Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Lina Romay, Jack Taylor, Jess Franco, Monica Swinn, Alice Arno, Raymond Hardy, Luis Barboo
Kino Lorber (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Image (US R1 NTSC), Dutch Filmworks (Holland R2 PAL), Laser Paradise (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
The film that most clearly separates director Jess Franco's career between the '60s and '70s, Female Vampire finds the director jettisoning what concessions he made to commercial horror filmmaking up to that point. He had certainly given an erotic bent to movie monsters before with films like Vampyros Lesbos and The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, but here he turns the concept of a vampiress (inspired more or less by J. Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla") into a full-blown plunge into erotic delirium from start to finish. No famous guest stars or swanky psychedelic music can be found here; instead you get a flesh-filled, melancholy, soft jazz meditation on mortality (or lack thereof), and the first real starring vehicle for the uninhibited and fascinating Lina Romay, who had appeared in supporting roles in a handful of his previous films. Of course, Romay went on to become not only Franco's companion and eventually wife until her death, but she also served as his muse as well in numerous films for decades to come. Finally, the film also came at the beginning of Franco's partnership with French distribution company Eurociné, which led to several later films like Exorcism, Revenge in the House of Usher, Shining Sex, and Oasis of the Zombies.
Female Vampire has been known under such a bewildering number of titles and alternate versions that few people have any idea which print could remotely be considered "definitive." Franco prepared a horror-oriented edition, The Bare-Breasted Countess (La comtesse aux seins nus), in which his vampiric heroine feeds from her victim's necks, while the more erotic and potent Female Vampire variation finds her aiming well below the waistline with her human prey. Either way it's an intoxicating film for those familiar with the European exploitation game and a maddening exercise in sensual excess for those who aren't.
Wearing only a black belt, boots, and a cloak, the mute and often nude Irina Karlstein (Romay) strolls dreamily through a forest and approaches a hapless man at a nearby farmyard. What begins as a heated sexual encounter quickly turns nasty as her oral services literally drain him of life, killed at the height of passion. Back at her mountainside home, Irina indulges in all manner of perversions with her muscular servant (Barboo), a few handy throw pillows, a bedpost, and an unlucky number of visitors. Meanwhile a visiting writer (Taylor) becomes obsessed with his visions of Irina, whom he comes to regard as his destiny. Their eventual face to face encounter ignites a passion that forces the reluctant predator to consider putting an end to her lifestyle.
While Franco himself pops up as the investigating Dr. Roberts (and teams up with a guy named Dr. Orloff, of course), the majority of Female Vampire is a virtually plotless study of overlapping visual images. The Mediterranean beach setting produces some uncannily weird results, with Irina's drives and the desolate seascapes producing a vampire film unlike any other (except perhaps Vampyros Lesbos, which introduced some of the nautical/vampire motifs earlier). Much of the film's power lies in the haunting jazz score by Daniel White, who scored many of Franco's finer films from this period, and the scope photography so often devastated by sloppy cropped transfers aids immeasurably in creating the film's all-consuming atmosphere of tragic lust.
In the '80s, most video collectors encountered the more traditional vampire version on VHS as Erotikill from Wizard Video (and Force Video and Vestron, all with the same wild cover art), while the naughtier cut was released as Loves of Irina from Private Screenings. The latter version was missing several sequences, particularly most of the explicit dungeon encounter with Monica Swinn, but contained the strongest legitimate edition of the film including a brief unsimulated bit of oral servicing by Romay on her ex, Raymond Hardy (aka Ramon Ardid), with whom she later collaborated far more explicitly in the delirious Doriana Gray. A third version entitled Les Avaleuses (or "The Swallowers") featured crude hardcore footage of Romay (filmed much later) performing her skills on a variety of anonymous actors; virtually unwatchable and sloppily assembled, this cut is the least effective of the three.
The first DVD of Female Vampire came in 2001 from Image Entertainment under the EuroShock banner. This version retains the ideal "sexy" cut of the film (dubbed in English or in French without subs) but sports a few oddities of its own. The dungeon footage and the entire ending (weirdly truncated on the VHS) are fully intact; the only discrepancy lies with that aforementioned oral scene, which here contains softer profile shots while the music continues uninterrupted. The disc also includes all of the alternate Erotikill scenes, in which Romay shows off her ability to retain blood on her voluptuous lips, and the original French language theatrical trailer. Essentially the same thing came out in Holland a few years later, while the alternate hardcore insert version appeared on the long-discontinued German release (and really, it's not worth hunting down unless you're a completist).
That brings us to the 2012 revisit from Kino Lorber and Redemption Films, which also marks the film's surprising but welcome jump to Blu-Ray. Many Francophiles consider this the finest of his Eurociné cycle (though if we're counting semi-unofficial entries, the marvelous A Virgin among the Living Dead beats it, at least in its original form), so it makes sense for this to be one of the director's earliest films to make the leap to HD. The extremely tattered English opening credits may alarm viewers at first, but fortunately the transfer improves considerably after that; you'll see the usual white specks here and there since there wasn't much done in the way of digital cleaning, but it looks very filmic and more detailed than the standard def versions. Bear in mind that this is still a Eurociné film which means it will always look pretty scrappy overall, but it's pretty wild seeing this film in 1080p, to put it mildly. The standard English dub is included here in all its awkward glory along with the French track, both in LPCM two-channel mono, but the big news here is - finally! - English subtitles for the French audio. The film plays far, far better this way, despite the fact that much of the film is either devoid of dialogue or communicated with voiceovers. The French version isn't really in synch either (no version is, apparently), but it's much classier and more appropriate than the clumsy English version. Interestingly, this represents what appears to be an identical cut compared to the Image version, right down to the softer take of the Romay/Hardy scene. However, rather than relegating the horror version to a series of extra snippets, the Kino/Redemption version presents the entire 70-minute version of The Bare-Breasted Countess in English but with its French opening credits. The packaging credits this as Erotikill to link it to the familiar VHS version, though the two are slightly different as some shots are trimmed in and out differently and a handful of alternate takes appear to have been used. This is most likely the original European version of the horror cut, which was later altered for the American VHS edition with a few spicier frames added here and there. Always an entertaining speaker, Franco does his first video interview in quite a while with "Destiny in Soft Focus," a Kino/Redemption featurette produced in collaboration with Severin Films. Looking noticeably older than his previous video chats, the director discusses his first encounters with Romay, their open but loving relationship, his intentions for her vampire character in this film, and the renewed commitment he feels to keep making movies in her absence. It's quite a fascinating and even moving 13-minute discussion and well worth seeing. Running a minute shorter is "Words for Lina," with Jean-Pierre Bouyoux (who later worked on several Jean Rollin films and appears on some of those Blu-Rays) talking about his memories of working with the free-spirited actress. The French trailer from previous releases is carried over here along with bonus ones for Exorcism and a trio of Jean Rollin's vampire offerings.
Reviewed on November 8, 2012.