International Horror Review: A Virgin Among The Living Dead (dir by Jess Franco)


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….

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #34: Nightmares Come At Night (dir by Jess Franco)


nightmarescome2big For the past two weeks, I’ve been in the process of reviewing 126 cinematic melodramas.  Embracing the Melodrama Part Two started in 1927 with a look at Sunrise and now, 33 reviews later, we’ve finally reached the 70s.  And what else can I say about that other than to exclaim, “Yay!”

Seriously, a lot of good films were released in the 1970s.

We begin the 70s by taking a look at a film from the iconic and (to some people) infamous Spanish director Jess Franco.  Over the course of 54 years, director Jesus Franco Manera was credited with directing 203 films.  In all probability, the workaholic Franco directed a lot more than he’s been credited with.  As I wrote about Franco in my previous review of Female Vampire: “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.”

Now, I have to admit that I feel a little guilty about using a paragraph from an old review in a new review.  (And, as you may have noticed, I reviewed Female Vampire before Franco passed away in 2013.)  But, then again, it feels somewhat appropriate because Franco was famous for and unapologetic about taking bits and pieces of old and unfinished films and inserting them into new films.  That’s certainly the case with his 1970 film Nightmares Come At Night.

Nightmares Come At Night opens with Anna (Diana Lorys) living in an atmospheric mansion with her lover, Cynthia (Colette Giacobine).  Anna is haunted by frequent nightmares where she sees herself killing strange men with a spear.  Cynthia arranges for Anna to talk to an enigmatic doctor (Paul Muller).  Anna tells the doctor about how she was once a famous erotic dancer until she met Cynthia.  At this point, we get several lengthy flashbacks of Anna dancing in an oddly desolate club, all of which adds to the film’s ennui-drenched atmosphere.

Talking to the doctor doesn’t do Anna much good and she continues to have her nightmares except now the nightmares also seem to feature men giving lengthy monologues.  It soon becomes obvious that the neurotic Anna is being held as a virtual prisoner in the house by the dominating Cynthia.

(It’s a bit like a Lifetime movie, except everyone’s naked for 85% of the film’s running time.)

Meanwhile, we occasionally get shots of two people staring out of an unrelated window.  Eventually, we realize that they’re supposed to be Cynthia’s neighbors.  One of them is played by Franco’s frequent muse, Soledad Miranda.  (Miranda would tragically die in an automobile accident in 1970.)  Anyone who is familiar with Franco’s work will immediately notice that Miranda’s look in Nightmares was later duplicated by Lina Romay in Female Vampire.  The neighbors are obsessed with Anna.  As the film progresses, we discover that, when not looking out the window, they spend most of their time lying on a filthy mattress.  At one point, the camera zooms in for a close-up of the graffiti that’s been written on the wall over the mattress.

LIFE IS ALL SHIT, it reads.

To a certain extent, it’s pointless to say that Nightmares Come At Night is a disjointed film because almost all of Franco’s films were disjointed.  That’s actually what gave even the weakest of his films an odd and memorably dreamlike feel.  But Nightmares Come At Night is even more disjointed than usual.  That’s because Nightmares Come At Night was made out of a mix of footage shot for other films.  The scenes with Soledad Miranda were for an earlier, unfinished film.  Those scenes were combined with the footage of Anna, Cynthia, and the doctor.  The end result is a film that doesn’t necessarily much sense but you still have to admire Franco’s refusal to let any footage go to waste.

Ultimately, as with so many Franco films, Nightmares Come At Night is less about plot and all about atmosphere.  This is a film that is full of ennui and existential decadence.  It’s not one of Franco’s best films but, much like last year’s underrated California Scheming, it’s a bit of a minor existential classic when taken on its own terms.

(Please note: the trailer below is mildly NSFW.  Watch at your own risk.)