Dull vampire pix were once as ubiquitous as zombie pix are now, but when a good one came along we’d certainly take notice. The predatory Fran and Miriam are a wholly new twist on the ‘Wicked Lady’ highwayman theme — the picture transcends the softcore horror genre with class and style. Fringe director José Ramón Larraz found himself filming in England, and his output outclassed what were passing for Eurotrash horror epics across the channel. How did he do it? The answers become clear in Arrow’s special edition. Although only available in a boxed set, it’s reviewed here separately.
Arrow Video USA
1974 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 88 min. / Street Date March 26, 2019 / Available in the collection Blood Hunger: The Films of José Larraz, from Arrow Video / $72.89
Starring: Marianne Morris, Anulka (Dziubinska), Murray Brown, Brian Deacon, Sally Faulkner, Michael Byrne, Karl Lanchbury, Bessie Love.
Cinematography: Harry Waxman
Film Editor: Geoff R. Brown
Original Music: James Clarke
Written by Diana Daubeney, Thomas Owen
Produced by Brian-Smedly Aston
Directed by José Ramón Larraz
The web gatekeepers for exotic horror are giving a big thumbs up to Arrow’s boxed set Blood Hunger: The Films of José Larraz, even if they overload the two other horror-sex features Whirlpool and The Coming of Sin with a bit too much intellectual baggage. But Larraz’s 1974 Vampyres is superior vampire picture in every respect.
The majority of José Ramón Larraz’s films are primarily concerned with erotica. His reputation lies with this picture and another from the same year called Symptoms, which for a long time was unavailable. Originally a comic book artist, Larraz worked under many names and didn’t commence making movies until he was almost forty. In the belt-tightening English film industry of the 1970s, reported critic Jeff Stafford, some Brit filmmakers and critics were not happy to see Larraz succeed: “What is a bloody Spaniard doing making films in Britain?”
Vampyres’ producer took a pragmatic attitude to the commercial realities of horror: art and mood were nice, but distributors wanted nudity and sexuality. Vampyres understands what skin flick softcore is all about, yet it is too well made to fall into the easy exploitation category.
After too many years of movies featuring romantic vampires, it’s a pleasure to deal with outright fiendish monsters again, even if Larraz adds a typically Spanish undercurrent of misogyny. The very small-scale tale boils vampire lore down to its non-Gothic essentials. Our two serial seducers are creepy and kooky, down-to-Earth supernatural bloodsuckers, apparently dealing with an economic downturn. Fancy coffins just aren’t practical. They instead hang around the cobwebby basement corners just like the bats do, looking like cast-aside dolls.
Talk about the downside of hitchhiking… dressed in long coats and capes, mystery women Fran and Miriam (Marianne Morris & Anulka Dziubinska) pick up single male travelers on a country road, and escort them to their spider’s lair base for vampiric feasting, a vacant country house. Blonde kid Rupert (Karl Lanchbury) and the older Ted (Murray Brown) are fairly easily pulled in for a night of lovemaking and carnage. Rupert is disposed of in the ladies’ usual manner, but Fran becomes attached to Ted, and saves him weak but alive for another night’s pleasure. As the two women are also lesbian lovers, Miriam has reservations about Fran’s fixation on Ted. Complicating matters are a pair of young campers, John and Harriet (Brian Deacon & Sally Faulkner). Harriet observes the ladies in the woods and becomes curious enough to search the mansion; at one point Fran interrupts Harriet at her easel painting and makes a strange sisterly gesture. By the time Miriam brings another victim home (Michael Byrne), the weak and disoriented Ted has found the will to attempt an escape.
Ten minutes into Vampyres and we know we’re watching something special. The lack of high-budget production values is not a drawback. Although storywise there is no more ‘content’ than lesser horror pix, this show sustains its mood and maintains a high level of interest. It isn’t just the frequent nudity and sex. By 1975 vampire pictures had mostly lost their shock value. Hammer Films had been near-irrelevant for five years, and ‘R’-rated A.I.P. horrors were also in a rut: Compared to Larraz’s film, The Velvet Vampire, Blacula and Count Yorga were just diddling with genre givens. Vampyres also has much more to offer than most of the sexed-up erotic European vampire movies of its decade, which had devolved to the amateurish and shoddy level of Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin.
