Jesus Franco is often a love-or-hate proposition in cult movie circles. However, there is a more nuanced approach to his lengthy, sometimes unwieldy filmography: his esoteric approach is a matter of personal taste that can dip into crossover appeal when all of its offbeat elements line up perfectly. The ideal example to prove this line of thinking is Vampyros Lesbos, one of the Franco films that wins praise outside the director’s following. It allows him to indulge his love of carnality and free-form cinematic expression while also delivering it in a package that accessible to genre fans.
Vampyros Lesbos is essentially Dracula rewritten to fit “lesbian vampire” subgenre that rose to prominence in the early ’70s. Linda (Ewa Stromberg) is tormented by dreams of a seductive woman and find herself drawn to a seaside residence in Istanbul. Said residence is the home to Countess Carody (Soledad Miranda), a vampire who is a few hundred years old and wants to seduce Linda into her world. Also involved in the plot are a beleaguered boyfriend (Andrea Montschal), a female Renfield figure (Heidrun Kussin), a psychiatrist (Paul Muller) who is concerned for Linda and another psychiatrist (Dennis Price) with questionable motives.
The resulting film makes a strong case for Franco’s exploratory style because it is the key moment where all the director’s obsessions and techniques fall into place in a perfectly harmonious way. The script has just enough story to keep the dreamy visuals afloat, with plot points from Dracula being effectively reconfigured (the idea of making Van Helsing an ominous figure with mysterious motivations is a neat touch). It also leaves Franco plenty of room to indulge his prowling camera and zoom lens, with Istanbul making a great old-world backdrop for the carnal goings-on. The eye-popping decor and costumes will make pop-art fetishists swoon – and the excellent Hubler/Schwab lounge-psych musical score will have a similar effect.
Another key to the appeal of Vampyros Lesbos is Miranda, who makes her powerful vampire character believable through a combination of hypnotic charisma and stunning looks. Franco clearly revels in her fetish-object appeal, giving her plenty of sexy and gothic scenarios to romp through, and Miranda dives into all of them with conviction. Elsewhere, Muller lends solid support and Price provides a delightfully sinister presence for Miranda to bounce off. It’s also worth noting that Kussin is the sexiest stand-in for Renfield you’re likely to see in a Dracula-inspired flick – and of course, Franco gives himself a great creepy weirdo role to play that he fills with enthusiasm.
In short, Vampyros Lesbos is a deliciously sinister confection where the combination of familiar elements and oddball flourishes genuinely transport the viewer into another world, one where dread and desire is leavened by Franco’s playful, free-spirited approach to filmmaking. It’s the perfect introduction to what makes his fans love his work and any card-carrying cult film lover should see it at least once.