Saturday, January 30, 2021

Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

There’s no other experience quite like Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, or even the alternate clothed Spanish version Las Vampiras. I recall coming across the DVD of this film on the shelf in the foreign-film section at (the now defunct) Hastings Entertainment, and, being a newborn Jess Franco fan at the time, I knew I wanted it. I had just come off of Jess Franco’s Macumba Sexual (1983) and was ready for more. Only problem was I remembered being a little too self-conscientious about looking like a weirdo bringing a film called Vampyros Lesbos up to checkout, but I bit-the-bullet and proudly made my purchase. 

To tell you the truth, I’d like to relate my first-time experience watching Vampyros Lesbos, but I honestly cannot seem to remember a lot about it, other than that I noticed some similarities to Macumba Sexual. I do remember that afterwards, I quickly picked up Jess Franco’s She Killed in Ecstasy (1971), which was made around the same time and also starred the sultry Spanish beauty Soledad Miranda in another arousing but also sympathetic role. 

While re-watching Vampyros Lesbos more recently, despite seeing it several times before, I noticed that I had forgotten a lot of specifics to the storyline, but I still remembered my favorite parts quite well while also realizing new favorite parts. It just seems to become more enriching upon each viewing, opening itself up further each time I revisit it. It never feels old, overwatched, or stale. Basically, it’s a real keeper that should be kept close and revisited at least once a year. Every scene is worth savoring.

 

I like to think of Vampyros Lesbos as modern art made into film. It subverts tradition to experiment with new vibes and moods, transposing its influences to the point that they become hardly recognizable. It’s also one sexy movie. All the familiarities of Bram Stoker’s Dracula are there, but on the surface, you can hardly see it at all. It feels like they decided to recreate Dracula with a superb twist and all the sensuality of an erotic and fetishized Carmilla tale, while on a sunny vacation.  

Jess Franco had a tendency to film erotic horror at these gorgeous looking vacation spots, and the effect is sometimes what fellow Jess Franco aficionados have referred to as “inverted gothic,” and this really is a spot-on description for Vampyros Lesbos. Night is day, the more usual moonlit forested landscape is instead a sun-drenched tropical paradise, the traditional candle lit dinner scene is over-looking a beautiful sunny beach front, Dracula and Johnathan Harker are lesbians: Countess Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda) and Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg), who really do seem right for each other. This gives the film a dissonant feeling, but it’s novel and really works here. The only traditional gothic here is what has to be one of the greatest erotic stage shows put to film, but even that is set in a hip Euro-night club and is fused with zany jazz that ends up being really cool. So, despite the inverted look, there are spots where you still kind of get your Victorian fix, in a way.

 

The film just delivers and keeps its promise right off the bat with a tasteful and delicious erotic nightclub performance featuring the Countess Nadine (Miranda) with her human mannequin/victim (played by an unidentified actress whose face is obscured most of the time). Her performance partner is literally frozen under her spell, and Nadine manipulates, dresses, undresses and repositions her like a mannequin, like she’s her possession, and it really is something else. It is a spectacle of such beauty, delight, and sensuality. This immortal stage performance only makes up a small portion and is briefly revisited later in the film, yet it is such a significant and memorable part of the experience. I’m not sure if Anne Rice might have seen the film, but it does consist of a victim being stripped naked and murdered/consumed by a vampire on stage in front of an oblivious audience.

 

The most seductive addition that gives the film most of its memorability and staying power is Spanish actress Soledad Miranda as Hungarian Countess Nadine Carody. She’s beautiful, enchanting, terrifying, and sympathetic. She also has a terrific fashion sense. Her long red neck shawl not only looks amazing, it feels blood-fused and gives off the effect of blood hemorrhage in several key scenes. In the German version Countess Nadine has a deep, languid, and almost commanding voice, a real pleasure to listen to. She was dubbed by Beate Hasenau.

 

Ewa Stromberg is also delightful in this as well, as Nadine’s lover/prey, Linda Westinghouse. They have the warmest, most tender chemistry together. The Countess has targeted Nadine, transmitting sapphic dreams to her that Linda claims to her psychoanalyst, Dr. Steiner (Paul Muller), arouse her to orgasm. Dr. Steiner tells her that her dreams are the result of sexual frustration, and it just means she needs to find a better lover. While Linda and her boyfriend, Omar (Andrea Montchal), are at a nightclub, she is bewildered to see that the woman performing the sexy stage routine is the mysterious woman of her dreams. It’s really just part of the soundtrack, but there’s a peculiar distorted and reversed vocal audio track used in several spots of the film that sounds like a ham radio operator, which reminds me of an output signal from one antenna to another, in this case Nadine to Linda, to receive and respond to. 

