The late Jesús ‘Jess’ Franco, who passed away on April 2nd of 2013 , was among the most prolific filmmakers of all time. There are wonderfully weird diamonds mixed among the more than 200 films he directed, but there’s only maybe a dozen even a cult film fan can appreciate. His value as an eccentric artist was all but lost in a sea of pornography (both the hardcore and softcore varieties) and a cursory brand of cheap exploitation that gives cheap exploitation a bad name. Unlike other smut-peddling ‘auteurs,’ like Aristide Massaccesi (aka: Joe D’Amato) and Jean Rollin, Franco didn’t really appreciate pure horror. His disinterest is readily apparent in most of his dull and listless genre films he released throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. His attempts at zombie (Oasis of the Zombies, 1982), women in prison (Women Behind Bars, 1975), and cannibal movies (Mondo Cannibale, 1980) are among the worst the already junk-burdened subgenres have to offer. However, like his contemporaries, Franco was capable of making unique movies that endured beyond the constraints of his reputation as a purveyor of trash.
Franco was not the first filmmaker to blend vampires and lesbians. In terms of literature, sapphic vampires extend back to Joseph Sheridan le Fanu's novella Carmilla (1796), which predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and was the inspiration for several motion pictures – Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (1960), and Roy Ward Bakers’ The Vampire Lovers (1970). The Vampire Lovers was produced by Britain’s Hammer Studios as they struggled to remain relevant in an increasingly sexually-charged era and was the spark that lit the fire under a brief ‘golden age’ of sapphic vampire movies. Its popularity (and the popularity of its semi-sequels) coincided with/facilitated a number of European films (mostly from France, Spain, and Belgium, often with German financing), notably Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), Jean Rollins’ The Nude Vampire & Shiver of the Vampires (1969, 1970), José Ramón Larraz’ Vampyres (1974), and Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971). Though not necessarily characteristic of his entire filmography, Vampyros Lesbos has become the default representation of Franco’s work. Had the Academy featured him in their ‘In Memoriam’ montage, it would’ve included a clip from this movie.
Too many of Franco’s films, even the enjoyable ones, are hobbled by minuscule budgets and overly referential scripts that ape other movies. Vampyros Lesbos, on the other hand, is more like a tastefully debauched, mod-themed fever dream that is occasionally interrupted by minor and sort of annoying story and character development (a subplot starring Franco as a deviant that kidnaps and tortures women is particularly extraneous, though also entertaining in its own right). At its best, it is a perfect storm of unrestrained montage imagery, capped off by a nice twist on the Dracula formula. Somehow, there is logic in the tone poem editing, which blends seemingly metaphorical and extremely studious images of nature (butterflies, scorpions, rippling waves), over-decorated apartments, and underdressed women into an utterly hypnotic soup. Even the nonsensically philosophical dialogue fits as it marches over the barely controlled, psychedelic chaos. Unlike most of Franco’s softcore and hardcore output, Vampyros Lesbos is best viewed projected onto a dorm room wall while under the influence of hallucinogens, not from the dark corners of a grindhouse with one’s hands down one’s pants.
Despite all of its groovy imagery and avant-garde appeal, Vampyros Lesbos would not have worked without the strong central performance of the incomparable Soledad Miranda. Miranda (given name Soledad Rendón Bueno) made her feature acting (not dancing) debut in Franco’s Queen of the Tabarin Club (French: La reina del Tabarín, 1960), before finding fame in a number of musicals, melodramas, horror movies, and westerns. In 1970, Franco doubled down, casting her as his muse in Sex Charade (1972, lost), Nightmares Come at Night (French: Les Cauchemars Naissent la Nuit, 1972), and Count Dracula (1970), where she acted alongside Christopher Lee. Vampyros Lesbos and its non-vampiric counterpart, She Killed in Ecstasy (German: Sie tötete in Ekstase; aka: Mrs. Hyde, 1971), represented the height of their working relationship with Franco. These two films – along with lesser productions The Devil Came from Akasava (German: Der Teufel kam aus Akasava, 1971) and Eugénie (aka: Eugenie De Sade and Eugenie Sex Happening, 1970) – are incredibly dependent on her vivid, effortless personality.
