Morpho, who turns out to be the mysterious figure from earlier and her mute manservant. Unlike the average manservant named Morpho in a Jess Franco flick (of whom there are legion), this guy is actually rather handsome and normal-looking. And wears a sharp black turtleneck with a suit jacket.

Morpho carries Linda to the hideous yellow bedroom and lays her down in the bed. There's a shot of a chocolate lab playing in the surf added to the expected images of moth and scorpion here and...if that's meant to be menacing in any way, there are few less menacing images of dogs they could have chosen. At any rate, Linda awakens when Nadine appears from behind the yellow curtains, a trickle of blood on her lip. Linda rises as Nadine approaches--and Nadine kisses her. She then brings her down to the floor and strips her naked, stroking her skin lovingly.

Nadine also strips naked and kisses the now very receptive Linda. And then she bites her neck. Which Linda doesn't seem to mind all that much...

"Oh my God, I'm so sorry! I just--I've never given a hickey before!"
Linda wakes up later on the floor--naked, alone, and very confused. She calls for Nadine and puts on a black slip before going looking for her new lover in the house. (I particularly love the room with red curtain tassels hanging all over from the ceiling) Outside she finds Nadine, floating face-up and naked in the pool with her red scarf draped from her neck--and apparently dead. The sight causes Linda to faint.

Cut to a private clinic as a patient named Agra (Heidrun Kissin) has a fit.  And note that her room has all kinds of hard surfaces and things she could injure herself on. The orderly (Michael Berling) comes in and slaps her back to her senses. Agra raves that "she" is coming back for her, finally, and begs the orderly to make sure "she" doesn't leave her again. He assures her that he'll make sure of it--and then leaves to go see the head doctor, Dr. Alwin Seward (Dennis Price), yet another Dracula connection. (And I feel sure "Westinghouse" is meant to make us think of "Westenra," somehow)

Dr. Seward is currently reading from a book about vampires or some occult subject when the orderly walks in to tell him about Agra's fit. Seward tells the orderly to fetch an injection before he goes to see Agra, who is now hilariously chipper in a way that suggests she's learned how to play semi-adjusted for the audience. She happily tells Seward that "she" was there, but Agra can't tell him her visitor's name--just that she is "the Queen of the Night." This disappoints Seward, who seemed far more interested in her identity than a doctor treating an insane woman should be.

Meanwhile, Linda wakes up in another room of the clinic. The orderly is reading a book next to her and when she asks him who he is and where she is, the guy just silently gets up and leaves. Seward comes in to introduce himself to her. He explains where she is, but she doesn't remember even her own name, much less what happened to her. luckily, Omar comes to the clinic, having seen Seward's ad about a girl found on the beach. He explains who Linda is to Seward and to the incredulous orderly.

All he knows is that Linda disappeared from her hotel room several days ago. Seward explains that Linda was found in shock and having lost a lot of blood, but is doing better now. He has the orderly show Omar to Linda's room. Seeing Omar helps Linda regain her memory almost immediately. On the boat ride back to Istanbul, and they walk around the city, Linda explains that she still doesn't remember anything about her time on the island--aside from the imagine of a dead, naked woman floating in a pool that she thinks was Countess Carody. She wonders aloud if it could all have been a dream.

The fact that Nadine is watching her from a window makes me think that, no, it was not a dream.

Omar thinks Linda just needs time to forget it. Maybe they should go on a holiday, he says as they stand in the reflection of a Pan Am advertisement. Cut to a mansion on a cliff, where Nadine lies upon an ottoman and recounts aloud, perhaps to the nearby Morpho or perhaps just to herself, how she was all alone in her parents' house a hundred or two hundred years ago--she can't remember any more--when soldiers were raiding the streets and raping the women in the streets. Unfortunately, they quickly found her, too. Her cries of agony were heard, however, by an unlikely savior: Count Dracula. Dracula murdered the soldier raping her and offered to take all her suffering away.

Dracula fed on her blood for days until she was growing weak and then shared the secret of vampirism with her. Men disgust Nadine even now (because this was 1970 and you had to "explain" a lesbian by her having had a bad experience with men) but she has captivated many women over the years, taking over them and consuming their identities. But now she's met Linda, and suddenly she finds herself under Linda's spell. She has no choice, she feels, but to initiate Linda into the secret world of vampires.