 

It just so happens that Linda is a lawyer put on an assignment from her place of employment, Simpson & Simpson, to travel and meet with the Countess regarding a property inheritance from Dracula.

During her journey to the Countess’s lair in Anatolia, Linda stops to stay at a beach hotel where she meets Mehmet, a disturbing sadistic side character played by Jess Franco, who works at the hotel. It’s rather peculiar that even after Linda is shocked to discover that Mehmet tortures a tied-up bloodied woman (Beni Cardoso) he has imprisoned in the wine cellar, she runs away without telling anyone and kind of forgets about it. I like to think that the Countess’s remote spell on Linda is strong enough to cause her to forget the horror she saw and carry on to her destination. 

 

When Linda finally arrives at Nadine’s tropical lair in the “Kadidados Islands,” she comes upon the Countess sunbathing, and they break the ice pretty fast, as Nadine playfully coaxes Linda to follow her for a casual nude swim in the lake. Morpho (Michael Berling), Nadine’s hulking, mute manservant, who I continually confuse for a horny voyeur every time he skulks on scene, watches suspiciously from behind. When Morpho has his shades on, he kind of gives off a beatnik poet vibe. 

We learn during Linda and Nadine’s daytime candlelit dinner together on the beach that Nadine is the woman who Dracula willed everything to after he was destroyed. They were in love and she was the woman who made his life worth living. Colour me convinced. With Nadine’s dark demigoddess look and seductive predatory methods, I have no trouble believing she was Dracula’s love. 

Nadine offers Linda some suspicious red wine that puts her to sleep at the table. Morpho carries her to a room and lays her in a bed. She wakes up later seemingly alone. In a Rollin-esque moment the Countess randomly enters the scene from behind yellow drapes to seduce and pray on Linda.

 

Once under her spell, Linda is at the mercy and control of Nadine, who gently guides Linda and seduces her for blood nourishment. Linda seems conflicted, half afraid, half attracted, or possibly frozen with bewilderment. Interestingly, the music here is jazzy and full of life and love, which believe it or not is more appropriate in this case, as opposed to something darker and doomy sounding. 

It is truly a striking moment when Linda finds Nadine, the morning after their blood copulation, appearing dead, floating face up in the pool looking bloated with blood after a nice meal. This visual is both disturbing and beautiful and is unforgettable. Again, clever use of the long flowing red shawl. Linda passes out from the visual and wakes up later in Dr. Seward’s (Dennis Price) private clinic with no memory of what happened.


The clinic is a more dismal and depressing affair. The film is set in modern day 1971, but it is a little hard to tell from the inside of the clinic. It houses a mental patient, Agra (Heidrun Kussin), who’s the female Renfield. She too is bewitched and under Nadine’s influence and has an obsessive devotion to her from inside her cell. Agra is prone to erotic and shouty fits of madness. It is with Agra that I get a sense that Nadine is a vampire who truly loves her victims, as she is kind enough to tenderly bid a kind farewell to Agra, at one point, before leaving her forever.

 

Dennis Price’s Dr. Seward here looks, feels and acts a lot like the Dr. Frankenstein character he played in Jess Franco’s Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972). He seems to have an interest in the world of darkness, reading dark tomes and writing about his attraction to the mysterious world of vampires. Instead of trying to help the patients in his clinic, he is instead using them to get to Nadine because he wants in to her world. One of the parts with Dr. Seward that I remember most fondly is when he finally gets to make Nadine’s acquaintance, and she deems him not worthy, revealing that she’s actually come to kill him for keeping Linda from her. It’s hard to tell if Price’s heart is in the performance, but I thought his response to seeing Nadine here was actually pretty good.

 

The Countess’s backstory is quite intriguing. While lying in her modern crypt stretched out on a divan, languidly exhibiting a certain ennui that likely comes with living so long, Nadine melancholically reminisces to an attentive Morpho that centuries prior she was saved from being killed by a marauding soldier who broke into her home by non-other than Count Dracula himself and that they later fell in love. She reveals herself to be a vampire convert and a protege of Dracula. With the languor and exhaustion in her voice here, I get the sense that Nadine is tired and done, almost like she is letting herself grow weak, setting herself up for her own demise. I think she’s targeted Linda because she feels she will finally be the one to end her afterlife, finding her overdue peace in death. There’s something beautifully tragic about the culmination. As Nadine puts it, "But many have become my slaves. Many women too. But then I met Linda. And now I am under her power," as predator eventually becomes prey.

