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.