One of the late Jess Franco’s most personal and alienating works gets the HD treatment in Redemption Film’s new Blu-ray of A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD.
Young heiress Christina Benton – or Benson, or Reiner depending on the scene or the dubbing – (Christina Von Blanc, VIRGIN REPORT) arrives in Portugal (some sources cite Belize, and the seaside setting is never specified) for the reading of her father’s will. In a not unexpected DRACULA-esque turn, she is warned away by the local innkeeper from staying at Monteserrat Mansion; and the personage of her transport – moronic manservant Basilio (director Franco himself in one of many such henchman roles) – is hardly encouraging. Upon arriving, she finds her stepmother Herminia (Rose Keikens) on her deathbed and “ice cold” relatives – Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF) and Aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar, THE LOVERS OF DEVIL’S ISLAND), as well as Carmenze (Britt Nichols, TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD) who is “one of the family”. Christina’s dreams are troubled by visions of her dead father (Paul Muller, LADY FRANKENSTEIN) and the “Queen of the Night” (Anne Libert, THE DEMONS) while her waking hours are plagued by possible hallucinations, warnings from a blind “seer” (Linda Hastreiter) that she her soul is in danger, leering perverts, and strangers who insist that no one lives in the castle.
Mounted by Franco after parting ways with Harry Alan Towers, and in the aftermath of the death of muse Soledad Miranda (VAMPYROS LESBOS) amidst a series of middling productions for prolific producer Artur Brauner (prolific in the sense that he backed everything from crap to award winners like EUROPA EUROPA), A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD is a surprisingly moving film as well as a black – even Bunuelian – comedy. Viewed again in this context Christina seems less oblivious to the strange behavior of her relatives, and more like someone desperate to belong to a family she has never known (and a good Christian hating the sins but loving the sinners). The scenes featuring Christina and her father are haunting and wonderfully realized (especially for a Franco film), and the Queen of the Night is an interesting personification of death (her smile as Christina flees from her isn’t so much malicious as possibly affirming that things are going to carry on the way they always do). The final waking scene finds Christina not cowering in terror but reaching outwards towards someone or something, and the ending might not be as tragic as it seems. For such a low budget production, it has an elegant location in the Castro Guimarães Palace (familiar to Franco fans from DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN, and DRACULA’S DAUGHTER among his other Portuguese-shot films), and an interesting cast including the always dependable Vernon (who dubs himself on the French track but not the English) and Muller. Bruno Nicolai contributed one of his best and most experimental score here (he is credited with “music and special effects” and I take the latter to mean the effects he achieved with the musical instrumentation), which was released on CD in Italy by Digitmovies.
A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD is yet another Franco film that exists in a number of variants. The film was shot by Franco as LA NUIT DES ÉTOILES FILANTES (“The Night of the Shooting Stars”) but reached French theaters as A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD with additional erotic footage shot by Pierre Queret (not a Franco pseudonym as suggested by IMDb) including a bedroom scene with obvious doubles for Howard Vernon and Britt Nichols (a visual illustration for the argument Christina overhears while unpacking her belongings) and nude inserts for a rape scene later in the film (a scene original to Franco's cut in which Christina discovers an ebony phallic statue in her bedroom was removed because the distributors didn't like it). When distributors approached Eurocine with a demand for erotic titles – Comptoir Francais du Film in this case – this version was retitled CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM and the ebony phallus scene reinstated (Queret also directed a boring garden orgy dream sequence in which Alice Arno (COUNTESS PERVERSE) uses a magic wand to direct the copulation of softcore four couples, and it may have been at this point that this footage was added). In the early 1980s with the success of DAWN OF THE DEAD and the Italian spin-offs (and rip-offs), Eurocine not only produced the limp ZOMBIE LAKE and OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES but also brought in Jean Rollin to shoot some footage featuring a double for Christina (long blond hair covering her face) being menaced by zombie extras (including one that looks a little like Patrick Dempsey, not a complement for either) and apparently a stand-in for the Queen of the Night.
The film went undistributed theatrically in the United States but reached us on video courtesy of Charles Band’s line of Wizard Video big box releases; however, this turned out to be a censored TV version of the Rollin zombie cut with the nude scenes either fogged, optically enlarged, or cut. While various versions with uncensored nudity where available in other countries, overseas releases of the English version – including the Japanese release (which would have been fogged of the frontal nudity anyway) and the UK Careyvision VHS – turned out to be this censored version (as well as an American sell-through cassette from TZ Video/Edde Entertainment titled ZOMBIE 4 which warned on its back cover of nudity and sexual situations). In the early 1990s, gray market dealers Midnight Video and Video Search of Miami each tried to rectify this with composite versions.
