Director: Jess Franco
Kino Lorber/Redemption Films

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The screen grabs featured in this review are from the old Image Entertainment DVD release of FEMALE VAMPIRE and here for illustration purposes. We do not have the equipment to do screen grabs from Blu-ray discs) FEMALE VAMPIRE, the “love story of a strange vampire lost in Madeira” gets a high definition bump (and grind) in one of two Kino Lorber/Redemption Films American Blu-Ray debuts of the works of Jess Franco.

The return of mute Countess Irina Karlstein (Lina Romay, THE PERVERSE COUNTESS) – and her similarly mute valet (Luis Barboo, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN) – to the Portuguese island of Madeira makes her the prime suspect in the mysterious deaths of a number of local residents. Medical examiner Dr. Roberts (writer/director/cinematographer/editor Jess Franco) suspects a vampire since that consumes a less-than-traditional bodily fluid, and consults blind metaphysicist Dr. Orloff (regular Rollin collaborator Jean-Pierre Bouyxou, THE LIVING DEAD GIRL) for advice. Meanwhile, artist/writer Baron Rathony (Jack Taylor, NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS) finds himself irresistibly drawn to Irina, even as she continues the “bloody race” she is forced to run. Will her love for a man who wants her to take him “behind the mists” be her undoing?

FEMALE VAMPIRE was one of the first of roughly a hundred Jess Franco films to showcase longtime partner Lina Romay, the then nineteen year old girlfriend of actor Ramon Ardid – who appears here as a masseur – who was working with Franco as a still photographer and camera assistant (technically her first Franco role was in padding scenes for the censored Spanish version of THE RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN). Its availability in the United States – even in cut forms – during the rental era also assured that it had a prominent place in fans and critics developing appreciation and scholarship of the director when fantastic cinema fanzines and video coverage converged in the late 1980s. It was also the most transgressive of Franco’s works available domestically. SUCCUBUS and EUGENIE, THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION had disappeared after their theatrical play while 99 WOMEN and the otherwise masterful VENUS IN FURS seemed quite tame for the X-ratings when they arrived on home video. A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD was only available in its censored TV version with zombie inserts by Jean Rollin; and we were only then becoming aware of such hard-to-see key titles like THE PERVERSE COUNTESS, PLAISIR A TROIS, and LORNA THE EXORCIST (some of Franco’s 1980s Spanish erotica was available, but only on Spanish-language tapes for the Latino rental market).

The film can be absurd one moment – for instance, when a journalist (Anna Watican, DEMONIAQUES) asks Irina if she is unnerved about being descended from a family of vampires – and then poignant when Irina merely nods after Rathony asks her if she’s “one of those strange beings gifted with magic powers.” Irina plays the reluctant vampire without the post-Anne Rice/BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER whininess; even Rathony says things like “Even if I hadn’t known you, I would have left this world” without sounding like an emo. Romay’s expressive face says a lot more than the dialogue – the two voice-overs are merely redundant in the French version but ridiculous with the terrible English dubbing (Irina more effectively communicates to the audience late in the film when speaking through Orloff), and the thinly-rendered central love story is moving and tragic. The co-production shooting in France, Belgium and Portugal (including the atmospheric island of Madeira) allows for additional victims (including Ardid’s masseur and the keeper of an aviary [played by Roger Germanes who had a larger role in Franco’s EXORCISM], and Watican’s journalist) but the roughly ten minute sex scenes may wear out their welcome, and Irina’s visit to a dominatrix (Monica Swinn, who would also become a Franco regular) and her assistant (Alice Arno, who had already been initiated into Franco’s kinky world as one of the victims of the father/daughter incestuous duo of EUGENE/DE SADE 2000) dilutes the story further. Besides Franco’s eye for locations (from Irina’s house in the misty mountains to the modern resort where she and Rathony are both guests), there is some budget-efficient creativity: Irina flaps her cloak and the camera zip pans to the sky suggesting that she has turned into a bird (the hood ornament of her limousine is seagull with moving wings that actually flap in the wind) and the slaps of red paint on Eurocine regular Gilda Arancio’s (CRIMSON) – as a previous (possibly dead) visitor to Swinn’s S&M boudoir – nude body liken her to more to a figure out of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s EDEN AND AFTER or PROGRESSIVE SLIDINGS OF PLEASURE – than some of the slapdash make-up jobs of Franco’s – as well as Jean Rollin’s – other sex-horror erotica.

On the other hand, the scenes with Franco’s coroner and Bouyxou’s Orloff frame the story with questions and add layers to the existential angst of Irina and Rathony (Orloff ponders “whether the pleasure isn’t worth life itself”), and Franco’s fascination with Romay is palpable as his character watches her climactic blood bathing. Franco’s SHINING SEX – in which another part of Romay’s anatomy sucks the life out her partners thanks to aliens from outer space – would be an interesting companion piece (it’s also another one of Eurocine’s rare Techniscope productions). Daniel White’s mournful recurring main theme (which Eurocine trotted out for ZOMBIE LAKE – a project meant for Franco but co-directed by jean Rollin and Spanish director Julian de Lasema – and Franco reused it much later in INCUBUS (a less explicit DTV reworking of LORNA THE EXORCIST) underlines the melancholy of certain scenes when Franco’s sometimes bumpy camerawork and listless editing threaten to undercut the emotion, while his other cocktail-ish theme would have been more effective if the film had had an undercurrent of black humor (which it doesn’t despite some comic relief bits featuring Ricardo Vazques [CURSE OF THE VAMPIRE] and Franco cast/crew regular Biggotini [THE BRUTAL NIGHTS OF LINDA]). Taylor – who provided an interview for Blue Underground’s DVD release of Franco’s SUCCUBUS in which he amusingly misremembered the title as “The Kinky Countess” – would return to Portugal years later for Roman Polanski’s THE NINTH GATE.

Like many Franco films – especially the Eurocine ones – FEMALE VAMPIRE exists in a number of versions for different markets. There are three primary versions: a softcore version in which the vampire consumes semen, a hardcore version titled LES AVALEUSES (“The Swallowers”) with inserts featuring Romay and ex-boyfriend Ardid, and a horror version (titled “THE BARE BREASTED COUNTESS”) in which Irina bites her victims a little farther up north. Each of these versions exists in more than one form based on local censorship of the time (i.e. Italy’s horror version titled EROTIKILLER contains additional censorship edits but also features some snippets not present in the Finnish-subtitled English release titled THE BARE BREASTED COUNTESS). FEMALE VAMPIRE had three VHS releases in the US: the “erotic” version as THE LOVES OF IRINA from Private Screenings (although it had some cuts to the S&M sequence, according to Lasoeur, unauthorized), and the “horror” version as EROTIKILL – a freeze-frame video-generated retitling – from Force Entertainment. Both of these transfers were atrociously panned-and-scanned. Both versions of the film went undistributed in the UK until 1994 when Redemption Films released the erotic version on tape with six minutes of BBFC-mandated cuts (Redemption distributed the uncut version as part of their “Benelux” line in the Netherlands). When Image Entertainment made a deal with Eurocine in 2000 to distribute several of their titles on VHS and DVD, they released the erotic version from an attractive PAL-converted, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) master with English and French mono tracks (alas, no subtitles). Image removed a fleeting hardcore shot that remained in this version – presumably the French and Dutch DVDs retained this shot, but the BBFC demanded almost two minutes of cuts to the erotic version when Arrow Films submitted it in 2002 for DVD release, and the Spanish DVD – which featured English, French, and Spanish dub tracks – also lacks this bit. Besides the French trailer, the Image disc also included the neat bonus of the alternate horror scenes (also in 16:9). Germany seems to have gotten both softcore – titled ENTFESSELTE BEGLERDE – and hardcore versions for their 1980s VHS releases (the hardcore version only seems to be available on DVD – confusingly titled EROTIKILL – in that country).

