Director: Jess Franco
Cast: Soledad Miranda, Ewa Strömberg, Dennis Price, Fred Williams, Paul Muller, Howard Vernon
Length: (Vampyros) 86 min, (She Killed) 80 min
Disks: 4 (2 BD, 1 DVD, 1 CD)
Label: Severin Films
Release Date: May 12, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Audio: German: LPCM 2.0
Subtitles: English optional
- Vampyros Jesus: Interview featurette with Director Jess Franco
- Sublime Soledad: Interview with Soledad Miranda Historian Amy Brown
- Stephen Thrower on Vampyros Lesbos: Interview with Author of ‘Murderous Passions – The Delirious Cinema Of Jess Franco’
- “Jess Is Yoda” Clip
- Alternate German Opening Title Sequence – ‘Dracula’s Heiress’
- German Trailers
- Las Vampiras – Alternate Spanish Language VHS Version of Vampyros Lesbos with Optional English Subtitles
- Jess Killed In Ecstasy: Interview with Director Jess Franco
- Stephen Thrower on She Killed in Ecstasy: Interview with Author of ‘Murderous Passions – The Delirious Cinema Of Jess Franco’
- Paul Muller On Jess Franco: Interview with the frequent Franco Star
- 3 Films By Jess Franco: Vampyros Lesbos/She Killed In Ecstasy/The Devil Came From Akasava. Repressing of the ultra rare 24 track CD
Hack, pornographer, maverick, or innovator? Director Jess Franco is one director that can certainly polarize film fans. For some, he was simply the creator of a canvas of lurid sexuality and incomprehensible, low-budget detritus. But for his fans he was an auteur: a bold, transgressive filmmaker; a filmmaker who strove for freedom in art; a daring innovator who traded in the taboo while redefining female sexuality on screen. A handful of companies are setting themselves the task of moving some of the director’s key pieces to the medium of high definition Blu-ray. Severin Films is one of these, with their recent limited collector’s edition releases of Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy causing much excitement within the fan community. These newly upgraded editions offer the promise of beautiful packages, making them highly anticipated titles for Francophiles the world over.
Kicking off the double-header is Vampyros Lesbos, a project widely considered to be a highpoint in Franco’s lengthy career. After leaving his business relationship with Harry Alan Towers behind, Franco entered into his ‘peak years,’ as described in Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco [Kessler, Balbo, & Blumenstock, (1993)]. What followed was a period of furious productivity, from which came some of the director’s most transcendent works. It is here that his films become heavily infused with the hedonistic atmosphere of one long sexed up fever dream. Working with German producers, Franco found a lot more freedom to explore themes and motifs that echoed throughout his filmography in greater depth; the complicit relationship between sex and death, the blending of horror with the erotic, breaking of taboos, voyeurism, obsession, power, and control; sadism and raw female sexuality in its most powerful form. During this period we see Franco usher in a much more free flowing, ponderous, improvised rhythm to his output, thus bringing his cinematic work into symmetry with his musical background in jazz – the two creative forms, cinema and music being a key force throughout Franco’s career.Franco’s work is probably one of the most widely misunderstood avenues within the Euro-cult sphere; the director’s oeuvre attracting criticism for what is seen as incoherence, lack of budget, or a slap shot approach, while often ignoring the bigger picture and what his work came to signify. But for those who have been reeled into Franco’s universe, it’s another story altogether. No Franco project is greater than the sum of all its parts, each one providing yet another valuable piece in the puzzle. Like opening Pandora’s Box, it’s easy to get caught up in the mysteries and richness the director had to offer the world of cult film. With such a vast arena to explore, the task of knowing Franco through the cinema he created becomes a giant rabbit hole within which one can find themselves lost for a lifetime. When it comes to Vampyros Lesbos, the piece can be seen as representing one of the many defining moments for the director in the vast tapestry he created. For that reason the significance for fans, of this new release, should not be underestimated.
In order to truly appreciate Vampyros Lesbos beyond its baseline aesthetic—which alone is very pleasing—it is important to consider it as something of a statement piece, a film that worked to reset the goalposts in genre film. Franco made no secret of the fact he felt the gothic work of Hammer studios was far too strict and lifeless for his tastes. The director stated in many interviews, when it came to horror, it was the abstract and artful composition favored in early Expressionism, which really inspired him.When Franco returned to the concept of vampires with Vampyros Lesbos—after previously making the traditional piece Count Dracula (1970) for Harry Alan Towers—he brought with him the actress Soledad Miranda and also facets of the Bram Stoker original. Miranda had played a key role in his 1970 feature that had claimed to be close to Stoker’s original novel, a point that proved to be more of a marketing ploy and less of a reality. Now, with the freedom to make something of his own choosing, he completely redefined the medium, ultimately creating the antithesis of Hammer’s conventionally staged approach. Soledad, who had played Lucy (Westenra) for Franco in Count Dracula, picks up the ‘Dracula role’ this time around, as Countess Nadine Carody. The narrative not only blends direct aspects of Stoker’s text but also imbues the strong feminine energy to be found in Sheridan De Fanu’s forerunning novella, Carmilla – as well as borrowing the idea of surreal dreams, as an inspiration from that source, to add to some of Stoker’s ideas. In essence Franco works to reclaim the arena of the vampire as strictly a female domain, actively working against what had become a standard male dominated norm in genre film throughout the classic period.
