Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

This little treasure is probably one of Spanish cult auteur Jesus Franco's best-known films. With his original muse, the stunning Soledad Miranda, starring as the main vampiress character, there's also a wonderful, psychedelic soundtrack that I believe has been made popular by sampling sections of it in some modern techno music. Filmed in Istanbul, there's some amazing scenery and settings, a gorgeous retro-seventies look to the decor and clothes - dig the sunglasses above that Soledad's wearing, sheer Heaven - and a charismatic performance, as usual, from Soledad herself. Let's take a look at the film.

We open with one of Franco's typical bohemian nightclubs, where Soledad is performing a bizarre number with a voluptuous (and nude) blonde. This number consists of Soledad, in a flowing read scarf that appears many times throughout the film, and lingerie, dressing the blonde woman slowly in another set of lingerie. All this is accompanied by frenzied jazz and sitar music. Another blonde woman, Linda Westinghouse, (Ewa Strömberg) sits aroused in the audience, along with her partner Omar (Andrés Monales). Later, she tells her psychiatrist Dr. Steiner (Franco regular Paul Muller) that she dreams of a passionate affair with a woman - and that the woman she saw at the club was the image of the femme fatale in her dreams.

Later, on a business trip in Istanbul with a Countess Nadine Carody, Linda's trip is delayed by some administrative bungling and she stays in a hotel on the mainland. She encounters a strange servant played by Franco himself who makes up her room, but then later warns her that death and evil lie ahead on the island. Linda spots him tormenting a bloodied and seemingly dead woman, but believes it's all in her imagination and heads off by boat to the island. Finally meeting the bikini-clad Countess, (Miranda) and her tall, silent assistant Morpho (bespectacled José Martínez Blanco) she's stunned by her beauty. Nadine explains about how Count Dracula left all his money to her, and how Linda will be able to help her administer the fortune. It's not long before they're both skinny-dipping on the beach. Oh, it's a terrible scene to watch, folks. Soon, frolicking turns to sapphic seduction and Nadine bites Linda on the neck - she'd earlier drugged her into submission with some wine. The actresses don't look hugely comfortable doing the seduction scenes, but they're not that explicit. Nadine rises with an elegant stream of blood running down her mouth. She then vanishes and the confused Linda awakens and finds seemingly Nadine drowned in a pool, naked but for her flowing red scarf. She faints away completely.

Meanwhile, one of Nadine's past lover's awakens in a frenzy. She still craves her lover's attentions but is now living in the asylum of one Dr. Seward (Dennis Price). Dr. Seward is becoming more and more of an expert on the subject of Vampires, as he learns more information about the Countess from the girl, and even craves to become one of them. Linda mysteriously wakes up in Seward's dwellings and can't remember anything. Soon, Omar tracks Linda to Seward's abode and indentifies her. She leaves with him. We then see that Nadine is not dead at all. She professes to Morpho about her love for Linda and her history - how, hundreds of years ago in a war in Hungary, soldiers raped the virgin Nadine but Dracula intervened, killing them and taking her as his immortal Vampire bride. She lived on through the centuries, hating men and taking women as lovers who sustained her with their blood. Then she met Linda, whom she truly loved. She calls Linda telepathically, who answers the call by returning to the Countess. Nadine offers her a goblet of blood and she accepts, becoming one of the children of the night. They make love again.

Omar turns up drained of some blood at Dr. Seward's, with the partially vampirized Linda not putting two and two together. Seward explains to Linda that he thinks she's in trouble with the supernatural. He tells her that a Vampire can only be killed by destroying the brain, preferably by a spike driven through the head. Agra, Nadine's former lover, has another fit and tells Seward that the Countess wants to see him. Later, Nadine and Morpho visit Seward, who confesses that he wants to be a vampire too. Nadine refuses to grant him the status of the undead and has Morpho kill him. Agra tells Omar as he leaves Seward's asylum, that Linda is with Nadine and is in danger. He goes to the same nightclub alone to watch Nadine's act, and she seems to kill her blonde performance partner this time.

Omar convinces Dr. Steiner to help him find Linda, who is actually in the clutches of Memmet, the hotel worker she'd glimpsed with the dead woman earlier. This time the madman has tied her up, and raves about how his wife, who is actually Agra, was taken from him by Countess Carody. In his madness at the loss he has been killing women who fall under Nadine's spell, but Linda turns the table on the gibbering lunatic - Franco seems to love playing degenerate half-wits in his films - and kills him with the blade of a saw. She rushes back to Nadine's manor, only to find her dying through lack of blood. Linda refuses to become one of the undead and finally decides both their fates, as Omar and Dr. Steiner come crashing into the house ...

We've got a classic on our hands here, friends. Franco is probably guilty of churning out cheap, rough-and-ready potboilers at times, but not here. There's a lot of loving attention in the details as well as the broader brushstrokes. Franco inserts brief glimpses of flying kites with red tails, scorpions and trapped moths to illustrate all the characters. Of course, Nadine is the scorpion. Soledad is perfect as the Countess, I can easily see how Franco was entranced by the dark-eyed beauty. What a shame she died so young. There seems to be a sadness in her eyes, that makes you sympathise with any character that she plays. It's not even that she has such a stunning body, it's that distinctive face and eyes that makes her an icon. Couple the magnetism of the lead actress with the Istanbul setting, the bright cinematography, superlative music and Franco's general jazz-bohemian aesthetic and you've got a classic of European seventies cinema.

If you have any interest in pop culture, you really owe it to yourself to see Vampyros Lesbos. It's Jesus Franco firing on all cylinders as a director and a great viewing experience, even for those who don't get much out of horror. The horror and gore elements are played in the background, instead we have an exercise in pure, glorious seventies style.

© Boris "Morpho" Lugosi 2005.


Review written: 10/28/2005 14:09:02