The story of Vampyros Lesbos takes place in Turkey, where a young American ex-pat, Linda Westinghouse, is haunted by recurring visions (or dreams) involving a captivating young woman. She tells her rather disinterested psychiatrist, Dr Steiner, that these dreams invoke in her both fear and arousal, and he concludes that the root to her problem is sexual frustration (all too common in modern day women, he says), and his professional advice is that she should find herself a lover who is better in bed than her boyfriend Omar. And to think that, judging from the interior design in his office, this guy probably charges 200 bucks an hour….. To add to the mystery, Linda insists that she only ever saw that woman (in real life) the day before, but that she had been part of her dreams for weeks.
We are now at the 10-minute-mark, and if my plot summary so far seems rather straight-forward and coherent, let me assure you that, in the film, these first ten minutes are neither.
In a throwback to Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, our leading character Linda, who works as a lawyer, is required to travel to a remote rural area of Anatolia in order to offer advice and help to a mysterious aristocrat. And in keeping up the tradition of countless other modern horror films, our lead character encounters a mysterious and deranged stranger, Memmet (played by director Jesús Franco himself), who warns her in no uncertain terms that she should not travel to the aristocrat’s island under any circumstances.
Of course Linda goes anyway, and we soon learn that her work involves the late Count Dracula’s last will which transfers the island and other properties from his estate into the possession of the young Countess Nadine Carody.
Other loans from Stoker’s novel include Dr Seward (who, in this case, also doubles as a Van Helsing character), and a woman called Agra, who takes on the Renfield role. And I assume that the name Linda Westinghouse is meant to at least echo the name Lucy Westenra, even though Linda is more of an amalgamation of Mina and Jonathan Harker.
Going with the Stokeresque tradition, several people in this story are under various forms of temporary or continuous influence of the Countess, and the main plot involves the question whether (or to what degree) Linda will fall under her spell as well, etc.
It seems the late Jesús Franco was a very famous (or rather: notorious) veteran of the low-budget exploitation genre. Vampyros Lesbos was not only written and directed by him, he also played a supporting role in this film, and he is also credited on imdb as co-composer and “special makeup effects artist”.
To be quite frank, this film is a mess. Not only is it badly written, but it is also somewhat arbitrarily edited. The film never seems to know which story (or whose story) it wants to tell at any given moment. 55 minutes into the film, our leading lady, Linda, practically vanishes from the main plot for a full 20 minutes only to show up again shortly before the final show-down.
On top of being a mess, the film is also pretty boring; and the vampire aspects, which should be front and centre, often fall by the wayside as they are never fully explained or put in context to the plot. There is simply never any solid groundwork put into place that would tell us what lore, laws or rules apply to vampires in this film, so one never can relate to what is happening.
The acting is overall pretty dismal, which has partially to be blamed on the writing and the directing, but it also seems evident that some of the actors are not really up-to-scratch.
Heidrun Kussin, the actress playing Agra, is entirely out of her depth. It takes a lot of talent to play a mentally unstable person, as well as a lot of careful and supportive directing. And Kussin has neither at her disposal. The actress seems to have had quite an unremarkable career, but at least she had the good sense never to appear in another Franco film again. All the other actors could be called Franco regulars, appearing in at least five of his films, some in a lot more than that.
Our leading actress, Ewa Strömberg, does a passable job as Linda, but is ultimately losing her fight against the bad writing. Moreover, she is unable to exude the sex-appeal that we have to assume Franco is mainly looking for. Strömberg is not an unattractive woman, but that 1970s hairstyle does her no favours, and – more importantly – she is completely overshadowed by the erotic allure of her legendary co-star, Soledad Miranda (playing the Countess). As with most other actors in this film, Miranda’s acting is not always hitting the mark, but her screen presence is remarkable, and the camera makes the most of her captivating face and eyes. There is a reason why Soledad Miranda, who died tragically young before this film’s release, is referred to as Jesús Franco’s greatest discovery. However, there is very little chemistry between Miranda and Strömberg, which hurts the film, in my opinion.
The character of Linda’s boyfriend Omar apparently was Andrea Montchal’s first-ever acting role. He is not a great actor, but for this rather undemanding role his talents suffice. In general, I would say his performance says “telenovela” rather than “cinema”, but that may also be due to his rather ridiculous and poor moustache. Montchal acting career seems to have spanned only three or four years, comprising eight roles, six of which were in Franco films.
Paul Müller, a Franco film veteran with a long and varied career, plays the psychiatrist Dr Steiner in a professional and effective manner, but the role is small and so there is little worthy of note here.
Towering over all others is Dennis Price as Dr Seward, who plays entirely in a league of his own; although it must be said that he is constantly fighting an uphill battle against his character’s weird story arc.
Price was a veteran British A-list actor, probably most famous for playing the male lead in the glorious Alec Guinness Ealing Comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). With some 150 acting credits to his name, Price appeared in many main-stream films, often in crime stories. Due to problems related to alcohol and gambling he had to declare bankruptcy in 1967. These financial troubles are probably the main reason why he switched to the (then popular) horror genre in the final years of his life. Until his untimely death in 1973 he appeared in Hammer productions and several other genre flicks of a similar ilk, and he worked with Jesús Franco on five films in total.
