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 heartfelt 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