Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos blurs the line between tasteful softcore and a marriage of Eurotrash and arthouse, but because it’s more so a visually stunning celebration of sex than leering exploitation, it’s erotica that feels more like an artistic statement than an exercise in titillation. Perhaps I’m being giving, since it’s undeniable that the film doesn’t have much more going for it besides its evocative style and its beautiful, uninhibited actresses. But watchable and singular it is — this is a movie that could not be made by anyone other than Franco, could not star anyone other than Soledad Miranda and Ewa Strömberg, could not be released in any other decade besides the psychedelic 1970s, and could not be made as anything other than a shoestring budgeted, chintzy excursion in risqué horror.
It’s a miracle that it bothers to come up with any sort of storyline in an attempt to make its sex and violence seem more than merely gratuitous, but try to follow it and you’ll end up with a head full of air — better to let its patina grab you, not its plot. In the film, the toothsome Strömberg stars as Linda Westinghouse, a vacationing woman who’s lured into a web of sensuality and carnage after acting as an audience member to the provocative nightclub act of Nadine Carody (Miranda), an intoxicating brunette with an enigmatic disposition.
In the watching of Nadine slink lithely around the stage with a nude mannequin (a feat only Miranda could make so tangibly vexing) is it clear that the femme isn’t just an exhibitionist who’s mastered the art of the striptease: she’s also an ethereal being venturing to lure in prey, like a siren on the shore. An overwrought conclusion that’d be if Linda weren’t watching Nadine’s every move like an unprepared student’s confusedly looking at the first question on a midterm. By the end of the night has she fallen under the woman’s spell and fallen victim to her hedonistic wiles. And since Nadine’s the heiress to Dracula’s fortune, that hypnotization is certainly embedded in danger.
The rest of Vampyros Lesbos is spent going through the motions of expressively shot sex scenes, horrifically expositional scenes of dialogue, and visual metaphors I’m sure only Franco could explain. But because the film’s a feast for the eyes (and the ears — the chromatic soundtrack, which became a surprise hit on the British charts in the mid-1990s, is fiendishly trippy) and is such a masterpiece in style and texture, not a moment isn’t draped in delight. Certain sequences suggest that the movie’s effectiveness is decidedly accidental: a couple of close-ups are eccentrically placed and amateurishly blurry, and nearly every conversation wears the complexity of unenthusiastic Ed Wood. But even those instances of indisputable shoddiness don’t dissuade the immense fun firmly in place.
Considering the insane amount of work Franco churned out in his heyday — throughout the sixties and the seventies did he make anywhere from three to seven movies a year — it’s only deserving that Vampyros Lesbos, said to be his most inspired moment, has become a legendary touchstone in the exploitation genre. How couldn’t it; with the alluring Miranda (who made six other features with the director before her tragic car accident death in 1970) at its front, the film avoids vulgarity and goes for euphoric sin. It’s irresistible. B+