Franco clearly knows what kind of gem he has in his cast, and in order to make the most of that fact he seems to invest more time and effort in Price’s scenes than with the other actors. For these scenes, Franco goes for a Hitchcockian aesthetic, which suits Price’s looks and demeanour, and which is enhanced by wardrobe, set design, colour schemes, as well as camera angles.
Speaking of set design: although much of the time the sets look cobbled together, Dr Steiner’s office is looking pretty solid, as is Dr Seward’s clinic. The most outstanding set design can be found in the residences of the Countess, and it is overwhelmingly dominated by red (supported, at times, by parts of her wardrobe). This set design looks very 1970s, but in a timeless and tasteful sort of way, with very few tacky elements. One or two of the camera angles are rather nice, as they employ the set design to enhance the camera work.
So, visually, the film has its moments. It is employing a certain 1970s flair, but unfortunately, in general, it has neither the budget nor the cinematography to make many of these moments really memorable.
The score music is for the most part created by some sort of electronic organ. For me, it never amounts to anything special, but it is serviceable as it adds to the ‘70s vibe and is suitably psychedelic whenever Franco wants to employ that side of it.
It seems the film tries its hand at some social commentary. As per the sexploitation genre, you might want to view certain scenes as a criticism of the way women are treated as sex objects by society. But really, there is not much here. As for violence against women, it is committed exclusively by a female character (although the relationship between the Countess and Linda naturally is one of dominance rather than abuse). There is only one exception, and in that scene the perpetrator is quite clearly a madman. Also, the story of a rape is related, but quite oddly all it does is betraying the writers’ quite insulting bias that women only become lesbians when they are man-hating rape victims.
There are, however, other aspects in which you might find more convincing gender-related social criticism. When Linda describes her problems and fears to her psychiatrist Dr Steiner he seems disinterested. He is dutifully scribbling away in his notepad while she is talking, but later the camera reveals that he has merely been doodling the whole time, drawing little cartoon animals and stick figures. That joke is somewhat ruined by the fact that the camera closes in on the notepad and lingers far too long on it. But this amount of attention given to the doodles proves to me that this was an important point for Franco to make (and that he did not want audiences to accidentally miss): men not taking women and their problems seriously. The patronising manner in which Steiner then talks to Linda, suggesting that she is merely hysterical, and the summarily-made statement he makes that all of women’s problems stem from sexual frustration, both add to that aspect. And here the second aspect of social criticism comes in: men not knowing how to deal with female sexuality. Dr Steiner’s opinions about women’s hysterics aside, the opening scene shows Linda’s boyfriend Omar visibly irritated by the fact that she seems to enjoy a stage performance by nude women (a lot). More poignantly, we have Agra, whose “madness” manifests itself in an overwhelming sexual desire for the Countess. And the way in which Agra is locked up, only surrounded by men, men who study and observe her, but cannot understand her – all of this could easily be interpreted as men fearing female sexuality, and trying to control (and/or suppress) it.
But whatever social commentary you might want to credit this film with, the fact remains that – as with all films that fall within the sexploitation spectrum – Vampyros Lesbos uses women and female sexuality (including lesbian scenes) in a voyeuristic way and as a selling point. A number of camera angles and shots that are employed here are exploitative in themselves; and I have no doubt that the people behind this film cared much more about ticket sales than they did about any social issues.
In two scenes in this film, there are weird stage shows which are clearly strip-tease or nude variety shows, but are performed in a club for tourists under the pretence of being artsy modern-dance routines. You might see this as symbolic of the genre; and of this film in particular, as you could make the case that Jesús Franco adds some superficial social commentary as well as some artsy visual and “psychedelic” elements to a film that basically just shows a lot of female nudity.
Despite its premise and genre, Vampyros Lesbos is quite “harmless”. It might quite possibly be the only film in existence which uses a clown figurine as a phallic symbol; but that rather odd choice aside, this film is neither lesbian soft-core porn, nor heavy sexploitation or even exploitation. Which, I would normally say, is to its credit; but I cannot deny the fact that, as these three aspects fall flat, there is very little left. Because one thing is certain: it fails as a vampire film. It is nice to see how they borrow from tradition and try to tweak it, but in the end they do not do anything with it; or at least we as an audience do not know what exactly it is they are trying to do with it. There is very little consistency, and few rules are established in an understandable manner. So when the finale comes along, you understand neither what is happening, nor how or why.
I can see no reason why anyone should want to watch this film, unless they are absolute “completists” in either the vampire or the (s)exploitation genre; or extremely interested in 1970’s design, as the sets inside the Countess’s home are quite notable. As a vampire film, it is absolutely not worth seeing. Honestly, if I had to choose, I would rather sit through Vampire Academy (2014) again than Vampyros Lesbos.
The film has some style, and shows some effort. So if I throw in some extra decimals for Soledad Miranda’s screen presence and Dennis Price’s great performance, I think I can give this film 3.0 to 3.5 out of 10. Which means that this film ranks roughly on par with the blacksploitation-vampire hybrid Blacula (1972) in my esteem.