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VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970)
[aka Las Vampires aka The Heiress of Dracula aka The Heritage of Dracula aka El Signo del Vampiro]

"I captivated many men – and many women. I bewitched them. They lost their identity. I became them…. But then I met Linda. Now I’m under her spell. I have to initiate her into our circle…."

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Director: Franco Manera (Jesus Franco)

Starring: Susann Korda (Soledad Miranda), Ewa Strömberg, Dennis Price, Paul Müller, Michael Berling, Heidrun Kussin, Viktor Feldman, Jesus Franco

Screenplay: Franco Manera (Jesus Franco)

Synopsis: In an Istanbul nightclub, a beautiful dark-haired woman performs an exotic dance routine. In the audience, Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg) becomes increasingly excited as she watches the performance, recognising the dancer as the woman who has been appearing to her in a recurrent dream. Linda tells her psychiatrist, Dr Steiner (Paul Müller), about her dream, confessing that she found it deeply erotic. Dr Steiner dismisses her concerns, diagnosing her as being sexually frustrated, and suggesting that she get herself a better lover. As part of her job, Linda is ordered to leave Istanbul for Anatolia to assist the Countess Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda) with a complicated inheritance. Arriving in the set-off point for the Kadidados Islands, where the Countess lives, Linda is told that she has missed the boat, but that a hotel room has been ordered for her. The hotel’s strange porter, Memmet (Jesus Franco), warns Linda not to go to the Countess’s island, that it is a place of madness and death. Promising more revelations, Memmet asks Linda to meet him in the wine cellar, but when she gets there she finds him torturing a captive woman and flees in horror. Arriving on the Countess’s island, Linda finds her client’s house deserted. Becoming unnerved by the situation, Linda reacts with horror to the sight of drops of blood sliding down a window. Preparing to leave, she is stopped by a woman’s voice. It is the Countess. Linda is stunned to realise that she is the woman from the nightclub – the woman of her dreams. Linda tries to talk business, but the Countess suggests a swim instead. Later, Linda and the Countess discuss the terms of the Countess’s inheritance from Count Dracula. Linda accepts a glass of wine, but upon drinking it, becomes dizzy, then loses consciousness. When Linda wakes, she finds herself in her bedroom. The Countess is in the room. Slowly, the Countess undresses Linda and seduces her, finally biting her upon her throat…. When Linda wakes again she is naked upon her bedroom floor. She dresses and goes looking for the Countess. To her horror, she finds her floating in her swimming-pool, apparently dead. Linda screams and faints…. Regaining consciousness, Linda finds herself in the private clinic of Dr Seward (Dennis Price), with no memory of what happened to her….

Comments: After blowing a heaven-sent opportunity with the painfully disjointed and unsatisfying El Conde Dracula, Jesus Franco turned the entire Dracula story on its head in Vampyros Lesbos – and made, somewhat surprisingly, a much better film. This distaff version of the venerable tale is most notable for its blatant inversion of the rules of the game. The story centres on a female vampire, the Countess Nadine Carody, who has inherited (literally, oddly enough) the estate of Count Dracula. Instead of inhabiting the fog-shrouded mountains of middle Europe, the Countess favours the sun-drenched shores of the Mediterranean. Her preferred mode of transport is not a horse-drawn carriage but a chauffeur-driven car; and far from hiding from the deadly effects of the sun’s rays, she spends a goodly proportion of her time skinny-dipping and nude sun-bathing. Nor does Nadine choose to hide from the public eye: her evenings are spent in a nightclub in Istanbul, performing a bizarre striptease involving a mirror (and yes, she has a reflection), a candelabrum, and a "mannequin" that comes to life when caressed (of all of Franco’s notorious "nightclub" sequences, this is perhaps the most eccentric). Along with its female protagonist, Vampyros Lesbos also boasts a female "Renfield" in the character of Agra, a permanent inmate of Dr Seward’s clinic, who spends most of her time writhing around semi-nude and crying for "the Queen of the Night" to come back to her. The film’s most inventive inversion, however, comes in the character of Dr Seward himself who, far from heading up the band of vampire hunters, actually wants to be a vampire himself! When Nadine invades his clinic to confront him over his attempt to separate her from Linda, Seward begs her to initiate him, and begins reciting the words that are part of the ritual. When Nadine scorns his request, Seward does a complete one-eighty and starts calling upon God for help. This act of hypocrisy is his last, as Nadine’s servant, Morpho, strangles him to death. And rightly so.

One convention that Franco does not tamper with (he would, three years later, in The Bare-Breasted Countess) is having a woman as the object of the vampire’s desire. The breakdown in censorship worldwide during the late sixties and early seventies saw a rush of films combining sex and horror, with the lesbian vampire becoming a stock horror film character. Vampyros Lesbos contains more sex than violence (in the German version of the film, at least), with Soledad Miranda involved in lengthy couplings with both Ewa Strömberg and the "mannequin" who shares the nightclub stage with Nadine (and whose name I’m sorry to say I do not know). Exploitative these scenes might be, but they have the merit of being staged with a frank eroticism light years away from the air of giggly embarrassment that infuses similar scenes in the contemporary Hammer productions. (Furthermore, the second nightclub scene ends with an unexpected splash of black humour as Nadine forgets herself and vampirises her stage partner, leaving her dead and bloody-throated. The nightclub audience applauds enthusiastically.) More interesting than the scenes themselves, however, is what lies beneath them. Vampyros Lesbos is a film deeply informed with the male attitude of lesbianism as something that is simultaneously an attraction and a threat.

