The chief imaginative trend among Experimental or avant-garde filmmakers is action as a dream and the actor as a somnambulist… the world in view becomes that of poetic action pure and simple: action without the restraints of single level consciousness, everyday reason, and so-called realism.
- Parker Tyler, The Three Faces of Film (1)
On the eve of commencing production on what will be not only my first horror film but also my first genre film of any kind – a no-budget, 15-or-so-minute vampire allegory called Dead Time – it is perhaps inevitable that my mind should take to wandering through the haunted and haunting cinematic visions responsible for gradually engendering my conviction that creating a horror film of my own would be a worthwhile endeavour. My interest in the form developed late and I make no claim to being an authority on the subject. Yet over the two-and-a-half to three years since I began watching horror films, two dozen or so eccentric, innovative, often neglected and always magnificently surprising masterpieces – among them Polanksi’s The Tenant (1976), Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932), Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), Jean Rollin’s Fascination (1979), Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), Bava’s Lisa and the Devils (Lisa e il Diavolo, 1972), Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil (1992), Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and, above all, Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931) – have enriched my conception of cinema’s potential and the sometimes subterranean riches of its accomplishments to a degree I would not have believed possible. These great films also managed to make up for some of the mind numbing garbage that I inevitably encountered on this voyage of discovery, which sometimes tempted me to abandon it altogether.
No filmmaker was more important in ensuring my perseverance with the horror film than the Spanish director whose name unites the totems of Church and repressive state and who, in 1971, shared with Buñuel the distinction of being denounced by the Vatican as the world’s most dangerous filmmaker: Jesus Franco. Small wonder that he prefers being called Jess! Sources vary as to the exact number of films that this prodigiously prolific director has churned out since the end of the ’50s, but he’s not far off the 200 mark. The compilation of an accurate filmography is further hindered by the fact that several versions of many works exist – often differentiated by the addition of hardcore pornographic material – and by the variety of pseudonyms Franco has adopted over the years. That the majority of his films are unwatchably bad seems to be generally acknowledged and, although I haven’t seen enough of them to commit myself to this view point, it is certainly supported both by several of the films that I have seen (or, indeed, walked out of in boredom) and his chaotic, low budget, guerilla working methods which sometimes entailed shooting more than one film simultaneously. Yet when the Franco formula worked, it produced some of the strangest, boldest, most oddly hypnotic filmmaking one could ever hope to encounter. I make no claims to possessing a comprehensive knowledge of Franco’s cinema; in fact, I have only seen a 20th of his output and am well aware that some of his most important works are not among these. Yet five of Franco’s films sucked me so deeply into their unique, tacky, darkly enchanting vision of cinema as fetishism that I am sure more knowledgeable Franco fans will sympathise with my desire to shake off the films’ oddly persistent spell by means of establishing some form of critical orientation.
The films under discussion are Vampyros Lesbos (aka The Heiress of Dracula, The Heritage of Dracula, Lesbian Vampires, Lesbian Vampires: The Heiress of Dracula, 1970), Virgin Among the Living Dead (aka Une vierge chez les morts vivants, Christina princesse de l’érotisme, Among the Living Dead, 1971), Tender and Perverse Emanuelle (Tendre et perverse Emanuelle, Le Chemin solitaire, French Emanuelle, Frissons sur la peau, 1973), Female Vampire (aka Les Avaleuses, The Bare Breasted Countess, The Black Countess, Erotic Kill, The Loves of Irina, 1973) and Lorna, the Exorcist (aka Les possédées du diable, 1974). In the entertaining documentary Call Him Jess! (Carles Prats and Manel Mayol, 2000), Franco makes an impressive case for the abandonment of 19th century storytelling conventions in favour of a paroxysmal non-narrative cinema based on the director’s sensations. He also admits the influence of comic books on his work and it can be argued that no filmmaker has created a style that comes closer to that of the comic book. While not completely dispensing with narrative, he treats it in a gloriously cavalier fashion, as little more than a given theme and loose structure within which he is free to relentlessly pursue his own obsessions (here we need to take into account his background in jazz music). The rudimentary B-movie plots of his films are simple enough to allow him the space to create a non-narrative logic internal to the story structure. This logic is oneiric and surrealistic, embroiling two-dimensional characters in mysterious patterns of amour fou and fatal desire. The Curse is central to these films, seldom explained and frequently tied to a place. Weblike, it captures an innocent through his or her dreams, which it finally manifests as real, often through the evil and melancholy offices of a mysterious woman that the hero or heroine falls in love with. Once entranced, the hero or heroine seem so psychically tuned-in to the evil atmosphere that it becomes immanent (“Death is contagious. It’s like sickness” warns a character in Virgin Among the Living Dead, while another in Tender and Perverse Emanuelle states that “Madness is contagious”) and controls their actions, giving them seemingly supernatural powers of intuition. Bodies are completely subject to the calling of desire, the only significant means of expression are the rituals of sex and violent death (the anti-heroine of Female Vampire is mute, her only contact with others is through sex and blood drinking), and space is often impregnated and distorted with obsession – in Virgin, the living dead emerge from a lake to inhabit a deserted house and much is made of the cloyingly verdant estate’s plants having a curious, morbid odour and of the inexplicable presence of birds of prey.