 

Vampyros Lesbos is an ingenious film that cleverly makes use of the natural locales and small resources to great effect. There’s nothing artificial or cheap about it. The cinematography from frequent Jess Franco director of photography Manuel Merino (Marquis de Sade’s Justine, Eugenie, Count Dracula, She Killed in Ecstasy, …) is mesmerizing. I especially love the shots where you can almost feel Nadine’s fingers touching you as she reaches towards the camera in one of the film’s more prominently remembered images, digging into your brain and calling out to you, like she does to Linda. There’s really not a single dull or uninteresting shot. The way the film repeatedly cuts to insects, flying kites, Mosques in Istanbul, and what looks to be some kind of anchored fishing vessel give the film a kind of haunting presence. 

I’ve only had an increased love for this movie over the years. It’s probably as solid as they come for a ‘70s chic Euro erotica from Jess Franco. As much as I love traditional gothic horror, it’s still pretty cool to flip it upside down and turn it inside out to produce something so unlike anything else. It’s an excellent first timer recommendation for the curious and a long held classic for the longtime Jess Franco fan. But most of you already know that. 

© At the Mansion of Madness



The 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Vampyros Lesbos released by Messed Up Puzzles that I managed to complete. Art by Wes Benscoter

 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Blood and Roses / Et mourir de plaisir (1960)

Roses always fade in a Vampire’s hand.”-Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg

I’ve always loved the supernatural femme fatale Carmilla since I was first introduced to her in Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (1972). There was something so appealing about the sapphic predatory vampiress from J.S. Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, whose influence was all over the erotic vampire films from the 1960s and 1970s I loved, and more. After I reviewed The Blood Spattered Bride, naturally, I felt compelled to read Carmilla, a short but marvelous piece of gothic literature. I loved the dark, forested isolated castle setting and the peculiar relationship that develops between Laura and Carmilla. After reading it, I felt I had hipster boasting rights to tell people who never heard of it that I knew of and read a vampire book that was written twenty-five years before the more well-known Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Now, the book, Dracula is much more developed, but it is astounding how many story similarities there are between Dracula and Carmilla (itself sharing similarities to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished Christabel (1816)). I don’t think there can be any doubt that Carmilla heavily influenced Dracula. 

It’s been a delight to explore different adaptations of Carmilla, such as The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Crypt of the Vampire (1964) as well as movies influenced by Carmilla like Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Daughters of Darkness (1971). I remember thinking back in 2013 that the time was right for new Carmilla movies. I must have been asleep the last seven years, because I only recently learned that there have been new Carmilla films being made, such as The Unwanted (2014), The Curse of Styria (2014), Carmilla (2015), a Carmilla web-series that eventually got a follow-up movie called Carmilla the Movie (2017), and most recently Carmilla (2019) from Emily Harris. I just recently checked out the 2019 movie, and all I can say is, what a powerful ending. I’d say it comes pretty close to the modern Carmilla film I was hoping for.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Emanuelle and Joanna / Il mondo porno di due sorelle (1979)

So, here we are, nearly ten years in to writing for this site, and it would look like I’m finally getting around to covering an Emmanuelle movie… Well, not quite… In fact, Emanuelle and Joanna seems to me to be an anti-Emmanuelle movie, since I believe the literary Emmanuelle is mainly about embracing and normalizing sexual taboos. Whereas the protagonist in Emanuelle and Joanna is haunted by sexual taboos and is seemingly punished for her altruism by providence, or the scriptwriter if you prefer. I felt it was much too negative to be in line with the sexually positive but still iconoclastic spirit of the writings of Emmanuelle Arsan (Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane) and to me had a little more in common with the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Emanuelle and Joanna, who I’m assuming are the two women seen on the movie poster engaging in what is surely a kind of esoteric sex ritual, aren’t even in the movie. The lead sisters, alluded to in the film's Italian title, are Emanuela (Sherry Buchanan) and Giovanna (Paola Montenero). I don’t feel duped at all though, because this is the kind of shit I go for, a pleasing dark piece of dated erotica that sends its protagonist down a rabbit-hole of perverts.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

A Candle for the Devil / Una vela para el diablo (1973)

The pleasures I tried to deprive myself of assailed my mind more ardently…” –Madame de Saint-Ange (Marquis de Sade)


I feel like A Candle for the Devil (aka It Happened at Nightmare Inn) from Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Martin, director of the astounding Horror Express (1972) and the rare gem Aquella casa en las afueras (1980), was that demented shocker I was always looking for when I was channel surfing as a kid looking to satiate my thirst for something twisted with big bloody kitchen knives and bloody nightgowns. It’s also an intelligent and thought-provoking film with enough memorable moments to prevent anyone who watches it from entirely forgetting about it. I had only seen it twice, in its cut and uncut version, but for years it had been stored in my memory as a truly special Spanish horror film that I knew I would revisit someday to write about.