The widespread occurrence of lesbian sex scenes in everything from mainstream movies to pornography is indicative of just how attractive an image this is to the heterosexual male. It is significant, however, that in the vast majority of cases these scenes are staged purely as male fantasy, and enacted under male control. This is particularly obvious in pornographic movies, where no matter how intense and enthusiastic the lesbian action, the women involved can be relied upon to behave "correctly" should a man appear on the scene – that is, forget about each other and concentrate on him. At the other extreme, many horror films are underscored by the feeling – or fear - that women can get along quite nicely without any men at all. In Vampyros Lesbos, the Countess Carody is very much a man’s idea of a lesbian. She was not born a lesbian, but "became one" after being raped. Consequently, she "hates all men". (Left unexplained is Morpho’s presence in her household, her tendency to confide in him, and his devotion to her.) The notion of the "predatory lesbian" dovetails nicely with the vampire mythology, of course, but here a bizarre and revealing twist is put on that stereotype by the inclusion of one of the oddest of Jesus Franco’s cameo film appearances. Here he casts himself as Memmet, a deeply weird hotel porter who, it transpires, was the husband of Agra, the "female Renfield". Cornering Linda, Memmet gibbers, "She went to the woman on the island – when she came back she was crazy!" By Memmet’s definition, "crazy" means "had lost interest in men". His response to this sexual humiliation is to go completely nuts himself, kidnapping women and torturing them to death in the hotel wine cellar. Male violence as a response to "unnatural" female sex is a staple of the vampire genre. The lesbian vampire film, even more than the "classical" kind, tends to conclude with a posse of outraged men – fathers, husbands, brothers, lovers – descending upon the cause of the "infection" and doling out bloody retribution. Vampyros Lesbos includes a scaled-down version of the same convention, the two-man posse consisting of Linda’s discarded lover, Omar, and her psychiatrist, Dr Steiner, who joins in when Omar finally convinces him that Nadine has Linda under her spell. (Presumably, when Steiner told Linda to get herself a better lover, this was not what he had in mind.) However, interestingly, it is not the men who dispose of Nadine, but Linda herself. The ending of Vampyros Lesbos is ambiguous and haunting. Acting on the advice of Dr Seward, Linda prepares to stake her undead lover through the eye. "I don’t want to belong to you," she tells Nadine – and then bites her. The inference seems to be that Linda does not object to life as a vampire, nor to lesbian sex, but merely to being in a subordinate position. Lurking within this twist is the suggestion – one dealt with more explicitly in She Killed In Ecstasy – that it is career-woman Linda’s independence and self-reliance that laid her open to attack in the first place. By being insufficiently "feminine", she made herself susceptible to Nadine’s seduction.

A little unusually for a Franco film, certain aspects of Vampyros Lesbos have a genuine emotional resonance. Nadine herself is a distinctly sympathetic character, made a vampire against her will, and now confronted with the necessity of inflicting the same fate upon the person she loves in order to keep her. Nadine’s recitation of her history is quite touching, and so too is the ultimate fate of poor Morpho who, after kissing his mistress goodbye, commits suicide with the metal spike used to stake her. Visually, the film is consistently interesting. The locations are well used, and have the benefit of unfamiliarity. The blue of the sky and sea, and the earth tones of the outdoor settings, make an attractive contrast with the stark black and white and red décor of Nadine’s houses. Much of the film’s imagery is engaging, even if, on a symbolic level, it is fairly obvious. The opposing of blonde Linda and brunette Nadine is further emphasised by having the two women dressed in white and black, respectively. As Linda falls under Nadine’s spell she begins to dress like her, while Nadine wears white only once, as she goes to her death. Similarly, Linda is throughout equated with a butterfly trapped in a net, and Nadine with a scorpion. The immersion of the scorpion – the unnatural consumed by the natural – signals the vampire’s doom. Her ending is also foreshadowed by perhaps the film’s most stunning shot: Nadine floating in her pool, naked, her red scarf spread out around her like streams of blood. By combining actual dream sequences with repeated shots of billowing gauze curtains, nets, drops of blood and circling kites, Franco succeeds in conjuring up an hallucinatory atmosphere that almost disguises the fact that the film’s plot is of full of holes big enough to drive a tank through. (In this respect, the explicit mention of "Dracula" is a big mistake: it jars the viewer out of the created mood.) Also worthy of mention is the film’s amazing psychedelic score, composed by Siegfried Schwab and Manfred Hubler. This, the dreamy visuals, and the sensuous performance of Soledad Miranda combine to make Vampyros Lesbos one of Jess Franco’s stronger films. Having said that, I should perhaps confess to being somewhat of a neophyte when it comes to the films of Franco. In other words – seven down, Lord-knows-how-many-hundred to go!