Friday, March 28, 2014


Jess Franco, 1973
Starring: Howard Vernon, Christina von Blanc, Britt Nichols, Anne Libert

Prolific Spanish director, actor, and writer (and much more) Jess Franco sadly passed away early in 2013. Though his catalogue is largely an acquired taste, he is one of the most important figures of Eurohorror and each of his films, no matter how small the budget, are marked with his indelible personal style. Kino and Redemption are honoring his sizable contributions to genre cinema, including horror, erotica, women in prison films, crime and spy movies, and many more, by releasing a few of his films on Blu-ray. A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973) is one of Franco’s better known efforts, combining horror, erotica, lovely ladies, lush visuals and a surreal plot. 

Originally known as The Night the Stars Died (La nuit des étoiles foilantes), Christina, Princess of Eroticism aka A Virgin Among the Living Dead is the loosely plotted tale of a young woman, the titular Christina, who returns to her isolated family estate after the death of her father. She hasn't seem him or any of her family members since childhood and was raised at a boarding school. Locals insist the estate is abandoned, but she finds the house full of her somewhat creepy extended family, led by her Uncle Howard. After her father’s will is read and she is plagued by frequent nightmares, Christina learns her family members are actually dead. She is forced to endure a number of bizarre scenarios, including a sexual assault that ends in a satanic ritual, zombies rising from the earth, and odd conversations with a blind girl who wanders the mansion. Christina witnesses a fair amount of sex, including an erotic scenes involving blood and scissors, and more. 

Despite its low budget, the film benefits from a beautiful Portuguese setting, the lovely house, some unforgettable imagery, and cinematography from Jose Climent. As with some of Franco’s other works, this doesn't follow logic or linear storytelling in a particularly faithful way and the film feels like half fairy-tale, half nightmare, which will please some viewers but frustrate many more. While the pace sometimes moves slowly, the film is packed with odd events that keep things moving towards the melancholic conclusion. There is also a surprising amount of black comedy, including one wonderful scene during a funeral where a bored character paints her toenails.

Christina von Blanc is lovely as the titular Christina, but fails to take the place of Franco’s former leading lady, Soledad Miranda. Though she isn't a particularly compelling actress, she serves the role well and wanders the film looking suitably doe-eyed and anxious. Franco regular Britt Nichols as Christina’s chain-smoking cousin Carmencé and Anne Libert (Diary of a Nymphomaniac) as the Queen of the Night are particularly beautiful, welcome inclusions in the somewhat odd cast. Franco himself plays the creepy Basilio and his regular lead Howard Vernon (The Awful Dr. Orloff) is compelling as Uncle Howard. Ernesto Pablo Reiner (The Devil’s Commandment) is only on screen briefly, but he is memorable as Christina’s dead father. 

In his commentary track for the film, Tim Lucas notes the similarities between the plot of this film and Bava’s magical Lisa and the Devil, a haunting, surreal meditation on death. Like Bava’s late masterpiece, Christina may be disjointed and nonsensical, but it is a deeply personal reflection on death, depression, and grief. Soledad Miranda died a few years before this, in 1970, and she was undoubtedly still on Franco’s mind during the writing and filming of Christina. The suicide of Christina’s father and her longing for family, regardless of how odd and sometimes menacing they are, lingers throughout the film and provides something of a grounding point in the midst of the dreamlike story. It is often difficult to tell what is real and what's happening in Christina's mind, whether we are dealing with fantasy, dreams, nightmares, or, as we later learn is a possibility, Christina’s hallucinations. 

Presented with a 1080p resolution from an MPEG-4 AVX codec and the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, A Virgin Among the Living Dead looks better than it ever has. One of the things I respect so much about the Kino and Redemption Blu-ray releases is that their remastering is all natural and is simply intended to make ‘60s and ‘70s cult films look as good as possible without the flat texture often left behind by digital remastering. As a result, both prints of the film do have some age damage, namely debris and scratches, but once the opening sequence has passed, it is not really noticeable. Franco’s colors look wonderful and balanced and overall the film is incredibly clear. There are moments of muddiness and some blurring during darker scenes, but they are likely due to the cinematography. 

The real treat here is that Kino and Redemption provide both versions of the film. Christina, Princess of Eroticism is essentially Franco’s first complete cut of the film and is the version I prefer. A few years after it came out, during the European zombie craze, extra scenes were shot by French horror-erotica director Jean Rollin and cut in. This version is known as the wonderfully titled, A Virgin Among the Living Dead. There is yet another softcore version, sort of Christina version 1.5, with more scenes of erotic cut in, and some of this extra footage is included in the special features. 

There are two LPCM 2.0 Mono tracks, the original French track, with optional English subtitles, and an English dub. I watched both and while I generally don’t prefer dubbing, the English track isn't that bad. Though there is some slight hissing and a few other age related issues, the film sounds great, certainly better than past releases. Dialogue is clear in both the English and French versions. The real star here is Bruno Nicolai’s impressive and wide ranging score that perfectly matches Franco’s film. As Tim Lucas states in his commentary track, Nicolai and Franco had an excellent working relationship and Nicolai often encouraged Franco (a musician in his own right) to contribute to the score arrangement. There are some jazzy, Goblin-like moments, but overall Nicolai’s score is haunting and ethereal. It also benefits from Ennio Morricone collaborator Edda Dell’Orso’s vocals.  

There are some nice extras, chief among them a great commentary track from Tim Lucas. It not only explains many elements of the production and Franco’s career, but may shed some light on the film itself if you find the limited plot frustrating or confusing. Also included is “Mysterious Dreams,” one of Franco’s final interviews where he discusses A Virgin Among the Living Dead. There is also a five minute compilation of extra softcore erotic footage. “The Three Faces of Christina” discusses the different versions of the film and “Jess! What Are You Doing Now?” is a sad, but heartwarming tribute to Franco where his friends discuss what they think he is doing after death. 

A Virgin Among the Living Dead is certainly acquired taste, but if you enjoy more surreal and introspective horror with an emphasis on eroticism and black humor, it comes highly recommended. Kino and Redemption have really outdone themselves with this release and it is the only way you can currently see the two major versions of the film together and on Blu-ray. This release, along with equally excellent Blu-rays of Franco’s less seen Nightmares Come at Night and his more popular The Awful Dr. Orloff, is a fitting tribute for Franco and I hope to see many more of his titles from Kino and Redemption. 

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