The intuitive powers granted to those sharing knowledge of the films’ matrix of evil and obsession are nowhere more obvious than in the structure of the minor masterpiece Female Vampire. It seemingly takes no more than for a character to identify a feeling of fear or desire to make it manifest in the following scene – desire becomes dream and dreams come fatally true, holding sway as always over the crudely sketched banality of despised reality. Only the sceptical police inspector remains untouched by the vampire’s curse, his ignorance protecting him but also confining him to the safety of the invariably boring, clumsily crafted office scenes that push their dispiritingly bureaucratic way into so many of Franco’s fantasies.
The central plot mechanisms of Lorna, the Exorcist and Vampyros Lesbos are almost identical, involving supernaturally powerful female figures – sometimes identified as the Queen of the Night in the charmingly vague and dusty flights of purple poetry that Franco sprinkles his dialogue with – seducing the films’ heroines by initially haunting their dreams; this dream invasion is also a subplot in Female Vampire. The desire experienced by the heroine is equalled by that of the femme fatale and its satisfaction invariably results in the destruction or damnation of the latter. In Vampyros Lesbos the heroine (‘Linda’) who becomes the mysterious Countess’ lover, and embraces vampirism, ends up destroying her to end the legacy of vampirism. In Lorna, a mysterious woman, Lorna (Pamela Stanford), gave the hero everything he desired on the condition that he father a child (‘Linda’) who would inherit the sterile Lorna’s obscure supernatural powers 19 years later. When she passes on her powers through lesbian sex with her ‘daughter’, Lorna knows that it will result in her own destruction. Both films feature characters that have been abandoned by the femme fatale with the effect that they have lost their reason due to their unrequited passion and are incarcerated in mental clinics, pathetic victims of desire. The mute, guilt ridden, constantly masturbating heroine of Female Vampire unites the roles of aggressor and victim of desire, desperate to escape from her eternal plight and condemned to drink the blood of anyone she sleeps with. As the matrix of desire in this movie, it is significant that the only way she verbally communicates is through telepathic contact with a vampire hunter – the most obvious indication of how Franco’s supernaturally endowed femme fatales‘ power appears to transcend the personal.
Rather than being in complete control of the forces that they use and use them, these women seem, on the whole, to be the points of concentration for almost impersonal black holes of obsession, creating around them magical magnetic atmospheres. It is a question of being on the correct wavelength – hence the immunity of non-believers like the cop in Female Vampire. The women’s supernatural powers are inherited (the Female Vampire‘s family curse) or in the process of being handed down (Lorna‘s strange control over events) or both (the Countess in Vampyros Lesbos was made vampire by Dracula and in turn hands the curse on to the heroine). Abandonment by the embodiment of this seductively evil energy means madness, but relinquishment of it means death.
