"I captivated many men and many women. I bewitched them. They lost their identity. I became them…"
As the censors slowly began to relax their grips on global film content in the '60s and '70s, audiences saw the arrival of titillating new forms of entertainment. The horror-sex film became especially popular in Europe, thanks in no small part to Jess Franco, a Spanish Roger Corman for whom no budget was too small, no plot too flimsy, and no exploitation too exploitative.
Jess Franco was a fan of the John Carradine incarnation of Dracula (his antagonist in Vampyros Lesbos was named Carody in his honor), and had recently made his own version of the Bram Stoker tale, starring Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski. Vampyros Lesbos is essentially a gender-bent retelling of Dracula, with Johnathan Harker and his fiancée Lucy becoming amalgamated in the character of Linda. We also meet characters directly from the book, like Dr. Seward (Dennis Price).
The lesbianism spin, however, comes not from Dracula but from J. Sheridan LeFanu's famous fin de siecle horror story "Carmilla." Vampyros Lesbos was one of the first films to explore (or exploit) this literary motif (although the 1936 Dracula's Daughter has allusions), but since then it's hard to find female bloodsuckers onscreen who DON'T bat for the other team (The Vampire Lovers, Daughters of Darkness, Nadja, Vampyres).
Fans of Eurotrash cinema or Z-budget films now view Vampyros Lesbos as a Holy Grail; unavailable for many years except in poor transfers and dubbed versions, its reputation has grown until its cult status rivals The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Having obtained a copy of the new Synapse DVD, I was the first on my block to be able to see how much of the hype was deserved, and how much was wishful thinking.
Facts of the Case
In an Istanbul nightclub, a raven-haired dancer performs an exotic routine that culminates with her seducing a female mannequin. In the audience, Linda (Ewa Stromberg) finds the dance unsettling—but also exciting. She confesses to her psychiatrist that the dancer has made many alluring appearances in her dreams. When she is sent to Anatolia to assist the Countess Carody (Salma Hayek lookalike Soledad Miranda) in an inheritance, she is alarmed to discover that the Countess and the exotic dancer is one and the same. From there, Linda is drawn into a phantasmagoric web of blood and haunting sexuality. Linda's boyfriend and shrink must battle the possessive, man-hating Carody for possession of Linda's soul…and her body.
For what it is, Vampyros Lesbos is fantastic. If, like me, you're able to overlook the shoestring budget, shaky acting, and lack of coherent plot and concentrate on the film's soft-core, surrealist style, you'll be impressed by how far ahead of its time this movie is—or maybe "outside of time" is a better phrase, because there hasn't been much since 1970 that comes close to this. The closest stylistic relative would probably be The Hunger from 1984.
In the same grandiloquent tradition as Italian cinema, imagery is paramount in setting the mood and projecting the hidden psychology of the characters. We never get a strong sense of Countess Carody's motivations, but we are confronted with arresting images—blood dripping down a window pane, a lone scorpion negotiating a poolside terrace—which suggest far more than words ever could. Franco's camera lurches back and forth with a kind of controlled mania, making it impossible for the viewers to distance themselves for long. One strange sequence involving a sadistic porter (played by Franco himself) is never adequately explained, but it leaves a strong impression nonetheless.
And then, of course, there's the sex. There's actually rather little on-screen hanky-panky by today's standards, but a little goes a long way. Carody's opening number with the mannequin, later reprised with an interesting twist, may not sound all that sexy, but the lighting, the music, and the rich, textured atmosphere of the scene makes it more powerful than a dozen Russ Meyer flicks.
In an inspired and daring choice, Franco set this vampire tale not in gloomy gothic castles, but in sun-soaked Mediterranean locales. Not only can his undead stand daylight, they've been known to do a little sunbathing. The result is a bright, highly saturated visual palette, with red (of course) as the centerpiece. The DVD accentuates these colours very well indeed, even if the transfer isn't ideal.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Actually, I shouldn't moan about the transfer, because considering the age of the film, and all it's been through since its release, it's in good shape. There is a fair amount of grain and a few "slugs" (little black squares), but no artifacting that I could detect. The sound is mono, but is well preserved. The soundtrack (much-ballyhooed in the liner notes) is a bit of an acquired taste; a strange form of proto-techno involving scrambled human voices and radio static, it has a certain creepy appeal, but it pops up too often and is sometimes too loud.
There are no extras on the disc besides a trailer, but it's not the sort of disc one would expect to come jam-packed with goodies. Vampyros Lesbos was made in Spanish, but the source used for this DVD transfer was dubbed into German, onto which English subtitles have been placed. It may be that only German versions of the film exist any more, which would be a pity; or it may be that Synapse was too lazy to track down a Spanish copy, which would be a disgrace. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the former. In any case, it's a bit disappointing to have to contend with dubbing and subtitles at the same time. Why not take the time to do an English dubbing as well? This was my biggest complaint about the disc, but it ended up seeming surprisingly minor compared to the thrill of seeing the film itself.
Not that the film is perfect, even by my twisted standards. Its stylish incoherency gets bottom-heavy by the end, and Franco spends too much time with his supporting characters that Linda's through-line becomes almost indistinct. The movie also has a puzzling attitude towards women. One hardly expects progressive cultural insights from a sexploitation flick, but Vampyros Lesbos can't sit still on this issue. Is Linda, like the Countess, a man-hating lesbian? Are the boyfriend and psychiatrist characters portraits of psychological abuse, in the same way Franco's porter is an image of physical abuse? And how should we interpret the ending, where—instead of being saved by the menfolk, Linda takes control of her own situation, yet ends up succumbing to the dark side? It's either a clever Freudian riddle, or a total thematic mess.
The vampire subgenre is in constant flux. Unlike the new breed of horror thrillers, which are substantially interchangeable, each new vampire film that comes along seems to reshape, if not revitalize, the genre. But one thing seems to be constant, and that's excess. Whether it's the '80s glam-rock excess found in Lost Boys, or the hyperkinetic violent excess of John Carpenter's Vampires, or the self-referential cinematic excess of Bram Stoker's Dracula, it's at its best when it's all a bit much.
In this respect, I suppose Jess Franco was a pioneer, because he understood the advantages of excess. His stylish, over-the-top sensibilities—and the degree of excess he managed to pull off for next to nothing—make Vampyros Lesbos a cult gem that lives up to its stellar reputation.
Vampyros Lesbos is cleared of all charges. Synapse is acquitted, with the understanding that they've done the best job they can with a difficult transfer. If, however, the court should ever find out that there are still Spanish copies of the film extant, its justice will be swift and terrible.
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Scales of Justice
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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