Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Jess Franco's A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971)

To have never met or even known one’s own family is a sad thing indeed, but to finally be reunited with your relatives only to discover that you’d have been far better off never knowing them is truly the saddest thing of all. A young ladies first time discovery of her bizarre and outlandish relatives in a homecoming from Hell is the subject of tonight’s film review for a Belgian, Italian, and French financed film shot in Portugal that was written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Jess Franco (wait don’t leave!), known as A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD. 
The film follows Christina (Christina von Blanc) travelling home from a boarding school in London, in order to visit her relatives at the Castle Monteserate and to attend the reading of her father’s Will. Odd thing is she has never known her father or even met her relatives, and according to an Innkeeper and the village locals, the castle she is headed for is apparently abandoned. But nonetheless, Christina continually insists and believes that her whole family lives there. 
During the intro credits, the film illustrates Christina’s Journey to the village with travelling shots of very normal and mundane location visuals that clash with the dissonant and creepy music that is being heard. This for me suggests that danger can be nearby at even the most unexpected instances and reminds us that we live with the constant risk of heading into treacherous perils without even knowing it. This is definitely the case for Christina, who is most unsuspecting of the threat that awaits her back home… A threat in the form of a seductive lady in black, guiding her to the ultimate destination in life… 



After a restless night at the village Inn, Christina is fetched by the castle’s strange and bizarre servant Basillio (Jess Franco in an endearing and entertaining role as the suspicious idiot servant), who accompanies her in an awkward car ride to the castle. On the drive to Monteserate, Christina poetically describes her feelings in a voiceover that conveys gloomy and depressing dark imagery, which again clashes with the green valleys and lush mountain roads seen from the car windows. She speaks of a sad world of shadows and vultures, which in a way brings to mind that same unseen and unsuspecting doom that the film draws us ever closer to as it carries on. 



Upon arrival to her destination, she comes across her uncle Howard (Howard Vernon) greeting her while playing a cheerful waltz on the piano. She kisses her uncle on the cheek and is alarmed at how cold he feels before he casually alerts her that Herminia, her step mother, wishes to see her at her death bed. Christina receives this news as a shock and cannot believe her uncle’s carefree attitude and disrespectful way of notifying her of the dreadful news. This was literally like “oh by the way, your step mother wants to see you… she’s dying”. Again there is that clash of doom and normalcy, but this time it is with with an added portrayal of happiness, which really starts to come off as dark comedy, as Uncle Howard humors her distraught response by switching gears and sarcastically playing a funeral march on the piano. 



Christina is also surprised to notice a total stranger lounging about the castle that her uncle introduces as Carmenze (Britt Nichols), and he stubbornly refuses to describe her as anything else but a member of the family. For me, Carmenze can best be described as a sexy diva with the personality of an intoxicated teenager. It is also made quite obvious that Carmenze is Howard’s mistress. 




While walking through a study room on the way to meet with Herminia, Christina walks right passed a mysterious lady in black (Anne Libert) at a desk scribbling ruin symbols in blood. This is a very surreal moment, since you would think Christina would notice or at least acknowledge this dark beauty, but we are instead left wondering who that person or entity is. My take is that this strange woman is a representation of death waiting to take away the ailing Herminia, and Christina not noticing this woman is a portrayal of her ignorance to her own safety and her inability to recognize that death is very much present in this castle. Sadly, Herminia does pass away before attempting to whisper something in Christina’s ear, while her suspicious Aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar) looks on. It’s obvious by now that something’s definitely wrong with the current state of affairs in Monteserate. 

The bizarre disrespect towards death is further personified at Herminia’s memorial service, which was quickly thrown together by the current inhabitants of the castle. The following scene is a darkly humorous and appalling take on the funeral memorial service by Jess Franco, and it is a memorable standout moment in the film. You’ll feel sadness at the sight of Herminia’s corpse on display in a seated upright position and the sounds of ritualistic funeral chanting to tragic sounding organ music. You’ll also feel appalled after seeing Charmenze polishing her toenails and Uncle Howard smoking as he plays the organ. You’ll also giggle at the sight of Basillio hardly being able to stay awake during the ceremony. The mixture of emotions felt during this segment should be a testimony to the brilliance that Jess Franco can sometimes be capable of.  



On the next day, the gloominess that the film has been radiating so far is weakened for a moment while Christina explores the castle grounds in a scene that contradicts the overall mood of the film thus far. As Christina wanders amidst lush peaceful forested grounds, a waterfall, and a pond full of lily pads, we are treated to an enchanting musical piece by Bruno Nicholai (Yes, I’m aware that I’ve previously used the word “enchanting” to describe music by Nicholai). This is a lovely scene that provides a welcome reprieve from all of the death we have been encountering thus far. It’s time to just relax and enjoy nature, and it seems Christina feels the same way because she next decides to go for a skinny dip in the pond. Oh goody….  



Unfortunately, Christina cannot enjoy herself in peace because a couple of gleeful old men show up and start to peer around a tree in order to catch a few peeps. One of these individuals happens to be the lawyer who is to later read her Father’s living will, (Antonio de Cabo), and the other is a perverted doctor. Luckily, a young man comes by and alarms the dirty old men and scares them off.  




Later back at the castle, Christina endures more bizarre and random behavior from her family, as her Uncle scares away the young man she just met. She also walks in on a nude Charmenze enjoying the taste of blood from an open wound on a mysterious blind woman (Linda Hastreiter) that wanders the castle, and she catches sight of Basillio clutching her recently deceased stepmom’s severed hand! She is also drawn to the pond In the middle of the night, from ghostly calls from her dead father, as the enigmatic lady in black follows close behind.




