DVD: ‘The Bare Breasted Countess’ [Female Vampire] reviewed

New Euro cult film label Maison Rouge kicks off with a classic title from master of Euro Sleaze Jess Franco.

There are times in the life of a cineaste when one encounters a film that has an impact upon oneself – a particular couple of reels of those celluloid ribbons of dreams that can make a particular connection with the current nexus point in one’s existence.   One among the many, for me, was sitting up quite late one benighted night back in 1999 to watch Channel 4’s Eurotika film season, during which I came across (if you’ll be kind enough to pardon the expression) Jess Franco’s 1975 magnificent octopus Female Vampire.  Being a fledgling of all of ninteen years of age at the time, and in full bloom as far as my slightly late-developing slash burgeoning slash still a bit of a problem really libido goes, this was an optimum time for me to discover the dubious delights of the oeuvre of Senor Jesus Franco Manera I guess.

And so (and so, and so…) I sat and watched enraptured as this film began with a moody and magnificent opening shot of a fog-enshrouded forest worthy of Bertolini, Padovan and De Liguoro’s 1911 L’ Inferno, Lang’s 1924 Die Niebelungen or Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu; only for the shot to continue with the beguiling and bewitching figure of the twenty year old Lina Romay emerging from the misty wild, wild woods and walk towards the camera, replete with her cascading raven tresses and clad only in a cape, a belt, and a pair of leather thigh boots.  This vision of vampiric voluptousness positively bewitched me, I am fully prepared to admit, and may well have pitched my brain on a course hell-bent for leather lesbian lust; but there was still a film to be watched, and by every eldritch god I watched it.

Intrigued by both the movie and the accompanying 25 minute Channel 4 documentary (Eurotika!  The Diabolical Mr Franco, screened 10th October 1999), I soon tried to seek out other examples of his work – the next instalment of which was 1971’s Vampyros Lesbos (there may have been a pattern there, I think…) – and began investigating this baffling auteur: a man who had directed around 200 motion pictures, often beginning filming on a new project during the shooting of another one just to utilise a location and actors based on a vague idea for a new movie and then completing the project as and when financing could be obtained.

A guy who’s obsession with jazz stretched from the propulsive scores that accompany his films (often from composers Daniel White or Bruno Nicolai) to playing the camera’s zoom lens like a kaleidoscopic trombone; who had the crude genius and chutzpah to forego traditional scene transitions such as the cut, the dissolve or the wipe in order to effect a fade to black by the simple means of zooming in to an actress’ pubic mound – and yet who was also Orson Welles’ second unit director on the magnificent The Chimes at Midnight (1965) and Treasure Island (the original aborted 1964 shoot alongside Chimes – the project was eventually completed in 1972 by Wells and John Hough, in a version Welles dismissed and thought of as inferior), and completed Welles’ lifelong passion project Don Quixote.

Who was this Franco? This strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Andalucia and Catalonia, transforming his love of film and music and creativity into anything from high art to pornography depending upon the caprice of his whimsical mood and the resources available?  Not the world’s greatest artist or auteur, perhaps, I’ll grant you – but certainly for me one of the most intriguing.

Female Vampire was also released under the titles of The Bare Breasted Countess, Le Comtesse Noire (The Black Countess – Franco’s original preferred title), Erotikill (a heavily cut 70-minute version that removed much of the sexual content and played as more of a straight horror movie), The Loves of Irina, Les Avaleuses (The Swallowers) and Lusterne Vampire im Spermarausch (Lustful Vampire’s Sperm Frenzy) – these latter three being, to varying degrees, much more sexual in content including four hardcore scenes inserted primarily for the German release); Franco’s unrelenting cinemania leading him to continually rewrite and re-edit his own work into multifarious disparate versions – making and aspirations to being a Franco completist an almost impossible and foolhardy venture (insane, too, obviously: it’s a superhuman feat to sit through even one edit of 1980’s The Devil Hunter, for example [it took me four sittings over a year, and I love watching awful movies!]).

Introduced in the evocative opening sequence described above is the Countess Irina Karlstein (Lina Romay – nee Rosa Maria Almirall, she took her stage name from the U.S. actress and singer of the 1940s who had starred in such fare as 1948’s Embraceable You), the beautiful and mute scion of an ancient and noble lineage from Bohemia whose bloodline carries a curse meted out for dark deeds in the deep past.  The name ‘Karlstein’ is of course deliberately redolent of, and only one letter removed from, the famous Karnstein clan of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s seminal sanginous Sapphic novella Carmilla (serialised 1871-72).  Irina’s air of silent dark tragedy is communicated to the audience via her inner monologue circumventing her speechlessness, as we are privy to her narration:

“Only after a few hours of being in Madeira, I have already killed a man… I honestly wish I wouldn’t come to this bloody race that I have run on this Earth throughout the ages.  Alas, I am a prisoner of the curse that weighs heavily on the Karlsteins.  An evil force pushes me to commit such heinous crimes…”

This strangely broken poetry – written in Spanish, filmed in French and translated into subtitled English – is conveyed over enigmatic POV shots from inside the Countess’ limousine, the camera focusing upon the winged batlike silver hood ornament as its hinged wings flap in the breeze as Irina is driven around the winding sunlit roads of the Portuguese island of Madeira by her chauffeur and servant (Luis Barboo, who starred in many Eurosploitation movies such as Franco’s The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein [1973] and Amando de Ossorio’s 1974 The Loreley’s Grasp, but also appeared in Hollywood productions like John Huston’s The Wind and the Lion [1975] and Joh Milius’ 1981 sword ‘n’ sorcery epic Conan the Barbarian).

