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My first introduction to the oddball cinema of Spanish filmmaker Jesus 'Jess' Franco came one night about 3am while channel surfing in my parent's basement. I'd just gotten back from college, it was time for the summer break, and I'd only minutes beforehand returned from an evening at the pub. I came across what appeared to be a pair of lesbian vampires doing their thing set to a be-bopping score and some whacked out colors and it instantly caught my attention. I didn't really know what I was watching and didn't find out until the film was finished that it was one of Franco's most popular films, Vampyros Lesbos. That semi-intoxicated late night initiation led me to seek out more of the man's work, and since that night over ten years ago I've become a fan of his wildly uneven catalogue of work. His films may not always be good in the traditional sense of the word, but they're always interesting and there's always a little piece of himself put into his work.
In Vampyros Lesbos, Franco regular Ewa Stromberg plays Linda Westinghouse (Linda is an unusually common name in Franco films), a lawyer who is shuffled off to Istanbul to look after a large inheritance that has recently come due to one Countess Nadine (Soledad Miranda of She Killed In Ecstasy). Since Linda found out about her upcoming journey she's been having some very strange dreams, some of which almost seem to be ominous in their meaning. When Linda arrives in Turkey, she and her friend Omar (Andres Monales of Les Demons) attend a nightclub performance where two gorgeous women vamp it up. She's shocked to recognize one of the women from her dreams, and even more shocked to find that this woman is her soon to be client, Countess Nadine.
Linda and Nadine instantly strike up an unusual relationship, something that goes far beyond the typical lawyer/client business association. They skinny dip along the beaches near Nadine's mansion and spend a few lingering moments together basking in the yards of the home. Soon though, it's time to get down to business and it's at this point while going through all the paperwork that Linda realizes Nadine is a distant relative of Count Dracula.
Later that night Nadine drugs Linda's wine and seduces her. Linda goes missing and it's a week later that Omar eventually finds her in the hospital, suffering from some mild amnesia. Nadine, however, has become quite infatuated with her lovely legal counsel, and proceeds to starve herself. She wants nothing more than to be with Linda forever. Even her servant, Morpho, is unable to console her. Linda must make her decision, with Nadine's very life hanging in the balance.
Vampyros Lesbos epitomizes everything that is good about Franco's filmmaking techniques and themes. The unabashed eroticism leaves little to the imagination, the obsession with his female leads (Soledad Miranda was considered to be his muse until she passed away in a car accident at the age of twenty seven), the freewheeling jazz score, and the elaborate sets that add a strange look to the film. While it was made on a low budget, at times this is quite obvious, the film makes great use of its European locations to give the movie a dreamlike tone. This works perfectly among the odd cast of beautiful women and strange supporting cast members. In this film, Franco uses a lot of the performers that he had worked with in the past, something that he did until he passed away. With over two hundred films to his credit, anyone who has seen a few Franco films will have no problems picking out regulars such as Miranda and Stromberg as well as Dennis Price (of Venus In Furs), Paul Muller (of Barbed Wire Dolls), and even Franco himself in one of his patented cameo roles.
The film uses all sorts of less than subtle symbolism and graphic imagery to tell its story. There isn't an abundance of dialogue in the film and the director tells his story far more so with images here than with words. This allows the music to play a very important part in the tone of the film, and the score for this picture has a lot more impact than it would have otherwise if the movie had included more discourse. The end result isn't so much a coherent film with a tight plot as it is an oddly compelling fever dream put on film.The Blu-ray:
Severin presents the film in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.66.1 widescreen in a transfer that should give most fans reason to rejoice. Some mild print damage does show up and there is some noticeable horizontal element damage running throughout the movie that stands out more in some scenes than others but the good most certainly outweighs the bad here. Colors look fantastic, especially the reds that Miranda wears in the opening night club scene or the red scarf that is around her neck as she floats in the pool. Skin tones, which are nearly constant, look nice and natural, never too pink or too hot looking while black levels are solid, if maybe a step or two away from perfect. Some mild compression artifacts pop up in a few spots but there aren't any issues with noise reduction or edge enhancement to complain about. Detail and texture are nice and strong here, though obviously the scenes that Franco shot in soft focus don't show off as much as some of the other scenes do in that regard. All in all, this is a solid looking disc.Audio:
The only audio option offered for the movie is a German language track in LPCM Mono with optional subtitles provided in English only. There are one or two spots where the score distorts a little bit (when the girls are laying together on the beach for example) but outside of that, this track is problem free. Dialogue is clean, clear and nicely balanced against the film's now iconic bizarre-world jazz score. The subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors.Extras:
Extras on the disc start out with a featurette called Vampyros Jesús: Interview With Writer/Director Jess Franco. Here the late, great filmmaker speaks in English (with subtitles as his accent can be pretty thick) about working with his producer on this picture, where the film was shot and why it was shot there, how and why he came to cast Miranda as the lead, his thoughts on the performances in the picture and how the film's score came to be. He also shares his thoughts on the film itself, admitting that he likes it better than most of his other films but that he still has problems with it. Franco's sense of humor and honestly comes through nicely here, it's a great interview and a very nice addition to this release.
Up next is Sublime Soledad: Interview With Soledad Miranda Historian Amy Brown. As the title implies, this piece allows Brown to elaborate on Miranda's career not only as an actress but as a pop chanteuse as well! We get some great archival clips and footage in here as Brown talks about her filmography and about the late actresses work with Franco. It's a nicely put together piece that does a fine job of shedding some light on what makes Miranda more than just another pretty face.
Stephen Thrower On Vampyros Lesbos is an interview with the author of the upcoming Franco book Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema Of Jess Franco in which he explains what makes this film an important one in Franco's filmography. He makes some interesting critical observations about how the movie uses Stoker's Dracula as its base and then essentially goes on to twist it as it heads towards its finish. Again, this is an interesting piece and an insightful one as well. Thrower knows his stuff when it comes to Franco and his input is always worth checking out.
Rounding out the extras on the Blu-ray are the quick Jess Is Yoda clip (in which Franco discusses how he found out that he was supposedly the inspiration for the famous Star Wars characters and his thoughts on that honor), a German language theatrical trailer and an alternate German language opening credits sequence. Static menus and chapter selection are also provided.
Severin has also included, on a separate DVD disc, an alternate Spanish language version alternate bootleg version of the movie. Sourced from a tape but watchable enough, it's presented with English subtitles and it makes for an interesting variation from the stronger, uncut version contained on the Blu-ray. The plot remains pretty much exactly the same but here the racier scenes and nude scenes have been replaced with softer, more censor-friendly alternate takes. This gives the opening night club scene and many of the scenes that take place between Miranda and Stromberg a completely different tone.
The two discs that make up this release come housed inside a clear plastic keepcase which in turn fits inside a cardboard slipcover that has been coyly designed to obscure specific parts of the cover art insert. It's a nice touch.Final Thoughts:
Vampyros Lesbos remains one of Jess Franco's most interesting and intriguing films. Soledad Miranda is fantastic as the lead and the supporting cast all do fine work as well. The score has gone on to achieve fame in its own right and while the visuals are as bizarre as they are consistently wild. Severin Films has brought the movie to Blu-ray in very fine form indeed, offering the film up in a strong HD presentation and with a nice selection of quality supplements as well. Highly recommended.
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.