Director: Jess Franco
Mondo Macabro

Mondo Macabro gives Francofanatics an HD bump-up of two of his most desired titles COUNTESS PERVERSE and HOW TO SEDUCE A VIRGIN with a couple new bonuses with the limited edition JESS FRANCO TRIPLE BILL.

Essentially a kinky variation on Richard Connell’s story “The Most Dangerous Game” (albeit one unhampered by the censorship imposed on Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s pre-code film adaptation), COUNTESS PERVERSE begins with 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.

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. 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 from Franco's direct-to-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 (Franco’s MARI-COOKIE AND THE KILLER TARANTULA) in the Lina Romay role and longtime Franco collaborator Alain Petit (MIDNIGHT PARTY) in the Vernon role. Romay herself was cast in a role that combined aspects of Woods’ procurer (although Mikhail Kronen 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, 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 what 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 used 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) while another track would recur during the orgy scene in Franco's EXORCISM. 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 over them).

COUNTESS PERVERSE made its official home video debut stateside in 2012 with Mondo Macabro's superlative DVD edition. Despite the cover’s claims of a “brand new anamorphic transfer” the progressive, dual-layer transfer presented 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 Liliom Audiovisuel restorer Stephane Derderian's assessment of 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 were cropped on the sides and the bottom while the fullscreen SEXY NATURE was slightly zoomed in. The image quality was exquisite and the framing appeared accurate and Mondo's new 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed encode of the same source improves on what was already an exquisite presentation. Depth is enhanced to the point where it almost feels as if the viewer is watching the events unfold though a window and could almost step into the frame. The enhanced resolution also draws attention to Franco's use of archways and ceiling beams as part of the framing of many compositions as well as adding texture to the surfaces of Bofil's architecture. The mono audio has been bumped up to LPCM 1.0 and the optional English subtitles are more elegant than LFVW’s subtitling job. The total running time on this director's cut is just over seventy-six minutes and still teaming with writhing nudity and explicit (though not hardcore) sex. Without these interludes and the Kali Hansa prologue, the thin story would have run less than an hour while not appearing to be missing any plot-specific material.

Producer Robert de Nesle 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 (namechecking Count Zaroff while rattling off the horrors her friend could possibly encounter traveling to a mysterious island with her new friends). 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 double meaning to hardcore-augmented version while making 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?

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). The French TV broadcast was closer to the director’s cut in that it lacked the hardcore footage but featuring the framing bits, and was likely Franco's first attempt at assuaging de Nesle's squeamishness before adding hardcore footage. 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).

New to the Blu-ray edition is the inclusion of SEXY NATURE (100:51) via seamless branching that actually appears to be LES CROQUEUSES under the Italian title (with French audio) without the more explicit and uglier hardcore footage exclusive to that version. The additional footage includes the aforementioned framing footage with Romay and Riviere, the Italian title sequence which credits all but the Arno with their surnames first, a lukewarm sex scene with doubles for Woods and Busselier, the Romay/Taylou/Swinn threesome, and another scene with the Woods double and possibly Arno herself. Whether this footage was separately transferred in the first place or extracted during the original mastering to create the director's cut (Mondo Macabro worked with elements for the Italian hardcore version of LORNA THE EXORCIST to reconstruct their version), it looks as good as the director's cut although the photography itself is often flatter and may suggest Franco's disinterest.

Carried over from the DVD is an introduction by Stephen Thrower (16:02) whose book MURDEROUS PASSIONS covers the first half of Franco's filmography (the second volume is due out later this 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, discusses 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), as well as the film’s distinctive architecture. Also included is the interview with actor Robert Woods (15:55) in which he discusses his relationship with co-star Hansa – who appeared in three other Franco films with Woods, including THE SINISTER EYES OF DR. ORLOFF – 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, as well as his (re)discovery of his European fan base. He is less-than-pleased about the alternate hardcore versions of his films, although he doesn’t blame Franco for the commercial requirement. Sadly not included on the Blu-ray is the ten-page text screen essay about the alternate versions of the film.

In HOW TO SEDUCE A VIRGIN, the wealthy Martine de Bressac (Alice Arno, THE HOT NIGHTS OF LINDA) is deemed by her psychiatrist (Joaquín Blanco, THE SINISTER EYES OF DR. ORLOFF) after a year-long institutionalization to be cured (so long as she promises to “be sensible”). Although it is unclear why she was institutionalized in the first place (a flashback in which she castrates an unidentified man with a straight razor could very well have come from another film), presumably her shrink is not aware that Madame de Bressac keeps in the basement of her castle a museum of petrified female lovers in various states of ecstatic torture. As a welcome home present, her husband Charles (Woods) has scoped out virginal Cecile (Busselier) – who is “at that age when the senses explode” – for ravishment. The aristocratic couple has no trouble convincing Cecile’s diplomat father that she should stay with them in the countryside while he is on assignment, and the girl is relieved to escape from her parents. Together with Martine’s simple-minded companion Adele (Lina Romay, THE FEMALE VAMPIRE), Martine and Charles educate Cecile in perversion, but the young girl may not realize that “at the end of her lustful journey, death awaits her.”

