The wonderful Severin video label recently released two of Spanish wunderkind/ annoying pornographic hack Jesus "Jess" Franco's most famous films on special edition Blu-rays. Both are packed with bonus features and transfers that are nothing short of stunning. Unfortunately, these are the only things the two discs have in common.
Vampyros Lesbos, Franco's 1971 signature film, is unwatchable: a pointless, leering, distaff retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which, coincidentally, Franco had just filmed in 1969 with Christopher Lee in the title role. She Killed in Ecstasy, Franco's follow-up film, features virtually the same cast and crew and its filming overlapped with that of Vampyros Lesbos. Yet She Killed in Ecstasy is very, very interesting: I love its utter weirdness, and I recommend it to my readers. The Blu-ray of She Killed In Ecstasy also contains a bonus CD containing the soundtrack music from both films—think Austin Powers being channeled by a band that only scores slasher films. Yeah, baby-- DIE.
Look, I recognize that there is a bit of a James Dean thing going on here for her fans. She was beautiful and she died too young, so these films have become more than films; they are shrines of a sort, still-living totems to her memory. But that doesn't mean they're both good.
In the inaugural issue of Tim Lucas's Video Watchdog, he published a long essay entitled "How To Read A Franco Film," acknowledging that ol' Jess's films were not the types of movies to which most people were accustomed. From what I remember, Lucas made the case that Franco's films have zero interest in traditional narrative; they're more like dreams—which means, of course, that anyone can make one and they often turn into nightmares.
ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: Though I cannot easily access that issue of Video Watchdog—it's buried in an unlabelled banker's box somewhere in my office closet—rest assured that I still have it. I bought Issue #1 on one of my first forays out of the house after my son was born. I've been reading Lucas's terrific magazine ever since. Video Watchdog just published its 176th issue; my son just turned 25.
The First Plot in Brief: Vampyros Lesbos begins with Linda (Ewa Strömberg) witnessing a strange nightclub routine featuring a half-clothed Countess Carody (Soledad Miranda) making love to a mirror, a mannequin, and a blonde woman in a mirror pretending to be a mannequin. Try as she might, Linda cannot get the image of Countess Carody out of her head. She dreams that the Countess summons her to a mysterious island.
The main reason Vampyros Lesbos is unwatchable is Jess Franco's filming style, which I would describe as TILT/PAN/ZOOM. He simply cannot leave the camera alone. Far from suggesting anything through camera and lens movement, this interminable fiddling gives the impression that we are dealing with an inexperienced director suffering from a pathological urge to reframe shots while they're happening. It resembles a harried 1970s father over-using the zoom lens while making on-the-fly Super 8mm home movies. The zoom thing in particular occurs in almost every shot. It became so annoying that halfway through the film, I began to shout, "Stop it!" and "Just leave it alone!" and "Don't touch that damn thing!" and "Keep your goddamned hands off the fucking camera!" It was that nauseating. Good thing I was alone, and all the windows were closed.
The second reason the film is frustrating is its snail's pace. This is one of the slowest films I have seen in a long time. The pace seems deliberate, as if designed to convey Something Very Important, but that never happens. The sluggish pace merely makes the film feel vaguely pretentious.