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The late Jesús ‘Jess’ Franco, who passed away on April 2nd of 2013 , was among the most prolific filmmakers of all time. There are wonderfully weird diamonds mixed among the more than 200 films he directed, but there’s only maybe a dozen even a cult film fan can appreciate. His value as an eccentric artist was all but lost in a sea of pornography (both the hardcore and softcore varieties) and a cursory brand of cheap exploitation that gives cheap exploitation a bad name. Unlike other smut-peddling ‘auteurs,’ like Aristide Massaccesi (aka: Joe D’Amato) and Jean Rollin, Franco didn’t really appreciate pure horror. His disinterest is readily apparent in most of his dull and listless genre films he released throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. His attempts at zombie ( Oasis of the Zombies, 1982), women in prison ( Women Behind Bars, 1975), and cannibal movies ( Mondo Cannibale, 1980) are among the worst the already junk-burdened subgenres have to offer. However, like his contemporaries, Franco was capable of making unique movies that endured beyond the constraints of his reputation as a purveyor of trash.

Severin Films Jess Franco Releases

Vampyros Lesbos

(1970):
Jess Franco was not the first filmmaker to blend vampires and lesbians. The tradition extends back to Joseph Sheridan le Fanu's novella Carmilla, which predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula and was the inspiration for several motion pictures, including Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (1960), and Roy Ward Bakers’ The Vampire Lovers (1970). The Vampire Lovers, which was produced by Britain’s Hammer Studios at a time that they were struggling to remain relevant in an increasingly sexually-charged era, was the spark that lit the fire under a brief ‘golden age’ of Sapphic vampire movies. Its popularity (and the popularity of its semi-sequels) coincided with and led to a number of European films (mostly from France, Spain, and Belgium, often with German financing), most notably Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), Jean Rollins’ The Nude Vampire & Shiver of the Vampires (1969, 1970), José Ramón Larraz’ Vampyres (1974), and Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971). Though not necessarily characteristic of his entire filmography, Vampyros Lesbos has become the default representation of Franco’s work. Had the Academy featured him in their ‘In Memoriam’ montage, it would’ve included a clip from this movie.

Too many of Franco’s films, even the enjoyable ones, are hobbled by minuscule budgets and overly referential scripts that ape other movies. Vampyros Lesbos, on the other hand, is more like a tastefully debauched, mod-themed fever dream that is occasionally interrupted by minor and sort of annoying story and character development (a subplot starring Franco as a deviant that kidnaps and tortures women is particularly extraneous, though also entertaining in its own right). At its best, it is a perfect storm of unrestrained montage imagery, capped off by a nice twist on the Dracula formula. Somehow, there is logic in the tone poem editing, which blends seemingly metaphorical and extremely studious images of nature (butterflies, scorpions, rippling waves), over-decorated apartments, and underdressed women into an utterly hypnotic soup. Even the nonsensically philosophical dialogue fits as it marches over the barely controlled, psychedelic chaos. Unlike most of Franco’s softcore and hardcore output, Vampyros Lesbos is best viewed when projected onto a dorm room wall and whileunder the influence of hallucinogens, rather than from the dark corners of a grindhouse with one’s hands down one’s pants.

Despite all of its groovy imagery and avant-garde appeal, Vampyros Lesbos would not have worked without the strong central performance of the incomparable Soledad Miranda. Miranda (given name Soledad Rendón Bueno) made her feature acting (not dancing) debut in Franco’s Queen of the Tabarin Club (1960), before finding fame in a number of musicals, melodramas, horror movies, and westerns. In 1970, Franco doubled down on her talents, casting her as his muse in Sex Charade, Nightmares Come at Night (aka: Les Cauchemars Naissent la Nuit), and Count Dracula, where she acted alongside Christopher Lee. Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy (see below) represent height of her working relationship with Franco. These two films, along with The Devil Came from Akasava (also 1971) and Eugénie (aka: Eugenie De Sade and Eugenie Sex Happening, shot mostly in 1970), are incredibly dependent on her vivid presence.

Miranda’s quiet, wide-eyed, and impossibly charismatic performances are often compared to the otherwise incomparable Barbara Steele, but Steele was an unwavering ham (a fantastic one) that brought the best of the silent era to modern horror. Miranda’s appeal was effortless. In the case of Vampyros Lesbos, she spends most of the movie silently staring just off-camera, stripping and fondling her human playthings, or literally lying still, yet her authority as modern female Dracula remains credible. It isn’t hard to believe that she’s able to entrance her victims into participating in her predatory sexual acts when her very presence is so magnetic.

