Vampyres (US - BD)
Gabe picks up a few sexy hitchhikers, and goes back to their place for drinks...
Bisexual seductresses Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka) have developed a perfect plan of vampiric attack. At night they pose as innocent hitchhikers, and bring unsuspecting male victims back to their castle lair, where they drain them of blood. The next morning they stage a car accident to do away with evidence.
José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres is my personal favourite entre in the peculiarly abundant lesbian vampire sub-genre, with the possible exception of Harry Kümel lavishly realized Daughters of Darkness (1971). Vampyres is built on the shoulders of earlier films, and surely owes something to Kümel’s film, but it owes a lot more to the sub-genre most popular film, Hammer Studio’s genuinely sexy Vampire Lovers (1970). Vampire Loves was the first of many loose adaptations of the grandmommy of all Sapphic vampire stories – ‘Camilla’. Written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the story actually predated Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, and was likely partially based on the real life exploits of Erzsébet Báthory. Vampire Lovers wasn’t the first film to deal with lesbianism among vampires, but it was the first to do so implicitly and explicitly in a mainstream release. The film was certainly more sexually charged than Hammer’s earlier releases, but the signature gothic style, stage-inspired acting tones, and plunging necklines were still firmly in place. Vampyres is quite gothic, and incorporates gloriously hammy overacting, with evocative images of the misty English countryside. While confined to the castle sets Larraz’s work conjures memories of vintage Hammer, but upon the misty countryside his imagery recalls Jorge Grau’s Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974). Not so ironically, both Larraz and Grau are Spanish, and both films were released the same year.
Euro-sleaze merchant Jess Franco jumped quickly on the bloodsucking, lady lovin’ ladies bandwagon, and squeezed out two sub-genre films the year after Vampire Lovers hit titillatingly titled Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy. Vampyros Lesbos is a sort of psychedelic mini-masterpiece, and one of the consistently terrible director’s best films, comparatively speaking. It’s a hallucinatory, bizarro scrap of filmmaking that could only come out of Franco’s post-‘60s softcore period. She Killed in Ecstasy is a more obvious front-runner to Vampyres, featuring a more coherent plot, a darker tone, and less listless, dream-induced imagery. In both films a sense of impeding doom is placed on the heads of the leading ladies, though Franco focuses more directly on the tragedy, while Larraz’s vamps are proper villains. Larraz’s film outshines pretty much every Jess Franco film in terms of ensemble cast, but Franco holds the distinct advantage of having cast Soledad Miranda in both Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy. Marianne Morris is a stunning and well spoken actress, but neither she nor Anulka can touch Miranda’s unspeakable magnetism.
Unlike Hammer or Franco, who produced a few more girlie-vamp romps (in Franco’s case a few genuine hardcore items), French director Jean Rollin’s career has more or less been defined by his erotic vampire output, including The Nude Vampire Shiver of the Vampires (both 1970), Requiem for a Vampire (1971), Lips of Blood (1975), Two Orphan Vampires, and Rape of the Vampire (1968), which actually predates Vampire Lovers. He even made the only lesbian zombie movie of his era, the underrated, and genuinely tender Living Dead Girl. Rollin’s films are mostly of the overtly art-house variety, though he was not above directing junk for cash, sometimes even Franco’s leftovers, as was the case of Oasis of the Zombies. Thanks to the sheer quantity of output his films kind of end up defining the bulk of the genre. Vampyres doesn’t often evoke Rollin’s work, but the hypnotic scenes of Larraz’s vampires retreating from the morning sun certainly owe something to Rollin’s listless ladies of the night. The wavering fog certainly doesn’t hurt.
It’s clearly not a sub-genre innovator, but the balanced refined and exploitative elements set Vampyres apart, and generally make for a more entertaining experience than any of Franco or Rollins’ entries (it’s sad to admit that most lesbian vampire movies are actually pretty boring). The sex is reasonably explicit in this uncut form by early ‘70s standards, but still well within the confines of the softcore variety. Mostly we’re talking lots of naked bodies rubbing up against each other without any insertion shots or genital close-ups. The violence is the more startling element, and not really comparable to any analogous films up to Rollin’s Lips of Blood. Overall it’s not on par with ‘70s horror’s most shocking gore exercises (it doesn’t touch any of the Italian cannibal monstrosities that barely predate it), but it’s pretty severe, and tonally not as cheeky as the similar work Hammer put out. Excepting the brief opening sequence, Larraz wisely holds back on the more graphic elements, waiting until the film’s center point (almost exactly) to reveal explicitly that the women are vampires, via a super bloody accidental feeding frenzy. The next scene sees the well fed lovers showering the blood off their bodies, and revealing the fact that they swing both ways even in death. The sex and violence never flies off the rails, but there are plenty of the red stuff to go around, and two genuinely effective little jump-scares.
