Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Vampyros Lesbos (1970)

This was my third viewing of Vampyros Lesbos, part of my project to re-watch all of the Soledad Miranda films I can get my hands on. Like Eugénie de Sade, also directed by Jess Franco, it just seems to get better and better the more times I watch it.

It really was a very clever idea - making a radical break from the traditions of the vampire film while still remaining remarkably faithful to the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It really was a very clever idea - making a radical break from the traditions of the vampire film while still remaining remarkably faithful to the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

There are no gloomy Carpathian Mountains here, everything is drenched in brilliant Mediterranean sunshine. The vampire doesn’t live in a decaying gothic castle. She lives in an ultra-modern beach house furnished in the height of early 70s chic. She adores sunbathing. She dresses in the latest fashions (when she’s wearing clothes at all). There’s very little emphasis on religious symbols as defences against vampires, or on the occult in general. She is clearly possessed of supernatural powers, but the film displays no interest in matters spiritual or diabolical.

On the other hand, apart from the elimination of a few minor characters, we have the core of Stoker’s plot. The representative of a legal firm is dispatched to the remote home of a reclusive aristocrat, the Countess Carmody, to oversee the details of the transference of some property. Like Jonathan Harker this character falls prey to the aristocrat’s vampiric appetites but manages to escape. There’s a Dr Seward, and there’s a psychiatrist, Dr Steiner, and they play much the same roles in the film that van Helsing and Dr Seward play in the book. And there’s a counterpart to Renfield, a lunatic under the influence of the vampire. The principal changes are that the movie’s equivalents of the Dracula, Jonathan Harker and Renfield characters are all women. Linda Westinghouse in fact combines the roles of Jonathan Harker and Mina.

This is Jess Franco at his most stylish, and technically it’s quite accomplished without having a low-budget feel to it. In fact the clothes and the modernist interior design of the Countess’s house give it an almost opulent feel. Franco at his best could make a very low-budget movie look a lot more expensive than it was. The strange blood-red wall hangings (well really they’re ceiling hangings) in Countess Carmody’s villa are a very nice touch. The sound-track is typical of 70s eurohorror, an odd but very effective mix of prog-rock, jazz and electronic music. The Turkish locations serve two purposes extremely well, providing Mediterranean sunshine and an exotic ambience. The scorpion is another interesting touch.

Soledad Miranda has less actual acting to do in this movie compared to Eugénie de Sade. Mostly she has to look exotic, sexy, other-worldly and charismatic, and she does it supremely well. Ewa Strömberg is excellent as Linda, while Heidrun Kussin is suitably maniacal as Agra (the movie’s version of Renfield). Dennis Price and Paul Muller as Drs Seward and Steiner are also extremely good.

There is of course a very strong emphasis on sex (and being a Franco movie, that of course includes quite a bit of lesbian sex). The erotic elements that are present but disguised in Stoker’s novel are out in the open here. There’s a great deal of nudity. Also present is one of the most characteristic features of Franco’s movies of this period, the erotic night-club sequence. He always did these scenes superbly, and this is one of his finest efforts. The dance performed by Soledad Miranda with her unnamed partner is extraordinarily perverse and sexual and absolutely fascinating, with the dancers exchanging roles and with an eroticism that is clearly dangerous and rather sinister.

Strangely enough this film was made in the same year as one of his less successful projects, an even more faithful adaptation of Stoker’s book, Count Dracula (although it is redeemed by one of Christopher Lee’s finest ever acting performances). Count Dracula sticks very closely indeed to the novel, and is one of the least erotic of all Franco’s movies. Comparison of the two films is an object lesson in the superiority of films that do not attempt to slavishly imitate their literary source.

Vampyros Lesbos is one of the half-dozen best films Franco ever made. A triumph for both Franco and for Soledad Miranda.

The Region 4 DVD from Umbrella Entertainment is uncut and is presented widescreen. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the image is rather grainy, and there are no extras apart from a trailer.

No comments: