Few directors can be as polarizing amongst cult film fans than Jess Franco. No less than Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog fame hails many of Franco’s films as masterpieces while a majority of Eurosleaze fans dismiss him as a hack. It doesn’t help that, unlike most directors, Franco freely allowed distributors to edit his films to make them more marketable in different regions of the world. In fact, many times Franco collaborated with these very people to come up with different versions for his films. The net result is that, until the advent of DVD, when viewers discussed Franco’s work, they were often discussing prints that were so different as to make it nearly impossible to agree upon a single objective viewpoint. Female Vampire is a classic case in point. Franco filmed his preferred version, Female Vampire, that contained extensive explicit nudity and softcore sex along with alternate footage for a "horror" version entitled Erotikill, that was shorn of the most graphic nudity and replaced nearly all of the sex with some brief shots of Lina Romay’s bloody mouth, emphasizing the vampiric aspects of the story. In still another version, hardcore scenes were inserted to allow the film to play in France and other countries where hardcore pornography had been recently legalized and was the latest trend. In a nutshell, it can be infuriating to review a Franco film simply because there are so many versions floating around.
Female Vampire is Franco’s original vision for his story about Irina Karlstein (Lina Romay), a sort of vampire that feeds on the sex fluids of her victims in order to stay alive. Irina is an equal-opportunity vampire and isn’t highly selective in the gender of her victims; thus, there are plenty of lesbian sex scenes to augment the heterosexual scenes. Jack Taylor, star of seemingly hundreds of these types of films, plays Baron Von Rathony, who seeks only to die at the lips of Irina. Meanwhile, the police are looking for the crazed killer who they think is on the loose, as are Dr. Roberts (Franco himself) and Dr. Orloff (played by Jean Rollin’s longtime collaborator Jean-Pierre Bouyxou). Throw in Belgian beauty and 70’s Eurosleaze starlet Monica Swinn, and you have the makings of what should be a frenetic cat-and-mouse chase from multiple angles.
Unfortunately, though, what we get is a ploddingly dull mishmash of monotonous fake sex sprinkled with confusing ramblings from various characters. This is where it gets difficult for reviewers. I have no doubt that Franco is a master of the very French concept of mis-en-scene, or the detailed planning of everything from set dressing to actor’s movements within a scene in order to evoke a particular meaning or emotion. Witness the sprinkled pollen left on the table after a delicate flower is removed (what is the meaning of the flower? why is the pollen left?) or the upper torso of a mannequin covered in red splashes of paint (blood) and with a stiletto sticking out of it (what does it mean? why do the characters walk by this oddity without remarking upon it?). There is no doubt these items have meaning, but most of the time the meaning is lost upon the audience and is only clear to Franco himself. This can be annoying or even frustrating for the casual viewer while more sophisticated viewers can at least appreciate the odd randomness of these objects even without fully comprehending why they are on the screen.
The same goes for other seemingly random choices. Why is Irina mute? Why does she choose to travel with an assistant who is also mute? Are these artistic choices or is there meaning behind them? Dr. Orloff (a recurring character in many Franco films, though seemingly unconnected in most of them) is blind, yet this angle isn’t really explored, and Jack Taylor’s character seems to be sensitive to–possibly psychic–Irina’s emotions though the two have never actually met. These could be interesting angles to explore yet not only does Franco allow them to be unresolved but the characters pop in and out of the film, left dangling and with no real resolution. How do both Dr. Roberts and Dr. Orloff know of Irina? How can they know she is behind the murders? It doesn’t seem to bother Franco that these important questions go unanswered; it is enough that they know. And in a film using sex as a selling point, Franco’s manner of filming can be irritating to viewers as the angles he sometimes chooses obscure exactly what the film is peddling, leaving body parts or sequences of sexual action obscured in shadow. It is easy to see why some viewers might consider Franco a hack.
But a closer look reveals meaning behind what some see as meaningless sequences. Several times Irina cavorts in sexual ecstasy (frustration?), sometimes in the bathtub, and perhaps most famously on a bed, rubbing her genitals against the bedpost before performing fellatio on said bedpost. While on the surface these scenes seem meaningless and only serve to showcase Romay’s voluptuous body, one can interpret this as her psychic connection to the man she loves–Baron Von Rathony. She is both drawn to him sexually but afraid that to be with him would mean his death and her continued loneliness. In fact, Franco does a fairly good job at imbuing Irina with a melancholy sadness over her continued curse. For while she lives on, she has seen many lovers die over the centuries–most at her hand. And over a decade before Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, Franco the visionary was exploring the possibility that vampires don’t always have to suck blood in order to survive.
And for every unneeded zoom shot (for which Franco is perhaps most famous), we have a gorgeous shot of scenery (the film was shot mostly on Madeira Island in the North Atlantic). One must admit that Franco has a superb eye for beauty as many of his films are shot in gorgeous settings such as beautiful beaches, extravagant resorts, villas perched against the ocean, and quaint European villages, and Female Vampire has all of these. And while Irina seems to commit suicide toward the end of the film, ironically choosing to drown herself in a bathtub filled with blood (well…water dyed with red coloring since all of Franco’s movies were made with only half of a shoestring), Franco chooses to end the film on an even more melancholy note as the parting shot is of Irina again wandering through the woods, doomed to continue her never-ending search for her next lover.
So while Jess Franco and Female Vampire may be somewhat of an acquired taste, Francophiles will likely revel in this newly mastered HD version from Redemption and Kino Lorber, on either standard DVD or Blu-Ray. Special features include an interview with Jess Franco on the making of Female Vampire as well as recollections of Lina Romay (who sadly passed away earlier this year) by Jean-Pierre Bouyxou. As an added bonus, the DVD contains the shorter "horror" version of the film entitled Erotikill, which has alternate footage sprinkled throughout the film. For more information, go to Kino Lorber’s website at http://www.kinolorber.com/video.php?id=1341.