Originally titled PLAISIR A TROIS, the HOW TO SEDUCE A VIRGIN title stems from the film’s English-dubbed UK theatrical release which was rejected by the British Board of Film Classification but exhibited with a local certificate from the Greater London Council (this was how distributor Cinecenta was also able to screen Franco’s THE DEMONS, while THE BARE BREASTED COUNTESS got a BBFC X certificate with a reduced running time of 58 minutes) in a version running just over an hour. Although the name of the virginal ingénue harkens back to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses", HOW TO SEDUCE A VIRGIN is of course another loose variation on de Sade’s “Philosophie dans le Boudoir.” The statuesque Arno is not quite as imperious here as she is as Countess Zaroff but that is because her character actually turns out to be the more impatient and less calculating one here. Woods has more to do here as Charles, having to reign in Martine’s impulsiveness for a more satisfying conquest. The moronic manservant role is split here between Romay’s maid and a gardener played by Alfred Baillou (GIRL SLAVES OF MORGANA LE FEY) who is obsessed with the death of a bishop whose head “cracked open like an egg” (a reference, according to Stephen Thrower, to a mania of filmmaker Luis Bunuel). The scenario is overly familiar – especially if you’ve already seen LA COMTESSE PERVERSE, EUGENIE 80, THE SEXUAL STORY OF O, or any of the other Franco films patterned after the Sade’s “Philosophie” – but not unsatisfying; however, a scene between Charles and Martine’s doctor late in the film seems incongruous with the resolution of the story. Even if the dialogue was all written in post and may have not resembled anything said on-set, there does not seem to have been any other reason for the sequence to have been shot. As the Bressacs’ butler Howard Vernon (THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF) has a smaller role than usual here, but – as with the other Robert de Nesle/Jess Franco productions – he also served as the film’s still photographer (credited under his birth name Mario Lippert). The music is credited to Robert Hermel (who had previously scored the Eurocine pic A VIRGIN FOR ST. TROPEZ credited to Georges Friedland but reportedly directed at least partially by Franco) and Daniel Janin (Franco’s VIBRATING GIRLS) but Franco himself may have had very little influence on the scoring since the film’s post-production was handled by Kikoine . The photography is once again credited by Brissaud but Franco himself likely operated the camera here. The film was shot in the Canary Islands, and the Bressac villa was also used by Franco in THE SINISTER EYES OF DR. ORLOFF.

The English dub of PLAISIR A TROIS has not turned up, and for the longest time the only available version was a faded grey market French-language SECAM source. Mondo Macabro’s 2013 dual-layer, progressive DVD presented the film in its original 1.33:1 fullscreen framing (it could have been matted to 1.66:1 for theatrical projection, but the framing of long shots looks ideal here with no extraneous headroom). The Blu-ray's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed widescreen presentation is not quite as pristine as the COUNTESS PERVERSE transfer with two instances of jitter at shot changes but the image is crisp and colorful with red cards and gel lighting as well as the striking green of Arno’s headscarf particularly vivid. The LPCM 1.0 mono French track is clean for the most part, only becoming a little crunchy during the closing music cue (synch is loose, but that’s the result of the post-dubbing not the audio mastering), and the optional English subtitles are as elegant as the dialogue allows.

Although the text screen essay is dropped once again, the Blu-ray does carry over Thrower's interview (21:26) in which he discusses Franco’s 1973 output (fourteen features started, eleven completed) and the links with LA COMTESSE PERVERSE (a five day shoot following PLAISIR A TROIS’s two week schedule). Thrower refers to the “musical chairs” of casting which finds the same cast members in alternating roles of hunter and prey between the films, their Sadean qualities, and Franco’s method of getting around the difficulty of adapting the author by foregrounding the mindset of the libertine as protagonist. He also mentions that the film was intended as a collaboration between Franco and Spanish producer Jose Maria Forque (IN THE EYE OF THE HURRICANE) who passed on it because of its strong erotic content. Alain Petit’s original script was reportedly more fantastical than the finished product (the suspended animation of the museum figures seems to be all that remains) which Thrower assumes is due to Nesle’s preference for straight erotica.

Petit himself appears in another interview (11:50) but does not talk about the film at hand so much as give a detailed overview of Franco’s Sade films including the unfinished JULIETTE which was to star Soledad Miranda, as well as the other hardcore JULIETTE with Romay which was re-cut by Joe D’Amato, incorporating material from other Franco films and Nico Fidenco’s score for EMANUELLE IN AMERICA and retitled JUSTINE (crediting Alice Arno as the star even though she was not in it). He also mentions COCKTAIL SPECIAL, a hardcore variation on “Philosophie in the Boudoir”, EUGENIE (1980) – shot in post-Franco Spain – as well as the “sexy giallo” SINFONIA EROTICA, GEMIDOS DE PLACER (which was shot in several ten minute takes), and the shot-on-video patchwork HELTER SKELTER (2000) but not TENDER FLESH in which he appears. New to the limited edition Blu-ray is the addition of a CD featuring the eleven-track Blue Phantom album "Distortions" from which Kikoine culled two library tracks to score COUNTESS PERVERSE and five for SINNER (released on DVD by Mondo Macabro) in boisterous stereo sound. A ten-page booklet titled "The Inveterate Voyeur" combines information from both DVD text essays into a concise new one, filmographies for Woods, Arno, Vernon, Busselier, Romay, Baillou, and Petit as well as a short piece on the aforementioned album along with a track listing. The Jess Franco Triple Feature Blu-ray is available exclusively at Mondo Macabro's website HERE. (Eric Cotenas)