More disrespect for the dead ensues, when the lawyer finally comes to read the will of Christina’s father, in another memorable sequence from Franco. The lawyer lazily opts for a more brief summary of the will, suggesting that a thorough and complete reading to be pointless and mundane. This time Basillio does fall asleep, and his snores are heard during the execution of the will, which basically states that Christina inherits everything.



Despite all of the maddening occurrences Christina has witnessed from these so called relatives of hers, she still wishes that they all stay. She wants nothing to change so they can all live together as a happy family. The craziness and absurdity of Christina’s suggestion of a happy family is further illustrated as a drunk Charmenze rolls around on the floor, and in a playful manner she starts to crawl towards and sexually pursue a childishly frightened Basillio, in yet another golden scene from Franco’s film. I can’t help feeling relieved at Christina’s decision, because this is one interesting “happy family” that I enjoy spending time with. 
This film is akin to drinking, because it starts to feel more and more inebriated as it goes on. Christina awakens the next day to find a phallus erected on the floor and is slowly drawn to it but then smacks it aside resulting in it shattering into pieces. The mysterious blind woman sitting nearby against the wall proclaims “Poor Soul, how could you shatter the Great Phallus? We are now cursed, all of us!”… I kid you not!! 
It becomes difficult to take the movie seriously after the occurrence with the phallus, but that’s OK, because you weren’t supposed to be taking it seriously anyway. This film is an interesting portrayal of the journey into the afterlife and is supplemented with delirious fits of dark humor. Christina is ultimately warned by the ghost of her father (Paul Műller) all too late, as the queen of darkness guides her to the ultimate destination that she has been heading for all along. You may think that was a plot spoiler, but it really isn’t, because this film is more a depiction of Christina’s voyage to the land beyond, through the guidance of a beautiful portrayal of death in the flesh. I feel that what matters more with this film is what is felt and experienced by the viewer during the course of events that lead to Christina’s demise, and not whether or not she gets out alive.



It should be noted that Christina’s virginity is never addressed nor does it play any role in the film. I’m thinking VIRGIN in the title was just to give the film a perversely alluring title. Also, even though it’s classified as a zombie film from numerous internet sources, I believe that it really shouldn’t be. You’ll notice that the living dead in the film aren’t the zombie kind but are still quite literally the living dead, which in this film can be described as cold skinned characters without appetites that seem to have their sex drives and senses of humor still intact and should be dead but still continue to live on in the castle. However, I don’t think the title is entirely misleading either, since it does sound erotic and the film most certainly has a number of darkly erotic moments.  



Also, Jess Franco is great as Basillio. I honestly couldn’t refrain from giggling every time he’s on camera, and this is not because I am laughing at him, but because Jess Franco is making me laugh with his “over the top” performance. 
In closing, I would like to say that I do love a good Jess Franco film… Several years ago I wouldn’t have believed that I’d be saying such a thing, since it was Franco’s lesser films that I first came across, such as OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES and 99 WOMEN, which weren’t that bad, but they didn’t leave me with much enthusiasm to pursue more. I’m glad I eventually found better from the man, and while there are probably a number of great places to start with, I personally believe that AVATLD is a good example of Franco at his best, and I do recommend it to curious first timers and Franco fans that haven’t seen it yet.  

"We shall return to the River Styx forever, wandering the swamp without ever reaching its end."--Howard Vernon
    

7 comments:

  1. Franco, at his best, is a great filmmaker, and this is a great film, made during one of his best "eras." Franco's productions, at this time, were quite impoverished--he was often working with little more than a few rolls of quarters and some bologna sandwiches, but in a few days, he could turn such paltry raw material into one classic after another. These were the years that produced this, FEMALE VAMPIRE, LORNA THE EXORCIST, and THE PERVERSE COUNTESS, among others.

    A lot of very striking moments, here. The ones that have always stuck with me are the ghostly Paul Muller, still hanged, leading his daughter through the forest, and the ending, of which you have an image above.

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  2. Thanks for the added insight! I agree that this film was from one of Franco’s best eras and most of my favorites from him are from the late 60s early 70s timeframe. Also, I have yet to see the films you’ve mentioned but they are definitely next on my list.

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  3. This film is surprisingly beautiful and tragic. The Queen of the Night is my favourite character, so mysterious. I read that there was a softcore version called CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM which features a garden orgy hosted by a woman (played by Alice Arno) who wears a crown and a red mask. As baffling as the scenes are, I think it actually kind of adds an interesting perspective on the Eros and Thanatos principles.

    http://david-z.blogspot.com/2009/07/virgin-among-living-deadred-mask.html

    I also find it strange that the working title was THE NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS.

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    1. I had heard about the sex inserts, but had never seen any screen shots of it. They look beautiful, but I’m not sure how I’d feel about having this orgy scene popping up in the middle of the story. Apparently this scene was added to the film by certain distributors that also cut the living dead scenes in order to have a full-fledged erotic movie. Oddly enough, CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM seems to be the movies official IMDB title (?). Thanks for the comment, Terence. I'm happy to see this post from over a year ago about my favorite Franco film still getting attention and additional depth.

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    2. True, the sex scenes would be awfully hard to shoehorn into the story and very random too. I definitely wouldn't want to watch the awful rape scenes as well.

      The Jean Rollin scenes are also a pitiful mess with "Christina" covering her face to protect herself from the zombies and the eyes of the viewers who know that it isn't the same actress. It also seems as though Death decided to get a perm at some point (unless that woman is supposed to represent Taint or Unrest)!

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  4. No doubt,this is one of the great --classic,art,film frm "golden"era...an another masterpiece by Jess Franco

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  5. My understanding is that this movie is Franco's attempt to purge the (metaphorical) demons from Soledad Miranda's untimely death, and that the working title "The Night the Stars Fell", or something to that effect, was meant as a reference.

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