Miranda’s quiet, wide-eyed, and impossibly charismatic performances are often compared to the otherwise incomparable Barbara Steele, but Steele was an unwavering ham (a fantastic one) that brought the best of the silent era to modern horror. Miranda’s appeal was effortless. In Vampyros Lesbos’ case, she spends most of the movie silently staring just off-camera, stripping and fondling her human playthings (and a mannequin), or literally lying completely still, yet her authority as modern female Dracula remains credible. It isn’t hard to believe that she could entrance her victims into participating in her predatory sexual acts when her very presence is so magnetic.
Vampyros Lesbos made its North American DVD debut twice in 2000; first, a 1.66:1 non-anamorphic release from Synapse Films and then a badly cropped, 1.78:1 anamorphic release from Image Entertainment. This 1080p Blu-ray from Synapse Films marks the first HD home video release. The footage is newly remastered and framed in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The image quality is fantastically crisp and vivid with only minor signs of age or print damage cropping up in a select few scenes. Usually, this is corrected mid-shot, leading me to believe Severin was working from multiple sources. Grain levels do fluctuate and are usually at their heaviest, either when Franco is shooting establishing shots outdoors or when he is confined to a small, dark interior. Some of these outdoor images appear slightly overexposed and ‘bloomy’ as well, but I believe this is part of Franco’s design (also be assured that the blurry shots are not a digital defect, but Franco’s mistake). In terms of compression artefacts, I did notice a touch of low-level noise in the backgrounds of some scenes, but that’s about it. The kaleidoscopic palette is strongly represented with only minor cross-colouration and bleeding effects (usually the fault of those impossibly bright and searing reds). Black levels are deeper and more uniform than they had been on previous releases, which helps to separate elements and deepen the 3D effect of Franco’s overzealous focus-pulling.
Severin has also restored Vampyros Lesbos’ original mono soundtrack and presents it here in uncompressed, 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Because this disc includes the extended German version of the film, it only offers a German language option (there must’ve been an English dub recorded at some point, but it hasn’t showed up on digital video as far as I know). The uncompressed quality ensures that the basic dialogue and effects tracks remain consistent and (mostly) undistorted, even at the sustained high volume levels, but there are still notable pops and crackles at the lowest volume. The musical soundtrack (a Top 10 hit in the UK [I]during the 1990s[/I]) was concocted and produced by regular Franco collaborator Manfred Hübler and session guitarist Siegfried Schwab with input from Franco himself. I’m not sure where the labour was divided, but the varying degrees of groovy and dissonant work beautifully together. A couple of songs are cranked high enough that the horn (or maybe kazoo?) accompaniment buzzes, but the general clarity of the music makes me assume it was culled from cleaner soundtrack album’s tracks.
Limited Edition Extras
Disc 1 (Blu-Ray):
Interlude in Lesbos (titled Vampyros Jesus at the top of the interview, 20:50, HD) – An interview with Franco (it must have been recorded just before he died) who discusses the making of Vampyros Lesbos among other things, including Miranda’s screen presence, unrealized projects, his opinions on the rest of the cast (he didn’t like Ewa Strömberg), locations, German financiers, expressionist filmmaking, the value of vampires as a “literary element,” lesbianism, and the film’s score.
Sublime Soledad (20:30, HD) – A featurette concerning actress’ career with Soledad Miranda Historian Amy Brown. This informative short spans Miranda’s life and includes footage from her rarely-seen non-genre films. It’s fantastic to see her singing, dancing, and being melodramatic.
Stephen Thrower on Vampyros Lesbos (11:30, HD) – An interview with the always jovial author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema Of Jess Franco, who discusses the late ‘60s/early ‘70s part of Franco’s career.
Jess Is Yoda (2:40, HD) – A cute interview outtake where Franco claims that Stuart Freeborn told him that Yoda’s face and scale was based on him, not Albert Einstein, as Freeborn usually states.
Alternate German opening title sequence (Dracula's Heiress, 3:00, HD version of VHS footage)
Disc 2 (DVD):
Las Vampiras – The alternate Spanish language version of Vampyros Lesbos. This shorter cut (74:36 vs. 89:19) includes scenes that don’t appear in the German version (for a full rundown of the difference click here. Severin took this version from a VHS release, so the image quality isn’t great, but its inclusion is still appreciated.
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