Vampyros Lesbos made its North American DVD debut twice in 2000; first, a 1.66:1 non-anamorphic release from Synapse Films and then a badly cropped, 1.78:1 anamorphic release from Image Entertainment. This 1080p Blu-ray from Synapse Films marks the first HD home video release. The footage is newly remastered and framed in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The image quality is fantastically crisp and vivid with only minor signs of age or print damage cropping up in a select few scenes. Usually, this is corrected mid-shot, leading me to believe Severin was working from multiple sources. Grain levels do fluctuate and are usually at their heaviest, either when Franco is shooting establishing shots outdoors or when he is confined to a small, dark interior. Some of these outdoor images appear slightly over-exposed and ‘bloomy’ as well, but I believe this is part of Franco’s design (also be assured that the blurry shots are not a digital defect, but Franco’s mistake). In terms of compression artefacts, I did notice a touch of low-level noise in the backgrounds of some scenes, but that’s about it. The kaleidoscopic palette is strongly represented with only minor cross-colouration and bleeding effects (usually the fault of those impossibly bright and searing reds). Black levels are deeper and more uniform than they had been on previous releases, which helps to separate elements and deepen the 3D effect of Franco’s overzealous focus-pulling.

Severin has also restored Vampyros Lesbos’ original mono soundtrack and presents it here in uncompressed, 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Because this disc includes the extended German version of the film, it only offers a German language option (there must’ve been an English dub recordd at some point, but it hasn’t showed up on digital video as far as I know). The uncompressed quality ensures that the basic dialogue and effects tracks remain consistent and (mostly) undistorted, even at the sustained high volume levels, but there are still notable pops and crackles at the lowest volume.  The musical soundtrack (a Top 10 hit in the UK during the 1990s) was concocted and produced by regular Franco collaborator Manfred Hübler and session guitarist Siegfried Schwab with input from Franco himself. I’m not sure where the labour was divided, but the varying degrees of groovy and dissonant work beautifully together. A couple of songs are cranked high enough that the horn (or maybe kazoo?) accompaniment buzzs, but the general clarity of the music makes me assume it was culled from cleaner soundtrack album’s tracks.

The extras on this Limited Edition (only 7500 copies) include:
Disc 1 (Blu-Ray):
  • Interlude in Lesbos (titled Vampyros Jesus at the top of the interview, 20:50, HD)– An interview with Franco (it must have been recorded just before he died) who discusses the making of Vampyros Lesbos among other things, including Miranda’s screen presence, unrealized projects, his opinions on the rest of the cast (he didn’t like Ewa Strömberg), locations, German financiers, expressionist filmmaking, the value of vampires as a ‘literary element,’ lesbianism, and the film’s score.
  • Sublime Soledad (20:30, HD) – A featurette concerning actress’ career with ‘Soledad Miranda Historian’ Amy Brown. This informative short spans Miranda’s life and includes footage from her rarely-seen non-genre films. It’s fantastic to see her singing, dancing, and being melodramatic.
  • Stephen Thrower on Vampyros Lesbos (11:30, HD) – An interview with the always jovial author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema Of Jess Franco, who discusses the late ‘60s/early ‘70s part of Franco’s career.
  • Jess Is Yoda (2:40, HD) – A cute interview outtake where Franco claims that Stuart Freeborn told him that Yoda’s face and scale was based on him, not Albert Einstein, as Freeborn usually states.
  • Alternate German opening title sequence ( Dracula's Heiress, 3:00, HD version of VHS footage)
  • German trailer

Disc 2 (DVD):
  • Las Vampiras – The alternate Spanish language version of Vampyros Lesbos. This shorter cut (74:36 vs. 89:19) includes scenes that don’t appear in the German version (for a full rundown of the difference click here). Severin took this version from a VHS release, so the image quality isn’t great, but its inclusion is still appreciated.


 Severin Films Jess Franco Releases

 Severin Films Jess Franco Releases

 Severin Films Jess Franco Releases

 Severin Films Jess Franco Releases

 Severin Films Jess Franco Releases


Severin Films Jess Franco Releases

She Killed in Ecstasy


She Killed in Ecstasy was shot back to back with Vampyros Lesbos, utilizing a lot of the same cast and crew. It’s definitely the B-side in this particular double-feature, while still being one of Franco’s more accomplished and gratifying movies. The more distinctive plot (as distinctive as a plot can be in a Jess Franco movie) was liberally borrowed from The Diabolical Dr. Z (aka: Miss Muerte, 1965) and Venus in Furs (aka: Paroxismus and Black Angel, 1969), and makes a nice companion piece to those films, in addition to Vaympyros Lesbos. Miranda plays the wife of a doctor who is shunned by the medical community for his unconventional tests with human fetuses. Ashamed and distraught, he cuts his wrists and bleeds out in the bathroom. Miranda swears vengeance and gets to work, seducing and murdering the four doctors she deems responsible for his suicide.