It would be wrong to suggest that this move was Franco’s alone. The tide had already started to turn eleven years earlier with Roger Vadim’s groundbreaking Blood and Roses in 1960. But by and large when it came to the vampire, the genre continued to remain overshadowed by male icons for most of the sixties and women were customarily relegated to the position of fainting and quivering behind men with protective crosses. The late sixties saw a new wave. The work of Jean Rollin was highly influential during this period, as was Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971). In Britain, Hammer provided their own spin on Carmilla in the form of The Vampire Lovers (1970) with Ingrid Pitt at the helm as a strong female presence. Pitt returned to also play the Bathory role in Countess Dracula for Hammer just a year later. And so it was from this new dawn an entire army of female vampires were ushered forth into the cinematic universe.With Vampyros Lesbos, Franco took things further. Whereas other filmmakers chose to employ existing narratives that were already set out on feminine terms—Bathory or Carmilla—or invented entirely new dimensions to have their femme fatales do their bidding, Franco took Stoker’s male driven construct and consciously subverted every facet to give the old tale a revolutionary new slant. In turn, the director not only reset the gender balance, he deliberately chewed up convention by the bucket load, dropping all reference to traditional gothic. Instead, Franco beckons in a contemporary slick aesthetic and dreamlike surrealism, infused with a jazz/pop score that celebrates sexy tantric elements to further provoke mood over structure. The world of Vampyros Lesbos comes constructed on a stark white canvass that is only interrupted by accent colors of bold reds from time to time. Franco’s vision becomes one of light, mirrors, and beautiful reflections. He creates a universe where female vampires float in luxury swimming pools and sunbathe on white windswept beaches. His female ‘Dracula’ dances erotically in smoky strip clubs to lure her prey. She has no need for men when it comes to sexual preference. While explicit fang action is left solely to the imagination—with blood sucking scenes taking on a far more subtle erotic context as an exchange of bodily fluids, rather than working to provoke the terror derived from the flashing of sharpened pearly whites.
At the heart of it all is Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg), the young woman seeking advice from her psychiatrist about erotic dreams she’s been having featuring a mysterious dark haired woman. She is advised she is sexually frustrated, despite the fact she has a partner Omar (Andres Monales). Diving into her work, Linda travels to Istanbul to prepare some papers for the wealthy heiress The Countess Nadine Carody. It just so happens that this could be the mysterious dream woman that Linda has been yearning for. Thus the scene is set for a tale of passion, seduction and brooding eroticism to unfold between the two; Soledad Miranda as a dark, bloodsucking predator versus Ewa Strömberg as Linda, the blonde, blue-eyed physical opposite of her cinematic undead counterpart. Both actresses provide a strong energy on-screen in their key scenes together. There is nudity and explicit softcore lesbianism – an aspect that warranted 12 minutes of cuts to the original Spanish version. A potent female energy governs the atmosphere as Franco juxtaposes sex and horror to great effect.Aligning with politics of the sexual revolution and the (then) newly evolving sex-positive feminism, it can be argued that Franco’s portrayal of women as sexual beings—on their own terms—makes a stand on a feminist level. This aspect is notably evident in Vampyros Lesbos. It might not be immediately obvious to those who dismiss the filmmaker simply as a ‘pornographer’ or assume that he was a director who sought to objectify women. Scratch beneath the surface and it becomes apparent he captured an essence that transgressed from the common female—submissive, heterosexual—sexualized cinematic roles of the era; an aspect that becomes of major note when taken in the context of his entire body of work, where this was a key theme. In many of his projects, he portrayed women for a modern world: strong women, intelligent women, women in charge of their bodies, and sexuality; women who were independent in all areas of their lives, including the bedroom. The director derived narratives that didn’t seek to punish women who chose to digress from traditional, submissive, gender roles. In fact, as with much of the cinema coming from Europe during this period, his films evoke female sexuality as a source of power without moral restraint. Franco always confessed to being a feminist filmmaker, admitting he saw women as far more superior than their male counterparts and advocating that the subjugation of women was born from a male fear of that superiority. If anything, he certainly brought something out with his lens, in the actresses who performed for him, something that often worked to conjure a much more authentic portrayal of feminine sexuality on-screen that was (and remains) rarely seen in cinema.