Vampyres is not just thrown together, but crafted with style and care. It also has the freshness and invention of ‘new’ genre filmmaking. Larraz elicits fine performances from the models that play his vampire lovers — they’re graceful, alluring and show none of the discomfort or self-consciousness that mars so many horror pix. Both Ms. Morris and Ms. Dziubinska betray no sign that they’ve been coerced into anything — they’re as bold and focused as the vampire vixens they play. A lot of this comes from a screenplay and direction that allows them to behave sensibly. When they talk to their prey, they show personality, just enough of ‘human interest’ to make these guys feel like they’ve become extremely lucky. Yes, they allow a woman that’s picked them up on the road to invite them for a drink, and who knows what more, at their nearby grand house. Yep, plenty of guys would do that, so credibility is not unduly stretched. We assume that the girls, who are actually squatting in a house that’s for sale, will soon move on before the plague of mysterious deaths draws undue attention.
The movie plays things almost completely straight, even if the vampires’ wicked small talk hints at horrors to come. Just the same, things could easily become ridiculous. We can imagine the faint and bloodless Ted trying to leave the big house, and discovering a room packed with mail carriers, like the one in the old Monty Python sketch. Yep, there’s never a shortage of men that will take up that invitation.
On the nuts’n’bolts level, we also wonder if this corner of England has a really incompetent coroner — all these wrecks on the same stretch of road, with the corpses stabbed and chewed up in odd ways, and missing a lot of blood.
Remastered in HD, the movie looks very, very good, almost too good to be a three-week low-budget wonder production. The camerawork is polished and fluid. The lighting inside the house is natural and expressive, and the lush wooded exteriors make Fran and Miriam look like maidens in a forest fairy tale. Most horror pix at this budget level couldn’t afford quality images. Having edited Larraz’s Symptoms, the producer Brian Smedley-Aston was a well-connected below-the-liner. He secured the services of the highly experienced and apparently fast-working lighting cameraman Harry Waxman, whose careful work enhances impressive pictures like Sapphire, Third Man on the Mountain, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, She, The Nanny and The Wicker Man. Waxman and director Larraz worked well together, lifting Vampyres out of the league of ‘tiny productions.’
This good transfer allows us to appreciate the film’s fine visual polish. The beautiful exteriors and interiors seem to light themselves — the show has good camera angles, atmosphere to spare, and zero rough edges. Nowhere do Larraz and Waxman fall back on unmotivated smoke or lighting tricks. The beautiful stars look great posed in the greenery, or walking about in their long capes. The modest show all takes place in a few acres around the same ‘haunted house’ mansion seen in Rocky Horror Picture Show. Special care is evident in all the details — the movie uses real bats, filmed in slow motion.
Larraz’s judicious direction gives the show style and substance. Many scenes involve wandering long corridors in the house, but our patience is never taxed. The supernatural element is handled very well — never are we given a list of vampire rules, but observation gives us some clues. In what other movie do vampires stop watches, something that we associate with sci-fi films? When Fran runs her thumb across Harriet’s forehead, we wonder if it’s a vampiric ritual, or some kind of sisterly gesture. Are these lesbian vampires also feminists?
Not really, even though their vampiric bond frees them from male control. Fran and Miriam are certainly comfortable with their sexuality, but otherwise they’re wild animals denying any but a parasitic connection to human values. They’re very aware of their role as seducer-killers. The vampires’ ironic dialogue is actually perfectly judged — they say things that might reveal their murderous intentions, but the men are too busy enjoying their company to detect anything sinister. Miriam is amused when a playboy still thinks he needs to charm them with his knowledge of wine — the fool is doing their work for them. Miriam never lies to her victims, not really:
Playboy: “This is too good to be true.”