In Tender and Perverse Emanuelle – a rather patchy, turgid film blessed with several inspired moments and in no way connected to the famous soft-core franchise it was obviously trying to cash in on – one encounters the same obsessional dynamics at work but operating outside the paradigms of the supernatural. Sudden, absolute infatuations (the hero seeing the heroine, Emanuelle, for the first time on stage during a piano recital, as much fetishised fantasy and spectacle as a vampire), a character’s inexplicable knowledge of where to go for a certain scene (Emanuelle’s lesbian lover suddenly appears in the supposedly top secret dungeon into which her pathologically jealous husband has thrown her in the final scene) and an innocent heroine who catalytically focuses the raging desires that she unwittingly inspires, and thus creates around herself an atmosphere charged with madness, are all present in this film as much as in the supernatural works. Emanuelle’s complete innocence, unqualified by vampirism or occult powers, makes her the clearest example of Franco’s heroine as catalyst or concentrator of powers beyond her control. In this instance, these powers consist of desire pure and simple, with no metaphorical vehicle.
Like Lorna, Emanuelle opens with a dream, a typically graphic lesbian sex scene involving Emmanuelle (Norma Castell), expressionistically shot with red lights and much use of Franco’s trademark enraptured zoom. One particularly striking image shows one of the naked lovers standing apparently alone in the frame, enjoying a cigarette. The camera zooms in to her crotch as a hand appears, seemingly out of nowhere, between her legs and begins to masturbate her – a perfect visual indication of the theme of forces of desire springing spontaneously from the shadows to invade reality. The lesbian sex scene between the heroine (Lina Romay) and her demon-mother that opened Lorna transpired to be a fantasy in the young woman’s mind and evidence of the ‘mother’s’ growing influence on her subconscious. Similarly, the dizzying vortex of dream and unhinged reality that opens Vampyros Lesbos locates the viewer unequivocally in the heroine’s besieged subjectivity. The dream opening of Tender and Perverse Emanuelle, on the other hand, springs from the mind of the jealous husband (Alberto Dalbes). Emanuelle’s identity and subjectivity have been stolen and objectified; rather than her dreams being invaded, she inhabits the dreams of others – the husband and ex-lover, the lover’s ex-girlfriend who hates her. In search of herself, she resorts to casual flings with often shady characters – the need of a new dream to enter. When the husband recounts to the psychiatrist/ex-lover (Jack Taylor) her dangerously abstracted wanderings through the dramatic landscape of coast roads and her nightmares that always end in death, we see gloriously unreal images of these events, with Emanuelle constantly on the verge of dissolving in white light. But whose mind do these images unfold in? Hers? The husband’s? The psychiatrist’s? Or do they somehow belong to all, the imagistic manifestation of the prevalent ambience of common obsession?
In a brilliant transition, Franco ends the last of these dream images with a vertiginous shot of a dead woman on a beach, who is taken to be Emanuelle fulfilling the suicidal impulses of her dreams. The end of the dream scene and the return to reality are deliberately blurred. It is, in fact, another woman made to resemble Emanuelle and murdered by the husband, so that he can kidnap Emanuelle and keep her from the company of others without arousing suspicion. Like the dreams experienced by the other films’ heroines, this dream comes true, but without the dreamer’s participation; her image and even her dreams have been possessed, objectified and manipulated by others from the outside instead of from within her subconscious. Bereft of her image and most intimate self-images, her only remaining refuge is in the realm of sound. She drives her husband to distraction by constantly playing a romantic piano piece that she wrote for a previous lover (in fact, the psychiatrist). It is as if her thoughts and whatever remains of her identity are safe only as long as they don’t form a concrete image – as soon as an image is born, it is open to being ransacked and misused by men. Her poignant sounds fuel her husband’s overblown images, forming an increasingly overheated circuit of baroque incommunicability that can only result in violence.
