Vampyros Lesbos (1970)

Director: Jesús Franco

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By Roderick Heath

What better way to start the new year than with a psychedelic lesbian vampire freak-out?

Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg) and her boyfriend Omar (Andris Monales, billed as Victor Feldman) attend an erotic cabaret show one night in Istanbul, where they watch a kinky stage act in which a dark-haired woman straddles a prostrate, wooden blonde. Linda is transfixed: the brunette exactly resembles a figure that keeps appearing in her dreams, calling to her incessantly from a mysterious island amidst a plethora of repetitive, fetishist images, for example, droplets of blood dribbling down a pane glass door, a sky-flailing red kite, and teeming scorpions.

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Linda works as an agent for an Istanbul real estate firm. Soon she is sent off on a mission to negotiate a real estate deal with Countess Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda, billed as Susann Korda); Linda is overseeing the transfer of assets of a Count Dracula and his family to Carody. On her journey to the Mediterranean coast, she is put up in a hotel where she is warned by the sleazy porter Memmet (director Franco) about the dangers of going to the Countess’ private island; she soon finds that Memmet himself is a crazed killer collecting corpses in the basement. Linda flees for the presumed safety of the Countess’ island, but things don’t get much saner there. She is astounded to encounter the images from her dreams, and the reclining, bikini-clad form of the Countess, who invites her to bathe nude within a minute of meeting. In the night, the Countess enters her room, seduces her, and then bites her in the neck. When she awakens in the morning, Linda is dazed and has a vision of the Countess floating dead in a pool, at which point she blacks out and awakens later in a private psychiatric clinic.

Jesús Franco, born in Madrid in 1930, wanted to be a jazz musician, and gained his first film credits as an assistant director and composer for Juan Antonio Bardem’s (uncle of Javier) Comicos (1954). A sometime trash novelist and all-around busybody, Franco made a breakthrough in the grindhouse universe with Gritos en la Noche (The Awful Dr. Orloff, 1962), an adaptation of his own book and a rip-off of Eyes Without a Face (1959). Franco has directed more than 180 features and stands today as one of the gods in the pantheon of Eurotrash sex-and-horror auteurs of the late 1960s. He gained mainstream visibility by taking over the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu series.

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But Franco maintained his sideline as an erotic-minded surrealist, one part Luis Buñuel, one part Marquis de Sade (whose works he has adapted several times), and with Necronomicon (1967), gained the praise of no less a personage than Fritz Lang, who called it the only sex movie he’d ever watched all of because of its intoxicating beauty. In that golden age of semi-underground cinema, Franco worked between the poles of respected filmmakers like Buñuel and genre director Mario Bava, and gruesome hackmeisters of the ilk of Antonio Margheriti and Adrian Hoven. Along the way, he accumulated, by the IMDb’s count, some 69 pseudonymous credits.

Vampyros Lesbos is quintessential of its era: infused with a decorative, meandering lushness in its designs and cinematic effects, casual perversity, pseudo-psychedelic style, and a striking experimental music score by Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab (Franco did the score for the heavily edited Spanish cut), alternating sonorous, trippy organs with saucy jazz-pop, such as that accompanying some pointless sunbathing scenes. It’s an uneasy mixture of oneiric, splintered-narrative surrealism rendered as a pop-art, and a seamy whack-off flick. Franco loves his zoom lens. Picturesque Istanbul sunset? Zoom shot. Naked sunbathing scene? Zoom shot. Moth crawling up a window? Zoom in, baby. Cheesy as these effects can be, Franco nonetheless labours to weave a totality of style, a restless, oneiric sensibility that’s genuinely entrancing. Or, as a friend put it when I played her a snatch of the soundtrack, ‘This makes me feel like I’m tripping!’

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Vampyros Lesbos’ plot moves according to a fitting dream logic, and melds two highly disparate mythologies to evoke a no man’s land of sexual and moral confusion. Earlier in 1970, Franco had directed an attempt to make a faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker with Christopher Lee entitled El Conde Dracula (which also starred Soledad Miranda as Lucy); Vampyros is its semi-sequel, but it executes a perverse spin on Stoker, with Linda as Harker and Countess Nadine as Dracula and entwining the legend of Sappho, with its predatory anti-heroine inhabiting a sun-struck Grecian isle, her irresistible call cutting through Linda’s defences even when she lies in bed with her boyfriend, bringing home a peculiarly literal vision of the call of the forbidden. Carody herself was a childhood victim of rape by soldiers defiling her native Hungary, from which she was rescued but then vampirized by Count Dracula. This led to her rejection of men in general, except for her silent, loyal servant Morpho (Jose-Martinez Blanco). Her last lover was Memmet’s missing wife, Agra (Heidrun Kussin), who is in the same clinic that Linda washes up in, completely mad, psychically linked to the Countess, writhing ecstatically and howling in pain according to what signals she receives from her mistress. How Linda got from the island into the clinic is never explained, but she is soon reunited with Omar. He becomes the target of the Countess, who has followed Linda to Istanbul determined to take her back.

