This piece of early seventies, supernatural, surrealist erotica represents Jess Franco at the very peak of his powers. A delirious phantasmagoria of all the motif's that Franco fans have come to relish in the work of this obsessive cinephile — ''Vampyros Lesbos'' is the perfect introduction to his work, and one of the most enduring realisations of the unique cinematic universe that Franco has been busy concocting for the last thirty years. The film is a fractured dreamscape of poetic symbolism, tortured eroticism and romantic perversion; eschewing conventional narrative, it tells it's story with disparate images and barely connected set pieces that leave a haunted after image in the minds eye, and the feeling that one has tasted something of what can be shown but not said ... an occult world, that one of the main characters is so desperate to be initiated into. Somehow, no matter how irrelevant a scene may be to the main thrust of the film, everything just seems to cohere and meld together (beneath the jazz soaked soundtrack) to form one mesmerising, hallucinogenic whole.
While on a business trip to Istanbul, estate agent Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stromberg) finds herself experiencing a series of sensuous, erotic dreams — all of which feature the hypnotic presence of an attractive, dark-haired woman who beckons Linda to join her. One night at a club, Linda and her boyfriend Omar (Andres Monales) watch a bizarre ritualistic night-club act, featuring two women indulging in stylised erotic lesbianism; Linda realises that one of them is the woman from her dream! She visits a psychiatrist, Dr Steiner, for advice: but he has nothing better to tell her than that the whole thing is down to sexual frustration, and that she should find herself a better lover! Linda decides to get on with her business, and arranges to meet her client, Countess Nadine Cardory (Soledad Miranda). The Countess lives on the Mediterranean Island of Anatolia; while Linda is waiting for a boat to take her to meet her client, she stays in a strange hotel and has a brush with a mad porter called Memmet (Jess Franco), who tortures and kills women in the wine cellar! Escaping his clutches, she sails to the island, and while looking around the Countess's apartment, senses that she has been there before. Countess Carody of course, turns out to be the alluring beauty from Linda's dream. The Countess has inherited some property from the Dracula family, and it soon becomes apparent that that is not all she has inherited from Count Dracula. After a touch of naked sunbathing, Linda is completely entranced by the sultry and enigmatic young woman, and soon succumbs to a spot of lesbian vampirism! She wakes up to find herself a patient of a Dr Seward -- with no memory of the previous events. Dr Seward is not all he appears however, it seems he is keen to be initiated into the secrets of the supernatural world, and is trying to gain access to the Countess through one of his patents, Agra (Heidrin Kussin), who is also in the Vampire's thrall. Linda soon finds herself being drawn to Countess Carody once again, and this time she is initiated into the ways of the vampires. Omar and Dr Steiner race to rescue her — but will she want to renounce her new undead lover?
''Vampyros Lesbos'' has a very similar feel to Argento's ''Inferno'' in some respects — it has very minimalist plotting (some people might find it boring) and creates its own world with its own rules, the logic of which is not always apparent to the viewer. There is lots of symbolism used to suggest hidden meaning, Franco uses red objects to suggest occult forces existing parallel to the everyday world: a red kite floating in a Mediterranean blue sky; a red flag fluttering in the wind, on the ship that takes Linda to the island; the countess's red scarf, floating in a swimming pool.
''Inferno'' though, creates atmosphere and dread through it's otherworldly use of colour, light and shadow, and has a rather conventional horror movie, ''Gothic'' feel; a large portion of it takes place at night, and a palpable sense of supernatural evil is conjured up. Franco's film on the other hand, barely feels like a horror movie — his vampire ''heroine'' is not particularly concerned with staying out of daylight for instance; in fact, she is quite happy sunbathing on the beach! All of the action takes place in broad daylight, and the vampire in this film doesn't really come across as evil; she is more of a tragic figure, who is largely sympathetic thanks to Soledad Miranda's cool and assured performance.
We learn that as a human, living two hundred years previously, Nadine had been ''saved'' by Count Dracula while being raped by a soldier. The Count became obsessed with her, eventually giving up his life so that she can live on. Ever since, she has hated men and feeds exclusively off women. When she meets Linda, the Countess becomes as obsessed with the woman as Dracula had been with her. In an interesting twist, Linda has just as much of a hold on Nadine as the vampire does on her other female victims like Agra, who goes ''mad'' because she can't be with the Countess. This seems to be a common theme in the movie — lots of the characters are emotionally dependent on others in a destructive way. Franco's character Memmet turns out to be Agra's husband, who has been driven to murder because, since his wife fell under the countess's spell, this is the closest relationship he can have with anyone without them leaving him! Vampirism of course, is the ultimate metaphor for this kind of emotional slavery/dependency.
The PAL disc under review is on the Second Sight label and is region 2 encoded; the picture quality is incredible for a low budget film made in 1970 - the colours are vivid and the picture is sharp. The night club scenes look a little fuzzy, and the colours somewhat unstable, but this is not too distracting as they are quite surreal scenes anyway! The rest of the film looks great and is presented in uncut anamorphic widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 widescreen TV's with a clear mono soundtrack. The film is in German with removable English subtitles; we get very little in the way of extras I'm afraid — just a trailer and a photo gallery — but the film its self has never looked as good as it does here.
Although there is plenty of nudity on display — courtesy of the two female leads — the sex is actually rather tame, and will disappoint anyone who is only interested in this element of it. Although ''Vampyros Lesbos'' is undoubtedly low budget exploitation fare, it manages to transcend it's humble origins, and achieve a kind of poetic beauty that is quite enthralling. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to dip their toe into the strange world of Jess Franco for the first time.
Note: DVD cover pictured is of the Synapse Region 0 NTSC version.