Kino Lorber/Redemption’s all-region dual-layer Blu-Ray features 1080P transfers of both the softcore version (1:40:56) – with English credits and the familiar bland FEMALE VAMPIRE title card – and the horror version (1:10:57) with French credits and the title LA COMTESSE AUX SEINS NUS. Both 1080p transfers look refreshingly unmolested by digital manipulation, although it looks like they used the same print materials for FEMALE VAMPIRE rather than returning to the original 2-perf material (according to Eurocine’s Daniel Lasoeur in a Video Watchdog issue, the film was shot mostly in 2-perf Techniscope, but some bits were shot using regular 4-perf anamorphic cameras where Techniscope was not available). There seems to have been little clean-up effort and the image quality of the sources is just as variable as before, but the landscape is no longer a mush of background greens and the film grain is delineated from the forest mists. Some shots and scenes are intentionally defocused, while the focus just seems slightly off in other shots that make use of the zoom lens (it is possible that Franco did not always have a focus puller since he likely operated the camera for scenes in which he did not appear [Franco’s onscreen scenes were likely shot by Ardid and/or Biggotini]). The jittering seen during the S&M sequence on the Image disc is still present – as is an ugly splice before the whipping begins – but the few shots that remain in the horror version do not have this damage so it’s likely that the horror version is a scan of a different element rather than a reconstruction. It should be noted that this transfer has also been shorn of the brief hardcore shot removed from the Image release (Redemption has expressed the possibility of releasing the hardcore versions of this, EXORCISM, and some of the Rollin films in separate DVD editions). The horror version is in better condition, but this may be because it has had fewer runs through the telecine (although one shot during the blood bathing sequence looks like it came from an inferior source).

The softcore cut features French and English tracks – in LPCM 2.0 mono – with optional English subtitles. Bad English dubbing is a given with Eurocine titles, but it seems that part of the fault here is the almost literal translation of the French dialogue. The English track features some terrible voice casting; it’s a pity that Jack Taylor couldn’t have dubbed himself (the actor dubbed Paul Naschy in the English versions of a couple of his films) as the chosen voice actor sounds bored out of his skull. The French track, of course, plays more soberly despite lines like “He was killed by a mouth” and it’s in better condition. The horror cut – despite the French credits – features only the English dub track.

Redemption’s EROTIKILL is not exactly what US viewers saw when they rented Force Video’s EROTIKILL (71:40). Besides the French credits and widescreen framing (the VHS tape had letterboxed credits before zooming into a cropped mess), this version lacks a couple graphic shots that were featured on the US tape starting with the credits pan down to a close-up of Lina Romay’s crotch (I saw this tape at a pretty young age, and that shot sticks) before the camera zooms back and Romay bumps her chin into the lens. The sex/death scene with the masseur is almost entirely cut from the horror version (a good five minute chunk of the thirty minutes difference in running times) but the tape version featured some more close-ups of Romay’s crotch that are missing here. Half of Ardid’s dialogue is also missing from this scene although his mouth is still moving onscreen (and that dialogue is not only present in English in the softcore version, but it was also featured in the VHS release). A scene of Romay’s servant watching her masturbating is replaced with him watching her (clothed) tossing and turning in her sleep, and another scene where she rubs herself against a bedpost and then a pillow is missing (subtract another six to seven minutes). Besides the bite scenes, which are usually less than half as long as the lengthier “sucking” scenes in the soft version (accounting for a healthy chunk of the remaining difference in runtimes), the S&M scene is gutted, and the final sex scene between Romay and Taylor is missing much of its first half (in addition to inserting the biting footage). If I remember correctly, Romay’s bloodbath may also be a tad shorter. It may not be EROTIKILL but it may actually be the horror version circulating on tape abroad as THE BARE BREASTED COUNTESS.

Franco provides a brief interview titled “Destiny in Soft Focus” (13:37) – produced by David Gregory and Elijah Drenner – that focuses partly on the film at hand, and mostly on his long open relationship with Lina Romay (who died in February). He also briefly mentions previous muse Soledad Miranda. Bouyxou speaks “Words for Lina” (12:39), a tribute to the actress produced by Daniel Gouyette (who directed the retrospective featurette for Rollin’s TWO ORPHAN VAMPIRES for Redemption), although it’s not really a tribute so much as a loose series of platitudes (albeit genuinely felt) and it is not without interest; Bouyxou describes the Spanish actress’ personality affectionately as “Parisian guttersnipe” and vividly describes Franco directing Romay in a bit of footage the director captured for a side project while directing to Eurocine features back-to-back (he laments that there was no camera to film Franco filming Romay). Besides the film’s trailer (1:17) – the same rather abrupt French-language LA COMTESSE AUX SEINS NUS that also appeared on the Image DVD – the disc also features trailers for Franco’s EXORCISM/DEMONIAC, as well as Jean Rollin’s RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE, THE NUDE VAMPIRE, and REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE. (Eric Cotenas)