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Bare Breasted Countess (1975) aka Female Vampire – DVD Review

fv1Bare Breasted Countess (1975) aka Female Vampire

Starring: Lina Romay, Jack Taylor, Monica Swinn, Alice Arno
Director: Jesús Franco

Out now on UK DVD from Maison Rouge Films

Attention all Francophiles! A key piece in Franco’s filmography has been given a brand new re-release. Female Vampire, A.K.A Bare Breasted Countess is one of Franco’s most iconic sexy vampire pictures, and is ready to be consumed by a new wave of cult horror followers. Franco’s career, of course, spanned decades and about every subgenre of horror that one could conceive, cementing him as one of the top European horror makers of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most prolific. Last year I reviewed the rerelease of his Bloody Moon, which was a wonderfully kitsch ‘80s slasher with a throbbing vein of noir running through it; Female Vampire is a very different picture, and one that Franco looks to have put much love into.

As the titular Bare Breasted Countess is the lovely Lina Romay, Franco’s partner and muse who appeared in or worked on the majority of his films over the years. She is the mute Countess von Karlstein, the last remaining member of a vampire dynasty, who feeds not on the blood of her victims for survival but on their sexual energy, leaving the superstitious local coroner and the dismissive local investigator butting heads to explain the deaths. Romay, a dark and wide-eyed beauty, has a bitter fragility and makes the most of her non-speaking role with her expressive face, occasionally confiding in the audience about her longing for love and peace in the face of a terrible curse. Her face wonderfully compliments the low-angled and shadowy look that Franco gives to the entire piece.

rsz_7209You’ll notice, while watching Female Vampire, that the sex is prominent. Of course, it is pivotal to the plot, but Franco likes the camera to linger and wash over the scene as it unfolds, and the movie is punctuated by long love scenes. Turns out that this is one of three versions originally shot, as was often the case during the era, with a hardcore cut intended for the more open-minded European market, leaving we frigid Brits with the tame version. But, as Franco often explained, this movie is erotica, not porn.

Even when focusing the camera directly between Romay’s legs, symbolism is achieved; the countess gently sways her legs like wings, the dark unfocused shadow of her crotch taking flight, like the bats and birds that theme the movie throughout. The countess’s sexuality is key to both her pain and her joy, a delicate, dangerous double-edged sword that is her freedom and her captor all at once.

rsz_7208Female Vampire is an acquired taste, for sure. Even those who like Franco’s work are not guaranteed to enjoy it – it is a far cry from Bloody Moon or any of the more standard horrors, and is not really intended to scare or entertain in the way that slashers do. Franco goes right back to the basics of the concept of vampirism, and the inherently sexual quality of their being. Visually not dissimilar to some of the earlier efforts of Hammer featuring the likes of Ingrid Pitt, but going far further with the eroticism than the ‘60s stifflips at Bray Studios ever dared, Franco’s vampires are very European figures of eroticism. Those who enjoyed Tony Scott’s critically-panned The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie will enjoy the moody sensuality of Female Vampire.

7/10

She Killed In Ecstasy (1971) Blu-Ray Review

SKIE-BD-UKShe Killed In Ecstasy (Germany,1971)

Dir: Jess Franco

Starring: Soledad Miranda, Fred Williams, Paul Muller

UK Blu-Ray release 30th November from Severin Films

Order here currently just £8.99 – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Killed-Ecstasy-Blu-ray-Soledad-Miranda/dp/B013RCCGKE/

Plot: On the brink of making a breakthrough that will revolutionise medicine, Dr Johnson (Williams) is brought up on ethics charges by the medical board because of his use of human embryos in his research. Dr Johnson is banned from practising medicine and his work is destroyed. Dr Johnson suffers a mental breakdown and commits suicide. Mrs Johnson (Miranda) decides to avenge her husband and sets out on a trail of bloody revenge against the members of the medical board that ruined him.

She Killed In Ecstasy is another of Franco’s German exploitation films, this time veering away from vampires and the supernatural, in favour of a revenge film. Unlike most female-lead revenge films, She Killed In Ecstasy does not involve the main lead being raped. While there is a trail of dead bodies similar to films like I Spit on your Grave, this film chooses to motivate our heroine with the untimely death of her husband. This choice of motivation is particularly interesting because if the gender was swapped, this would be a case of Fridging, where a female love interest is killed to force character development on the male lead.

skie1It’s been argued that films like I Spit on your Grave, in which a woman who has been violently abused gets revenge on her abusers, are a source of female empowerment, and it’s possible that this film can be thought of that way too. While Mrs Johnson isn’t attacked physically, she is attacked emotionally as her husband is taken away from her.

However this also makes Dr Johnson into an object, her property that has been taken from her. Other aspects of this film that can be debated include Mrs Johnson’s use of seduction. She owns her sexuality is a positive but it also falls into the trope that the only way a woman could eliminate her victims would be through sexual subterfuge rather than to physically over-power them. Also it would be easier to see her as a feminist figure if she had her own identity other than “Mrs Johnson”.