Miriam: “Nothing’s too good to be true, it’s just that life is too short.”
Films of the ’60s and ’70s may have been sexually liberated, but they were also consistently sexist. Italian, Spanish and some French horror subscribed to a pretty ugly macho attitude. Male filmmakers exploited female beauty and sexuality to an extreme degree, but when it came time for moral lessons, fell back on repressive, misogynistic puritanism — identifying original sin as a female attribute. The hypocrisy is pretty obvious — the ‘male gaze’ favors lesbian sex scenes, yet it is always considered unnatural, almost as ‘evil’ as vampirism itself. With Ted essentially exsanguinated / emasculated, the message is delivered that having voracious, cruel women are in charge is the worst thing that can happen in our world: eroticism must be controlled and contained by men. The alternative to paternal rule isn’t pretty. Ted is so weak that he loses his free will — we keep finding new wounds on his arms, on his side, etc. However, the power of love (male-centric love) may save Ted. He has a chance because Fran falls in blood-lust with him. She’s a wild animal, but she simply can’t make herself kill him when she should.
The movie has a somewhat ambiguous ending. We’re given some clues that might explain the film’s prologue, which appears to be the murder of lesbians Miriam and Fran at some time in the past. Was it Tom’s doing? Vampyres implies that lesbianism is so vile, its practitioners become vampires after death.
The finish is certainly elegant, as we watch the vampire women disappear into the forest. There’s something beautiful about the awkward way the women walk-stalk, as if they’re about to transform into phantoms. The visual carries a hint of the finale of Dreyer’s classic Vampyr. The conclusion is cold, creepy and grim, but not overly nihilistic … it’s not the Apocalypse, but simply the Call of The Wild.
Arrow Video USA’s Blu-ray of Vampyres, repeat, comes in a three-feature box with José Ramón Larraz’s Whirlpool and The Coming of Sin. Arrow has appointed all three features with fine extras. The transfer of Vampyres is a revelation; I liked the film on DVD but this excellent presentation boosts my appreciation greatly. The show is in excellent shape and Harry Waxman’s cinematography adds greatly to its appeal. A three week shoot, a tiny budget and yet the actresses are beautifully lit. The audio is also strong.
The prolific Kat Ellinger gives a rambling but personable commentary, covering most of the known information on the show and providing her personal seal of approval and admiration for its director. By now I’ve decided that fans take to her free-association commentary style because she has a friendly and conversational manner.
Director Larraz passed away six years ago, but the disc producers have obtained several key interviews, including both vampire actresses and the folks playing the couple in the camping trailer. Brian Deacon is a new discovery for this reviewer, having seen his The Triple Echo for the first time not three weeks ago. Only actress Sally Faulkner voices some resentment with the director Larraz, who she says was hard on her and Brian Deacon. Tim Greaves’ booklet essay is excellent; a second piece by him discusses a failed attempt at a sequel.
If you can’t wait for Arrow to release a stand-alone disc (not that one is necessarily coming) there does exist a 2010 Blue Underground Blu-ray, that I have not seen.
Parting thought: when I saw the cereal box labeled ‘Kellogg’s Sultana Bran’ on Harriet and John’s breakfast table, I at first thought it was fake, an obscure joke, like the generic products seen in Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Nope, it’s just something that this closed-horizons California boy never encountered before: Kellogg’s Sultana Bran. Live and learn, I guess — but do sultanas taste better than raisins?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good +
Supplements: Audio commentary by Kat Ellinger; video interviews with Brian Smedley-Aston, Marianne Morris, Anulka Dziubinska, Brian Deacon, Sally Faulkner, makeup artist Colin Arthur, composer James Kenelm Clarke, Victor Matellano; 1990’s video interview with José Larraz; José Larraz and Marianne Morris Q&A at 1997 Eurofest; Image Gallery; Trailers; Long section in booklet with Vampyres essay by Tim Greaves
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 31, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson