Vampyros Lesbos
Severin // Unrated // $34.95 // May 12, 2015
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 10, 2015
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
"So, the thing was I like vampires, [and] I like lesbian relations between two women...I think it's much more beautiful, the intercourse between two lesbian girls. So, we started like that. It was not important."
- writer/director Jess Franco on Vampyros Lesbos

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Toss out all those preconceptions you may have about dark, foreboding, gothic castles. Count Dracula had to his name wealth beyond comprehension, and it turns out that the whole thing about vampires and the sun was nothing more than an exploded myth. So, why settle for a decaying, desolate chunk of rock in the Carpathians? Dracula is -- or, well, was -- living the high life in a space age bachelor pad on the sunny island of Kadidados. Actually, "bachelor pad" isn't quite the term I'm looking for either. The legendary Count has recently passed away, and the entirety of his estate has been willed to the Countess Carody (Soledad Miranda). Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg), a representative from the late Count's law firm, has been dispatched to Kadidados to sort out the particulars. Carody -- quite literally the woman of Westinghouse's dreams -- is nothing if not a gracious hostess. They swim and sunbathe in the nude together. They share a bottle of wine. Tender kisses are exchanged. Carody...feasts on Westinghouse's blood, and this story's all of a sudden gotten away from me. The lawyer is left stranded on the beach, with all memories of who she is or what she's endured stripped away. Her mind is otherwise a blank slate, and yet Westinghouse remains consumed by visions of her sapphic lover. Even after being taken away from the asylum where she's been held and having returned home with her boyfriend, some supernatural compulsion keeps drawing Westinghouse back to the Countess. Carody has much to teach Westinghouse about the ways of the vampire, and her education goes far beyond nips on the neck. Little does Westinghouse know that she's hardly the only one obsessed with the Countess.

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I may be running the risk of making it sound as if Vampyros Lesbos has a plot that's anything more than incidental. Jess Franco is largely uninterested in the mechanics of the story, instead indulging in surreal, dreamlike imagery, such symbolic iconography as a soaring kite and skittering insects of varying positions of strength, and the sapphic pleasures suggested by the film's title. As if in response to his own Count Dracula, Franco also revels in upending traditional vampire tropes: revolving the premise around a countess rather than a count, switching the backdrop to a sun-kissed Mediterranean island, and dispensing with the coffins, fangs, and most every other iconic cinematic mainstay. There are equivalents to Mina Harker, Van Helsing and Seward (combined into a single character here), and arguably a couple of Renfields, and yet they're all realized in profoundly different ways than would ordinarily be expected. Vampyros Lesbos is a visually arresting film, boasting a vividly saturated palette, inventive camera angles, and Franco's penchant for frantic zooms. It ought to go without saying what a deeply erotic work this is, and yet it's not simply an excuse to have impossibly gorgeous women writhe around topless. Among its central recurring themes is the destruction wrought by subjugation. Far from the power and objectification associated with the male gaze, Vampyros Lesbos predominantly places its women in the greatest positions of strength, as its men -- the ones seen rather than discussed, at least -- are either passive lovers, easily manipulated psychopaths, or woefully ineffective nemeses. As elusive as the plotting can often be, there is a great deal of substance to the film.

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Vampyros Lesbos will never be mistaken for a straightahead horror film, and viewers seeking out something terrifying or unnervingly intense will likely walk away disappointed and confused. Those with a taste for the unconventional, however, have a great deal to look forward to here. Soledad Miranda is wholly entrancing as Countess Carody, wielding a power and a curse spawned from tragedy. I defy anyone to listen to Vampyros Lesbos' score for the first time and not immediately rush out to pick up its phenomenal soundtrack, featuring music from this and other of Franco's films from the era. Eastern-tinged, psychedelic, and an infectiously dancy earworm, this score ranks behind only Miranda herself as Vampyros Lesbos' greatest asset. This artfully photographed film isn't content to simply coast on the promise of topless, nubile vampiresses, though it certainly delivers on that front as well. Issued twice before on DVD with no real extras to speak of, Severin Films has lavished Vampyros Lesbos with the collectors' edition that it richly deserves. Highly Recommended.