Referring back to the performances in Vampyros Lesbos specifically, Ewa Stromberg demonstrates a strong capability for her part, taking on a role that amalgamates Stoker’s key characters Jonathan and Mina Harker as Linda Westinghouse. Dennis Price appears in a role as Dr. Alwin Seward, a person who initially alludes to being a Van Helsing type, before his character wanders into different territory (ultimately to portray his weaknesses and flaws in line with the other useless males of the piece). Franco himself pops up—as he does many times in his work usually playing either comic or grotesque characters—bringing with him a bizarre sub-plot involving a crazed serial killer called Memmet. The meaning of his part does nothing but further hammer home the message, ‘men are weak’ in contrast to the female roles. A large part of the feminine strength evident is owed to the marvellous Soledad Miranda, as a haunted vampire presence who displays suffering and pathos from her isolation as an immortal. It is not surprising that of all the roles she played in Spanish cinema, it is for her work with Jess Franco, that she is most widely remembered as a cult icon.When it comes to She Killed in Ecstasy the thematic concept of the female as sexual predator is resurrected once again; this time in a far more explicit reworking of some of the concepts laid out in Franco’s earlier effort The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966). Soledad Miranda plays the vengeful wife of Dr Johnson, known only as Mrs. Johnson. Dr. Johnson (Fred Williams) is blackballed by the medical committee when they disagree with the ethics involved in his experimenting on human fetuses. Just what line his work is taking is never fully explored in the scant narrative that quickly sees him descend into depression and then suicide as a result of being ostracized by his peers. His wife racked with grief, quickly hatches a convenient plan to seduce and kill the board members she blames for her husband’s untimely death. The rest plays out in expected fashion, with the sensuous Mrs. Johnson—sometimes clad in only a pair of thigh length boots and a floaty cape—luring each victim, without much resistance. The budget is at an all-time low here, but that doesn’t mean that the film is not worthwhile, far from it. Indeed, Franco uses ultra-modern, sparse locations and Miranda’s haunted on-screen presence to build a strong, nihilistic, and fairly tragic ambience. The feature also sees the actress play out more love scenes with co-star Ewa Stromberg (as Dr. Crawford)—just in case you didn’t get enough in Vampyros Lesbos. As well as Franco appearing as Dr. Donen, head of the medical committee; the director taking part in one of the film’s most iconic and memorable scenes. Although this might not be the strongest Franco collaboration for Soledad Miranda, it is nevertheless an important chapter in her short but sweet legacy as a cult film icon. A life cut short at the tender age of 27, left the star with but a handful of moments with which to immortalise her beguiling screen-presence in the hearts and minds of fans. For this reason, both films here provide two key pieces to that legacy, making them essential pieces to any Francophile’s collection.
Presumably, for these US releases, Severin Films used the same HD masters that were recently used by Illusions Unltd. for their German BD releases. The final results are quite satisfactory, but with some minor caveats. Unquestionably, both films have never looked better on home video. That said, Vampyros Lesbos would have benefited from slightly more natural film texture and slightly greater image depth. Film grain is visible, but the image overall is a little smooth and soft, which may have been caused by slight noise filtering. It is not egregious, or distracting in any way, but the image could be a little sharper. Color saturation is excellent; the numerous reds and flesh tones looking more striking than ever. She Killed in Ecstasy looks slightly better than Vampyros Lesbos, in terms of natural film texture, and grain is a little more obvious, which is good. The image presents as very slightly sharper as well. Otherwise, both films look very similar; with the same basic pros and cons.
Both films are presented with one standard German mono track, which handles the job admirably. The famous psychedelic music is given sufficient body and amplitude, and the dubbed dialog is crystal clear. Both films include optional English subtitles.
Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy come stacked with some valuable extras. Vampyros Lesbos includes a generous, 20-minute interview with the director himself, in the segment Vampyros Jesús; while She Killed in Ecstasy includes a different, 17-minute segment from the same interview, where Franco discusses the making of the second film. And just in case you ever wanted to know what Jess Franco has in common with the blockbuster Star Wars, the two minute clip Jess is Yoda is essential viewing. In Sublime Soledad, expert on the actress, Amy Brown, steps up to the plate to deliver a 20-minute featurette that gives context to the star’s overall career in cinema (not just her work with Franco). This featurette is duplicated in both releases. Stephen Thrower, the author of the upcoming book, Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco, offers up some context for analysis in his part with two video interviews – each one focusing on one film. And the extras also include German trailers for the main features; a DVD with an alternate Spanish language version bootleg of Vampyros Lesbos – which is interesting for comparison purposes as the edit is slightly different; and a soundtrack CD (included with She Killed in Ecstasy), which duplicates the old Vampyros Lesbos – Sexadelic Dance Party CD.
Erotic, exotic, unrivalled, say what you want about director Jess Franco, it cannot be denied that with Vampyros Lesbos the director puts an entirely new spin on Stoker’s well-trodden classical tale. An unforgettable vehicle for cult star Soledad Miranda, and together with the sensuous and provocative She Killed In Ecstasy, Severin restore part of the legacy the actress left in her short lived career; releasing these two films to Blu-ray in glorious high definition. Both films come lovingly restored, packaged as gorgeous collector’s editions, looking fresh, and bursting with a bunch of exclusive extra content. This is a must buy for all Francophiles and lovers of erotic based Euro-horror.