Ok, just take a look a look at that cover. Is this not the best cover for any film ever? It has absolutely everything: the hordes of fiendish decaying zombies, a grave, the spooky old dark house, a full moon, bats, the amazing candy colours, a beautiful and probably naked woman, dripping blood, and a title including both the word “Virgin”, and the phrase “Living Dead”. By the looks of that, this should be the best film ever! Unfortunately, that expectation is tempered slightly by the other words on the cover: the phrase “Directed by Jess Franco”. For the film inside the case is not the same one as the cover promises unfortunately, and it’s not hard to imagine many people being very disappointed by the film you actually get. That’s a shame, because this is a fun and atmospheric little curio with plenty of interest.
It opens very promisingly, with a great title sequence as Christina (the beautiful and often naked Christina von Blanc) drives up to her family home in British Honduras for the reading of her father’s will, accompanied by Bruno Nicolai’s inventive score with weird percussive effects leading into a propulsive rhythm and a seriously groovy bass-line. For a moment, you think that this may just be the film that the cover promises. But it then takes a more reflective turn, and instead operates as a neatly off-balancing and vaguely disconcerting atmospheric ghost story. It’s sometimes hard to work out whether the film is a deliberately vague, surreal and arty dreamscape, or just plain inept. Personally, I lean towards the former, although many will find the film to be a maddeningly weird, obscure and nonsensical piece exercise in non-narrative. Certainly, the film has a surreal, hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness feel, which is almost as though Franco is refusing to show what is actually happening, but instead showing bizarre frescos, visual representations of the physical world. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the borders of reality and sanity are unclear. It’s not clear what’s actually happening for much of the film, and even when it ended I have to say I’m still not sure quite what much of it actually meant. Crucially though, even if the actual meaning is unclear, the feelings and effects that the film has on the viewer remain fascinating, and disturbing. Franco really shows that he has a great eye for disquieting images, such as the Mass (or similar) being conducted whilst one girl is painting her toenails, and another smoking a cigarette, or the sudden splashes of red. There is also a rich vein of dark comedy running through the film, including the director’s customary cameo as the strange, sleazy servant who speaks only in grunts, and snores all the way through the reading of the will.
Whilst the film is reasonably entertaining for much of its running time, it’s not until the final 20 minutes that it really begins to come together, starting with a strange incident involving a huge black dildo mysteriously appearing in Christina’s room. From here on, it’s entirely unclear how much is dream, how much real, and how much madness, and where all of the most memorable images appear as Christina is plagues by the recurrent dreams of her hanged father, and by visions of The Queen of Darkness, a strange woman dressed in black. One scene with her in particular carries a strangely devastating emotional impact that the rest of the film has not prepared you for. Like many Franco films (particularly of this period), it has a downbeat and fatalistic conclusion.
Perhaps the film’s biggest achievement is in its amazing utilization of sound and music. During this time, it almost seems as though there was a competition going on between the Italian composers to see who could produce the most inventive music, and Nicolai wrote an amazing score for this film. There’s some amazing writing for percussion, with all kinds of weird effects echoing around during the more creepy moments, building into driving rhythms at other times. He does a neat line in groovy bass lines that propel the film on during key scenes, whilst the most memorable music is the gorgeous vocal lines associated with The Queen of Darkness. If this isn’t actually Morricone’s favoured collaborator Edda Dell’Orso singing, then the vocalist does an impressive approximation. But more than just the score, the sound effects are used quite brilliantly too, to off-balancing effect that can’t let you relax. Sometimes the sounds play against the actually images, seemingly unrelated to what’s onscreen. Other times, they’re grossly exaggerated with weird echoing voices calling, and insects buzzing filling the soundscape.
Redemption Films and Kino/Lorber bring A Virgin Among the Living Dead to Blu-ray in an impressively stocked set that includes both the 90 minute cut of the film (replete with the added zombie footage shot by Jean Rollin), as well as Franco’s original 79 minute cut (under the title Christina, Princess of Eroticism).
Both versions of the film are presented in 1.66:1, and each feature warts-and-all transfers culled from original negative sources, but, save for some speckling and the occasional artifact, the prints look quite crisp and vibrant, especially given their vintage. Sure, neither version approaches the quality of a true remastering, but it’s doubtful a title like this will ever be the on the receiving end of such a pricey and labourious endeavor, so this is likely the best the film will look or sound for the foreseeable future.
What’s really impressive is the sheer amount of bonus features Redemption has included in this set, including a fantastic and informative commentary track by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas. Lucas’ encyclopedic knowledge of all things Euro Horror is on full display, here, and his appreciation for Franco’s work is truly infectious. It’s one of the best commentary tracks I’ve heard in a long while, and I’m looking forward to more of his insights in future releases.
Other Franco-specific extras include “Mysterious Dreams”, which offers a short-but-sweet interview with the late Franco, while “Jess, What Are You Doing Now?” features interviews with Franco’s regular collaborators.
Also included is a collection of bonus “softcore footage” shot for yet another (unreleased) version of the film, all three of which are covered in the excellent “The Three Faces of Christina”. Rounding out the extras is a collection of photos and trailers.
A Virgin Among the Living Dead is a fun, sexy, and charming slice of 70s ero-horror cheese. As ever with Franco, there are caveats; the pacing does start to drag slightly in the first hour, the zoom lens is over-used, and the acting is “interesting”. But if you’ve got a taste for these kinds of films, then you’ll be taken that as a given, and Virgin Among the Living Dead is worth checking out for EuroShock fans. It’s a strange and surreal little film that doesn’t make too much conventional sense but does linger in the memory.