Video
As befits a film starring an actress as stunning as Soledad Miranda, this high-definition presentation of Vampyros Lesbos is surreally gorgeous. Its colors are jaw-droppingly vivid, and although there are occasional signs of wear and distress, the overwhelming majority of the film is immaculate. Despite a few shots that lose focus, the indistinct rendering of grain, and, well, the great deal of nitpicking that's about to follow, I found myself continually impressed by the crispness and clarity on display.

Newly-remastered and presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, Vampyros Lesbos does suffer from its share of visual oddities, though. Quite a number of shots are marred by 'pillars' of discoloration. A relatively small number of shots have nearly the left third of the frame oddly colored, and many more ripple somewhat on the right. You can see examples of these vertical stripes in the two screenshots below:

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These flaws don't appear to date back to the original photography; at least, there's no trace of them that I could find throughout the Spanish cut of Vampyros Lesbos elsewhere in this set. Presumably at least one portion of the film was so badly damaged that a lower quality source had to be used to fill in the gap. Note the shift in grain structure, contrast, and color balance below. Again, there isn't an equivalent in the heavily edited Spanish release:

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There are other shifts in quality that can be jarring, but these are few and very far between:

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Something strikes me as a little...oily and processed about the overall texture. Though not nearly as filmic as I would prefer, the presentation doesn't suffer significantly for it, and I can't say it bothered me from a conventional viewing distance. There are moments where I could spot this when perched on my couch, though, and it's far more noticeable upon close inspection:

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I don't personally have a copy of the recent German Blu-ray release, which has been minted from the same master as Severin's, but Spiderwalk on the blu-ray.com forums posted a number of screen captures from that disc. Comparing screenshots captured by two different people using two different methods is problematic, but I was able to match the exact frame from one of the German screenshots, and Severin's release noticeably blurs away much of the grain and some of the finer details:

ELEA-Media BD (2014)Severin BD (2015)
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Vampyros Lesbos is packed into a fairly tiny AVC encode. Including the subtitles and LPCM audio that are riding shotgun, the entirety of the movie has been squeezed down to just 15.5 gigs. Looking away from bit meters and towards the film itself, though, this really doesn't result in any noteworthy encoding hiccups in practice. It's unexpected that Severin would opt for a BD-25 disc -- after factoring in the extras, this single-layered disc is filled with two and a half hours of high-def video -- but Vampyros Lesbos isn't meaningfully any worse for it. The filtering eases the compression, though given the choice, I'd rather have paid a little more to have an unfiltered presentation on a BD-50 disc instead.

I want to be careful not to misrepresent the way I feel about this presentation of Vampyros Lesbos, though. This Blu-ray reviewing gig demands that I be thorough, and sometimes that results in these evaluations outweighed by more criticism than praise. Although this disc is not perfect, I'm still very much thrilled with what Severin and their partners in Germany have delivered here. There really aren't words to fully describe how breathtaking its colors are, and as high praise as that four star rating in the sidebar is, it might even be a half-star away from a perfect score if I weren't looking at this disc through a reviewer's microscope. I can say with absolute certainty that you will be impressed.


Audio
Vampyros Lesbos features uncompressed German audio (16-bit; stereo) and a set of optional English subtitles. The aural end of things is certainly more roughly hewn than its visuals, with a fairly heavy hiss pervading throughout the film. Its dialogue is on the harsh side but is almost always perfectly listenable, with just the handful of shouts and screams really sounding distorted. Vampyros Lesbos' infectious, psychedelic score is a wonder to behold. The fidelity doesn't approach the reissued soundtrack, but that's probably a wildly unreasonable expectation to set. I generally found myself impressed by the clarity and presence of the music, although that blast of octave fuzz in my favorite cue, "There Is No Satisfaction", comes across as shrill, piercing static on Blu-ray while it's much more restrained on CD. It's at its worst as Soledad Miranda loses her top at the beach, though, so you may be too distracted to notice. The audio as a whole runs hot -- I had to dial down the volume a good bit lower than normal for it to sound comfortable, especially that nails-on-chalkboard reversed CB radio screeching that opens the film -- but there's nothing that even comes close to being a dealbreaker.

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There are no other audio options.


Extras
The packaging for Vampyros Lesbos is immediately arresting. This two-disc set arrives in the wider, transparent style of case also used by the Criterion Collection, Grindhouse Releasing, and Arrow Films. Teased through a window in the slipcover, Wes Benscoter's newly-painted artwork looks phenomenal. For anyone equally impressed, early orders placed directly through Severin Films are accompanied by 12x18" posters of Benscoter's art.

