Vampyros Lesbos Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 2 DVD release of Vampyros Lesbos

Hmm… I wonder what this film’s about?

Actually, sapphic bloodlust apart (and there’s plenty of that), even after watching it I’m not entirely sure I can answer that, and I’m equally unsure as to whether director Jesus Franco was trying to make a softcore sex film, a horror film, an art movie or an eccentric mélange of all three. To put it mildly, plot is not its strong point: it constantly drifts into dreamy, weirdly hypnotic reveries that go on for minutes at a time, with the same images recurring throughout: a scorpion scuttles across a pebble-dashed forecourt, blood drips down a windowpane, a red kite floats in the sky.

At the start of the film, Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stroemberg) visits a strange nightclub with her boyfriend Omar (Paul Muller), only to find that the faintly sinister and somewhat Cocteauesque lesbian dance routines she witnesses start to invade her dreams, with voices calling out to her. Concerned, she discusses this with her psychiatrist, who puts it down to sexual frustration.

Shortly afterwards, her company sends her to a mysterious island to discuss business with the equally mysterious Countess Nadine Carody (Susann Korda), whose interest in her is clearly rather more than business-related: within minutes of meeting, they’re enjoying a nude swim and sunbathe together, and by nightfall they’re locked together in the throes of lubricious ecstasy.

Linda then wakes up in a private clinic run by Dr Seward (Kind Hearts and Coronets’ Dennis Price, of all people), having lost her memory to the extent that she can’t even remember her name. She recovers, but finds herself obsessed with the Countess, and further encounters reveal more of the latter’s history and psychology: she lost her virginity after being raped by Count Dracula, and as a result combines vampirism with a pathological loathing of men. Meanwhile, it transpires that Seward specialises in looking after the Countess’ victims because he’s obsessed with the desire to enter her world and discover the truth about vampires. And then Linda disappears altogether…

This is being proudly trumpeted as the uncut version, though in truth there’s nothing here that Channel Five would have a problem with: the sex scenes are decidedly softcore, rarely going further than frontal female nudity, while the bloodletting is leavened somewhat by being so obviously fake: the red is just a little too red to convince.

And for all the self-consciously “poetic” visuals, I’m not at all sure they add up to very much: Franco’s camera is constantly swooping and darting at whatever appears to take his fancy, and given his reputation for shooting quickly (his filmography is almost unfeasibly colossal) the fact that the film looks as though it was made up as it went along and beaten into some semblance of shape in the editing room is probably not a coincidence. I got the distinct impression that Franco wasn’t that interested in the story: dialogue and action scenes are dashed off in a decidedly perfunctory fashion, almost as though he’s paying lip service to genre requirements before getting back to the real reason he made the film.

It’s certainly not in the same class as Harry Kümel’s gorgeous, virtually contemporaneous Daughters of Darkness, largely because it lacks the latter’s overall control, its Magritte-meets-Art Deco visual style, and anyone of the calibre of the sublime Delphine Seyrig. That said, despite this, and despite the fact that fans of more narrative-based horror films may well be bored out of their skulls, those with more open minds may well find Vampyros Lesbos as strangely fascinating as I did, even – indeed especially – at its most elliptically abstract: it’s hard to imagine a film like this coming out of Britain or America.

Whatever my reservations about the film, though, the DVD is practically faultless. The transfer is quite simply stunning: considering the budget and age of Vampyros Lesbos, the print is in astonishingly good physical condition (spots and scratches are kept to an absolute minimum), and it’s been given a razor-sharp anamorphic transfer that clearly defines every hair on the lead actresses’ heads (and bodies, come to that).

The colours, too, are particularly punchy, especially those all-important reds that dominate every frame, whether they’re sofas, chalet roofs, tassels, scarves, wine or blood. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine this film looking any better: there are occasional colour shifts (particularly during dissolves), as well as a few of shots that are out of focus or overly grainy, but these are insoluble problems inherent in the original material – I certainly couldn’t spot any digital artefacting or similar tell-tale signs that the transfer was to blame.

The soundtrack is in German, and obviously dubbed throughout – though I suspect this is because the best and longest print that Second Sight could find just happened to be of the German version. Anyway, this is a minor point, partly because most European horror films of the period look dubbed regardless of which language version you watch, and partly because there’s very little dialogue anyway.

Much of the soundtrack is devoted to a wonderfully cheesy Hammond-dominated score that makes it clear when the film was shot even if you didn’t know it was 1970, and although it’s the original mono, the transfer quality is admirably clean and clear: the occasional distortion and slightly limited dynamic range are, again, almost certainly flaws in the original recording. There are twenty chapter stops, which is more than enough for an 86-minute film.

There’s not much in the way of extras: disappointingly, there’s no background information on the film itself (I can understand why they didn’t include a Franco filmography, which would have taxed the capacity of a DVD-18, but some kind of context-setting production notes would have been helpful), but there is a wonderfully tacky trailer (which explains rather more of the plot than the film itself does!) and a stills gallery featuring eight black-and-white production stills (a couple featuring Franco himself), three poster images, and fifteen colour lobby cards – though well-presented, they’re marred by the usual ultra-primitive back-and-forth navigation system that bedevils most such galleries. Still, it’s a welcome bonus – and the superb transfer alone justifies this DVD’s existence.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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