Film collectors may well remember Odeon Entertainment, the company who among many other titles delivered Witchfinder General and Blood On Satan’s Claw to the Blu-Ray format in the UK. Re-established as Screenbound they have gone and set up not 1 but 2 new cult labels. Firstly we have Maison Rouge whose impetus is Euro Sleaze and Black House Films for Euro Horror. This is all great for those of us who love our retro horror and exploitation and we will be exploring several of their titles over the next few weeks. First up from Maison Rouge is an old favourite, Jess Franco’s Female Vampire from 1975.

Franco (1930-2013) was a prolific director make no mistake. He made over 175 features and is either regarded as an auteur or a complete and utter hack depending on which side of the fence you sit on; there’s certainly no middle ground. Working cross-genre he is renowned for his erotic horror films as well as being responsible for a fair amount of sleaze in sub-genres such as women in prison (wip) films, which in my opinion he excelled at. Like countryman Jean Rollin I consider his films improve with age. When 1st viewed as a teenager I found both their output to be too ponderous and even laborious to hold my attention. Slow build ups and not a huge amount happening is a very good description but as I matured I began to appreciate their inner beauty and hidden depths that much more.

Female Vampire is one such example. Also known under various other titles such as the very descriptive and honest Bare Breasted Countess it stars Lina Romay as Countess Irina Karlstein. Romay was a protégée and muse to Franco and starred in many of his films and indeed became his partner right up until her death, just before his in 2012. Here she is doomed to wander the earth, cursed by immortality and she does so in the most part pretty much naked apart from open at front black cloak, boots and belt. She is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous (no denying it) and the camera zooms on every part of her natural nude glory (and this is the 70’s and it’s all natural). Everyone who claps eyes on her is bewitched and falls in lust and she is all the more mysterious for being mute. Not your normal bloodsucker, the hook here is really her feeding habits which are not the normal pain in the neck. To put it bluntly she feasts upon the genitals and it is a case of death by fellatio or cunnilingus (she ain’t picky). As bodies start cropping up in the setting of the gorgeous isle of Madeira a Dr Orloff (taking his name from an earlier Franco film) played by none other than the director himself starts to investigate. He often pops up in his films and here memorably delivers the classic line describing the victim as being “killed during orgasm, the vampire sucked his semen and his life”. Although essentially softcore little is left to the imagination in some scenes and things do border on the explicit as Lina cavorts, with man, woman and even bedpost in some of the films more eye watering scenes.

Music is important, there’s not a huge amount of dialogue what with the main character being mute (making an amusing section when a journalist attempts an interview). Franco is apart from being involved with every part of his films productions a jazz buff and musician. Here things are composed by another one of his collaborators Yorkshire musician Daniel White. We get romantic piano interludes, 70’s Bontempi lounge-core, jazz and emotional and evocative parts with a real sense of pathos about them. So is this just pure and unmitigated perversion, sleaze and exploitation? On the surface it may appear so but with that aforementioned maturity other things emerge. There is firstly a real fairy-tale quality about things, one scene with Romay walking with a naked woman through the forest stays strongly in the mind and the whole film is a bit of a fever dream. It’s an incredibly empowering film and dare I say has a strong feminist subtext, I am sure some would argue with this statement but this is something you would have to make your own mind up about; I stand by it. Also within the narrative are a lot of themes waiting to be considered and unearthed within its surreal and poetic frame. These include mortality, love, fate, inevitability, loneliness, loss and destiny. However you could just as easily watch it on a baser level and say “who does he think he is trying to kid!”

It’s an odd first choice of release, especially as only on DVD when a Region A Blu-Ray exists via Redemption / Kino Lober. The film has had many releases in the UK from video (again via Redemption) and on DVD (Arrow), however it has always been subject to censorship. The scene that caused real consternation with the BBFC involved the vamp’s visit to a Dominatrix dungeon where her abuse at the hands of female torturer was considered non-consensual by our fine guardians of morality. Here for the first time they have waived these cuts, hurrah! You may well be confused by the amount of versions actually knocking around of the film and yes a version with hardcore inserts does exist as does a no doubt amusing Japanese one with genital fogging. Another cut sees the film known as Erotokill and that is also included here as an extra. Running at 81 minutes compared to the main version at 96:27 this removes most of the stroppy scenes and tries to focus more on it as a horror film. It’s worth watching as an alternative.

There are some instances of grain and grit here as the film is obviously non-restored and not Hi-Definition but along with the way it was shot with a lot of soft focus that really doesn’t detract from the viewing experience. I would imagine most Francophiles already have this film probably via Image Entertainment on Region 1 and I am guessing this title would be mainly aimed at a new generation of retro horror fans wanting to start exploring the Euro market of the 70’s. They are certainly going to get their glasses steamed up here. Other extras include Destiny In Soft Focus, an interview with Franco explaining his aim to make a vampire film with a heart and not one with a motherfucker! It gives a very clear view of his thought process about the film and I certainly would not disagree with him. It also highlights the intense lifelong love between him and Lina and shows the tragedy of her death; one that perhaps made life not worth living for him and one which came as no surprise at his passing a short time after. I have to say on a personal level on watching this film it’s nigh on impossible not to fall head over heels on Lina’s Gothic gorgeousness. There’s also a poignant piece remembering Lina from film critic and co-star Jean-Pierre Bouyoux about her joy of life and her perfect relationship with Jess. Made shortly after her death. It’s quite stirring and evocative to watch.

This is as good a place as any to start discovering Franco’s work and you will either be turned right on to his world and want to dip into his massive oeuvre or be completely put off. I have to say that even after seeing this many times I am still discovering more on repeated views. For instance this time around I was struck by the thought of whether an act can be described as necrophilia when the propagator is a vampire and so themselves undead? Perhaps that’s just my jaded brain at work though. Female Vampire is best viewed with some fine red wine, a copy of Vampyros Lesbos (Severin Blu-Ray) and a handy packet of tissues. Ooh la la!

(Pete Woods)