Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
Jess Franco is one of those filmmakers that you either love or you hate, and to me this largely depends upon what film(s) you've seen. Franco is one of the most prolific filmmakers out there with at least 160 films under his belt (some counts go as high as 200). When a Franco film works it is a visually stunning and often surreal masterpiece of Euro-Trash cinema. When a Franco film doesn't work it is nigh unwatchable, and it is these latter films that give him the reputation of being a hack. With so many films under his belt it is no surprise that along with the unwatchable groaners he would also make several outstanding gems.
The film at hand is just such a gem that definitely deserves to be watched. Vampyros Lesbos was one of many lesbian themed vampire films to come out in the early 1970s. This film finds Franco leaving his baroque stylings and gothic entrapments behind for a more minimalistic style that would signal a major artistic period for him as a director.
The story itself is basically a lesbian themed retelling of Dracula. Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stoemberg), taking on the Jonathan Harker role, is sent on a business trip to an island off Istanbul to straighten out the inheritance of a wealthy Countess. Upon meeting Countess Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda), we realize that the Countess is the same woman Linda has been having recurring erotic dreams about. Soon Linda is under the seductive spell of the Countess, and the title of the film becomes rather clear. Shortly after succumbing to the countess, Linda (think Mina Harker) finds herself suffering from amnesia and is in an asylum run by a Dr. Seward (think Van Helsing). During Linda's treatment she becomes completely obsessed with the Countess, and realizes she must return to the island. It turns out Linda isn't the only one obsessed with the Countess at this Asylum either, both the good doctor as well as one of the Countess's previous victims, Agra (think Renfield) are as well. While Dr. Seward tries to learn as much from Linda about The Countess as possible, her boyfriend shows up. By this time Linda has decided she must go back to the island and confront the Countess once and for all.
That's the best plot synopsis that I could come up with for this film because once you start watching you'll realize that it isn't the story that's important at all. Instead, Franco uses the story to create a strange dream like world, and to that end Vampyros Lesbos becomes a stunningly beautiful and surreal film. This surreal aspect is heightened by the brilliant use of associative editing techniques. Linda is paired with a moth caught in a net like curtain, and a red kite that tries to gain the sky but constantly comes crashing to the ground. The Countess is paired with a scuttling scorpion and blood dripping down a pane of glass. Franco's use of highly saturated colors and a strangely kinetic camera that swoops, darts, and zooms both add to the dream like quality of the film. The film's soundtrack of psychedelic jazz complete with weird backward voices and sitar strumming only increases the films dreamlike flare. Of particular notice would be the introduction of the Countess as she writhes in ecstasy upon a nightclub floor and seduces what appears to be a female mannequin (but in actuality is a real flesh and blood woman) as Linda and her boyfriend watch on. In yet another scene we see what appears to be a living cubist painting of two indistinct slightly glimmering shapes talking in close up, and then through several outward zooms we see two people in the foreground and their reflection in pane of glass across the street in the background. It is scenes like those and many others throughout the film that allow it to rise above other exploitation and vampire films of the period, and become a distinctive work of art in its own right.
Soledad Miranda gives a dazzling performance as Countess Nadine Carody. Her unbound sensuality is hard to ignore and nearly comes right off the screen at you. Miranda has this indefinable characteristic that demands you watch her the moment she enters onto the scene, and I'm certain she would have become a big star if not for her untimely death shortly after the release of this film. Ewa Stroemberg as Linda Westinghouse also turns in a great performance, throughout the whole film she pulls of this nigh somnambulistic daze perfectly. Dennis Price also turns in a winning performance as Dr. Seward, a man of science who in his own way is obsessed with the immortality that the Countess embodies. Even Jess Franco himself delivers a rather unsettling performance as the husband of the Agra (the Renfield character) who is obsessed with stopping anyone, including Linda, from traveling to the Countess's estate. These performances all equally great, bring home the concept of obsession which is truly at the heart of the film.
Franco at the top of his game, a wonderful surreal and dream like quality, dashes of soft-core lesbianism, and a deliciously psychedelic soundtrack to me make, Vampyros Lesbos, a must see.