Thursday, September 4, 2014

Female Vampire / La comtesse noire (1973)

If you haven’t noticed, Female vampires in movies have been a long-running theme I’ve enjoyed exploring with this blog. It’s an appealing aspect of fiction to me, and I just can’t get away from the archetypical idea of the vampiress: her gothic image, seductive power, hidden feral side, and deadly sexuality. Some time ago, around the time I reviewed The Blood Spattered Bride, I finally gave Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla a read and wasn’t too surprised at realizing how much Carmilla’s influence is felt in a large number of cult female vampire films. Although, there seems to have been a bit of a debate as to whether or not the perceived erotic subtext in Le Fanu’s novella has been misinterpreted by non-Victorian readers, yet many filmmakers have nonetheless taken the subtext at face value, taking whatever supposed eroticism is there in the writing of the book out of the implicit and into the explicit; and, for its time, Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (a.k.a. La comtesse noire, Bare Breasted Countess, Erotikill, and many more) has to be the most erotic lady vampire piece, even more so for the XXX version Lüsterne Vampire Im Spermarausch. (On the opposite end of the spectrum is perhaps, and also recommended, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death — a Carmilla influenced movie that hardly features any eroticism).

As should be obvious from the various aforementioned titles, Female Vampire is about a killer nymphomaniac lady vampire, Countess Irina Karlstein, played by Franco muse and Eurocult legend Lina Romay, born Rosa María Almirall Martínez.

Irina is a mute vampire and somewhat sympathetic. As the occasional mental reflection voiceover suggests, she is a remorseful and trapped victim herself. Lina plays Irina with an appropriately somber face, with languid mannerisms and simple gestures. Despite being accompanied by her creepy, hulky manservant (Luis Barboo), her existence feels lonely.

Lina has the right look and talent for what is a kind of double sided role: unabashed, bare-breasted creature-of-the-night one moment and a humble, ethereal creature in a white gown the next.

Irina isn’t quite the typical sexy femme fatale vampire, either, due to a few interesting nuances and variations, such as her need to feed, not just on blood, but on the hormones in the sex fluid of her victims. It’s an odd idea and a little gross, but it sure does set Irina apart from other vampires and makes sense from the commercial sexploitation angle. The idea of being killed in mid-orgasm does have a lot of macabre erotic potential, and in the end, the idea does end up working, primarily thanks to the way Lina handles her sexual kill scenes with an enthusiasm and finesse not found in too many other actresses (seriously try to imagine someone else in the role – you can’t).

Some would fault the movie on its use of out of focus shots, but, as with the soft-focus effect, they are used deliberately to achieve a mystical, dreamy feel. There has been one instance where I was annoyed with deliberate out of focus shooting with Jess Franco in 99 Woman (a sex scene with Rosalba Neri), but here the technique feels natural and adds to the experience. It’s therefore rather unfortunate that some would say certain shots in this film are “out of focus” like it’s a bad thing or poor, sloppy technique. I find it ironic that in more recent times “out of focus” digital photography has been considered an art form and an advanced technique.

The narrative is punctuated, in familiar Jess Franco fashion, with a number of macabre, as well as erotically poetic, sex scenes that tend to pad out more than would seem necessary, hence the most likely reason for the trimmed down “horror” version Erotikill. This will be nothing new to the initiated, but it might be a deal breaker for some. There are, nonetheless, strokes of genius throughout that keeps things interesting, such as Irina’s necrophilia indulgence after finishing off the hotel masseur (Raymond Hardy a.k.a. Ramon Ardid – Lina’s then husband who she eventually left to be with Jess Franco), which, again, works primarily on account of Lina’s commitment to the scene. Also, who could get bored of watching Lina get freaky with one of those elongated bolster pillows.

Another star in the film has to be the Madeira Island shooting location, which I’ve come to heavily appreciate a lot more after watching Al otro lado del espejo / The Other Side of the Mirror. Irina walking through the misty forest in Madeira, towards the camera, has to be one of Lina Romay’s most iconic images. Even the way she bumps her chin into the camera seems oddly natural. The otherworldly feel of the misty forest location (also seen in The Rites of Frankenstein) causes it to feel more like a representation of the spiritual plane, with Irina’s lone dark figure emerging from the mist, indicative of her solitude and gloom in an immortal life. In addition, consider the way Irina and the journalist Anna (Anna Watican) are walking the forest plane together after Irina has killed her, as if she is guiding Anna’s soul into some sort of afterlife.

