The first release from a new Euro cult label, Maison Rouge (the sleaze label, Screenbound Pictures have another label, Black House, which focuses on horror), this is Jess Franco at his most visually arresting, poetic and dubious in depiction of content. Like many of his films Franco’s involvement with this production is masked by a variety of pseudonyms as writer, director, actor and editor but there is also an issue connected with the plethora of versions and titles by which the film is known. Here the version is Female Vampire, also known and marketed as Bare Breasted Countess. This is probably one of the closest versions to Franco’s vision and is – finally – released uncut. Previous incarnations fell foul of the censors’ shears but this is the 90+ minute original cut, provided in French with subtitles rather than the previous dubbed releases. So what’s to like or loathe?
Countess Irina Karlstein (Lina Romay) is the last descendent of her family. Locals have suspicions of a vampiric legacy that seems, to many, to be absurd, but the long lives and beauty of the Karlsteins clearly come at a cost. The Countess derives her energy by draining that of others during moments of passion, the love of her embrace killing them as they are seduced by her sexuality. The police become involved when corpses start appearing and the deaths seem particularly strange given the fact that all of the victims appear to have had strong orgasmic experiences prior to their respective demises. Irina commences a love affair with Austrian writer Baron Rathony (Jack Taylor) but can their romance survive or will he have to sell his soul to survive her passion?
Not to be confused with dodgy vampire comedy Vampire Hookers (1978) (‘Warm blood isn’t all they suck’) or Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy, Female Vampire is undoubtedly exploitation cinema but it also carries a great deal of personal engagement for Franco, whether loved or loathed by its audiences. The gorgeous titular vampire is central to the minimalist narrative, drifting through the misty forest clad in a costume comprising only a wide belt, a long cape and boots, or focusing on the seduction of her next lover/victim. The use of close-ups, notably on the eyes, is particularly important because the character is mute. She embraces her past and future, consumed by her desires as each of her victims fall prey to her ferocious lust.
Female Vampire offers plenty for Franco-philes to engage with. The style is very typical of the director’s oeuvre, with typical use of close-up photography, lingering lovingly on feminine nudity, but with slightly more restrained use of the zoom lens than usual. The director also uses the location and environment, notably the hazy woodlands, to great effect which enhances the poetic nature of the film, all complemented by Daniel White’s score. Franco’s early cause celebre Dr.Orloff (Jean-Pierre Bouyxou) even makes an appearance, a surgeon mortician whose knowledge about the case is sublime and who plays alongside Dr. Roberts in one of many onscreen cameos by the director, again under a pseudonym (Jess Franck).
A welcome release of one of Franco’s finest films (amongst a frankly enormous repertoire) Female Vampire offers the viewer poetic porn poetry. Also included on this disc are a number of welcome extras, such as an interview with Franco himself, where he movingly recalls his long time partner Romay and his views on filming characters (‘I hate men – men are dirty’), a documentary about Lina and Jess and an alternative version of the film, the better titled but bizarrely sex-light horror Erotikill. Fatal fellatio and cunnilingual killing may abound in this film but it has clearly been filmed, edited and performed with love. Yes, it is gratuitous and unacceptable and it will not be to everyone’s taste, but it is beautifully filmed sexploitation that is both perverse and personal.