It’s probably fair to say that all Jess Franco’s horror films are exercises in erotic horror. He didn’t invent the erotic horror movie, but he took it further than anyone else had taken it up to that point, and further than anyone has taken it since. And in Doriana Grey (or Die Marquise von Sade), made in 1976, he took the form to its logical conclusion. It’s hard to imagine any other film-maker having the nerve to make such a movie (and I mean that in a good way).
Given that the movie contains very explicit non-simulated sex, it raises the obvious questions. Is this pornography or art? Is this pornography or a horror movie? The answer is that it’s pornography, and it’s art, and it’s a horror movie.
It deals with the same themes Franco had already explored in Female Vampire in 1973, and to a certain extent in Vampyros Lesbos in 1970. Vampirism is no longer a metaphor for sex. Vampirism is sex. Superficially these movies seem to equate sex with death, but given that the theme is obviously important and personal for Franco I find it difficult to believe that he’s actually intending such a puritanical message. I’m more inclined to think that he’s equating sex with life, sex as the life force, sex as the alpha and the omega of life. It’s not a case of the blood is the life; it’s sex that is the life.
Doriana Grey is a fabulously wealthy, exquisitely beautiful and eternal youthful woman. She is also a vampire. Like the Countess Irina in Female Vampire she has an insatiable hunger for sex, and like the Countess Irina she drains the life from her victims through sex. But she can never satisfy her hunger; she is incapable of experiencing the physical fulfillment of sex. She has a twin sister, from whom she was surgically separated birth. She was left without the ability to experience sexual ecstacy no matter how much she craves it; her sister was left with little except that ability. They are both incomplete. Doriana has sex obsessively, but it’s her twin who experiences the pleasure.
The link to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray may seem somewhat tenuous, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as an adaptation of the novel, but Wilde’s tale was undoubtedly one of the inspirations for the movie. In this case the twin sister takes the place of the painting.
Lina Romay plays both sisters. She looks ravishing, and I doubt that any other actress could have combined the necessary feel for the character with the necessary very high degree of uninhibitedness that the role demands. I personally think she’s a very underrated actress, and this is one of her best performances.
Those who dislike Franco’s movies in general will hate this one. Apart from an enormous amount of sex it features the stylistic touches that annoy his critics so much. There’s an obsessive use of the zoom lens, and there’s an equally obsessive and at times bewildering tendency to move in and out of focus, with the focus frequently dissolving altogether. There’s no question it’s a deliberate technique, and it works, conveying very effectively Doriana’s disconnection and alienation from herself (in fact the disconnection and alienation from self of both halves of her personality housed in separate bodies).
I think it’s vitally important not to see this movie until you’ve seen Vampyros Lesbos and Female Vampire - they form a sort of vampire trilogy, with each film pushing the theme a little bit further. It’s not a movie for everyone, but then no Jess Franco movie could be described as a movie for everyone. And be warned, I’m not kidding about the sex. It really is explicit and it really is non-simulated. Personally I think it’s a bold and brilliant film.