Meanwhile, Linda and Omar make love--while Nadine and Morpho watch. (And dig the gigantic medallion that Nadine wears) After the couple fall asleep, Nadine wakes Linda by calling to her and Linda gets dressed and heads out of the hotel room. Nadine then approaches Omar, but we don't see what--if anything--she does to him. Linda finds herself in the mansion, in the room where Nadine awaits by the ottoman. And then Nadine offers her a drink from what looks like a vase full of wine, but after Linda drinks, Nadine tells her it was blood. Linda's confused face is pretty priceless.

"Actually, it's just Strawberry Fanta."
"Fanta? Disgusting!"
Nadine then tells her that the Queen of the Night will welcome her with open arms. She then tells Linda a magic phrase to repeat, "Kovec nihe trekatsch." It's no "Klaatu borada nikto" but it'll do. The two kiss then, passionately. Nadine then lays back on the the ottoman and whispers, "Save me," as Linda lustfully undresses her and begins kissing all over her naked body. Meanwhile, Agra is sensing this while clutching a penis-shaped clown doll to her. When Nadine bites Linda on the neck, Agra cries out in dismay.

The next day, Linda and Omar at Dr. Seward's, because Omar is in a catatonic state. Seward assures her that Omar has lost some blood but will be fine. Linda observes that she thinks it was her fault, but Seward condescendingly tells her she is a charming girl but has no grasp of occultism and certainly cannot influence the supernatural. Linda points out that Omar had two marks on his neck and had lost a lot of blood, so Seward reveals that he's spent a lot of time studying vampires and that she does not need to worry because Omar will not become a vampire, in his opinion.

However, he is concerned that Linda is in danger of becoming one. Linda confirms she suspected as much. Seward explains that he knows how someone can protect themselves against vampires--but despite promising to tell her how, he actually just tells her how to kill a vampire. I mean, I guess that is a form of protection, yes. According to Seward, if you kill a vampire it will then vanish entirely, but the only way to kill one is with a blow to the head--either by splitting the skull with an axe or piercing the skull with a metal rod.

And now I'm wondering if this film influenced John Landis when creating his vampires in Innocent Blood, who had to be killed by destroying the brain.

Seward then goes to see Agra, who is having a fit that looks more like erotic interpretative dance. She is upset because "she" was inside her but now is gone. However, her despair suddenly turns to inexplicable joy, because Agra just learned that "she" is coming back to her--because "she" wants to meet Dr. Seward. This is not exactly what Seward wants to hear, since it should be plain by now that Agra is the Renfield of this story.

Seward goes to see Omar, then, who has fully recovered. Seward tells Omar that he is free to go, but Omar is worried about Linda. She's been acting strange lately and he fears she won't survive another "attack." Seward assures him that Linda will be fine--if she does what he told her to do. Omar decides that's good enough, but as he is leaving the clinic he is stopped by Agra outside. She babbles about being locked up because they think she's crazy--but she tells him that it's really because they know she's in touch with supernatural powers. She tells Omar he must go to "her" house of Uskalan, on the mountain. He must be careful, though, because "she" will hate him for being a man.

Then Seward and the orderly appear and drag Agra back to her room, with Seward yelling at Omar to leave and never come back. Okay, then. That should have lowered his suspicions, doc! Well, Omar's day of fun is just beginning because he finds Linda is not in their hotel room. At the front desk he discovers Linda has checked out and the clerk has no idea where she went. Well, unfortunately she's gone back to the inn across from Nadine's island--just in time to run into Memmet, who chases her down and chloroforms her.

Now it's time for a nightclub scene! Nadine grooves around with some musicians who are clearly not playing the instruments we're hearing. As Morpho watches him from the audience, Omar enters the club and watches as Nadine's big act starts up again--this time set to a memorable song called "The Lion & The Cucumber", which you've heard if you've seen Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. Once again, it's a combination of striptease and reverse striptease as Nadine strips and places her clothes on the naked "mannequin." Omar ends up storming out in disgust midway through, so he doesn't see that this tiime something goes wrong. Perhaps overcome with the hunger and lust that Linda has awakened in her, Nadine ends the routine by tearing her performance partner's throat out and feeds on her blood. The audience, not realizing what they're seeing, applaud vigorously.