One element of She Killed In Ecstasy, or Jess Franco films in general is his use of music. In this film particular, the soundtrack is dominated by jazzy piano music that often does not suit the tone of the scene. Likely this was a budgetary choice as there is other evidence of a small budget in this movie including a very underwhelming “lethal” car crash. Other than the music, the film does suffer from plot holes. The overall plot is very simple, despite the talk of Dr Johnson’s research (which seems like an unusually political message from this kind of film). The majority of the film is just Mrs Johnson going from target to target. Yet there is also a major plot hole in the fact that Mrs Johnson keeps the body of her husband throughout the film with no signs of decay.

skie2She Killed In Ecstasy is an unusual exploitation film. Sure it still has a lot of nudity and violence but the film’s unique choice of motivation opens up a can of worms for anyone who wants to think about it in any sort of deep and meaningful way. This is a film about a woman getting revenge for her husband and doing it on her terms. That alone is a reason why this film might just stand the test of time.

7/10

Extras:

Jess Killed In Ecstasy Interview with Director Jess Franco
Sublime Soledad Interview with Soledad Miranda Historian Amy Brown
Stephen Thrower on She Killed in Ecstasy Interview with the author of Murderous Passions The Delirious Cinema of Jess Franco
Paul Muller on Jess Franco interview with the frequent Franco star
Original German trailer
With English subtitles

Vampyros Lesbos (1971) Blu-Ray Review

vampyros1Vampyros Lesbos (Germany, 1971)

Dir: Jesús Franco

Starring: Ewa Stromberg, Soledad Miranda, Andrea Montchal

UK Blu-Ray release 30th November from Severin Films! Just £8.99 !

Get it here – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Vampyros-Lesbos-Blu-ray-Soledad-Miranda/dp/B013RCCGZ4/

Plot: Linda (Stromberg) is sent by her employers at the law firm to work on the will of Countess Nadine Carody (Miranda). The Countess is a vampire who becomes obsessed with Linda and wants to draw her into the darkness, to make her a vampire like her.

Vampyros Lesbos is the sort of film that you know exactly what it’s about as soon as you read the title. There’s going to be some vampirism. There’s going to be some lesbianism. That lesbianism will be very superficial. There is a lot of nudity. It’s an exploitation film at it’s heart but it’s easy to judge it on that alone so I’m here to give it probably more analysis than it needs.

To look at the vampire side of this movie, it’s not a film that sticks rigidly to the established rules of vampire mythology. The film focuses on the seductive element of vampires, many of those who are visited by the Countess either end up in a trance-like state or are driven insane by their desire. It does result in much of the film’s nudity. One way that this film breaks the vampire rules is by ignoring the vampire’s aversion to sunlight, an early scene involving Linda and the Countess sunbathing nude on the beach. Vampyros Lesbos shares a trope of other early vampire movies by having connections to Dracula, in this case the Countess was one of his lovers whom he turned into a vampire.
vampyros2The other side of Vampyros Lesbos, the lesbian side, is a little more interesting. It’s easy to say that it’s just a “sex sells” element but it seems like there is more too it. The film seems more anti-lesbian even if it is pro-titillation. When the Countess seduces Linda, Linda is in a trance. Her lack of visible conciousness gives the scene an uneasiness, that it’s a rape scene. Afterwards The Countess continues to go after Linda because she is now obsessed with Linda, something which Linda does not reciprocate.

There’s also Agra, a woman who’s gone mad after her encounter with the Countess. She is the Renfield to her Dracula. Her madness feels more like a commentary on homosexuality, like the out-dated idea bigots had that homosexuality was a disease of the mind. The Countess is also clearly spoken on her opinion on men, that she hates them although hypocritically relies on her mute man-servant, Morpho, to do any physical fighting for her. The Countess feels like a criticism not only on lesbians but on feminists, she’s trying to lure Linda away from her traditional heterosexual relationship and go to the dark side.

Vampyros Lesbos has a disjointed pacing, it rushes through clumsy exposition that if you blink and miss it, will leave you a little confused. Instead the film slows down for it’s many nude scenes. As I said before, it’s an exploitation film. It’s softcore porn with a supernatural storyline. However it does try to be clever, it uses symbolism such as the Countess’ red scarf which is a visual marker of her vampire status but gives an ambiguity when Linda is clutching it in the end. Some of the symbolism is handled a bit clumsily but it’s still welcome that the film makers did feel the need to include them.

vampyros3Vampyros Lesbos is a relic of a different time, it’s dated and it’s simplistic. It’s a film that wouldn’t be made today, not without a tongue-in-cheek attitude anyway. It’s a bit like watching old Tom and Jerry cartoons, you see the bigotry (be it black face jokes or madness inducing lesbianism). You don’t hate it for what it is but you’re glad that times have changed. The blu-ray edition of Vampyros Lesbos contains multiple interviews with the cast and crew, including a short feature where director Jesús Franco talks about how he was the inspiration for the physical appearance of Yoda from Star Wars.