Franco babes Monica Swinn and Alice Arno are on hand as some kind of gothic princess and her servant, respectively, for a nifty little de Sadean segment. It’s unclear why the princess and her servant were expecting Irina when she arrived (it would seem that something Irina did with the pieces in some kind of game of esoteric chess caused them to recognize her), but this lends a charming mystique to the segment. Irina is taken to a dungeon to be chained and whipped, putting her into somewhat of a predicament. It’s a little disturbing that another lady’s chained, tortured, unconscious body is already present when the three enter the dungeon, a nice gruesome touch that reminds me a little of Inquisition strappado torture, a theme not far off from Franco’s The Bloody Judge and Les demons.

Arno’s character kind of looks like a biker chick and is in charge of whipping Irina in a bondage scene, and like Irina she does not speak a word, making her seem mute, a common trait between the two that made me think she might be a vampire as well. It might have been some kind of seductive mind control, but I like to think that the two seem to recognize the similarity in one another, which ends up turning the tables, as the servant turns on her master, freeing Irina in the process, so they can double team the princess.

Something else going for the movie is the chemistry between Lina Romay and a poet, played by film genre favorite Jack Taylor, who seems to be deriving inspiration from the mystical elements in Madeira, predicting his meeting with Irina in his writing, emphasizing a kindred soul like bond between the two that is another take on the romance fantasy between human and vampire; and its inevitable conclusion certainly does emphasize the ennui and loneliness of Irina’s malediction. While they are connecting as lovers atop the misty mountains, as Irina struggles to come to terms with her feelings for her new love and what she is, Lina's portrayal of Irina's sadness is genuine and should be a testament to her ability as an actress outside of erotica.

Longtime fans of Lina Romay have no doubt already seen Female Vampire; it was her first starring role for Jess Franco, and it can definitely be considered a good starting point for anyone interested in Lina Romay. She’s been in an ungodly amount of movies, and I still have a lot of exploring to do, but so far I’ve not been disappointed by any film with Lina in a leading role (I even enjoyed Mansion of the Living Dead). I think I’ll forego recommending any additional Lina Romay titles and just say happy exploring to new and longtime fans, because, for many, there are most likely still plenty of pleasant surprises to track down and experience for the first time, not to mention the fact that the films usually seem better after second viewings.

As Wm R. said on Facebook “Lina FOREVER”

© At the Mansion of Madness


Friday, August 15, 2014

Spirits of Death / A White Dress for Marialé (1972)

With Spirits of Death, I’m reminded of how pleasing it is to keep discovering new worthwhile Eurocult movies of the vintage variety. Years ago I thought that I might have been coming close to exhausting my selection of every notable Eurohorror / giallo / surreal-art-house-drama film. However, that notion seems to become more and more untrue with time, which is counterintuitive, as it would seem that the more movies of this type you see the closer you would be to seeing them all, but it nonetheless keeps opening up a world that always seems bigger the further you go in.

Spirits of Death is one of those arty, Eurohorror, giallo movies of a particular brand that I can’t believe I went so long without knowing (let’s see if we can coin the term “Sleeping Eurocult” – in winking reference to Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder). Spirits of Death is directed and cinematographed by Romano Scavolini, who many may know as the director of an infamous Video Nasty from the early ‘80s, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. He is also the brother of Sauro Scavolini, director of another marvelous “Sleeping Eurocult” Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods.

The film is essentially a gathering of colorful guests, who have been invited by one of the proprietors, Marialé (Ida Galli aka Evelyn Stewart), with mysterious motives, to a spooky old castle. It might sound familiar, and it is, but the gathering turns into a fascinating, candlelit journey into the underground caverns of the castle as well as a delirious entertaining descent into a batshit crazy Fellini-esque masquerade dinner party before things turn over to a more traditional murder mystery, as party guests start getting knocked off by an unseen assailant in the latter half.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Asylum Erotica / Slaughter Hotel (1971)

I was charmed the other day by a 1915 vintage, almost Victorian looking, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes advertisement poster I spotted amongst the old-fashioned-decor adorned on the walls at a local Cracker Barrel diner. While staring at the ad, for some reason, I became curious as to the origin of Corn Flakes. Where were they invented, and how did they come about? I previously had a stereotypical notion that they may have originated in farming communities, due to the rooster, Cornelius, usually observed on the boxes. After ordering pancakes (not the multigrain or wheat ones but the regular pancakes), I googled “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes history” on my phone, and the results were a little startling.