The tendency in at least certain of Franco’s films for dream to break out of the subconscious and overpower reality is now clear, as is the tendency of pop-culture archetypes to take control of the at best sketchily defined lives of ‘real’ people. The strength of enchantment cast over life by dream is mirrored in Franco’s filmmaking technique. His constant aesthetic gamble consists of privileging the visual impact of the moment or the set piece over the humdrum and ineptly executed mechanics of plot with the hope that this will create a mesmerising hypnotic tension of its own. When this fails, the film crumbles to pieces; when it succeeds, Franco makes of the horror film something closely approximating a truly experimental cinematic form that is in many ways similar to the trance film. According to P. Adams Sitney (2), the trance film is peopled by “protagonists who are somnambulists, priests, initiates of rituals, and the possessed…wander(ing) through a potent environment toward a climactic scene of self-realization…” For Franco, the tropes of genre are ritual, and not only are many of his characters in one way or another entranced – the two Lindas in Lorna and Vampyros Lesbos, the vampire in Female Vampire, the heroine of Virgin, Emanuelle in Tender and Perverse Emanuelle – but his most exciting films frequently create for the viewer a somnambulistic world vision and mind state. Where his films differ most sharply from Sitney’s formula is in the realm of character interaction: “…the protagonist remains isolated from what he confronts; no interaction of characters is possible in these films.” Of course, in Franco characters frequently interact in the most extreme fashions – sex and murder. Yet scenes of normal interaction are often handled so indifferently, as banal narrative formalities to be done and over with as soon as possible, that they carry no conviction or emotional weight.
Franco theorises filmmaking in terms of putting on a show, a carnival-like display of wonders. As such, he is a director fixated on the present on-screen moment; there can be few filmmakers whose comparative interest or disinterest in any scene being filmed is as instantly discernable. His cinema is above all iconic. His endless fascination with putting his regular stock company through the stylised rituals of violence and pornography, all dressed up in naïvely poetic forms distilled from years of comic book reading and movie-going (while studying in Paris, young Franco visited the Cinémathèque with such regularity that Langlois allowed him in for free and even arranged special screenings for him!), has an intimacy and a compelling sense of personal involvement that feels more underground than genre. It sometimes seems that one is watching the filmed record of a private fantasy being played out among a group of friends rather than a professionally detached piece of craftsmanship. A gaze, an object, an action, a caress, a detail of architecture – his immediate, passionate involvement with the image at hand and proportionate disregard for plot or traditional story logic is the keystone of his sloppy, wayward genius. This can endow his films with a strange sense of repetitiveness that, rather than being dull, can induce a disturbing feeling of disorientation in the viewer – one’s exact coordinates within the movie’s chronology slip loose. An unsettling and truly oneiric undercurrent of déjà vu creeps in that leads to a sense of obsessional entrapment. It is thus completely appropriate that the most immediately recognisable feature of his visual arsenal is the zoom, most characteristic when it is messy, imprecise and drifting out of focus – a very personal gaze, following a subjective whim, the nature of which is intriguingly unclear to the audience. Franco’s zoom is as good a counter-argument as can be found to Wenders’ erroneous declaration that the human eye cannot zoom.
The stock company of familiar faces that Franco used in film after film is crucially important to this almost home movie aspect of his cinema. Franco himself frequently turns up in supporting roles, often self-mockingly casting himself as an unsavoury halfwit. Howard Vernon lent his creepily distinguished presence to numerous Franco films, from the director’s breakthrough, The Awful Dr. Orloff (Gritos en la noche, 1962), right up to the end of the actor’s career. From the early ’70s onwards, Franco’s muse, constant collaborator and off-screen wife has been Lina Romay. Projecting a strikingly innocent sensuality – especially when compared to the more aristocratic Soledad Miranda whose previous, fruitful collaboration with Franco was terminated by a tragically early death – the memorably beautiful Romay has the presence to wordlessly carry a whole film, as she did in Female Vampire. She also plays Linda in Lorna, the Exorcist and the supporting role of Emanuelle’s lesbian lover in Tender and Perverse Emanuelle.
Rather than the cartoonish content of his scenes, it is the sometimes almost contemplative fixation on the present image that makes his aesthetic so close to that of the comic, a storytelling form that functions through the selective assemblage of representative visual highpoints carved from a hypothetical narrative whole. Also, when it works well, the atrocious dubbing of his films can seem like a cinematic equivalent of the speech bubble, with the post-synched dialogue working as a translation track to some secret language comprehensible only to the inhabitants of Franco’s deranged world.