I have not seen the VSOM version, but the Midnight composite used the English-language Japanese-subtitled cassette release of the censored version (which seemed better-produced than Wizard’s version with Hi-Fi sound) as the base and augmented it with footage from the paler-looking French VHS release (presumably the SHV – whose logo was a backwards version of the trademarked VHS logo – edition) including the nudity that was part of Franco’s original cut as well as the Queret scenes including the garden orgy. These additions would have boosted the running time to roughly ninety-five minutes or so (regardless of the differing frame rates) but what brought the composite up over the one hundred minute mark was the repetition of one or two scenes. Midnight Video did not attempt to overdub French scenes (as European Trash Cinema did rather messily with their deck-to-deck setup for a handful of releases marrying English dubs to widescreen foreign cassette releases), so the dialogue scene between Christina and Carmenze was played first in the optically-enlarged version in English and then uncensored in French. The composite did, however, drop the original finale in favor of the TV cut’s circular ending.
While it was known by this time that zombie footage was not shot by Franco, and thus did not belong in a proper director’s cut, the Jess Franco scholarship emerging in the 1990s (at least in English) courtesy of books like OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO by Lucas Balbo, Peter Blumenstock, and Christian Kessler (with additional material by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas) and other later titles (some in English) – and a later wealth of interviews with the man himself once DVD took off – helped to further clarify what did belong to his version of the film. In the 1990s, Marc Morris assembled something closer to a director’s cut for UK label Redemption Films which presented the film letterboxed in French with English subtitles; however, this version did feature the Queret rape scene so it was censored by the BBFC (as was Arrow’s later 2002 DVD), but the Dutch Redemption Benelux tape was at least uncut.
German company X-Rated Kult Video released a two-disc clamshell edition which featured a non-anamorphic letterbox (1.85:1) edition of the director’s cut with English, French, and German tracks. Unfortunately, X-Rated created their own opening title sequence made up of shots from the Rollin zombie footage (the French credits were included as an extra). The English track was derived from the TV cut so bits where there was French dialogue with no English counterpart simply presented the dialogue for the scene in a loop. The disc also included the zombie footage (but not the Queret erotic footage) as an extra along with a deleted scene of Franco’s manservant terrorizing Christina with a stick of hanging shrunken heads (which was apparently part of one of the German releases of the film). Disc two featured “the producer’s cut” which was the Rollin zombie version in German only with a synth score (either new or from the German video release). Morris consulted again on the creation of a new 16:9 (1.80:1) master of Franco’s director’s cut for Image’s 2003 Euroshock DVD release which featured an interlaced transfer (running at the correct film speed however) with an English-subtitled French track and the English track re-synchronized to this cut (presumably it was dubbed early on for worldwide distribution since it doesn’t feature the usual Eurocine dubbers). Extras included the Rollin zombie scenes but only the first part of the Queret bedroom scene, the film’s trailer, and liner notes by Tim Lucas. A Japanese 2-disc release intercut the 16:9 master with the erotic footage (in 4:3 and likely from video) – with a bit of added digital fogging as per censorship standards – as well as the Rollin zombie cut (reportedly a rip of the Wizard tape).
The cut titled CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM (79:09) is regarded to be 99% of Jess Franco’s director’s cut; in that it is virtually identical to the Image release with the exception of the addition of the first part of the bedroom scene (Vernon double slapping Nichols double) as a way of – I guess – illustrating the argument Christina overhears. The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded widescreen (1.66:1) transfer was presumably transferred from the same source as the earlier SD master. There appears to have been little digital restoration work done on the transfer with the lack of detail in some long and medium shots seems to have less to do with noise reduction and more with less-than-diligent focus pulling (Jose Climent is credited as the cinematographer, although Franco may have shot many of the scenes and shots in which he was not present). In the commentary track, Tim Lucas says the photography is more elegant than in Franco’s other works. While elegant was not a term I associated with the photography before, the new transfer does lend itself to reassessment and there are quite a few elegant compositions (disrupted by bumpy zooms and pans). Although it lacks the subtle greenish tinge of the previous master, the colors are more defined but not significantly different (suggesting that the more vibrant colors on the Wizard tape version may be boosted rather than the Eurocine film elements faded).
This cut can be watched with uncompressed LPCM 2.0 tracks in French or English (the former sounding cleaner for the most part) and optional English subtitles, as well as an audio commentary by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas. Lucas frames the storyline in the context of Soledad Miranda’s death and interprets it as a film about the dangers of a “mind that lingers too long in morbidity”. He points out clues to an interesting psychological interpretation of the story and the odd behavior of some of the peripheral characters. He very astutely points out that A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD is one of the few films in Franco’s oeuvre that does not contain names and plot elements recycled from earlier films or in later works (apart from certain thematic ties to THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR in which Emma Cohen plays a woman whose perception of reality becomes seriously skewed after the suicide of her father [Howard Vernon]).