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Franco’s recurring fascinations—apart from hot chicks making out with each other and killing guys—include a blurring of the borders between dream, life, and performance. As in other Franco films like Necronomicon and Venus In Furs, the villain is a cabaret artiste, taunting with and disappearing within her ritualised erotic acts. Vampyros begins with a lengthy performance sequence in which Nadine performs, enacting her narcissistic seduction of her prey (she makes love to herself in a mirror before turning her attention to a passive, naked blonde). But the second time she gives this performance, she actually feasts on her partner, to the audience’s wild applause. Nadine’s servant, like that of several of Franco’s villains, is named Morpho, cutting right to the heart of their perfervid confusion of dreams, identity, desire, and the way these elements intertwine. The script is so dodgy in points (immortal dialogue: “Can you tell me more about Count Dracula and his family?”) that credited cowriter Jaime Chávarri denies having anything to do with it. But it’s also essentially superfluous: Vampyros Lesbos tells a story of a sort, but it’s better taken as a fugue, and works superbly as a surreal meditation on the nature of unconscious desire.

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There’s the inevitable soft-core clinch of Linda and Nadine, actually the flattest scene in the film, at least until Nadine bites her, a moment that carries real corporeal punch. Elsewhere, Franco’s images are deliriously fetishist in bent, for example, the visions of the Countess calling to her would-be lover with arms outstretched like a primal priestess, her red scarf wavering in the breeze, to her final demise. Nadine is associated visually with both a catcher of fish (her dinnertime seduction of Linda is backgrounded by a great net) and a venomous scorpion waiting to sting. Franco conjures an unsettling mood, although he indulges none of the more familiar gothic touches. The Countess’ island abode is hyper-modern; Franco’s surrealism is closer in mood to Resnais than to Murnau, and even Nadine’s family castle is hardly a cobweb-strewn dungeon. The action almost always takes place in radiant, delirium-inducing daylight, emphasised by the sunstruck lushness of its Turkish settings. This film seems to have influenced likes the of Tarantino, who openly admires Franco, and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (which always showed signs of ’60s and ’70s Euro-horror, underneath its deadpan Kubrickian obsessiveness), particularly in the orgy sequence and its weird music.

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Lurking within this trippy vision are dashes of psychosexual satire. Linda’s psychiatrist listens to her account of her dream whilst drawing doodles and recommends she have more sex. Spurned husband Memmet turns into a savage serial killer, trying to enforce a perfect sadomasochistic control over women. Dr. Alwin Seward (Dennis Price), the private clinic’s director, pretends to want to cure and expel the evil and madness that has claimed the women under his care, but actually eagerly wishes to embrace the possibility of eternal supernatural life. When he meets the Countess, he begs her for this, but she contemptuously has Morpho kill him instead. Given that only a few years before this film was made homosexuals were being given electric shocks in aversion therapy by men of science, Franco’s cynicism about it is understandable and prescient. Omar and his father, evoking the revenge of the patriarchy, set out to bring down their Sapphic enemy.

But in the end, it’s Linda who euthanizes the hopeless Countess by jamming a pin in her eye, after almost giving in to the temptation to feast on Nadine and become the new vampire queen. Agra drops dead and Morpho commits suicide. The vision Linda had of the Countess dead in the pool is reconfigured as the image of one of the island’s teeming scorpions drowned by the tide. If Franco reveals his lack of courage, it’s that he plays the game of neatly tidying up his film with a finale that returns us to stable, familiar male-female relations and morality.

Franco’s no-name cast allows him to push the boundaries without actually approaching porn. Stroemberg is a nonentity, and the presence of aging, ill-looking Price, the gay blade of Kind Hearts and Coronets, dubbed into German no less, is just weird. Miranda is the film’s core—the tragic cult actress, who died the same year in a car crash shortly after being offered a major studio contract, plays the wicked lady with the right mixture of distance, severity, sensual knowledge, and a hint of the tragic.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    3rd/01/2009 to 12:55 pm

    “Vampyros Lesbos is quintessential of its era: infused with a decorative, meandering lushness in its designs and cinematic effects, casual perversity, pseudo-psychedelic style, and striking experimental music score by Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab.
    “Lurking within this trippy vision are dashes of psychosexual satire.”
    Extraordinarily perceptive, but I am hardly surprised. OK, I am not a fan of this director, at times he reminds me (in a bad sense) with Lucio Fulci, but there’s no denying, as you state, that both Tarantino and Kurick may well have been influenced by his more provocative, disjointed visuals. Of course as you aptly note, the presence of Dennis Price, who was so memorable in one of the greatest comedies ever made, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS is always a delight, and you can’t be too critical of anyone who emulates the linke of EYES WITHOUT A FACE. I have held onto my Franco DVDs for years, but I admit i never revisited them after the initial viewing. Your magisterial essay has brought back memories.

  • Rod spoke:
    3rd/01/2009 to 11:57 pm

    G’day, Sam.
    I understand that Franco’s career is held to be highly variable, wavering between highs of pop-art and lows of porn-and-violence junk, and indeed what I’ve seen of it bears this out (and I also note much disagreement over what constitutes his best work – some say this is his best; but it was dismissed in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Horror Film). Such perhaps was and is the inevitable fate of film artists of independent, boundary-pushing imagination, who did not stumble into a respectable niche like a Bergman or a Fellini, who otherwise had much in common with their grindhouse brethren. It’s still very rare for a director of any talent to break out of the horror ghetto, and it was easier to slide the other way.
    I think Franco had talent, but also quite a weird bent that was never going to be satisfied in the mainstream, at any rate.

  • ARBOGAST spoke:
    5th/01/2009 to 11:40 am

    What better way to start the new year than with a psychedelic lesbian vampire freak-out?
    There is no way and I’m delighted to be reminded of this ineluctable fact by a man named Rod.

  • Rod spoke:
    6th/01/2009 to 7:47 am

    Ah hem…

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