Seward, meanwhile, is taking down notes about his studies on vampires and how he is more and more drawn to their world. Enough about his Carmilla fan fiction, though. The orderly intrudes long enough to advise Seward that Agra is sedated and sleeping peacefully, then leaves for the night. SO Seward is alone when he begins to head up the stairs to check on Agra--and the clock strikes 12 and Nadine appears below him. And no, I have no idea why it's supposedly midnight but it was bright sunlight in the establishing shot and is clearly daylight outside the stained glass window behind Seward.

Seward demands to know who she is and she just asks why he pretends he doesn't knows already. He explains he has been waiting for her because he wants her help to enter the world of the vampires. Seward swears he only tried to take Linda from Nadine in order to get Nadine to come to him, to make him a vampire--and then he repeats the magic phrase, "Kovec nihe trekatsch." This just pisses Nadine off, because he doesn't get to say the words because he's not in the club! Oh, and she's there to kill him.

Seward then reverses course and begins repeating a prayer in Latin, to Nadine's revulsion. Unfortunately for Seward, though, it seems the prayer does not affect Morpho, who appears at the top of the stairs when Nadine calls for him. Seward is strangled to death and Nadine calmly walks over his corpse in order to teleport into Agra's room. She could have just used the dooor like a normal human, but that's for squares. She reaches out to the naked Agra and then tells her that she only came to say goodbye forever--and vanishes. Agra weeps loudly.

At his office, Dr. Steiner is reading a newspaper report about the murder of Dr. Seward when Omar barges in and asks if Steiner has seen it. Steiner replies that, yes, he saw about the death of the "charlatan who studied vampires." Omar explains that Linda has disappeared and he thinks it's linked. Steiner suggests that Linda is just with another man, but then Omar points out that there was another murder--a dancer bit through her partner's jugular on stage. Omar knows the dancer lives in Uskalan and he thinks the dancer can lead them to Linda.

Well, not directly, because Linda has just come to in the wine cellar, tied to a chair, Memmet then appears with a hacksaw. He babbles about Linda being there to meet the heirs of Dracula, and then reveals that his wife was a woman named Agra. When she went to the island she came back crazy. That's the last coherent thing he says before raving about how she'll love him in death--and then he starts untying her so she can feel the pain better. He shows her the dead body of his last victim, talking about the happiness she felt from his torture. Linda manages to play the creep by claiming she wants to play the game and suffer but needs her hands free. After he unties her and is busy kissing all over her body, she grabs the hacksaw and swings it down at his head...

Steiner and Omar arrive at Uskalan then, only for Nadine to flee at their arrival and Morpho to cover her retreat by shooting at the two men. Nadine is looking oddly sickly when she takes the boat back to her island. Linda then arrives at the island, desperately trying to get in to the house. She passes by the scorpion, the poor creature now under the water of the pool and drowning. Once inside the house, Linda finds that Nadine is already there so I have no idea how much time has passed since Nadine fled Uskalan.

At any rate, Nadine is stretched out, naked, on a red ottoman. She is dying and only Linda's blood can save her. Linda refuses to belong to Nadine. She reluctantly strokes Nadine's hair--and then Linda bites Nadine on the neck. Both Morpho and Agra sense something wrong is happening.  "No, I don't want to be like you," Linda says, pulling the metal rod from her pocket, "That is why I must do it." And then she drives the rod home, splattering her face with blood.

"Who's laughing now?!"
Agra collapses in despair and Morpho comes running. He angrily charges in, tosses Linda aside, and kisses the dead lips of his mistress. He pulls the metal rod from Nadiine's eye and walks up the stairs before driving it through his own heart. Steiner and Omar then arrive on the island, both of them oddly pausing to observe the dead scorpion in the pool.

However, when they find Linda there is not a single trace of Nadine or Morpho, aside from the red scarf at Linda's feet. Omar tries to tell her it was all a dream on the boat ride back, but Linda knows better. The pain will fade in time, she thinks to her self, but the memory will remain. And then a kite sinks to earth. Fin.

RIP Scorpion. "I give my life for art."
While She Killed in Ecstasy is unmistakably a Jess Franco film, it's this film that truly feels like the ultimate example of a Jess Franco film. You have Soledad Miranda in the lead, you have a soundtrack that doesn't seem to fit the onscreen action, inexplicable cinematic choices, copious nudity, and the most important Franco quality of all, which the previous Franco film we looked at lacked--nightclub routines that stop the plot cold!