The cheapness of his productions allows another of Franco’s gifts to flourish – his ability to transform real, undressed settings into unworldly zones of mystery simply by virtue of his eye for atmospheric detail. Whereas big budget films frequently tend to recreate the world from scratch, a clever director of cheaper films can often achieve better results by playing on the surreal poetry inherent in fantastical events taking place in real settings – descendents of Feuillade rather than Méliès. Franco’s distorted, wide angle, pop art treatment of the deserted Rio de Janeiro cityscape in Lorna, the Exorcist is truly marvellous in this regard. However, it is in the scenes at the Countess’ beachside home in Vampyros Lesbos that his mastery at milking a location for all it’s worth becomes fully apparent. The origins of Vampyros Lesbos are evidently to be found in the novel of Dracula, but Franco changes the register, gender and aesthetics of the familiar original. The brooding Transylvanian darkness is now a sun blinded hallucination of Mediterranean blues and golds, Stoker’s creeping revulsion becomes swooning seduction, and the creaky old Count is revitalised as the Countess, played by the effortlessly authoritative and unusually (at least for a Franco film!) subtle Soledad Miranda. Her villa by the sea is Castle Dracula in negative – the traditional ill-lit halls and passages in constant retreat from beleaguered patches of light into indeterminate zones of darkness and circumscribed by the fathomless immensity of night have been recast in terms of scanty foreground scraps of shade, insignificant against the intensity of light pouring in from the dominant beachside windows that constantly draw the eye outwards, deeper into the frame, through sheets of glass and nets, towards the ever palpable blue immensity of sky and ocean without. The threatening sense of spatial depth is identical, as is the consciousness of a void outside – in this case the maritime void that swallowed Pierrot le Fou’s final act in a cloud of silence rather than the forested, mountainous expanse that so many coachmen have objected to travelling through after dark in so many films. Unfortunately, as with so many other aspects of Franco’s films, this inspired use of locations is inconsistent – when excited by a space, Franco uses it excellently. But when his set leaves him cold, he is capable of shooting it in the flattest, most perfunctory way imaginable – once again, we must bring to mind those horrible office scenes that keep cropping up in his work!
Franco’s films often only partially succeed and an infuriating patchiness is a common fault. In general, the looser and freer the form of a film, the more likely it is that Franco will make a success of it, whereas convoluted plots such as the complex Vertigo variations of Tender and Perverse Emanuelle cramp his style with too much exposition and too many plot points to be satisfactorily concluded. The spaced-out, elegantly minimal and oddly haunting Female Vampire, a rapt celebration of the beauty of his actrice fetiche Lina Romay, is perfect Franco material with its uncluttered, loosely connected vignettes of vampire love. On the other hand, the equally fine but contrastingly dense Virgin Among the Living Dead, an inspired black comedy with a wonderful sense of the absurd that deliberately blurs the line between dream and reality and between life and death, allows the director ample space for his visual imagination to freewheel with dazzling spontaneity and inventiveness.
Virgin Among the Living Dead, I am told, exists in many different forms, including one with additional footage by Jean Rollin, the French director whose horror films are to 19th century Decadent painting what Franco’s are to the comic book. The version I have seen is the one released on video by the British company Redemption in the ’90s. It follows the misadventures of Christina (Christina Von Blanc) on what could be interpreted as a journey of no return into her own subconscious. Never having met her family and having known her father only through correspondence, she goes to the family castle to hear the reading of his will – in spite of having been ominously informed that the castle has been empty for years!
The rest of her family consists of a bunch of weirdos and lunatics, presided over by the flamboyant ‘Uncle Howard’ (the ubiquitous Howard Vernon, obviously relishing every minute of his larger than life role – as the rest of the perfectly cast players do theirs!) and including an unpleasant aunt and a mysterious, innocent blind woman (another ‘Linda’!) who tries to warn Cristina away from the house. There is also a droolingly cretinous servant marvellously played by Franco himself. From the outset, the morbid caricature of a bourgeois family is savage and mercilessly funny, at best the equal of Buñuel, the firebrand Buñuel of L’Âge d’or (1930) rather than the more reflectively amused Buñuel of his subtler ’70s films. Upon arrival, she finds her uncle in a jovial mood, playing a waltz on a piano. However, she is soon shocked to discover that another family member lies dying upstairs. This startling overturning of appearances is a constant throughout the film. Behind every appearance, around every corner and after every ambiguous, startled awakening from a dream lurks another shocking image of disorientation.
