Director: Jess Franco (as Clifford Brown)
Mondo Macabro

As if their restorations of Jess Franco’s DIARY OF A NYMPHOMANIAC and LORNA THE EXORCIST were not enough to canonize Mondo Macabro, they’ve gone on and released the original director’s cut (remastered in HD) of Franco’s LA COMTESSE PERVERSE.

A young woman (Kali Hansa, NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS) washes up on a beach and is discovered by Bob (Robert Woods, COLT IN THE HAND OF THE DEVIL) and his wife Moira (Tania Busselier, ILSA THE WICKED WARDEN). In her delirium, she tells them of how she snuck onto the island of the Count and Countess Zaroff (THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF’s Howard Vernon and JUSTINE DE SADE’s Alice Arno) in search of her missing twin sister only to be raped and tortured by the couple. Bob and Moira are hardly surprised, since they regularly procure women for the Zaroffs and have similar plans for Spanish tourist Silvia (Lina Romay, FEMALE VAMPIRE), but not before everyone gets to indulge in the “pleasures of the flesh” in all its forms.

LA COMTESSE PERVERSE is essentially a kinky variation on Richard Connell’s story “The Most Dangerous Game” – unhampered by the censorship imposed on Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s pre-code film adaptation (resulting in the permanent loss of its legendary grisly highlights, particularly a visit to the “Trophy Room”). The liner notes for Mondo Macabro’s DVD also note the influence of De Sade’s PHILOSOPHY IN THE BOUDOIR (a literary source that Franco has visited and revisited for DE SADE 70 [EUGENIE, THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION], COCKTAIL SPECIAL, EUGENIE 80 [EROTICISMO], and THE SEXUAL STORY OF O). The link is more tenuous here: sure, a decadent couple lures and tempts an innocent girl, but they’re less interested in initiating her than just passing the time before their next meal; however, the ending to this film informed the denouements of EUGENIE 80 and THE SEXUAL STORY OF O (which virtually restages the ending, itself possibly inspired by the end of Jacques Tourneur’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE). TENDER FLESH (1997) – one of the earliest films of his shot-on-video period, and one of the last he shot on film – is a virtual remake of LA COMTESSE PERVERSE with DTV erotica queen Amber Newman (who also appeared in Franco’s MARI-COOKIE AND THE KILLER TARANTULA) in the Lina Romay role and longtime Franco collaborator Alain Petit (MIDNIGHT PARTY) in the Howard Vernon role. Romay herself was cast in a role that combined aspects of Woods’ procurer (although Mikhail Kronen’s character [as Newman’s coke-snorting boyfriend] also possessed some of the procurer role qualities) and Arno’s huntress. Monique Parent (MIRROR MIRROR 2) and Aldo Sambrell (THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY) were also on hand as an aristocratic couple indulging in the hunt.

