Sunday, March 11, 2012

Wendigo Meets FEMALE VAMPIRE (Les Avaleuses,1973)

Wendigo didn't know that Lina Romay had died until I told him, but he knew the name when I said it. He'd first seen her in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, but got to know her better, he's not ashamed to admit, in the pages of Celebrity Sleuth and Celebrity Skin. Because the latter two magazines were fairly informative about their subjects' careers, he had some awareness of the late actress's work and her relationship with Jess Franco, but he doesn't recall seeing any of Romay's films before I showed him Franco's Female Vampire last weekend. He was more familiar with it under the alternate title The Bare Breasted Countess and had a good idea of what he was in for -- but it didn't help much. Wendigo's a Franco skeptic -- he thinks poorly of his Count Dracula, for instance, -- but was willing to give the cult auteur another shot.

We cheated: this is a shot from Erotikill, an alternate version of Female Vampire.

Romay plays Countess Irina von Karlstein, last of an accursed line and vacationing in Portugal. The mute Irina is more like a succubus than a vampire in the current sense of the word, -- except in the alternate Erotikill version -- but Wendigo notes that vampires in pre-modern folklore were not exclusively blood-drinkers, and that a succubus is really just a kind of vampire, or vice versa. In Irina's case, it's succubus with an emphasis on suck. She drains your life force through oral sex -- but she's increasingly unhappy with her plight. The big problem seems to be that her sex partners die
before she can be satisfied.

Here's Romay in a mood more typical of the Female Vampire version.

Seeking satisfaction, she can't stop preying on people, or humping her bed, or fellating her bedpost. Recklessly, she drains the masseur of the hotel she's staying in, as well as a reporter sent to interview her notorious aristocratic self. Courting danger, she briefly turns vigilante vampire to break up some sort of torture-snuff ring before falling hard for a morbid poet (Jack Taylor) who wants her to take him "beyond the mists." This isn't just a poetic metaphor; after Irina kills the reporter, we see her escort the bare-breasted victim literally beyond the mists and into a magical forest from which she never returns.

Interview with the Female Vampire, and its sequel

Irina can only show the way but can't follow until the poet's example awakens the idea that she could will her own death. But maybe she won't have to go to that trouble, since the dedicated Dr. Roberts ("Jess Franck"), advised by the inevitable (for Franco) "Dr. Orloff," is determined to track down a vampire perpetrator of recent murders despite the skepticism of the local police. Will the intrepid occult investigator overcome Irina's equally-mute manservant in time to confront the countess in her Kool-aid filled bathtub -- because there's no way Franco's telling us that's blood -- before more people die or Wendigo falls asleep?...

There's your story, but Franco's real subject is ennui -- terminal dissatisfaction despite all efforts. In Wendigo's opinion, that choice of subject inherently limits the film's appeal, because even if Franco succeeds in creating empathy in the audience, their shared ennui would only leave them indifferent to Irina's fate or anyone else's. He might get away with it if Female Vampire were more successful on an artistic level, but Wendigo felt that Franco succeeded only sporadically in creating the right mood. He manages it best in the purely pictorial scenes when Romay wanders through the woods. There are other odd or arguably surreal moments that impressed or amused him. He was tickled by the way Romay would start to flap her arms like bat wings as if about to transform, only to have Franco cut to the flapping bat-winged hood ornament of a limousine as Irina delivers her self-pitying internal
I bought a vampire limousine

But there's too much going on in the movie, and not enough, to maintain the tone. The movie suffers, in Wendigo's view, whenever it returns to Dr. Roberts and his desultory investigations. These scenes have a perfunctory quality -- Franco himself is lifeless in the vampire-hunter role -- and the English dubbing we subjected ourselves to was awful. But the real problem is Franco's all-too-obvious desire to film his girlfriend screwing and masturbating. To a certain extent you need these scenes to drive home the theme -- lack of satisfaction is one of the few themes capable of artistic realization in porn -- but Franco doesn't know when to quit. The sex and masturbation scenes just go on and on, far longer than necessary to make any point Franco can think of. They contributed to my own feeling that something like Female Vampire could never really have what we think of as a "director's cut" -- a definitive version of Franco's vision from which nothing can be cut. My hunch is that he thought almost everything he shot was provisional or expendable -- and the history of variants running between 70 and 110 minutes seems to bear me out. This may be the perfect case of a film being less than the sum of its parts. The way Wendigo sees it, Franco failed by succeeding. Female Vampire does inspire the ennui it describes. It leaves one drained and indifferent -- or at least that's how Wendigo felt.

While we watched, I suggested that this could be Franco's imitation of a Jean Rollin film, and Wendigo is willing to agree to a degree. Wendigo likes Rollin better because the Frenchman was capable of seeing magic in practically any setting or any object, while Franco, in my friend's opinion, has all the magical sensibility of a Polaroid camera. He has some sense of style, but Wendigo senses an essential absence of ideas or real imagination that limits Franco as a cinematic fantasist. His nice Portuguese location goes largely to waste, for instance, while he spends precious time in Romay's bedroom. We also compared Franco unfavorably to fellow Spaniard Paul Naschy -- you can tell the difference when you consider the awful scenes with Franco as Dr. Roberts. Naschy was a true believer in material like this, but Franco is clearly just going through the motions. Those scenes are just excuses to cast himself and get a Dr. Orloff into the movie -- and all the scenes could easily be cut without harming the story.

Jean-Pierre Bouyxou as "Dr. Orloff" looks up -- to show that he's blind,
while "Jess Franck" (left) looks on.

Wendigo hasn't seen much Franco, and hasn't seen anything that he's liked yet -- though he's curious to see the shorter, blood-oriented Erotikill version of this film. I've seen some that I've liked so I'm still willing to cut Franco some slack, but I can understand Wendigo's frustration. His admiration for Lina Romay's attributes remains undiminished however, and we agree that there is new poignancy now in the final moments when the countess, no longer bare breasted and possibly redeemed, finally walks on her own through the mist into posterity. Like the countess, Lina Romay herself now belongs to the ages.


1 comment:

dfordoom said...

Wendigo is probably right in believing Rollin did this sort of thing better but I have a soft spot forFemale Vampire. I think it does achieve that feeling of ennui rather well, in fact it almost manages to make the idea of a lifetime (or unlifetime) of sex seem like the ultimate horror.

It probably succeeds more through Romay's performance than anything else. You might try persuading Wendigo to give Doriana Gray a try - it's Franco and Romay exploring similar territory. I think it's the better film. Not a vampire movie though, unless you can convince Wendigo that sex itself is the vampire. Actually come to think of it you could argue that sex is the vampire in Female Vampire as well.