Directed by Jess Franco in 1973, Female Vampire tells the story of Countess Irina Karlstein (Lina Romay), the last surviving descendent of a line of vampires known to have lived on the island of Madeira where Irina currently resides. Mute, she is unable to talk, but agrees to an interview with a reporter who has her answer her questions simply by nodding for yes or shaking her head for now. Through the interview, we get the impression that she is sad and lonely, despite not wanting for money or attention as the vampiric curse that has been put upon her since birth prevents her from finding any sort of meaningful relationship.
Around this time, a mysterious string of murders starts happening in Madeira where various male and female victims turn up dead, apparently having passed on in the middle of the act of intercourse. Eventually a Dr. Roberts (Jess Franco) learns of the murders and figures out who or what has been causing them, at which point he sets out to prevent more from occurring. As all of this is going on, a writer (Jack Taylor) visiting the island starts to obsess over visions of Irina and when they eventually meet, she starts to wonder if she'll be able to find true love after all.
Often shot in a dreamy, hazy soft focus style, Female Vampire is less about story and structure than it is about mood, atmosphere and tone. The story itself is fairly simple - Irina is obviously the vampire of the title (this is not a spoiler, we learn it in the opening scene) and she uses her feminine wiles to lure victims who she in turn quite literally sucks the life out of. From there, Jack Taylor falls for her, while Jess Franco tries to put a stop to her. The story is no more complicated than that - yet there's more going on here than at first meets the eye, something that Franco's many and vocal detractors will no doubt dispute.
What really grabs you about the movie is how it bounces back and forth between legitimately sexy and erotic and then genuinely sad. All of this revolves around the character of Irina, played incredibly well by an often very naked Lina Romay. Without uttering a single word of dialogue she's able to portray an entire range of emotions here. She vamps it up and plays the nympho better than anyone you'd care to name but then, with only the glance of an eye or a slight change in facial expression, she's able to break your heart and make you feel sorry for her. One of the film's most notorious scenes involves Lina in bed, no partner to be found. She needs fulfillment and with no one around, opts for the next best thing, and in this particular case that's the bed post. As she grinds into it for reasons you can probably understand (we're keeping this review PG!) and becomes more involved in what she's doing, one of two things happens to the view:
1 - we enjoy the show for the very fact that it's an incredibly beautiful woman in her sexual prime pleasuring herself for our entertainment (and there's nothing wrong with that, she does it well) or...
2 - we start to think about why she'd do this in the first place. The answer? Because she's lonely, she has no one else to take care of her and she is completely on her own. Her family is all dead, she has no choice but to kill her lovers in order to provide sustenance for herself and she cannot ever have a long or meaningful relationship with another person for that reason, thus she is damned to live alone.
As is the norm with the movies that Franco and Romay were making together around this time, he lets the camera worship her. She's shot in extreme close up, her long pleather boots fetishized periodically and her body glorified in all its natural beauty. And yet he spends as much time examining her face this time around as he does her other parts and it is these scenes that give the film some depth and some emotional impact, for all its many and sometimes obvious flaws. The fact that the movie was shot on location in Madeira, a beautiful island with vast and gorgeous blue oceans and loads of lovely scenery, definitely helps as does the instantly recognizable score courtesy of composer Daniel White. Ultimately, yes, there are those who will quite understandably see this as little more than a skinflick with some blood here and there but for those willing to dig a bit deeper and think about what lies under the surface the movie proves to be as interesting as it is arousing.
Note: An alternate seventy two minute 'horror' cut of the film was also released under the alternate title of Erotikill. Like the alternate cut of Exorcism, it cuts out almost all of the sex and most of the nudity and uses alternate sequences throughout the film, including some bits of violence that don't make it into the original version. It runs a almost thirty minutes shorter than the original cut of the film (which clocks in at one hundred and four minutes) and lacks much of its impact and atmosphere. For curiosity purposes, however, it's worth seeing and Kino has wisely chosen to include it along with the uncut version on this Blu-ray release. A third version, containing insert shots of explicit hardcore sex, also exists but is not included on this release.
Female Vampire arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 2.35.1 transfer in 1080p high definition. Most Blu-ray enabled Eurocult fans that have seen previous transfers in the Redemption/Kino line will be able to tell you that they don't do any sort of restoration on the elements they have for these titles. While some of the Bava and Rollin discs have been in great shape, like Exorcism, Female Vampire is sometimes a bit worse for wear. Print damage in the form of horizontal and vertical scratches and specks is present throughout and there are some spots where the colors fade a bit, though it should be noted that compared to some of Franco's more colorful productions, this particular film is actually fairly dreary looking by nature. Some clean up would have probably made a difference here but again, we definitely notice significantly more detail present here than on the past DVD release and a fair bit more depth and texture as well, noticeable not just in close ups (you can count every hair on Lina's crotch if you're so inclined!) but also in other shots from other angles. Check out the detail in the stitching on Lina's black boots, you can really see the threadwork this time around. As this is a Franco film it is not at all uncommon for some scenes to be in very soft focus or occasionally completely out of focus - the first and last shots that bookend the movie are perfect examples of that, the last one obviously being completely intentional in that as Lina walks closer to the camera she comes into tighter focus. You can't fault the disc for those issues because that's just the way Jess Franco shoots a lot of his movies. There are no problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement nor is there even a hint of noise reduction anywhere to be seen. The end result is something very much akin to watching a slightly tattered print play in a theater and it's not without its charm in that regard, but yeah, the picture here isn't pristine or super colorful.
French and English language options are included, both in LPCM Mono format, with optional subtitles (not dubtitles - they translate the French track which has some slight differences) included in English only. There are times where things sound a bit flat but overall the audio isn't bad here. The levels are properly balanced and the repetitive but completely appropriate score is here with enough punch and resonance to be as effective as you'd hope it would be. There are a few spots where you might pick up on some hiss or scratches but those problems are infrequent and minor.
Aside from the alternate version of the movie, the disc includes two interviews, the first of which is entitled Destiny In Soft Focus and is a talk with Franco himself who speaks at length about his intentions with this film, the sadness inherent in Lina's character, what makes this film unique in the pantheon of vampire movies and how he first met Lina and why he was so taken with her. It's a rather touching and at times very sweet talk with the director and quite a welcome addition to the release. The second featurette, Words For Lina, is a tribute courtesy of David Gouyette to the film's leading lady who passed away earlier this year.
Also found here are trailers for Exorcism and Female Vampire, trailers for three Jean Rollin films, static menus and chapter selection. Completists will want to hold onto the older DVD release from Synapse Films as it contained a commentary track not carried over to this Blu-ray release.
Female Vampire is a strange mix of erotic and morose, a movie that will definitely polarize viewers but also an important and interesting entry in Jess Franco's notably eclectic career. It's certainly recommended for those with a taste for the surreal who won't mind the languid pacing and who are able to appreciate mood and atmosphere without the need for a more traditional narrative to accompany it. Kino's Blu-ray presents the material 'as is' without any sort of massive restoration but it offers a nice upgrade in many ways from the long out of print previous DVD from Image and contains some welcome extra features as well.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.