Performances are uneven, but it is difficult to tell since the post-dubbed dialogue was added without a guide track or any transcription. Statuesque Arno’s stiffness as an actress works here as the cool and detached aristocrat whose only real passion is the hunt (she gets more to work with in PLAISIR A TROIS and LES NUITS BRULANTES DE LINDA and acquits herself well), while the always enjoyable Vernon theatrically sniggers with every double entendre about the “pleasures of the flesh” which are not always sexual here, even though they are all sexualized. Woods gives the most studied performance here, making the most of how little the story gives him to undergo a reversal. Romay is also quite good, and people tend to forget her acting skills in her fleshier roles. The striking pagoda-like palace of the Zaroffs is Xanadu, designed by Ricardo Bofill – first seen in Franco’s SHE KILLED IN ECTASY – and the interiors make use of Bofill’s equally striking La Muralla Roja on the same beach. EUGENIE 80/EROTICISMO, one of Franco’s closer adaptations of “Philosophy in the Boudoir” also uses La Muralla Roja as a location. Perhaps out of awe of the locations he was able to find for this one, Franco keeps his zoom lens largely restrained this time around (it is likely that Franco shot the film himself since – in an interview on another disc – he claims to have met credited cinematographer Gerard Brissaud [who is credited on a couple of his De Nesle productions] only once in his life), and favors extreme wide angles that give certain scenes a fishbowl effect and throw others intriguingly off-kilter. The sex scenes, though, feature his usual roving camera with little care about maintaining focus or exposure (but they wouldn’t be Franco sex scenes if they did). The intriguing patchwork score is credited to Oliver Bernard and Jean-Bernard Raiteux. Bernard possibly supplied some original music, but the Raiteux tracks come from his albums (some of his tracks appear to extreme anachronistic effect in Franco’s LES DEMONS). Although the editing is credited to Gerard Kikoine – who later became a porn director before switching to the mainstream (mostly under former Franco producer Harry Alan Towers) – Franco assembled mute workprints of these films and the dialogue, music, and effects (as well as, I’m guessing, any fine tuning of the editing) by Kikoine. Elisabeth Ledu de Nesle is credited with the dialogue, and this may actually be true (I would imagine that Franco would have left those unsettling flashback shots of the sea and the surrounding mountains silent rather than slathering hysterical narration of them).

Producer Robert de Nesle – for whom Franco directed – was disturbed by the film’s content and asked Franco to shoot framing footage to lighten the tone. This footage features Romay as her tourist character sharing a hotel room with her horror writer friend (Caroline Riviere, Franco’s stepdaughter by his then-wife Nicole Guettard) who has misgivings about her affair with married Bob. Besides the opening and closing bits, the two also pop up in the middle to answer the phone when Bob calls Silvia to ask her to come over (we only see Bob’s end of the conversation in the original cut). Before Mondo’s DVD, LA COMTESSE PERVERSE was available on the grey market circuit in two bastardized versions. The first was the French hardcore version LES CROQUEUSES (I prefer the translation “The Devourers” but the “The Munchers” is more commonly used in references and gives a double meaning to hardcore-augmented version [and makes it sound like a companion piece to LES AVALEUSES [“The Swallowers”], the XXX version of LA COMTESSE NOIRE/FEMALE VAMPIRE) from a SECAM tape release with the video-burn titlecard LA COMTESSE PERVERSE. This 95 minute version – as represented by the now-defunct Luminous Film and Video Wurks’ English-subtitled DVD-R – featured the aforementioned framing footage along with hardcore footage featuring Romay, Arno, and doubles for Woods and Busselier. These scenes also featured Pierre Taylou and Monica Swinn, who were not part of the original cast but working regularly with Franco in the mid-1970s. These scenes were probably shot during the filming of LES NUIT BRULANTES DE LINDA which featured Arno, Romay, and Taylou (and a similar framing story that reduces the various perverse and tragic goings-on to a dream stemming from Arno’s reading of a pulp paperback titled BUT WHO RAPED LINDA? [shown in a delicious closing shot that also poses that unanswered question regarding the story proper]). Video Search of Miami’s subtitled version of the French cut runs 86 minutes according to a Video Watchdog review. The summary mentions the Riviere character, but only one hardcore sequence (the aforementioned Romay/Taylou/Swinn scene), so it appears that two French hardcore versions exist (or rather, one hardcore version and one not-so-hard version since Taylou doesn’t exactly rise to the occasion in this scene). A French TV broadcast was closer to the director’s cut, lacking the hardcore footage but featuring the framing bits. Perhaps VSOM inserted the Romay/Taylou/Swinn scene into that version (they inserted footage from Naschy’s 1980 NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF into a subtitled German TV broadcast of the 1967 MARK OF THE WEREWOLF (released here as FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR), or it may have been an initial release version for the adult market that Franco (or someone else) was asked to further augment with more hardcore inserts. The Italian version titled SEXY NATURE also ran 95 minutes but had some substitutions in the hardcore footage, but it also positioned the Romay/Taylou/Swinn interlude in a more logical place (not that much more logical, but less arbitrary than the French version). This version circulated less visibly than the French version as an Italian-dubbed, Spanish-subtitled version (possibly from a Venezuelan VHS rental tape).

