The best way to describe the career of the late, lamented Jess Franco is that he clearly believed in that resilient rule of try and try again thumb, to wit, you've got to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Put another way, with over 150 films to his name, ranging from straight ahead horror to out and out sleaze (and many motion picture stops somewhere in between), he managed a few fascinating films among the otherwise ordinary (and often, quite awful) celluloid pile he left behind. Not every movie he made was a masterpiece. In fact, it's safe to say that he never helmed a legitimate "classic." Instead, in the subgenre he worked in, a mesmerizing mash-up of fright film elements, erotic wantings, and enigmatic European sensibilities, he fostered more curdled flops than cinematic fine dining experiences. One of his best (though he might argue otherwise) is 1973's A Virgin Among the Living Dead. Reconfigured several times to fit different markets (and distributor needs), Redemption Films is finally giving us a chance to see this Franco film in as many different lights as possible, and the view is mesmerizing to say the least.
The original title for the film was Night of the Shooting Stars, but that was changed to attract a genre audience. Soon after, a bit of sofcore shilling was added, without the director, and the name was again changed to Christina: Princess of Eroticism. In 1980, famed French filmmaker Jean Rollin was recruited to add some scenes of shuffling zombies ala George Romero to capitalize on the undead craze. That's the movie most remember. As a result, Virgin is like a teenager's bedroom - a jumble mess that would take years (and an understanding of the mindset behind it) to straighten out. Still, for what it's worth, it remains one of Franco's best, a terrific tone poem that's reminiscent of a David Lynch crossed with a Hammer film. Our lovely lead, Christina Mont Blanc plays Christina Benson, a boarding school girl who returns to her home in Monteserate for the reading of her late father's will. There, she witnesses her stepmother's death and is introduced to a family tree filled with nuts, including lecherous Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon), odd Aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar), a sexy step-cousin (Britt Nicols) and a gibbering fool named Basilio (Franco himself). She also received frequent visits from her dead dad.
Turns out, these are merely ghosts of her relatives, a projection placed on the house by the so-called Queen of the Night (Anne Libert) as the result of her father's suicide. Apparently, this sort-of witch owns the man's soul, and is using it for her own supernatural designs. Within such a structure-less narrative, we witness moments of insane weirdness, some slightly sexy sequences, gorgeous ethereality, and an overriding feeling of loss and grief. In fact, some have said that this movie was a direct reflection of Franco's feelings over the death of his 'muse' Soledad Miranda. You can see a clear theme of melancholy, a desire on the part of Christina to escape the real world and lose herself in her past (i.e. her imagined kinfolk). There's also a sense of self-discovery, of learning who you are after years of being lost or alone. Granted, this doesn't explain the abundant nudity, eccentric performances, and an overriding sense of illogic and incompleteness. In some ways, A Virgin Among the Living Dead feels like half an idea strung out over an entire cinematic fever dream.
And then there are the various revamps done without Franco's input. They are unnecessary and distracting. Rollins' zombie material might seem an easy add considering the movie's already jumbled strategies, but the sequences come out of left field and feel tacked on and redundant. Similarly, the simulated lesbian sex is about as arousing as a trip to the dentist. It also arrives without warning and leaves without enlightening us. In fact, one of the hardest things about reviewing this DVD is determining just what is and isn't Franco's. Some claim Christina as his. Others make it clear that Shooting Stars /the Rollins-less Living Dead represents his true vision. Whatever the case, having them here to pick and choose from provides a perspective that few home video releases provide. In fact, it's safe to say that if you had to pick one Franco film to either prove or deride his reputation, A Virgin Among the Living Dead would be a good place to start. It showcases the reasons fans adore him while distancing the filmmaker from the drivel he would end up helming throughout the course of his career.
Released in both the standard digital and high def Blu-ray format, Redemption does an excellent job with this release. The film suffers from age issues and transfer problems, but looks much better than expected. In fact, the color and detail levels in the 1.66:1 image are pretty consistent. Fans may be a bit flustered by the lack of a clean, pristine print, but such is the case with many foreign film from the era. On the sonic side of the situation, you can view the film(s) in either a standard French language LPCM Mono 2.0 (with added English subtitles) or a badly dubbed mix as well. Both are decent and do a good job with composer Bruno Nicolai's ethereal score. As for added features, there's the differing versions of the film, an interview with Franco, a collection of deleted scenes, a commentary track from Tim Lucas, liner notes, and trailers. All are interesting and add to our understanding of the final product.
True critical confessions time - I am not a fan of Jess Franco. Never have been, and A Virgin Among the Living Dead did little to change my mind. On the other hand, considering the crap of his that I have had to suffer through over the last 10 years, I will gladly call this my favorite of his films. Earning an easy Recommended rating, fans will rejoice over the care and consideration to this release. Not even Criterion is so meticulous in providing a viewer with as many variations of a trouble film like this. The result is a truly unnerving experience representing Franco at his most visually arresting.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here