KILLER BARBYS (1996) Blu-ray
Director: Jess Franco
Redemption Films/Kino Lorber

Jess Franco's last theatrical release KILLER BARBYS hits Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and Redemption Films.

On their way to a concert venue in El Algar, the Killer Barbies van breaks down along a foggy shortcut and they are invited to stay at the nearby castle of Countess Olga Fledermaus (Maria Angela Giordano, BURIAL GROUND) by her secretary Arkan (Aldo Sambrell, VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST). Singer Flavia (Sylvia Superstar), boyfriend Rafa (music producer Carlos Subterfuge, LUST FOR FRANKENSTEIN), and gay band manager Mario (Charlie S. Chaplin, JUNGLE OF FEAR) take him up on the offer while drummer Billy (Billy King) and Sharon (Angie Barea) stay behind to continue screwing in the back seat. Right away, Flavia and Mario suspect that something is off about Arkan and the household, although they are unaware that the mistress of the house is a skeleton that needs a mixture of human blood and semen to restore her beauty. While Arkan, insane tramp Balthazar (Santiago Segura, TORRENTE), and cannibalistic dwarves Pipo (Alberto Martínez) and Pipa (Pepa López) make short work of Billy and Sharon, Flavia and Mario puzzle over the rejuvenated countess' resemblance to golden age comic opera actress Olga Lujan and her ancestress who was a favorite of the court of Louis II ("People are only as old as they appear," replies the countess while dining on a dish of entrails). Rafa is entranced by the "beautiful bitch" and goes off to bed with her while Flavia and Billy find their attempts to escape blocked by crossbow-toting Arkan and scythe-wielding Balthazar.

A mix of horror, comedy, and music video, KILLER BARBYS is as much a for-hire job as a brief return to the more Gothic works from Franco's early period like THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF (and the later REVENGE IN THE HOUSE OF USHER) infused with the eroticism of his later films. A vampire-like figure who feeds on semen and blood, Olga ultimately takes a dagger to one of her victims but she also "drains" him sexually before. Olga is not a Karnstein or a Karlstein; rather, the film creates a mythos in which she was murdered by a Satanic monk (Arkan) who then brought her back to life and became her servant. Superstar makes for a credible heroine and Giordano is still charming and alluring while British Chaplin (who speaks in English and undubbed Spanish) and Subterfuge provide support and some amusing throwaway lines. Sambrell is suitably grave to prevent scenes at the skeletonized countess' bedside from seeming silly and more in line with Morpho mooning over the comatose Melissa in ORLOFF and USHER. Franco's later SNAKEWOMAN was a variation on VAMPYROS LESBOS focusing on another seemingly immortal starlet of the early days of cinema.

The photography of Javier Perez Zofio (NIGHT OF THE SKULL, SILENCE OF THE TOMB) who started working with Franco under Manuel Merino during the Harry Alan Towers period favors expressionistic angles and lighting with chilly and foggy blue day-for-night exteriors and warm candlelit interiors showcasing some very odd set decoration that at times recalls the décor of Castle Dracula in Herzog's remake of NOSFERATU. Prosthetic gore is crude but more accomplished than what one has come to expect in Franco films while the score is a mix of songs from Killer Barbies, fellow Subterfuge Records band Sexy Sadie (including one track also featured in TENDER FLESH), and discordant synth janglings credited to Daniel White (EROTIKILL) that may be outtakes from his score for the French version of OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES. Lina Romay's given name Rosa M. Almirall is credited as editor but it may also be Franco himself since the director was credited as "Joan Almirall" for the cinematography of THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND DESIRES. Ultimately, the film is too silly to appeal to fans of Franco's more poetic works of horrotica but it is an entertaining diversion that shows what Franco might have made of his DTV works with a bit more money and resources (even if he preferred less of both).

Unreleased theatrically in the states, KILLER BARBYS hit DVD in 2001 courtesy of Shriek Show who went all out with an anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen transfer, Spanish stereo and a mono-sounding English dub as well as English subtitles, interviews, and Killer Barbies music videos. When Kino Lorber announced that they would be releasing the film from a new 4K scan, it was feared that the original Spanish track would not be included since the version streaming on Amazon Prime from Kino was a French dub without subtitles. Fortunately, the Blu-ray features Spanish, English, and French audio in DTS 2.0 as well as English subtitles for the Spanish track. The Spanish track is definitely preferable since it is a mix of live production audio with actors speaking in both English and Spanish as well as some post-synch (including Franco himself dubbing Balthazar and what sounds like Lina Romay in a couple brief bits for the skeletonized Olga). The flatter English dub was likely prepared by Eurocine at the same time as the French dub since the company had also created English dubs for Jean Rollin's DRACULA'S BRIDE and TWO ORPHAN VAMPIRES when they offered them up for sale internationally. All three tracks have their rough edges with the Spanish track having stereo separation when it comes to effects, White's original scoring, and scenes where the punk music is the only thing on the soundtrack but sounding flatter in scenes with dialogue and other effects. The English track is similarly faulty but the opening Killer Barbies number has a bit more umph on the track than the French while also possibly sounding differently pitched. The French dub, on the other hand, is definitely mono with just about everything sounding flatter and recessed in the mix.

The image, on the other hand, is an MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen encode of a new 4K scan of "original film materials" and is quite an improvement on the DVD in terms of clarity, color, and framing (the DVD's 1.66:1 framing noticeably clipped more at the top than the Blu-ray). The film was shot with old school style stocking diffusion, filters, and even had shots that where a clear glass filter was painted with Vaseline to only leave a portion of the image sharp. Candles bloom and light sources flare because a deliberate stylistic choice to shoot many scenes with the aperture opened up all the way while other scenes prove that Franco and company had adequate light to shoot with more depth of field. The otherworldly aspect of the film looks a bit less haphazard here with the camera crew intentionally not using color temperature gels on the windows to contrast blue outside light with the warm candlelight, and the day for night exteriors are clearer than before, looking chilly but not overly blue.

The sole extra is an audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth that is focused intermittently on the film but more so on Franco's life and career, including his family's musical lineage. Howarth does call attention to stylistic touches reminiscent of James Whale and Franco's love of the Universal horrors while also noting the film's Eurohorror scenario of modern young characters in a gothic setting along with Franco's preference for Bava and Freda over Fulci and Argento. He also discusses how the relationship between Olga and Arkan is reminiscent of Roof and Melissa and the doctor and his sister in FACELESS, and contrasts the punk music performance sequences with the music hall scenes and performance art pieces of Franco's earlier works. (Eric Cotenas)