The first few scenes at the house all include instances of Christina discovering midway through a scene people in the room that she hadn’t noticed previously, or the audience being made aware of characters that have completely escaped her attention, as in the very effective introduction to the blind Linda. As Christina crosses a dark room to enter the bedroom where her relative lies dying, the camera picks out Linda sitting in the darkness, apparently writing. The camera dollies in slightly, then cuts to a close-up of her and tilts down to the page, upon which she is drawing crude crosses in red ink. The whole environment is spying on Cristina, leering sadistically at her. Even when she leaves the family to go skinny-dipping in a woodland lake, a lecherous old lawyer and doctor spy on her with hilariously exaggerated delight that borders on slapstick (I have not been able to discover for certain the name of the actor playing the doctor, but his face is priceless, constantly set in a livid grimace with alarmingly popping eyes). Yet her good-natured acceptance of the insanity around her, and her sweet assurances that she’s certain to eventually fit in with her dear family, become an understated comic leitmotif – a wonderfully jaundiced comment on family relationships. As the audience has probably guessed, Christina’s family are zombies waiting for her to join them in death.
Franco’s Buñuelian inversion of family norms reaches its highpoint in the magnificent scene that follows the relative’s death. The corpse, dressed in black, sits propped upright on a chair against the parlour wall, surrounded by candles, eyes frozen uplifted in a grotesque mockery of piety. At the piano, Howard plays a hymn like dirge, intoning indistinctly what might be prayers, while the scantily clad aunt applies nail varnish to her toes and sings back gibberish in a blasphemous response. Franco executes the scene in a series of startling zooms that heighten the violence of the imagery. Another wonderful bit of satirical business involves the aunt and the servant sitting at a table with the relative’s severed hand, trying to remove the rings from her fingers.
After having encountered rites mocking the dead, dead bats on her bed, sado-masochistic blood drinking practices involving her aunt and Linda, severed hands, strange sacrificial rituals and voyeurism, the audience is as unsure as Christina as to what is dream and what is reality – and unsure as to where Christina locates that boundary. Soon, she hears her deceased father calling to her from the garden. After several encounters with him, in which it transpired he died by hanging, was hated by the rest of the family and is now prisoner of the Queen of the Night who also wants to possess Christina, the emphasis of Franco’s style shifts from the satirical to the gothically lyrical. The father is always depicted with a noose around his neck and, in one scene of astonishing surreal beauty, is seen in close-up to float backwards through the wooded garden, leading his daughter behind him.
The end of the film shows Christina back at the hotel where she stayed the night before going to the castle for the first time. She was discovered delirious in the woods around the empty castle. She dies, hand outstretched as if to grab someone else’s hand. The film concludes with the Queen of the Night leading Christina by the hand into the lake near the castle. Her entire family follows them into the water, bringing an end to what must one of the bleakest evaluations of family life in film history.
Virgin Among the Living Dead comes closest of these five films to fulfilling Franco’s vision of a non-narrative film of pure and sustained paroxysmal wonder. It has none of the dull spots that mar much of his other work – every event is surprising and exciting and handled with imagination. The give and take between trance and reality is resolved decisively in favour of the former – dream is allowed to swallow the plot and characters whole, like the lake at the film’s conclusion.
Where that dream/reality give and take is most successfully orchestrated is in the first half-hour of Vampyros Lesbos. Although wildly uneven, Vampyros Lesbos boasts sequences of dazzling brilliance. If one were to take the first half-hour as a self-contained whole – which one could do given that it ends on a very decisive first act conclusion – it would stand as one of the great masterpieces of short filmmaking. It details the quintessential Franco drama of a heroine falling into the clutches of her own dream. Franco adopts a fractured editing style, sometimes reminiscent of Cammell or even Markopoulos, that causes the present to be constantly disturbed and invaded by the future. Dream as destiny.