Blue Underground scores again, though Vampyres isn’t nearly the pant-shitting perfection of their last couple releases. This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer isn’t quite the complete overhaul the New York Ripper transfer was, it’s more representative of the studio’s DVD release, which looked a smidge better than the early Anchor Bay release. The problems usually have something to do with age and the relative darkness of certain shots, along with the general age of the material. This high definition version has the advantage concerning clarity of fine details even during the pitch black shots, which by the way, were positively incomprehensible on VHS. There is a lot of grain dancing in the darkness, but the daylight scenes are pretty remarkably clean, at least in part, despite the persistent fog that seems to attack the area around the castle. Vampyres isn’t a wildly colourful film, though the outside daylight shots are rather rich with green grass and trees, while the castle interiors are reasonably warm. The HD transfer features a pretty sizable advantage in terms of contrast, which was a little muddied on the SD transfer. The purity of the blacks, which are very seldom cut with blue or red tints, is quite impressive, even if the overall compositions remain basically the same. There’s no digital noise, artefacts, or edge-enhancement, but the film itself is clearly damaged in some sections, featuring the aforementioned grain, and occasional dirt.
Vampyres comes fitted with an overqualified DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track, along with an unneeded Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track. Like most of Blue Underground’s surround sound re-designs the bulk of the audio still sits in the center channel, including most on-screen effects and dialogue. The surround channels are used almost exclusively for musical score, though some minor natural ambience is available in the rear and stereo channels. Once again the value of this redesign is in the fidelity of the center channel work, which is no longer tinny or as flat as the original DVD and VHS mono track. The original mono has been included here for purists, and there are very few differences found in the basic dialogue tracks, save the added LFE. The musical and more aurally busy scenes, on the other hand, are pretty different, and delightfully subtle. At the center-point of the film there is a perfectly eerie thunder cue, and some of the car sounds do move into the side speakers. Vampyres starts with an awesome, Goblin-esque score, one which I’ve somehow neglected to notice all these years. It’s probably because the bulk of James Kenelm Clark’s (writer/director of Video Nasty victim Expose) original score recalls Hammer’s era scores. There is one solitary moment I can recall where the high end of the score becomes distorted upon the most intense high notes, but the uncompressed quality works well for the most part, including throbbing kettle drums, warm strings, and bright wind elements.
The extras here have been ported from Blue Underground’s older DVD release, and start with an audio commentary featuring director Larraz, and producer Brian Smedley-Aston. Larraz’s accent makes him a little difficult to understand, but he’s full of curse words and sex talk, and Smedley-Aston is Johnny-on-the-spot with the supporting facts and figures. Highlights include Smedley-Aston’s descriptions of the castle exteriors (apparently one of Hammer’s favourite spots) and interiors, Larraz admitting he had no interest in logical story telling, and Larraz comparing his script to Bukowski’s novels. There are a few blank spots, and occasionally Larraz totally loses focus, but considering the lack of retrospective documentary, or really much written information on the film it’s good to have something to learn from.
‘Return of the Vampyres’ (14:00, SD) is an interview with stars Marianne Morris and Anulka, shot a few years back for the DVD release. The lovely, and extremely classy British gentleladies briefly run down their pre- Vampyres careers, then place the bulk of their focus on the film’s production. The interviews were not taken at the same time, but are intercut effectively, and feature some supporting photographic evidence. The disc is completed with the classy international trailer, and the hilarious American trailer (‘very unusual women’).
Like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin’s best efforts, Vampyres does end rather abruptly, and doesn’t feature an excess of plot or character building, so the film probably won’t be much of a crossover piece for viewers tuned to modern horror pacing. Genre fans who know what to expect definitely need this one under their belt, though Vampire Lovers is probably a better place to start concerning the lesbian vampire sub-genre. The film certainly shows its age, but this grainy high definition transfer is still a noticeable enough upgrade from the various DVD releases. The 7.1 DTS-HD track actually sounds fine, but is a bit of a waste considering the lack of directional elements in the source material. The extras have been ported from the DVD release, and are too brief.
*Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps, which have been taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Clearly I've censored one as well.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 30th March 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital EX English, Dolby Digital Mono
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director and Producer Commentary, Return of the Vampyres, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jose Ramon Larraz
Cast: Anulka, Marianne Morris, Murray Brown
Length: 88 minutes
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