Monday, November 19, 2012

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: A Virgin Among the Living Dead

Made in 1973 and, arguably, a consolidation of the aesthetic triumphs and bold narrative experimentalism of ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ (1971) and ‘The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein’ (1972), the transitional ‘A Virgin Among the Living Dead’ denotes a continued rejection of genre imperatives and a deeper, more profound embrace of the director’s own iconoclastic vision. Indeed, ‘A Virgin Among the Living Dead’ – or, to use the more appealingly poetic original title, ‘Christina, princesse de l'érotisme’ – can be seen as the vanguard of Jesus Franco’s true golden age as auteur.

Who the hell am I kidding?

‘A Virgin Among the Living Dead’ was one of at least ten films that Franco made very quickly and on the cheap during 1973, which in turn was just one year in a decade which saw him churn out at least 70 titles. Apologies here for the lack of specificity, but given the panoply of pseudonyms the guy used (personal fave: Dave Tough), the 197 films that IMDb attributes to Franco as director is less a comprehensive filmography than a jumping off point for anyone determined enough to undertake their own research into the Spanish maverick’s long life and crazy career.

In the pantheon of cult and curious cinema, Franco’s name is up there with Jean Rollin, Joe D’Amato and Bruno Mattei, though it’s always seemed to be that he falls into something of a middle ground. Franco never quite attains the hazy dream-like conjurations of Rollin, nor does he go all-out in the pursuit of unapologetic exploitation a la D’Amato. And there’s enough of a signature style in evidence that he (mercifully) sidesteps Mattei’s rancid ineptitude.

‘AVAtLD’ charts the hallucinatory experiences of titular virginal heroine Christina Benson (Christina von Blanc) as she returns from schooling in London to the ancient and decaying family seat in wherever (I couldn’t determine whether it was in Europe or Latin America) for the reading of her father’s will. A local innkeeper tries to dissuade her from going to the house/chateau/mansion/castle [check out the screengrab below and delete as applicable] …

… and makes some pointed comments which suggest the place is empty. Factor in the English language title and I don’t think you’ll be in for any surprises come the denouement. She’s collected from the inn by chauffeur-cum-handyman Basilio (Jesus Manero – i.e. Franco himself), a tubby individual with a pre-Village People moustache, some evident learning difficulties and an inability to express himself in anything other than grunted monosyllables.

Arriving at chez Benson, she meets, in short order, eccentric pianist Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon), stern and unfriendly Aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar), slatternly Carmence (Britt Nichols) who may or may not be related to someone, anyone or no-one and is given over to wandering around in a half-open nightgown most of the time, and a blind girl (Linda Hastreiter) who I don’t recall being referred to by name. This visually-challenged young lady seems to be a seer or medium and tells Christina that her soul is white, meaning she’s pure of heart, and oh by the way it might be in her best interests to pack her bags and head back to London like immediately.

A young lad she meets while out skinny-dipping (this kind of situation being par for the course in a Jess Franco movie) also proves reluctant to visit the house, while a strange old man they meet outside a nearby chapel opines that death is upon everything in the immediate locality. Me, I’d have been on the big silver bird for Heathrow or Gatwick at this point, but our heroine is incapable of taking a hint. The disturbingly erotic hallucinations she’s been having don’t convince her to relocate either, and even when the ghost of her father (Paul Muller) shows up to warn her she’s in grave danger of having her soul claimed by the Queen of the Night (Anne Libert), she stubbornly stays put. Although, to be fair, the Queen of the Night is a bit of fox. 

Anyway, what passes for the narrative leaps randomly between:

- Abigail and Basilio plotting against their richer relatives/employers respectively;

- Carmence throwing out a definite Sapphic vibe in Christina’s direction;

- hints that the entire household are vampires, ghosts or Satanists;

- Christina enduring visions of her eventual fate as a sacrificial offering.

Franco succeeds in maintaining an atmosphere of ambiguity – are Christina’s dreams/hallucinations genuine second sight, evidence of mental instability or the result of sexual hysteria? – but whether this achievement was by accident or design is hard to tell. Judged on most of the usual critical criteria, the film’s a mess and no doubt about it.

Acting? Von Blanc is gorgeous but her performance is trance-like; Nichols spends the movie directing a thousand yard stare just off camera as if to warn Franco that if she’s asked to flash her boobs just one more time, he’s getting a slap that’ll leave a mark; Vernon gives the typical Howard Vernon performance of any piece of Euro-shlock he’s even been in, which is to say he seasons the scenery, lightly grills it, gives himself a side order of fries, tucks in the napkin and wolfs in down like he hasn’t had a square meal in months.

Editing? Well, some of the shots match.

Music? Bruno Nicolai’s score veers from atonal brutality to bossa nova cheesiness with no respect for anyone’s sensibilities.

Cinematography? Please, no more zoom. Pleeeeeeeeaaassssse!

Script? It contains the line “Why did you shatter the ebony phallus?” The question isn’t even rhetorical. 

Reviewer’s exit line? That’ll be the one above. Thank you very much and good night.


The Film Connoisseur said...

I've been watching a lot of Rollin's films lately and enjoying their sultry mood, I feel like I should give some of Franco's films a shot as well...they seem to be in the same ball park, though judging by your review and my recent viewing of Oasis of the Zombies...Rollin seems to be a bit higher in quality in terms of filmmaking.

Neil Fulwood said...

Your assessment is spot on: Rollin's films generally have an artfulness about them, while Franco's often have an awfulness. Still, the guy cast some seriously sultry actresses in his work.