Jess Franco’s film career took a notable turn towards the erotic in the late 1960s, and evolved through a series of poetic, surreal, dream-like stories like Vampyros Lesbos and A Virgin Among the Living Dead towards a more explicit style that bordered on – and sometimes tipped over into – hardcore. It’s probably fair to say that the more explicit Franco’s films became, in terms of both sex and violence, the less interesting they were – Franco worked best when not wallowing in the graphic, but instead dealing in the bizarre and esoteric. He didn’t hav much personal interest in hardcore, and this tends to show in his more pornographic work, which is marred by extreme and blurry close-ups that entirely lack the eroticism of his earler works. It’s fair to say that no Franco film is entirely uninteresting – his work always has an inherent weirdness, a unique level of warped reality that makes even the most disposable worth watching. But I would suggest that a film like The Bare Breasted Countess – better known as The Female Vampire – is not the place for the Franco neophyte to begin his or her investigations.
This is, in fact, one of the more beloved of his films amongst the new wave of Franco fans that have emerged since his work became easy to see. So it is with a heavy heart that I have to say that it is a heavily flawed work, one that attempts to blend a level of sexual explicitness – not hardcore in the print under review, but certainly as close as you could get while staying softcore – with the trippy, dreamy atmosphere of earler works. The combination sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t.
As with many a Franco horror film of the period, the plot is paper thin, and little more than a peg to hang the visuals from. Lina Romay – Franco’s new star at the time and about to become his life-long muse – is Countess Irina Karlstein, an immortal sexual vampire who drains her victims of their essence through oral sex. She is investigated by pathologist Dr Roberts and his colleague Dr Orloff (a reference to Franco’s most famous ongoing character), while tortured poet Baron Von Rathony (Jack Taylor) becomes obsessed with her. This flimsy narrative allows Franco to feature both ralatively explicit sex scenes – the oral sex scenes are lengthy – and more haunting moments of tortured ennui, with Irina tormented by her existence and Rathony mooning over her.
These latter moments are vintage Franco – a sense of melancholy, genuine sensuality and soft focus strangeness. His camera loves Romay, and it’s easy to see why he would fall so madly in love with her – she’s a striking screen presence and unquestionably sexy, her obvious comfort with her sexuality and nudity being a great help in a role like this. Unfortunately, the sex scenes are rather ugly, with unfocused ultra-close ups of body parts that are ofte hard to even define. And there are oddly crass moments, such as Orloff groping the crotch of a naked female corpse to find the bite marks, as well as some ill-considered and unsuccessful attempts at humour. And the soundtrack seems to be a couple of library music lifts that rarely fit the action on screen.
While The Bare Breasted Countess is not Franco’s laziest mix of horror and eroticism – later films like Macumba Sexual are much sloppier affairs – it perhaps let me down more because it has so much more potential than the more throwaway efforts. It feels like it should be up there with Vampyros Lesbos and the like, and at times it nearly is – but it regularly sabotages itself. How much of this is down to the way it was made – the film exists in various versions, including a shorter ‘horror’ cut also included on this disc and a hardcore version that isn’t – and how much is down to Franco simply not having any real passion for the project is hard to say (Franco has spoken more warmly of this than of many of his films, but a lot of that affection seems to be because of Lina).
Those of you who have already developed a taste for Franco through his more impressive works will at least find many moments to admire here; first-timers might want to ease in with something a little less challenging.