Though, it must be said that this film actually makes the night club scenes a part of the plot, which Franco did not often care enough to do.

Looked at technically, I suppose Vampyros Lesbos is not a good film. It's actually quite competently made, especially for a Jess Franco film, but its story makes little sense. It has some serious tangents and pacing issues, and of course makes some silly choices that manage to be pretentious and goofy as hell at the same time. However, I find that I really don't mind any of that. I adore this film.

It's hard to explain why, exactly, I love this film but find a film like The Velvet Vampire to be insufferable. Both films at first glance seem to be nonsensical messes that are occasionally beautiful, with some surprisingly striking imagery. Both films have a story that doesn't really hold up to any kind of scrutiny. And both films feature a predatory lesbian vampire ultimately thwarted by the power of heteronormativity.

However, Vampyros Lesbos differs in a few big ways. First of all, its hetero couple that find themselves in the sights of a lesbian vampire are not insufferable. Sure, Omar is about as interesting as a block of wood, but he's not ever annoying nor is he a terrible actor--and Linda is really engaging, Moreover, the vampire that they encounter is more compelling. Soledad Miranda is the kind of actress who just feels otherworldy, no matter what role she is playing--so having her play a vampire just makes perfect sense.

To be fair, while this film is definitely more comfortable with actually embracing its homoerotic elements than The Velvet Vampire, I can't help but imagine it feels rather underwhelming for any lesbian or bisexual women in the audience. Miranda and Stromberg have definite chemistry, even in She Killed In Ecstasy. It never feels like a stretch that these two are attracted to each other...until they actual start trying to consummate that attraction. I honestly can't say how much of it is the limitations of two presumably heterosexual women pretending to engage in sex they're not interested in and how much of it is the expected limitations of a heterosexual man filming a love scene between two women for the male gaze, but what we see of their love scenes start to get awkward after they move past mere kissing. Honestly, I'm going to blame it on the direction because the glimpse we get of a heterosexual love scene between Linda and Omar is possibly even more awkward.

It's true that this is not a film for everyone. I've known plenty of people who found it outright insufferable. And, I have to say I can understand how they might feel that way because Severin's amazing Blu-ray edition* of this film includes a DVD version of what they call a "bootleg" copy (read: this is the best source we could license and it looks like shit but we wanted to include it anyway) of Las Vampiras, the Spanish-language version of this film. And watching that version before I rewatched the actual film for my review made me start to rethink my love of it.

[* Seriously, if you are interested in owning this film, you need the Severin Blu-ray in your life. It looks gorgeous ad has a wealth of extras]

Las Vampiras, for starters, tries to make the film more coherent and conventional. It has a soundtrack that is more conventional and usually fits the action on screen, it creates a whole new backstory for Nadine (now Nadia) through an opening voiceover and changing her dialogue when she talks to Morpho, and it completely alters the relationshp between Nadia and Linda (now Alice). For starters, all of the nudty has been cut out. It's like watching the broadcast television version. Second, the film tries to pull a "just gals being pals" on a lesbian vampire movie! Nadia and Alice never kiss and Nadia metions, "Alice, whom I have made my sister..."

It's wrong and weird, through and through. And, of course, because the nudity is gone there is only one nightclub scene, which is rendered utterly inexplicable. In Las Vampiras, Omar shows up at the nightclub to find Alice after she checks out of the hotel room--despite having no reason to think she would be there--and sees Nadia dancing around while the band grooves. Then he storms out in disgust. It actually makes the scene more inexplicable!

So, yes, it seems that when you strip Vampyros Lesbos of its exploitative elements and its goofy, usually inappropriate soundtrack, I don't like it. However, when those elements are in their proper place I love it.

Whether by incompetence or design--frankly I'm pretty sure by both--I find this to be a beautiful, surreal dreamscape of a film. Your milage may vary, but if you're curious about Jess Franco I would recommend you start with this film and She Killed In Ecstasy. If you enjoy those, than you'll probably find even more to enjoy in Franco's inexplicable and wildly varying oeuvre. If you don't like them, I recommend staying far, far away from the rest of Jess Franco's films. That way lies madness.

Today's review brought to you by the letter V! Hit the banner above to see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for V!

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