There are some silences in the track as well as some editing errors causing a remark to be repeated after a few seconds, as if the Redemption techs were moving the track around and cutting it up to better synchronize with the onscreen action (and I wonder if the track was recorded using the Image cut rather than the CHRISTINA version even if the difference is only a few seconds). Lucas does make a couple of minor errors such as attributing the direction of THE DEAD ARE ALIVE (which featured Christina Von Blanc in a small role as a victim) to Osvaldo Civirani rather than Armando Crispino, and suggesting that Midnight Video’s composite peppered their cut through with the zombie footage when that was in fact done before them by the preparers of the TV version (see below); but the track is as information-packed as Lucas’ Bava tracks (another filmmaker he has been writing about for almost or more than thirty years) and not a bad way to re-watch the film.
The alternate “zombie” version (89:51) here – bearing the VIRGIN title – is worth a look to fans since it makes for a very different viewing experience for those of us who know of this version by way of the Wizard tape. Presumably the title card as seen on the Image DVD belongs to the erotic UNE VIERGE CHEZ LES MORTS VIVANTS release from the 1970s (since the font matches that of the rest of the credits) – before the CHRISTINA retitle – while the VIERGE title card here uses the more “horrific” font seen on the title cards of some of Eurocine’s eighties titles like CANNIBAL TERROR and ZOMBIE LAKE. Whereas the Wizard version spliced the zombie footage in pretty much whenever there was a shot of Christina sleeping, the French version here does not bring in the zombie footage until roughly fifty-six minutes into the film in one of two lengthy sequences (as seen on the Image extras). The Wizard version intercut the second zombie sequence – the “sacrifice” in which the Queen of the Night stand-in pours a bowl of blood onto the Christina double – with the sacrifice as seen in the original cut (all of the optical fogging seen on the Wizard version is thankfully absent here). This intercut version is scored with Nicolai’s rock cue (as it is on the English track) but scored with a different cue that is not on the soundtrack CD and may not actually be a Nicolai track since the footage was shot years later.
The Wizard version also moved the early scene in which Christina wakes from a nightmare at the inn (visualized with the zombie footage in the Wizard version but not here) and has a conversation with another guest (a doctor played by Franco’s then-wife Nicole Guettard) to the end. This scene ended with Franco’s manservant appearing with the letter, and this bit is reprised for a circular nightmare ending. The more poetic “River Styx” ending is dropped from the Wizard version but unfolds normally in the original zombie version seen here on the disc. Rather than being a reconstruction, the zombie version appears to be a different transfer from the erotic version with different damage including a few vertical scratches and various dings and bits of dirt. Redemption has thankfully included both French and English tracks (in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mono) and English subtitles for this extra.
The disc’s supplement of “Erotic Footage” (5:18) consists of the boring garden orgy featuring Alice Arno and Pierre Taylou – and apparently also directed by Queret – which is presented separately not because of quality (it appears to be newly-scanned like the rest of the film), but because it does not exactly fit in either version seen on this disc (the French and Spanish versions in which I’ve seen this footage are the CHRISTINA version that features all of the Queret footage but none of the zombie footage). The other Queret footage – the rest of the bedroom scene (which may contain the first erection seen in a Franco film) and the rape inserts – are not part of this extra; however, they are present in the zombie version (the latter footage was included on the Image disc in the extras along with the zombie footage and the first part of the bedroom scene). The film’s trailer (2:06) includes a shot – possibly an outtake – of Franco’s servant holding a stick with a … (which apparently was part of some German tape releases)
In “Mysterious Dreams” (11:12), Franco talks about the experience of shooting in Portugal which he regarded as a much freer country than Spain (he even recalls having the Portuguese Republican Guard protecting the shoot against onlookers including those who might object to the skinny-dipping scene). Regarding the surreal approach to the film, he reminds viewers that he started out on the state working under three of Spain’s major surrealist writers of the period. He doesn’t comment on the cast – not even Vernon or Muller – but he does recall working with prolific composer Nicolai (a neighbor who sometimes called him over to help out with orchestration). In “Three Faces of Christina” (11:52), Lasoeur, Petit, Bouyxou, and Balbo discuss the film’s various incarnations from director’s cut to erotica to zombie film. All three of the concurrently-released Franco Blu-rays feature a Daniel Gouyette-directed homage (8:24) in which the aforementioned participants as well as Bruno Terrier, Stephane Derderian (the man behind the restored masters of LE COMTESSE PERVERSE and PLAISIR A TROIS), as well as director Merrill Aldighieri muse on what the departed Franco is doing now (ranging from nothing to reuniting with his departed stars to finally direct the film he wanted, to waiting for a new audience to recognize his work). A photo gallery and a selection of Franco trailers (THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF, FEMALE VAMPIRE, EXORCISM/DEMONIAC, and OASIS OF THE ZOMBIE) rounds out the package. (Eric Cotenas)
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