Vampyros Lesbos directed by Jess Franco
When 17-year-old Spanish actress Soledad Miranda appeared in the 1960 Jess Franco musical Queen of the Tarabin in an uncredited role, little could she suspect that a decade later, while suffering discouragement at her stagnating career (she had appeared in some 30 Continental films in those 10 years and was still far from being a household name), she would be selected by Franco again to appear in the first of a string of star-making, outer pictures. In a director/actress collaboration similar to the one that enabled Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich to create seven wonderful entertainments from 1930 – ’35, Franco and his new muse created seven mind-bewildering entertainments … in one year! In a blaze of filmmaking that even Roger Corman might have envied, the pair brought forth, in 1970 alone, Count Dracula, Nightmares Come at Night, Sex Charade, Eugenie de Sade, Vampyros Lesbos, She Killed in Ecstasy and The Devil Came From Akasava.
Miranda’s role in Vampyros Lesbos is a perfect introduction to this striking actress, whose life was tragically cut short by a car accident in August ’70 (while she and Franco were filming the necessarily uncompleted Juliette). In this film, she plays the Countess Nadine Carody, who lives in an ultramodern beach house on (fictitious) Karidados Island, off the coast of Istanbul. To her isolated retreat comes a beautiful blonde lawyer named Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stroemberg, who would also appear with Miranda in She Killed in Ecstasy), to arrange a transfer of property from the Hungarian Count Dracula (hmmm, that name DOES ring a bell) to the countess … a case of hot-blooded (albeit mesmerized) lust at first sight for the vampiress and her victim. Meanwhile, as a subplot of sorts, a Renfield-like woman in a mental asylum, run by one Dr. Seward (the great English actor Dennis Price), claims to be in mental communion with the same mysterious countess…
A German production directed by a Spaniard in Turkey and yet featuring title credits in French, Vampiros Lesbos is yet another trippy, mystifying head scratcher from Jess Franco, although perhaps not as bewildering as the director’s Succubus (1967) and Venus in Furs (1968). The film has been beautifully shot by Franco — it is not as overly dependent on the ol’ zoom lens as many of his other features — and makes excellent use of its Istanbul exteriors. Franco often positions his camera quite ingeniously, with his overhead shot of that spiral staircase very reminiscent of the one in his 1965 masterpiece The Diabolical Dr. Z, and DOP Manuel Merino is to be commended for his fine work here as well.
But apart from the exquisite filming of the gorgeous scenery and the two leading ladies, the film’s major selling point must be its remarkable, psychedelic, sitar-laced, horns-accented, groovy rock ‘n’ funk soundtrack by Mannfred Hubler and guitarist Siegfried Schwab. The duo also composed similar scores for the next two Franco/Miranda films, with the highlights of each being culled to make up the currently in-print CD Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party, a CD that I am going to certainly be purchasing soon. Non sequitur though the music sometimes is with regard to what is on screen, it yet remains a key element here.
The film contains some imponderables, I should add, that even a repeat viewing failed to clarify. Was Linda made a vampiress by the drinking of blood from a vase or not? What are the symbolic meanings of that soaring kite and scuttling scorpion? Why did the character of Memmet (a porter, played by Franco himself, who tortures women in a hotel basement, and who appears on screen for perhaps three minutes) have to be included? Why is the countess’ servant’s name Morpho … the same name as the deformed assistant in Franco’s 1961 breakthrough film The Awful Dr. Orloff? Perhaps it would be wise to remember Linda’s words near the film’s conclusion: “…there might not be an explanation for it.”
Vampyros Lesbos is certainly not a movie for the impatient. “Nothing happens,” my buddy Rick complained a while ago after watching it. More of a lysergic mood piece than a vampire film per se, the picture yet sports any number of astonishing images and sets, while Soledad manages to grip the viewer — whether doing a kinky cabaret act, sunbathing naked (yes, that’s right … a sunbathing vampire!) or merely sipping on “wine” — in every scene that she is in. More than just a pretty face, she proves, in Vampyros Lesbos, that she was also a not untalented thespian (who also did lesbian!). How many more interesting projects she and Franco could have collaborated on (in 1970 alone, ha ha!), had not fate intervened, is anybody’s guess.
As for the Image DVD that I recently watched, the print quality is simply stunning, with brilliant colors and adequate subtitling to supplement the German-language dialogue. Sadly, the only “extras” provided are two trailers, for this film and for She Killed in Ecstasy; an interview with the always loquacious Franco would have been nice. Still, this is a quibble. Throw this DVD in, sit back, and be prepared to immerse yourself, for 89 minutes, in one very strange and dreamlike experience indeed.