The opening images of the film immediately set the enchantment in motion. An unusual, extremely low angled shot of Soledad Miranda’s Countess, a symbolic red scarf floating around her throat, her hands in extreme, distorted close-up reaching down into the camera lens, is intercut with shots of the sun going down over a port. It as if the Countess was gathering up the solid images of present reality, taking possession of them, stealing them from the heroine, another Linda (Ewa Stromberg). The opening image of the Countess turns out to be from a bizarre strip-show act that she performs in a nightclub. In it, she stands before a mirror with a naked, statue-like blonde woman reflected in it like a painting. The Countess strips and transfers her clothes to the motionless woman, before miming a vampiric assault on her. This woman resembles Linda, whom we first encounter in the club, staring at the spectacle, entranced, aroused and completely ignoring her boyfriend. The strip routine symbolically dramatises the relationship she and the vampire will come to share.
Dream images follow, intercutting shots from the show with close-ups of the Countess calling Linda, a flying kite, a boat journey, images of the aforementioned beachside house where the Countess lives, blood on a window and shots of a moth and a scorpion which are returned to as metaphors for Linda and the Countess. This sequence concludes with an extraordinary shot of the Countess lying on her back, making the same hand motions as in the opening low angled shot. In big close-up, Linda’s head sinks into the frame from above, like Ivan the Terrible’s in Eisenstein’s famous shot of the masses coming to beg the Tsar to return from exile.
Linda explains to a psychiatrist that what she saw at the club was exactly what she had been dreaming about for months. Unsurprisingly, Franco treats the psychiatrist with contempt: he appears to be diligently making notes, but is actually scrawling little pictures of stick men on his notepad. His only recommendation is that she finds another lover, as she must be sexually frustrated! The next scene, in which she pointedly doesn’t tell her boyfriend her troubles, takes place near the top of a tall block of flats, mainly on a balcony overlooking a swimming pool. The pool is introduced with a vertiginous high-angled panning shot, foreshadowing the final shot in this section of the film where Linda will find the Countess in a pool. The openness of the balcony and the multi-windowed flat creates a slight sense of vulnerability about the couple through the amount of light that seems to pursue them, denying them the security of spatial interiority. (Later in the film, the Countess will watch them through their bedroom window). The disorientating swimming pool shot halfway through the scene further adds to this insecurity.
In a mercifully brief office scene, it becomes clear that Linda is the equivalent of Dracula‘s Jonathan Harker. She is being sent to a nearby island to transfer the ownership of a house from the late Count Dracula to the Countess (another example of Franco playing fast and loose with traditional horror film mythology). The boat journey that she takes to visit the Countess recalls the boat trip in her dream. As she arrives on the island, a shot of the red kite flashes on screen with the Countess calling in voiceover: “Linda!” Whether this is an actual image that Linda encounters on the island or another mental image is unclear.
Before proceeding to the Countess’ house, she spends what one presumes is a night at a hotel, although it never seems to get dark. The strange, half-witted porter (inevitably played by Franco himself) leads Linda down to a cellar to show off the corpse of a woman he has killed. Franco offers a glimpse of the woman tied to a chair in semi-darkness and splashed with blood, leaving the exact nature of her fate to the audience’s imagination – an almost subliminal image. Linda flees…and is next seen arriving at the Countess’ beachside house. This is a lovely example of Franco’s very own brand of narrative logic, where an event like near death at the hands of a maniac, with a freshly dead corpse present, can occur with no follow up. No attempt is made to investigate or to contact the police. Linda flees the room, but we have no indication of her actions or reactions immediately following the incident. How did she get from the hotel to the Countess’ house? And does any of this matter? Not in the context of the dream logic Franco practices when at his best. The maniac does crop up much later in the film, to be killed by Linda in self-defence – he was driven insane as a result of the Countess’ vampiric practices.
The Countess’ house at first appears deserted, save for the symbolical moth and scorpion and a weird servant who watches Linda from hiding (he is later metaphorically compared to a dog in editing). As Linda looks around, she is framed through panes of glass, reflected on glass and seen through nets – images of entrapment abound. Panicked perhaps by the recognition of the house from her dream, she prepares to flee, but is stopped by the Countess who is relaxing outside in a bikini. The atmosphere becomes friendly – they go skinny-dipping and sunbathing together. That night they have dinner together, the Countess dressed in black and Linda in white. The dinner scene is exceptionally well designed and shot.