LA COMTESSE PERVERSE was not the only softcore Franco production that suffered such tampering. The French distributors of 99 WOMEN filmed hardcore inserts for every sex scene for their release version LES BRULANTES (most disturbing was the scene in which they doubled Herbert Lom). Franco’s AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO received a Spanish film award in its original cut, but had hardcore inserts filmed for the French version LE MIROIR OBSCENE and a completely different set of hardcore inserts shot for the Italian version LO SPECCHIO DEL PIACERE. Franco himself seems to have reworked the aforementioned LES NUITS BRULANTES DE LINDA for the French XXX version (the softcore English, Spanish, and Italian versions all feature the same content and make for more satisfying viewing). Last year, Stéphane Derdérian of Liliom Audiovisuel announced that LA COMTESSE PERVERSE and PLAISIR A TROIS had been restored in HD for international distribution (with other Franco films to follow, including his masterpiece AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO). Because of their previous Franco releases, including DIABOLICAL DR. Z years before, it was naturally assumed that Mondo Macabro would release these titles. Although no such arrangement was in place at the time of the announcement, Mondo Macabro soon pounced (with some nudging to both Derdérian and Pete Tombs from fans).

Despite the cover’s claims of a “brand new anamorphic transfer” Mondo Macabro’s progressive, dual-layer transfer presents the film in its original full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio (there is even a framing guide for viewing the film on a widescreen monitor), which is in keeping with Derderain’s comments after having examined the film materials. The Romay/Riviere framing scenes were framed for 1.66:1, and a look at the 1.61:1-framed LFVW disc reveals that the scenes from Franco’s original cut are cropped on the sides and the bottom (SEXY NATURE is fullscreen but slightly zoomed in). The image quality is exquisite and the framing looks accurate. The only damage I noticed was a single scratch during the credits. The Dolby Digital mono quality is clean. The music comes through boldly in places (as well as an unsetting sawing effect late in the film), as do the voices (annoying so in the case of the voice actress chosen for Kali Hansa). The optional English subtitles have been newly translated, and are more elegant than LFVW’s subtitling job. The total running time is just over 76 minutes and is still teaming with writhing nudity and explicit (though not hardcore) sex. Without these interludes and the Kali Hansa prologue, the thin story would run less than an hour while not appearing to be missing any plot-specific material.

The extras include an introduction by Stephen Thrower (16:02) whose book on Franco is due out by the end of the year. Thrower compares the film’s reception by its squeamish producer to the audience reactions to the pre-code film adaptation of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, as well as the Sadean element shared by several of Franco’s movies, including this and PLAISIR A TROIS (which was made with much of the same cast and crew). He also discusses the Sadean aspects of the story – specifically as it relates to continuing threads in other Franco films – and the film’s distinctive architecture. Another welcome extra is a recent interview with actor Robert Woods (15:55). The actor also mentions that he lived with co-star Kali Hansa – who appeared in three other Franco films with Woods, including THE SINISTER EYES OF DR. ORLOFF – for the year he worked with Franco (and splitting when she told him she wanted to marry him). He discusses his subsequent television career – after returning to the states to produce a documentary on Bruce Lee – and his more recent occasional work in student films. He also describes his recent visits to Spain and the Venice Film Festival and his (re)discovery of his European fanbase. He is less-than-pleased about the alternate hardcore versions of his films, although he doesn’t blame Franco for the commercial requirement. Text screen extras are usually obligatory and disposable on most DVDs, but Mondo Macabro “About the Film” essays are always engrossing; and the ten-page one presented here will be informative to the uninitiated about Franco’s filming style and the alternate versions of the film. The cast & crew profiles are also a refreshing departure from the rote filmographies one usually finds in these sections on other DVDs. There is no trailer for the film, but Mondo Macabro has included their usual clip reel. (Eric Cotenas)