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As for the extras in this two-disc collection:
  • Interviews (55 min.; HD): Conducted in 2010 shortly before his eightieth birthday, "Interlude in Lesbos" (21 min.) features a lengthy conversation with writer/director Jess Franco. Soledad Miranda is easily Franco's favorite topic of conversation, including his fascination with her as a vampire, his intention to have the actress one day star in an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's "The Stationmaster", and generally just noting how universally beloved she was on the set...praise he can't bring himself to muster for Ewa Strömberg. From there, Franco speaks about the film's exotic backdrops, the alluring strength and clever nature of vampires, how censorship in Francoist Spain drove financing to Germany, and even Vampyros Lesbos' warm critical reception. Franco says that he likes this film more than the bulk of his work, although he cites its atmospheric leanings and Miranda's presence as the only really redeeming aspects. In a second interview snippet, Franco reveals that make-up effects legend Stuart Freeborn modeled Yoda after him. He's probably kidding -- as uncanny as the resemblance was in 2010, Franco was decidedly less Yoda-esque thirty years earlier -- but I'll roll with it anyway.

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    "Sublime Soledad" (20 min.) is a loving tribute to Vampyros Lesbos' star by Amy Brown, the archivist behind soledadmiranda.com. Teeming with personal photos, production stills, and excerpts from many of Miranda's films, Brown charts every stage of the actress' tragically short life and career. Vampyros Lesbos is mentioned only briefly, but Brown does a marvelous job placing this film in a greater context and explaining why Miranda's thoughts about it understandably aren't well-documented. "Sublime Soledad" is an engaging and wonderfully comprehensive retrospective, infused with so much warmth and anecdotal color that it's essential viewing.

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    Stephen Thrower, the author of "Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco", spends eleven minutes delving into Vampyros Lesbos in the disc's final interview. Thrower begins by noting that Vampyros Lesbos was produced immediately after Franco's bursts of experimentation in a series of fiercely independent productions, and that hunger for abstraction carried over into this film as well. He also speaks about Franco's psychopathic supporting role that has no real relation to anything else that's going on, and Thrower does a brilliant job explaining how and why Vampyros Lesbos upends so many of the elements traditionally associated with Dracula adaptations. Quite a bit of this interview is devoted to the Spanish edit of Vampyros Lesbos that followed several years after the film's initial release throughout Europe, and a significant payoff to those comments awaits elsewhere in this set.

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  • Alternate Title Sequence (1 min.; SD): Although the feature-length presentation of Vampyros Lesbos is accompanied by German audio, its titles are actually in French. This very rough-looking alternate sequence presents the opening titles in German.

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  • Trailer (2 min.; SD): An upscaled German theatrical trailer rounds out the extras on this Blu-ray disc.

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  • Las Vampiras (74 min.; SD): The second disc in the set is a DVD of Las Vampiras, the heavily re-edited Spanish version of Vampyros Lesbos. Severin's not kidding around when they label it a bootleg:

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    That screenshot greatly exaggerates the inescapable combing artifacts, but you still get the general idea. Given the care and attention devoted to every other aspect of this release, I have every certainty that Severin was forced to choose between this less-than-sterling looking bootleg or nothing at all. They absolutely made the right call. The inclusion of Las Vampiras is greatly appreciated, especially considering what a very different film this is from Vampyros Lesbos. Every trace of nudity has been gutted, and the sapphic elements have all but vanished. The revised score, contributed by Jess Franco himself under a pseudonym, is aggressively forgettable. As Stephen Thrower explains in his interview, Las Vampiras opens with narration that more heavily grounds the film, and that's just one of the ways in which it strips away the original cut's more avante garde flourishes. The tone of the performances has also changed somewhat, particularly the more fiery Spanish actress dubbing Soledad Miranda's Countess.

It's also very much worth noting that Vampyros Lesbos is an all-region release.


The Final Word
Sultry, seductive, surreal, and backed by one of the most glorious scores of its or any other decade, Vampyros Lesbos has been desperately crying out for a Blu-ray release since the format's inception. This collectors' edition from Severin Films proves to be more than worth the wait, boasting an exceptional high definition presentation and more than two hours of extras. For those with a taste for the offbeat, Vampyros Lesbos comes very Highly Recommended.


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