Female Vampire

Lina Romay takes a victim in Female Vampire.
(© 2000 Image Entertainment. All rights reserved.)

V I D E O   R E V I E W   B Y   S H A N E   M.   D A L L M A N N

The prolific Spanish director Jesus (Jess) Franco had previously made his mark with "surgical" horror thrillers such as 1962's The Awful Dr. Orlof; surreal spy comedies in the vein of Two Undercover Angels (aka Sadisterotica and Kiss Me Monster (both 1967); and slices of pure delirium--most notably 1967's Succubs (aka Necronomicon). Unifying these works were such elements as recurring character names, a continuously evident passion for jazz--and a frank, in-your-face approach to sexuality. All of the above, especially the latter, were in evidence in the director's 1973 release Female Vampire--a film initially intended to take advantage of the then-new legalization of sexually explicit material in France.

Lina Romay (Rosa Maria Almirall, the new discovery--and future wife--of director Franco) stars as Countess Irina Karlstein--a variation of the "Carmilla" character created by J. Sheridan LeFanu and previously explored on film in such works as Hammer Studios' "Karnstein" trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, Twins of Evil). In Franco's film, the Countess is an eternally young and beautiful woman "living" in a resort on the island of Madeira. Both she and her hulking manservant (Luis Barboo) are mute--though Irina's thoughts are often spoken aloud on the soundtrack.

As tradition dictates, Irina can only maintain her undead existence through literally draining encounters with victims both male and female; however, her specific sustenance is sexually derived--at least in the version of the film released to DVD as part of Image Entertainment's "Euroshock Collection." (A slightly more conventional "bloodsucking" version was simultaneously prepared by Franco--this edition was known in the U.S. as Erotikill.) A female reporter assigned to interview Irina; an unwitting stud for hire; a sadomasochistic lesbian couple--all are among the victims of the Countess, whose activities have not gone unnoticed by either the authorities (Franco himself plays the investigating forensic scientist Dr. Roberts) or by a local poet (Jack Taylor) whose desire for an intimate encounter with Irina is as strong as his awareness of the inevitable consequences. Indeed, Irina's conquests invariably seem to derive an understanding and a satisfaction denied the Countess herself, who remains insatiable.

Lina Romay sneaks up on a potential victim in Female Vampire
Female Vampire is almost exclusively a showcase for the eighteen-year-old Romay, who offers as uninhibited a performance as can be imagined. When she's not actively seducing her prey, she finds herself teasing her servant (the one person who won't respond to her charms, much as he seems to want to) or attempting to pleasure herself--few, indeed, are the moments where the Countess is not seen in a state of semi or total undress. The effect is undeniable--if Romay is occasionally clumsy or awkward (her "solo" scene is often cited as a source of unintentional humor), she only seems all the more natural for it. Franco's camera forsakes stylization and obsessively zooms in on what the target audience wants to see--and what, in the case of France, it had never seen on the big screen before. (In fact, considering the excesses on display here, it seems somewhat ridiculous to refer to this as a "softcore" version; nevertheless, a genuine hardcore variant was also prepared--a couple of explicit shots from that rendition inadvertently wound up in the previous U.S. video release Loves of Irina, which is otherwise basically similar to Image's offering in terms of content.) The film is credited to "J.P. Johnson" in a tribute to jazz musician James P. Johnson--Female Vampire itself features a soundtrack by Daniel White, who offers alternately dreamy and peppy variations on a single theme.

Lina Romay strikes again in Female Vampire
To many viewers (especially those unfamliar with Franco's other work), Female Vampire will come across as nothing more than a crude European sex film. Yet it remains a cornerstone work in the eyes of fans and students of the director. In order to understand this, attention must be paid to the film's non-explicit material (as hard as that may seem) so as to search out Franco's distinctive voice. What elements did not have to be in the film if pure sexploitation were its sole agenda? One might ask why Irina can become a seagull, rather than a bat--while one may also enjoy the sight of her seagull-shaped hood ornament, which flaps its wings as her car tours the island. One can witness the reporter's tearful breakdown after she's psychically seduced by Irina--is she tormented at the thought of being thus violated; or is she distraught that the encounter hadn't actually taken place in the physical world? Why is the blind, long-haired Dr. Orloff (a trademark Franco character name) able to understand Irina perhaps more thoroughly than anyone else? And just why does the poet long so badly for Irina to take him "beyond the mist?" Is death a price worth paying for the ultimate pleasure--or are death and the ultimate pleasure one and the same?

Long-time Franco scholar (and Video Watchdog editor/publisher) Tim Lucas sheds plenty of light on Female Vampire in his liner notes--among other things, he points out that Franco, at the time, was slowly recovering from the untimely death (in a car accident) of his featured star, Soledad Miranda. This real-life loss, eventually followed by the discovery of Lina Romay, undoubtedly had a heavy influence on the film--and this is a film that benefits from every bit of context one can find for it, as cinematic art in the accepted sense was not an overwhelming consideration here.

Female Vampire is presented for the first time in its full widescreen version--the scenery is now more attractive and the photography, while still crude, is significantly less cramped when compared to any previous release. Image offers the hollow English-language dub as well as the French-language soundtrack (without subtitles) on alternate audio channels; a brief French-language trailer is included; another bonus is the inclusion of nearly ten minutes of alternate footage from Erotikill (presented out of sequence). Ironically, the artwork and stills featured on the DVD cover all represent this alternate "blood" version, rather than the "sex" edition actually included on the disc. Fans of the film and the director will consider this DVD a must--others aren't likely to apply in the first place.

Female Vampire is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $19.95 each. For more information, we suggest you check out the Image Entertainment Web site.