My wonderful and loyal readers, I fear that I have failed you. How is it, with my love of both grindhouse and Eurosleaze cinema, that I have yet to review a Jess Franco film on the site? Halloween seems to be the perfect time to correct that oversight by taking a look at Franco’s infamous 1973 horror film, Female Vampire.
To truly “appreciate” a film like Female Vampire, it helps to know a little something about Jess Franco. Working under a variety of pseudonyms, Spanish-born Jesus Franco Manera has been making films for over 60 years. Among critics, Franco is usually either dismissed as a total hack (and/or pervert) or embraced as the living embodiment of the auteur theory. Though no one’s quite sure how many films Franco has directed, Franco himself has estimated that he’s directed more than 200 films and, for the most part, he has financed and distributed them all on his own. Franco has worked in every genre from thriller to comedy to hardcore pornography, but he is probably best known for directing low-budget, occasionally atmospheric erotic horror films like Female Vampire.
The opening of Female Vampire pretty much epitomizes everything that people love and hate about Jess Franco as a director. The film begins with a series of ominous shots of a misty forrest. The forest feels both beautiful and desolate at the same time and Franco’s camera lingers over the fog, building up an atmosphere of both mystery and melancholy. Suddenly, we see one lone figure walking through the forest. Irina (played by frequent Franco star Lina Romay) emerges from the fog, naked except for a cape and a belt. The camera follows Irina as she walks through the mist. When Irina stops and faces the audience, the camera zooms in to a close-up of her face and her body. While Franco’s aim here is obviously to cater t0 the sexual fantasies of his predominately male audience, it’s still a remarkably strong scene because Romay faces the camera with such confidence that her nudity feels less like exploitation and more like empowerment. (Romay was, like me, a self-described exhibitionist.) Once Franco’s camera zooms away from Irina, she then starts to confidently approach the camera (and the audience as well). She gets closer and closer to the camera until finally … she accidentally bumps her head on the lens.
That, for lack of a better example, totally sums the aesthetic of Jess Franco. When you watch a Franco film, you’re left with the impression that Franco simply turned on the camera and recorded whatever happened to happen in front of it. Occasionally, he managed to capture something unique and dramatic and just as often, he filmed someone bumping into the equipment or staring straight at the camera. Whether he liked the spontaneity that came from an unexpected mistake or he just didn’t have enough money in his budget to do a second take, Franco would more often than not include these mistakes in his final film.
As for the rest of Female Vampire, it’s eventually established that. along with being a vampire, Irina is a countess and also a mute. (At one point, we do hear her inner thoughts, a monologue in which she tells us, “I earnestly wish an end would come to this bloody race I am forced to run.”) Several different cuts of Female Vampire have been released over the years and depending on which version you see, Irina either has to either regularly drink blood or drink semen in order to survive. (“It was as if his potency was sucked out of him,” as the coroner puts it.)
While Irina spends all of her time wandering around a depressing resort town and seducing various victims, a poet (Jack Taylor) searches for her. This poet — who spends a lot of time staring off into the distance and delivering inner monologues about walking down this road we call life — is determined that he and Irina are meant to be together.
There are many different version of Female Vampire currently in circulation. For instance, a heavily-edited version was released in the U.S. as The Bare-Breasted Countess. While Franco’s director’s cut lasts close to two hours, there are other versions that barely clock in at 70 minutes. There’s a hard-core version, a soft-core version, and even a version that features close to no sex at all. The version I saw was the DVD released by Image Entertainment. That version is reportedly close to Franco’s original.
As is typical for a Franco film, not much happens in Female Vampire and what does happen doesn’t make much sense. But, oddly enough, that actually worked in the film’s favor. By ignoring things like plot and logic and by focusing on the film’s visuals, Franco made a film that literally feels like a dream. Every scene is filled with an atmosphere of pure ennui and, when coupled with charisma of Lina Romay and Jack Taylor, the end result is a film that’s strangely compelling.