You either love Jess Franco or you don’t. That’s the easiest way to start this review. The man made a couple hundred features or so, and was prolific until his death in 2013. With a career that robust, you’re bound to have a few stinkers (or maybe even 100 of them) but you’re also likely to have at least a handful of great films too. And, for my money, Vampyros Lesbos is one of those films.
Vampyros Lesbos is typically referred to as being “early” Franco, which I’ve always found amusing as he had a couple dozen director credits to his name by this point, which is more than some filmmaker’s entire careers. But, that’s still only the first either or so of his career which makes it at least somewhat apt. However, despite this distinction, this is where Franco’s style really begins to come front and center. With the exception of more esoteric, sexually transgressive titles like Venus In Furs and Succubus, Franco’s work up until this point – 1971 – was fairly conventional and adhered to most genre tropes at the time. But with Vampyros Lesbos he started to truly embrace the abstract, to the point that it exists as much as a piece of genre cinema as something decidedly avant garde. Probably not what most viewers were expecting from something with such a title in the early 70s.
As its title would suggest, Vampyros Lesbos involves vampires. And lesbians. Though not necessarily in the way that you may expect. Vampires and erotica have been paired together since humans could seemingly tell stories, for some reason. The trend of lesbian vampires was strong in the 70s with titles like Vampyres, Daughters of Darkness, The Vampire Lovers, Lips of Blood, Lust for a Vampire, etc. Franco was far from being either first or last to stumble on such an inspired pairing but he may have perfected it in a way that few – if any – seldom did prior or following. It’s necessary to emphasize how strange (and unique) Vampyros Lesbos really is. This isn’t a typical narrative sure, there’s something resembling a narrative there, but it’s merely a skeleton to work with – and it relies heavily on repeated and prolonged imagery. The result is something hypnotic, kitschy, and ultimately, defiant. Franco’s film doesn’t play by the rules but it’s impossible to ignore. It’s not as sexually explicit as some of his later works, but it doesn’t hold back, and the whole ordeal has a trance like eroticism that feels a lot in line with the films of Jean Rollin or Alain Robbe-Grillet. This is vampire cinema at its most esoteric, jarring and… fun. There’s nothing else truly like it.
Severin have put Vampyros Lesbos on to Blu-ray for the first time in the US and the result is pretty damned good. The 1080p transfer is in its OAR of 1.66:1 and, for the most part, looks quite impressive. There is some damage present, but it’s minimal, and the colors are vibrant and the blacks black. Overall, the presentation is faithfully film-like. This is a very visually dependent film and this transfer gets the job done, and rather well at that. All we get for audio is 2.0 German (with English subtitles provided). The track is solid, with the wonderfully funky score shining through and the dialogue being clear. This isn’t a very talky movie, but the music is a huge component here and that is carried well.
This edition comes as a 2-disc set, with the HD feature and all supplements on the Blu-ray and a DVD of a Spanish bootleg of the feature (running about 15 minutes shorter than the full, uncut version on the Blu-ray). The DVD is obviously not of the same quality as the Blu-ray, but it’s a fun comparison as a lot is different in regards to content (mostly due to sexual explicitness). Fans will be happy to have it. As for the supplements on the Blu-ray, we start with a 20 minute interview with Franco (in English, though subtitled) where he discusses various aspects of the film, mostly the actresses and score. It’s a casual piece and Franco seems happy to talk about his film, I just wish it were a bit longer. Next is another 10 minute interview, this time with actress Soledad Miranda and historian Amy Brown. This is a bit more professional in tone, with archival footage shown and a historian carrying the conversation. There’s some great information here though and is ultimately a touching tribute of sorts. The third, and final interview is an 11 minute one with author and Franco biographer Stephen Thrower. He clearly knows his subject very well and has anecdotes and information to share about the film as well as Franco’s career. A very information heavy 11 minutes. After all of this, we get a short video where Franco talks about being the inspiration for Yoda (!?), an alternate opening sequence and a trailer.
Vampyros Lesbos may not be traditional vampire cinema but it has no intentions of being so. This is erotically charged, borderline experimental genre cinema with a great soundtrack. Time has been really kind to it, it is over forty years old now, and it’s surprisingly potent to this day. Severin have provided us with a great transfer and a nice package of supplements, including an alternate version of the film. Fans should be very, very pleased. Here’s hoping that more of Franco’s films get the same treatment.