This equally-voiceless hulking manservant’s duties include awaiting mimed orders from the Countess as she lounges listlessly around their spacious island hotel suite (the chic vampire jet set of the 1970s seemingly shunning the Gothic trappings of torch-lit castles), writhing seductively upon her bed naked whilst suggestively sucking her thumb or standing in front of the windows in a diaphanous white gown through which the light dapples and silhouettes her form; other jobs are procuring victims for Irina’s voracious appetites, including bikini-clad journalist Anna (Anna Watican) whom Irina graciously grants an interview to which she can only answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ questions before seducing her, and the hotel masseur (Raymond Hardy), who is ravished and granted a frantic, frenetic and fatal feasting and fellatio session.  Being the kind of vampire into consuming more bodily fluids than simply blood, Irina doesn’t stop until the lucky unlucky guy is drained dry and dead, expiring in a grand mal case of le petit mort, an then proceeds in a tragically elegiac sequence to mount his naked corpse cowgirl-fashion and grind upon him to experience the only satisfying intimacy with another being that she can in a shuddering climax fusing love and death.

Meanwhile, an earlier victim who also experienced the sweetness of death from the legendary Karlstein oral skills to end up slumped in a cruciform position against a wire fence after coming and going to the sound of the vocal ejaculations of peacocks, is having his homicide case investigated by Dr Roberts (the usual Hitchcockian cameo role from Franco), who finds the autopsy results passing strange: “He was bitten in the middle of an orgasm” he informs a disbelieving police inspector, “and a vampire sucked his semen and his life!”  His dire warnings falling on deaf ears, Roberts consults the blind mystic Dr Orloff (Jean-Pierre Bouyxou) who affirms the existence of stranger things, stating that “sometimes, in the darkness, i find the answers that cannot be found in the light”.

Once Irina has embarked upon a nocturnal mission to visit Anna, resulting in nocturnal emissions and Anna’s joyful cunnilingual cessation (and another post-mortem coitus scenario wherein she frantically rubs herself against her dead victim to achieve some sense of contact and satisfaction like a female Nosferatu Dennis Nilsen), the copulating Countess turns her attions de amour toward fellow traveller and hotel denizen Baron von Rathony (Jack Taylor), an enigmatic Austrian prone to ponderous musings upon life, death, this, that and the other.

“There, on the green islands where scientists have found Atlantis”, he writes in one of his many abstruse and obscurantist purple prose passages – incidentally, i think, mistaking Madeira for the Azores – “you will, perhaps, find the answers to the many questions that so far eluded us, and that even today, more than ever, concern and worry us.  It is there, amongst those volcanic mountains, you will find the sacred land of [the] Living God and beings from another world.”  Answers on a postcard, please.

These two gnomic interminablists deserve each other for eternity. Their courtship consists of being enigmatic at each other. Textbook enigmatic.  I mean, she can’t speak, and he can only communicate in Pseud gibberish, but i have to give it to the guy “Will you take me with you, one day – beyond the mist?” is a heck of a line.  I wish i’d come up with that.  As their bad romance plays out, the awful Dr Orloff visits Dr Roberts at the morgue, where he performs a frankly unorthodox ‘examination’ of a recent female victim by giving her still-cooling on the gurney corpse a thorough fingerblasting so that he can pronounce the cause of death as “Two canine pierced lips and distortion of the clitoris”.

These forces eventually converge, of course, leading to a distinctly unhappy ever after ending.  Disney’s dream debased once again. What, does anyone expect a depressive vampiress and a monotonous philosopher to live happily ever after? They seemed happy, though, for a while.  Maybe that’s all anyone can ever ask for?

A confession: a few years back I did a strange thing – entranced by a female acquaintance I was momentarily carried away by my hormonal impulses and wrote and sent her a piece of erotic fiction in some kind of misguided attempt to convey something de profundis of my yearnings.  I haven’t even done that for people I’ve actually been in relationships with, but, you know, when the Muse descends from Helicon and one is in the grip of strange feelings then stranger things can happen.  Anyway, I wryly look back on this crazed incident and note that this idiotic impulsive epistle was intitled The Countess and entailed a seductive vamp femme fatale enticing and draining the life from a willing male victim.  Now obviously this didn’t work out (of course it didn’t – she was an intelligent woman and not the fond and foolish creature of whim that I can be) and the enterprise was as doomed as Irina and Rathony, but it’s interesting to think back and note that Jess and Lina and their strange sexploitation tale of star and species-crossed lovers was still an influence somewhere at the back of my mind, however unconscious, some fourteen or fifteen years later.

Jess Franco and Lina Romay were partners in life and in cinematic crimes for forty years, and finally married in April 2008.  Lina passed away from cancer in February 2012, aged 57.  Jess joined her just over a year later.

May strange lives and strange loves live on.

‘The Bare Breasted Countess’ [Female Vampire] is released by Screenbound Entertainment through their Maison Rouge imprint (Cat. o. MR001) on DVD on 6 March 2017, RRP £9.99.

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