5/10

Newly remastered HD presentation of the feature in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio

Special Features:

Vampyros Jesus: Interview featurette with Director Jess Franco

Sublime Soledad: Interview with Soledad Miranda Historian Amy Brown

Stephen Thrower on Vampyros Lesbos: Interview with Author of Murderous Passions – The Delirious Cinema Of Jess Franco

Jess Is Yoda Clip

Alternate German Opening Title Sequence – Dracula’s Heiress

German Trailer

Marquis De Sade’s Justine (1969) DVD Review

justineJUSTINE (Italy, USA, West Germany, 1969)

Dir- Jess Franco

Starring- Romina Power, Maria Rohm, Klaus Kinski, Jack Palance, Mercedes McCambridge

Out on DVD NOW from Redemption Films / Salvation Films

Combining the works of both one of the most infamous writers of all time, Marquis De Sade, along with the late great sleaze merchant, Jess Franco, is bound to be a perfect combination, and will drive anyone with an interest in exploitation to leap at the chance to see this and it’s this combination that make JUSTINE an interesting if somewhat flawed experience.

Opening with a scene of the Marquis De Sade (Kinski) transported to a jail and locked up. The writer paces up and down thinking of images of women chained and with blood thrown onto their nude figures. He also has the vision of another woman, the beautiful and innocent Justine (Power). This montage gives him the inspiration to write the tale of Justine. Both her and her sister Juliette (Rohm) reside in a convent and are informed one day of the death of their father. Of course they gain an inheritance and once they have been informed of this tragedy they are also told that they can no longer stay in the convent, and they soon find themselves in the big wide adult world.

Juliette leads them both to a brothel where she stays and Justine who wants to stay away from such deviant places and live a life of virtue finds herself living with a housekeeper and becoming a servant, whilst learning the harsh truth about trusting strangers and having her inheritance money nabbed by a catholic priest. Things go from bad to worse for Juliette, as she is framed for stealing a piece of jewellery from a sleazy upstairs tenant, who tries to take advantage of her.

justine2Then sent to jail she ends up under the influence of Madame Dusbois (McCambridge), whom she helps escape and not long after fleeing the jail she soon frees Dusbois’s gang, finds a brief bit of and love with a painter, ends up being framed for the murder of the Marquise while also being a trusted servant girl, and ends up in a monastery being run by a demented, sadistic head brethren (Palance) all the while at the same time her sister profits from her acts of wickedness proving that those who don’t live by virtue sometimes benefit the most and take advantage of life’s pleasures. Though at the same time this may not be as clear cut as believed, as somehow and some-way delivered in a heavy handed point, those who suffer the most but become the better person for it, and reap the just reward.

If anything JUSTINE seems to be a watered down version of what Franco could have conceived with the material of De Sade. It has few scenes of torture, and nudity which seem pretty tame compared to what can be seen today, and this might be in no doubt to the big budget the that Franco was afforded, and of course managing to procure a few big names in the process. Justine therefore does look beautifully designed and Franco shows off scenes involving large sets and beautiful architecture and countryside scenery, adding a grandiose stage to the proceedings that in turn border on camp and comedic in part, as well as stage sets some of which come across as theatrical in there layout.

justine3Yet despite this the underlining sleaze and brutality of De Sade’s writing is lost and Franco left with a smaller budget leading to more creative control and less interference and possibly better leading actress, might have achieved something more edgier. Power, who is no doubt beautiful and innocent- looking as Justine, but who was in turn cast into the role without the approval of Franco, who obviously wasn’t satisfied that the actress didn’t fit the role and lacked the sensuality or acting experience and this comes across in a wooden stilted performance, even irritating in parts, and only there for the eye candy factor.

But then most of the acting ends up either being wooden (not helped by the dubbing) or most of it ends up being over the top, especially from Jack Palance who delivers a scintillatingly bad performance as the corrupt Father Antonin. Palance who seems obviously drunk (Franco did state in interviews that the actor was pretty much trollied during production), has a whale of a time scenery chewing his way as the perverted monastery leader. Check out the brilliant scene where Antonin seems to be floating his way down a corridor, on his way to a ritual sacrifice, it’s a superb moment of surreal almost comedic absurdity that seems to have been deliberately added in probably while Palance was in his less sober phase of acting and wouldn’t have noticed, or maybe approved.

justine4Whilst been entertaining for some of the production value, which adds a bit of class to the film and the over top acting, JUSTINE at times is a long watch and it does drag its way to the final and overblown conclusion, and in many respects as mentioned before, If Franco had more control over the proceedings and maybe less of a budget and more freedom, rather than a bigger slice of money which comes with more constraints from producers, then the film might have stuck closely to a more darker and possibly sleazier and amoral version akin to De Sade’s writing. Either way the film comes across as a camp entertaining movie worth seeing for some over the top performances, and exquisitely lurid scenes.

None the less this is another good release from the Redemption crew who have managed to finally release the full uncut version, restoring much footage lost from the original release.

5.5/10