This more coherent, straight-forward narrative is matched by a more mainstream approach to sex and violence. Miranda seduces and kills multiple victims, necessitating multiple sex scenes and some relatively gory murders. Franco never matches the relative extremes seen in the straight horror films of Hammer, the budding Italian giallo tradition, or his fellow Spanish countryman Paul Naschy. All of these ‘mainstream’ conventions secure Vampyros Lesbos’ place as the more beautiful concoction, but She Killed in Ecstasy has it beat from shot to shot. Returning cinematographer Manuel Merino frames some absolutely stunning compositions and Franco orchestrates some particularly complex sequences, such as the one where Miranda slowly chases actor Paul Muller across a series of glass walkways and stairwells. The sudden zooms, focus pulls, and off-time editing remain jarring while serving the heightened qualities of this more character-driven piece. The literally in-your-face approach to melodrama is a singular experience, even if there’s something slightly disappointing about watching Franco trying to make ‘real movie’ following his finest ‘anti-movie.’

Soledad Miranda gives a more intense and passionate performance here than she did in Vampyros Lesbos. This is a mixed blessing as her mania shows a broader range, but she also cracks the façade of perfect, effortless presence, reminding us that she was relatively unfamiliar with this type of ‘darker’ material. She is fantastic in the scenes where she’s forced to hide her contempt as she seduces her hapless victims, though, and holds her own against the ham-fisted fury of Fred Williams and Franco regular Howard Vernon this time, as well as Franco himself, who gets significant screen-time as one of the rival doctors. And her deathly stare is a force of nature.

Miranda was tragically killed in a car accident on the highway to Lisbon in August of 1970. None of her post- Queen of the Tabarin Club Franco collaborations had been released stateside (one film, Juliette, was never finished). Most of them hadn’t even been released in France or Spain at the time. This postmortem breakthrough only emphasized her legendary and enigmatic reputation. She is sorely missed in Franco’s follow-up work, where he desperately replaced her with the likes of Sabrina Siani and long-term life-partner Lina Romay, neither of whom were up to the challenge.

She Killed in Ecstasy was also released twice in a row by Synapse (non-anamorphic 1.66:1), then Image (anamorphic, cropped to 1.78:1) and is making its world-wide Blu-ray here. This limited edition (only 4000 copies), 1.66:1, 1080p disc’s image matches the standard set by the Vampyros Lesbos disc. It appears that the print was in slightly better shape, because there are fewer instances of major print damage artefacts and, generally speaking, the grain levels are more consistent and less likely to clump. However, some of the scenes that were censored for violence and then reinstated are notably dirtier, including white streaks and water damage. I might give this transfer a slight advantage in detail, specifically in the many (many, many) facial close-ups. Colours are a bit less vivid, simply because the palette isn’t as wild, but are still very eclectic and pretty natural (aside from some slightly red skin tones). Black levels are, again, stronger than their standard definition counterparts, hampered only by some ‘bluing’ in the brightest outdoor shots and along the sides of the frame during a handful of sequences.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 German mono soundtrack also meets expectations with similarly loud and well-maintained results. The sound floor is a hair lower with slightly less hiss and pop, but there are more discrepancies in volume. Composers Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab return with another infectious blend of funky rock and ambient jazz that recalls the compositions Ennio Morricone was producing for Italian giallo thrillers around the same time. Again, the music seems to have been mixed from a cleaner source than the dialogue and effects tracks.

Extras include:
Disc 1 (Blu-Ray):
  • Jess Killed In Ecstasy (17:00, HD) – More from that same Franco interview featured on the Vampyros Lesbos disc. This time, he talks more specifically about She Killed in Ecstasy, including story inspiration, the outrageous locations, what he didn’t like about the film (this time, he blames a lot of it on Fred Williams’ over-the-top performance), censorship standards, Miranda’s pseudonym (Susan Korda), trying to find a replacement when she died unexpectedly, and his Goya Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • Sublime Soledad (20:30, HD) – The same interview included with the Vampyros Lesbos disc).
  • Stephen Thrower on She Killed in Ecstasy (13:10, HD) – The author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema Of Jess Franco returns to discuss the film, Franco’s crazy filming schedule, and Miranda’s talent.
  • Paul Muller on Jess Franco (6:30, HD) – An interview with frequent collaborator Paul Muller, who appears in both Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy, as well as Venus in Furs, Count Dracula, Eugenie, and others. It doesn’t seem like he’s being interviewed for this release, because he brings Franco up in the context of not realizing he had appeared in Mondo Cannibale. He asks the interviewer if he’s familiar with Franco, before quickly running down their many collaborations.
  • German trailer

Disc 2 (CD):
  • Original motion picture soundtracks – A repressing of the OOP Three Films By Jess Franco: Vampyros Lesbos, She Killed In Ecstasy, The Devil Came From Akasava soundtrack release.


 Severin Films Jess Franco Releases

 Severin Films Jess Franco Releases

 Severin Films Jess Franco Releases

 Severin Films Jess Franco Releases

 Severin Films Jess Franco Releases


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