This 1973 Spanish-French-Italian production’s title is both its greatest strength and also its greatest weakness.
On the one hand, it’s impossible to forget a title like A Virgin Among the Living Dead. It’s a title that mixes both horror and sex, which are two things of which audiences simply cannot get enough. On the other hand, this is a a Jess Franco film and the title — which is so blatant and over-the-top — sounds like it could almost be a parody of Franco’s “unique” style of film-making. If you were coming up with a fake Franco film, you would probably give it a title that sounded a lot like “A Virgin Among the Living Dead.” A Virgin In The Castle of Dr. Orloff, perhaps.
Interestingly enough, Franco absolutely hated the film’s title. It, and quite a few other titles, were slapped onto the film by distributors who were apparently unconcerned with the fact that the film was not meant to be one of Franco’s typical, give-me-my-paycheck exploitation films. Franco’s title for the film was Night of the Shooting Stars, which is a bit bland but perhaps also a bit more honest. Incidentally, the film was also released under the titles Christina, Princess of Eroticism and The Erotic Dreams of Christina, which again were titles that Franco disliked.
In the version I saw (and, admittedly, there’s several versions floating around), it’s never even stated that the film’s frequently unclothed protagonist, Christina (Christina von Blanc), is a virgin. When compared to the other decadent members of her family, she certainly is innocent. For instance, she doesn’t drink blood or engage in strange purification rituals. When the cheerfully cynical Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon, because this is a Franco film, after all) plays a waltz while another member of the family is dying upstairs, Christina is properly shocked. But, at no point, is Christina identified as being a virgin.
In fact, Christina is rather uninhibited, nonchalantly greeting strangers (and a rather creepy servant, played by Franco himself) in her underwear, sleeping naked in a room with an unlocked door, and later casually skinny dipping in a nearby swamp. (When she’s informed that two wide-eyed townspeople were watching her from a nearby hill, she shrugs it off.) Perhaps she’s meant to be an Eve-like character, unaware of sex or her nudity until she eats from the tree of knowledge. Am I giving too much credit to Jess Franco? As is often the case with Franco, it’s hard to say.
As far as the film itself goes …. well, the plot isn’t always easy to follow. Christina has come to her family’s ancestral home for the reading of her dead father’s will. Her father hanged himself and, though he’s dead, he keeps showing up. Christina immediately discovers that the other members of her family are collection of rogues, eccentrics, and blood drinkers. She also eventually learns that all the members of her family are the living dead and that they’re all worried that Christina will make them leave the estate. Or are they? Is Christina just dreaming all of this or is it really happening? Is the Queen of Night really coming to claim everyone’s soul or is that just a part of Christina’s hallucinations?
A Virgin Among The Living Dead features all of Franco’s usual directorial quirks. The story rambles. Franco alternates between scenes of surreal beauty and scenes of almost indifferent framing. At times, the score is hauntingly ominous and then, at other times, it sounds like it was lifted from a 70s porno. Christina comes across as being a beautiful blank but Howard Vernon is memorably perverse as Uncle Howard and all the members of the family are amusingly decadent. For once, though, all these quirks work to the film’s advantage, creating a surreal dreamscape that truly does seem to exist in a land between life and death. A Virgin Among The Living Dead truly does become a work of pure cinema, one in which the the visuals and the mood become the narrative as opposed to the film’s story itself.
Franco may have hated the title that was slapped on it but this is actually one of his better films. Unfortunately, how you react to the film will probably depend on which version you see. There are several floating around, some of which feature hardcore inserts that were filmed by other directors. There’s another version that features extra zombie footage that was filmed by Jean Rollin. The Redemption Blu-ray features Franco’s cut of the film, with no hardcore or extra zombie footage. That said, the scenes that Rollin shot are included as an extra. Personally, I like Rollin’s zombie footage but, at the same time, I can also see how its inclusion would have destroyed the film’s already deliberate pace.
(And, of course, it goes without saying that I’m opposed to producers inserting extra scenes into any film, especially when that footage wasn’t directed by the original director.)
Anyway, A Virgin Among The Living Dead never reaches the existential heights of Female Vampire but it’s still one of Franco’s “good” films. Even if he did hate the title….