After I first watched it, I remember feeling cheated out of the definitive experience of A Candle for the Devil after finding out the version I watched titled It Happened at Nightmare Inn from a bargain DVD box set was heavily cut, omitting the graphic violence and nudity. I still thought it was a pretty sweet film even in its censored form, but of course that’s not the version I wanted for my collection, and so I later ordered off for a DVD-R containing the uncut A Candle for the Devil, with Esperanza Roy’s (from Return of the Evil Dead (1973)) nude scenes thankfully intact. The film has since been released on Blu-ray in 2015 by Scorpion Releasing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Devil in the Flesh / Venus in Furs (1969)

Have you heard about the lonesome loser, beaten by the Queen of Hearts every time?” -Little River Band 

The book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch Venus in Furs (1870) is a great inspiration to those of us who wish to be better poets for the women we love, the women we worship, the women we want to be dominated and enslaved by in the bedroom. I found a lot to relate to from Masoch’s writing, but I was kind of bummed that the book turned out to be a cautionary tale in the end. (Way to kink-shame, Book.)
  
Massimo Dallamano, cowriter and director of one of the best gialli ever made, What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), directed a couple good modern adaptations of Victorian era books: the aforementioned Venus in Furs and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde. Dallamano’s Dorian Gray from 1970 really feels updated for its era, trying something a little bit different while remaining faithful to the spirit of the novel. The same could be said of the Dallamano directed Devil in the Flesh (aka Venus in Furs, not to be confused with the Jess Franco film of the same name, from the same year).

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Justine (2016)

Justine, your prison was my kingdom come.” -Virgin Steele 

Were it not for Jess Franco, I probably would not have had even a passing interest in the writings of eighteenth century troublemaker Marquis de Sade, Donatien Alphonse Franҫois, but thanks to Franco films like Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969), Eugenie (1970), Eugenie de Sade (1973), and this prominent S&M aesthetic very much characteristic to a lot of Franco’s films (as well as Renato Polselli’s), it was only a matter of time before I would wonder: “why the hell am I not reading de Sade?”. Reading a book by de Sade had been on my bucket list for a good six or seven years. (It didn’t help that I was partially turned off by de Sade after watching Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) due to the film’s shocking depictions of cruelty and grossness that the Jess Franco films rarely reached). 

Well, I finally read my first de Sade novel, recently, titled Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), and it was all kinds of fucked up. It was cruel, disgusting, evil, sickeningly disagreeable… And I could hardly put it down. I won’t go as far as to call it a horror novel, but a lot of the sadists poor Justine encounters are outright terrifying, especially the head-cutter character. De Sade seemed to pull no punches. He morally outraged to the extreme and probably intended to.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Assignment Terror / Los monstruos del terror (1970)

Halloween always gets me in the mood for the classic Universal monsters, so I thought I would revisit a Spanish monster mash-up (done in the vein of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944)) that I had not seen in over ten years.

Assignment Terror is one of the Paul Naschy films I revisited the least for some reason. Naschy wrote and starred in it, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking it needed a little more Naschy. Paul Naschy’s scripts usually come off as real personal projects, but, even with the presence of the Universal monsters that inspired Naschy’s childhood love for horror, I didn’t quite feel that as much with Assignment Terror. But to be fair, it is quite early in Naschy’s filmography. Plus, I can see how Naschy might’ve thought it best to have his tragic lycanthrope character Waldemar Daninsky step aside a little to make room for the other classic monsters. In the end, it still ends up being Naschy’s show and what I think is an alright old-school monster movie that has got a few neat tricks up its sleeve. The whole thing is of course messy and flawed but also kind of whacky and fun.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Macumba Sexual (1983)

For me, going back to Macumba Sexual is going back to my Jess Franco origins, as it was the second Jess Franco film I ever saw, the first being Mansion of the Living Dead (1982). I came across both Severin DVDs of these films at a video store in 2007 and took a chance with Mansion first even though I was expecting it to be terrible (I had heard of Jess Franco and a not so revered zombie movie by the name of Oasis of the Zombies (1982)). At the time, I was desperate for something new, and I was sort of fascinated by the cheap looking blind dead Templar rip-offs on the DVD cover (Diet Tombs of the Blind Dead?). My expectations were low, but it turned out to be a funny, sexy, ultra-weird, and surprisingly atmospheric horror movie with a captivating lead actress, Lina Romay (born Rosa Maria Almirall). I shortly went back to the store for Macumba Sexual and, despite some frustrations, have been hooked on Jess Franco ever since (thanks Severin!).