The inversion of traditional Dracula set design discussed earlier is further elaborated on in this reworking of a scene common to possibly all Stoker adaptations, the meal Harker and Dracula share upon the former’s arrival at Castle Dracula. The table is set up before a net draped window, with red candles prominently visible. The women sit at either end of it. The red wine that the Countess gives Linda is drugged, and, as she passes out, the Countess tells her about her inheritance. Their mutual attraction obvious, Linda and the Countess’ eyes remain fixed on each other until the former loses consciousness. A series of precise, disciplined zooms explore the facial expressions that are so crucial to this scene.
The tall, fair skinned, blue-eyed northern Stromberg and the dark, petite, southern Miranda, whose eyes sometimes appear jet black, compliment each other perfectly on a visual level. They also bring an unusual intelligence and intensity to their scenes together; Stromberg seems simply lost in wonder, whereas Miranda’s feelings are tempered by knowingness and her control of the situation. Yet what is truly unusual is that the Countess never displays sadism or acts with force. There is a tenderness and concern on her part that transcends the infantile eroticism of so many such films. Much credit for this must go to the fascinating Miranda. She plays this role with a concentration and a maturity that belies her 26 years and is far beyond the call of duty for even a superior B-flick. Franco’s films boast many wonderful, colourful incarnations of two-dimensional archetypes, but it is Miranda who introduces emotional depth to his stock company. One would never think to question that this Vampire had existed for centuries and experienced more than her share of loss, insecurity and loneliness. Her uncommon natural authority and rather severe beauty also contribute immensely. Sadly, the year after Miranda made Vampyros Lesbos proved to be her last. A car accident near Lisbon robbed European cinema of a potentially great actress.
Following the dinner scene is the inevitable vampire seduction scene, in which Franco brings together many of the visual motifs he has been playing with throughout the film. The Countess enters Linda’s room and Linda rises to meet her, as if hypnotised. Some of the movements they make as they embrace and lie together on the floor reflect those made by the Countess in her strip show. Linda has successfully penetrated the spectacle/dream. Unusually, Franco punctuates this scene with a series of rapid dissolves that serve to heighten the sense of events being beyond Linda’s control by eliding the women’s bodies changing positions – that is, substituting the dissolve for physical movement. He intercuts the metaphorical images of the scorpion and moth, as well as the red kite that is now seen to stand for the blood running from a vampire bite. The scene ends with an understated flash of orgasmic red frame.
The following morning Linda wakes up naked on the floor of her room. She runs through the empty house in search of the Countess and finally finds her lying on her back in the swimming pool, naked except for the red scarf on her throat, blood smeared around her mouth, apparently dead. Linda faints, bringing the first part of the film to a close. The Countess’ red scarf seems to symbolise, more than her vampire status, a strange unity with her victims, as if she had been drinking from her own throat. Her appearance in the pool seems to indicate that she is victim as well as aggressor, perhaps submerged in water out of a desire for its purifying properties. The desire for water (and, to a lesser degree, for sky with the kite image – a traditional image of happiness and freedom that is also standing in for blood drinking) is constantly emphasised throughout the film’s first half-hour, from the dreamed boat trip to the disorientating swimming pool shot at Linda’s flat to the skinny-dipping episode and constantly in the Countess’ house with the ocean light intruding through its many windows. Rather than a desire for purification, I believe that water here indicates immersion, an erotic release into the world of dream, which is in this context the world of the vampire. But – begging Godard’s pardon! – it isn’t just water (or sky); it’s blue. Where the Countess floats is in the blue light of silent oblivion, the same Siren blue light that has in one way or another been besieging Linda since the film began, often calling to her in the foreground from the depths of the frame.
The hallucinatory rigour of the editing, the quality of acting and the constantly inspired use of space, design and camera create a visionary pop-culture film poem in these 30 odd minutes of screen time that is so compelling one is almost tempted to form an ultimate opinion of Franco based on this evidence alone, forgetting the undeniable faults that characterise his work as much as his virtues. Yet even if he does frequently choose quantity over quality and perhaps sell the full extent of his talent short, he is still a director whose work is rich and unique enough to deserve more thorough and serious critical attention than it has so far been awarded.