The cult cin­e­ma land­scape is lit­tered with film­mak­ers whose work can be filed under the head­ing “acquired taste.”  After all, that is what the cult cin­e­ma label means: you have to answer to a spe­cial call­ing to get into it because it’s too edgy or obtuse for the main­stream audience’s needs.  Jesus Franco is the ulti­mate exam­ple of the “acquired taste” film­mak­er, hav­ing spent sev­er­al decades bypass­ing most people’s ideas of what defines accept­able screen sto­ry­telling to fol­low his own per­son­al, dis­tinct­ly dark muse.

Unlike a lot of film­mak­ers that fit this descrip­tion, Franco had a long time where he was able to work pro­lif­i­cal­ly.  In fact, a lot of European low bud­get pro­duc­ers hired him because despite his quirks, he could be relied upon to work quick­ly and cheap­ly.  Case in point: he pro­duced between eleven and four­teen films in 1973, depend­ing on whose count you go by and whether or not you count unfin­ished films.  Countess Perverse hails from that land­mark year in his out­put and it shows off both the hyp­notic ele­ments that inspire his cult as well as the eccen­tric­i­ties that inspire his legion of detrac­tors.

Countess Perverse is essen­tial­ly a quick­ie sex­ploita­tion riff on The Most Dangerous Game, albeit one shot through with a DeSade-inspired themes of deca­dent rich peo­ple and master/slave rela­tion­ships.  Count Zaroff (Howard Vernon) and Countess Zaroff (Alice Arno) preside over an island from a lux­u­ry house where they receive vis­i­tors, always beau­ti­ful wom­en, brought to them by cou­ple duo of Bob (Robert Woods) and Moira (Tania Busselier).

The lat­est guest is Sylvia (Lina Romay), who is under the impres­sion that she is part of a ménage à trois with Bob and Moira.  Unfortunately, she will soon dis­cov­er that she is not in for a fun & sun week­end.  After a meal of “wild game,” the Count and Countess reveal that they hunt the lovelies who come to their island — and those who fail to stay alive dur­ing this dead­ly pas­time become the next meal of wild game.  It all cul­mi­nates in a hunt that has a few sur­pris­es for both the prey and the hunters.

However, don’t let the above the syn­op­sis fool you.  This is nei­ther a thriller nor any kind of plot-dri­ven film.  It was essen­tial­ly impro­vised after the shoot of anoth­er Franco film, Plaisir A Trois, and incor­po­rates a lot of the same cast and some of the same themes into fever-dream approach.

Those expect­ing a film where a+b=c will be dri­ven to dis­trac­tion by Countess Perverse because it has lit­tle inter­est in deliv­er­ing a con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive expe­ri­ence.  Franco leans on impro­vi­sa­tion but also works fast so act­ing styles some­times clash, dia­logue ends up being func­tion­al at best and plot devel­op­ments start up then fiz­zle out (like an attempt­ed “escape” by Bob and Moira).  The some­times dis­cor­dant qual­i­ty of the sto­ry is fur­ther exac­er­bat­ed by Franco’s styl­is­tic quirks, which include devot­ing extend­ed stretch­es of the film to odd hand­held pho­tog­ra­phy accom­pa­nied by music and a Pavlovian ten­den­cy to zoom his cam­era in for close-ups of the actress­es’ crotch­es dur­ing nude sce­nes.

That said, if you can free your mind enough to appre­ci­ate the film as an impro­vised Spanish trav­el­ogue laced with sex sce­nes, Countess Perverse offers some eccen­tric rewards all its own.  Franco has an impres­sive eye for com­po­si­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly when archi­tec­ture is involved, and the film ben­e­fits from a wall-to-wall musi­cal score of Euro-lounge-jazz-psy­ch-rock that goes heavy on the fuzz gui­tar, flute and bon­gos.  The loca­tions are also fan­tas­tic: the elab­o­rate hous­es on the island look like some­thing from an Alejandro Jodorowsky film.  As back­ground audio-visu­al wall­pa­per, the results are some­times quite strik­ing.

It’s also worth not­ing that Franco excels at the sex­ploita­tion part of the film’s require­ments.  The cast fea­tures a who’s who of the ladies Franco worked with around this time: Romay, all big eyes and heav­ing bosom, is front and cen­ter and her beau­ty is com­pli­ment­ed by the ele­gant, some­what elfin fea­tures of Arno and the long-legged tomboy­ish­ness of Busselier.  Additional eye can­dy is pro­vid­ed by the exotic Kali Hansa.  All four actress­es are thor­ough­ly unin­hib­it­ed when the time comes to doff their Euro-swinger duds and Franco clear­ly rev­els in the oppor­tu­ni­ty to film them, allow­ing his cam­era to explore every inch of their bod­ies as they go through their over­heat­ed paces.

In sum­ma­tion, Countess Perverse is a polar­iz­ing piece of cel­lu­loid.  If you want a stan­dard nar­ra­tive, it will have you climb­ing up the walls.  However, if your tastes run towards art­sy 1970’s Euro-sleaze and you’re inter­est­ed in film offer­ing an expe­ri­ence more than a sto­ry, Countess Perverse offers a mem­o­rable exam­ple of “acquired taste” cult cin­e­ma.