Halloween Endurance Test: Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos is perhaps the world’s best horror music video. (At least it was until Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out.) The movie plays in the background while you lay back, listening to Mannfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab’s acid-jazz soundtrack. Every once in awhile you’ll come to, notice Soledad Miranda crawling around a nude mannequin on-stage, and quickly lay your weary head back down. It’s one of those, half-awake, grey Sunday morning films where you don’t care whether you’re actually conscious or not.

Not tonight though. Tonight I’ll ignore my overpowering love for the film’s soundtrack and actually pay attention to the plot. Which, as the title is Vampyros Lesbos (or Vampiros Lesbos depending on whether you want to believe the box/title screen, or the conflicting opening credits; don’t worry, it gets more confusing as it goes on!) might again be me expecting too much from a simple exploitation film. But that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Okay, I’m not a film director. I’ve never directed a movie, let alone the 300+ films Jess Franco has in his resume. That said, starting your film off with a performance art piece is risky. Watching performance art is testing enough. Watching people watch performance art is just painful. Even if the girl writhing on the floor is slowly taking her clothes off.

We’re ten minutes into Vampyros Lesbos and I just finally noticed that the captions aren’t on, and everyone is speaking German! Meaning no one says a word in the first ten minutes of this film! (I’d rewind it here, but I really can’t imagine having missed anything of importance.)

“Madness and death rule the island.”

The story follows Linda Westinghouse, as she travels to Turkey to execute a will. The will of a Countess Carody; who, in a neat touch, has been left with Dracula’s estate after his passing. The Countess is, naturally, the performance artist from the opening sequence, though Linda fails to make the connection. As for once being Dracula’s lover, the Countess is only concerned with girls now; perhaps in deference to the Count?

One interesting bit is how Franco changes up the Dracula story’s stock character. Normally, when Dracula feeds upon Lucy, Lucy’s friends rally around her. Not so here.

Linda is instead torn between wanting the Countess to dominate her, while still visiting her psychiatrist, Dr. Seward, to figure out what’s wrong with her. We, the audience, aren’t usually privy to this. The Linda/Lucy character usually straddles the line between protagonist/antagonist, and thus stays outside of our identifying scope.

Vampyros Lesbos’ version of Renfield, known here as Agra, also sheds no light on these changes. We meet her periodically throughout the film, constantly howling about her need to be with the Countess, though the only person the Countess is concerned with is Linda. Eventually the Countess does visit the sanitarium, conveniently coinciding with Agra’s topless bed scene, but only to say goodbye. The Countess is leaving, and all Agra can do is writhe.

Making one wonder if maybe Franco was just unfamiliar with the Dracula story he was (supposedly) using for inspiration. First, the Countess is completely immune to sunlight. Not bothered by it in the least, because, as you can see from the photos, she doesn’t even sport a tan! Next, vampire slaying is less crucifix, holy water, garlic, stakes through the heart, and more “split[ting] the head with an axe or pierc[ing] it with a bar!”

Also, vampires are associated with scorpions here, and not bats.

Considering how much artistic license has been taken with the story thus-far, you really have to wonder why the director of such “classics” as the Bare-Breasted Countess still has his vampires drinking from their victims’ necks. Hell, even Ingrid Pitt, in the far more conservative Vampire Lovers, drank from her victims’ breasts.

Especially shocking considering the other changes made to the vampires’ “siring” process. Here the vampiric transformation relies less on drinking blood, and more on performance art dances. Yes, the arty dance from the opening is replayed, but now we understand it. The mannequin is understood to be Linda, and while the Countess dances and undresses around her, we now notice that the clothing is being placed on the mannequin. Eventually leaving both half dressed (i.e. the mannequin has the bra on, the Countess the panties, each has one legging, etc.), at which point the Countess performs the (re)birth by sliding between the mannequin’s legs.

The rebirth is botched though, as Linda manages to retain enough of her humanity to stab the Countess in the head when the opportunity arises. A “shock” ending that’s somewhat surprising given how over the top Franco made everything else.

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