It appears the invention that brought about Corn Flakes was discovered by accident in 1894, at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan by health reformist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Keith Kellogg as part of a bland diet to keep the patients from having increased passions, i.e. to keep them from masturbating.

One day, the Kellogg brothers left a batch of cooked wheat out to sit, when they were diverted by urgent matters at the sanitarium. Upon their return, they’d found that the wheat had gone stale, but because they were under a strict budget, they decided to salvage the wheat. After pressing the wheat through rollers, it formed, to their surprise, wheat flakes that were subsequently toasted and served to the patients; it ended up being a hit. Later Will Keith Kellogg experimented with flaking corn, which he eventually made into a successful business.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was a pioneer surgeon, who succeeded in having exceptionally low mortality rates with his surgery practice. He was the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and pioneered numerous health reform treatments, some of which still hold up today. However, the good doctor sometimes missed the mark.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

“Genre rules” seem to be most common in zombie and vampire films, and it’s with these particular genres that breaking the “rules” ends up being the most controversial. Yet, these so called rules are non-existent, and filmmakers can do whatever they want. Of course, the big risk with breaking too many rules is that so many people will already hate the movie before/without even bothering to see it. On the other hand, sticking with the rules and relying too heavily on clichés is too easy and contributes to oversaturation of a genre. I personally enjoy the best of both worlds, classic and innovative, the best of the old with the best of the new. Give me what I came for, but surprise me too. Clichés are important but more for the sake of maintaining a basis of familiarity.

Harry Kümel’s emblematic, chic, and sensual vampire seduction Daughters of Darkness falls somewhere in the middle ground between familiar and different. It probably isn’t even worth mentioning the many parallels between this movie and The Blood Spattered Bride or The Shiver of the Vampires, other than to note they were made around the same time and manage to be so different from one another, even though they tell similar stories. They all contain a common sapphic vampire story that owes a lot to Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla, which was adapted a year earlier with The Vampire Lovers in 1970 and ten years before that with Blood and Roses.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Zombie / Zombi 2 (1979)

I used to not be able to stomach gory zombie films very well. Despite being excited and thoroughly fascinated after watching zombie films in my youth, I suffered from a loss of appetite for a while. Anytime I was trying to eat, my brain would be like “you know what’s a good movie? Dawn of the Dead (1978),” and images from the scene with zombies eating in the cellar would pop into my mind, and I would be turned off to eating meat or anything savory for that matter. Sweets or French fries were fine, but my mind just would not cease to relate the taste and consistency of anything else, especially if it was slimy, to what it was the zombies were chomping on. I was disgusted by zombie carnage but still thought it was so cool.

The zombie film that grossed me out the most, which is really saying something, was Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. As a kid, I used to hate looking at the VHS cover with the iconic, rotting, worm eyed, conquistador zombie (Ottaviano Dell'Acqua). I wasn’t scared; I was repulsed. Being a growing boy on the verge of puberty, I didn’t think it wise to be turned off to protein, either. And so, the tape just sat on my movie shelf, after only being watched once, collecting dust, never to be touched again for quite some time.

Needless to say, I eventually overcame this sort of appetite-loss problem and no longer felt sick after watching zombie films. I don’t know if it is enhanced mental discipline or desensitization, but I can now eat pizza while watching movies like Zombie and Burial Ground without getting nauseous.

Anyone who may have read my article for The Beyond during last year’s gore-a-thon may recall that I wasn’t a fan of Zombie for a while. It took seeing The Beyond for me to re-evaluate what was my negative stand on Zombie. I was guilty of hoping for another Dawn of the Dead, ignorantly overlooking every one of the film’s strengths.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Wax Mask / M.D.C. – Maschera di cera (1997)

The last film Lucio Fulci ever worked on, The Wax Mask, was supposed to have been the grand collaboration between Fulci and Dario Argento, had it not been for Fulci’s tragic death some few weeks before filming was to begin. The project came about after Argento had approached Fulci at a 1994 film festival in Rome and suggested they work together on a new film. This was more of a sympathetic gesture from Argento who had intentions of reviving the spirits of an ailing Fulci in a wheelchair, who, at the time, had not worked on a new film in years. The two were never the best of friends, as Argento always thought Fulci imitated his filmmaking style (the separate camps weren’t only with the fan base it would seem).

Differences aside, they mutually agreed upon recreating House of Wax with Fulci directing. Along with Daniele Stroppa (The House of Clocks), they wrote the script for The Wax Mask, an alternate take on the wax museum myth that doesn’t necessarily feel like a remake of House of Wax (1953), even if it is.

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