It has now been over 2 years since we lost the great Jess Franco in April of 2013. Franco as a director had a career that spanned 7 decades, and over 200 films. Most of them bearing his distinct stylistic quirks and obsessions that have caused a rabid fanbase to develop around his work. On DVD so many of his films came out at a rapid pace, on Blu-ray, however, they have come out in trickles, that is until the last few years. Redemption Films, opened the flood gates with a pairing of Female Vampire and Exorcism. Severin Films then unleashed Hot Nights of Linda, and Ascot-Elite films released all 16 of his Erwin C. Dietrich productions within the span of about a year. The two biggest distributors of HD Franco in the U.S. are the aforementioned Redemption and Severin films, the latter of which had a personal relationship with the director in his final years.
In 2014 Severin unleashed a stellar Blu-ray of Franco's Bloody Moon, while Redemption put out his riff on Ken Russell's the Devils, The Demons. Now their release schedules are syncing up with 3 exciting Franco Blu-ray releases in the span of one month. Severin Films have just unleashed a pair of Franco Blu-ray's that are among the director's most anticipated films to come to the format, the Soledad Miranda starring Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy. Redemption will then be releasing in early June the Howard Vernon starring gothic horror piece 1962's the Sadistic Baron von Klaus.
Vampyros Lesbos (5/5)
Though Jess Franco directed many popular films prior to 1971's Vampyros Lesbos it might be this film that cemented the director's cinematic immortality. The film stars frequently Franco collaborator Soledad Miranda (who would die in the same year as the film's release after working on 2 more films with Franco) as Countess Nadine. The film is essentially a lesbian reworking of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which in itself is odd, as most of the early 70's lesbian vampire films claimed to be adaptations of Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (whether they closely approximated that story or not).
The film tells the story of Linda (Ewa Stromberg) who is sent to the island residence of Countess Nadine to help the Countess deal with a recent inheritance from Count Dracula. After arriving on the island, Linda becomes entranced by the Countess, but is left thinking that the Countess was murdered as one morning into her trip she kinds the Countess’ corpse in her pool. The Countess, is of course very much alive, and Linda's memory was wiped by the Countess, she then finds herself in a mental hospital under the care of Dr. Steiner, the van Helsing of this story who is an expert on vampires. Steiner places an ad in the paper in regards to Linda, and helps Linda's boyfriend locate her. Unfortunately, it's not the happy ending the pair needed, as the Countess finds herself infatuated by Linda, and begins to use her thrall over her to call her back, and slowly drain Linda’s life and make Linda her vampiric slave. It is up to Steiner, Linda’s boyfriend Omar, and Linda herself to work against the Countess before it's too late.
Franco was always a very stylish filmmaker from his earliest gothic horror days, and beyond. However, once he reached he began working with the producer Harry Alan Towers in the 60's and started making color films, his films though still structured began to feel like more loose improvisations akin to the jazz music Franco himself was so fond of. By the early 70's Franco, had begun to eschew narrative, except on the most basic of levels and use what narrative he had as a stylistic springboard to realize his vision. Vampyros Lesbos (and in turn She Kills in Ecstasy) feel like a series of films where the old Jess Franco begins to pass the torch to the new more freewheeling Franco.
Franco does not appear to be strictly adhering to a story here, but both his visual style, and story feel more grounded here then they would in about 3 years with films like Lorna the Exorcist and A Virgin Among the Living Dead. However, this breaking from and adherence to structure seems to have created a perfect storm in Franco's cinema as Vampyros Lesbos is truly one of the director's shining moments as a filmmaker. The film is beautifully realized with a style that mixes the classic with the psychedelic and erotic to create something truly mesmerizing. This coupled with the lead performance by Soledad Miranda who has a certain charisma that draws the viewer in when she is on screen makes this film something truly special.
She Kills in Ecstasy (4/5)
Franco as a director seemed to like working with the same people again and again. This can be seen in his early repeat usage of actors like Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski to true Franco mainstays like Howard Vernon, Alice Arno, and his life partner the late Lina Romay. Franco had worked with Soledad Miranda prior to Vampyros Lesbos, she had acted in his version of Count Dracula, and even appeared in one of his early 60's black and white films. However, whatever chemistry the two had on Vampyros Lesbos was certainly enough for him to bring Soledad back for more films in the same year.
She Killed in Ecstasy is stylistically similar to the approach Franco took in Vampyros Lesbos with less reliance on psychedelic imagery. The film is essentially a re-telling of the Bride Wore Black with Soledad Miranda playing Mrs. Johnson, the wife of a scientist whose work is deemed unethical by his peers. In response he kills himself. She, of course, blame them for his death, and goes about seducing them and killing them one by one.
The film is not as good as Vampyros Lesbos, that being said it's hard to follow from near cult film perfection. The film in contrast is more straightforward. During Franco's career he seems to take an idea, and use it as a way to commit his distinct brand of visuals to film. However, in a few rare 70's films the director almost restrains himself , and actually stick to a narrative in the case of She Killed... he chooses a sort of episodic approach which certainly works for the material, but does not really go along with the freewheeling vibe that the best Franco films are known for. Soledad Miranda is once again in top form offering a nuanced performance that ranges from subtle, erotic, to psychotic.
The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (3/5)
I first came across Franco's Sadistic Baron Von Klaus in Image's 4 DVD Jess Franco collection, being obsessed with the director I wanted to watch anything and everything I could get my hands on (this I found out quickly was not always a good idea). However, with this film I would almost always fall asleep in the first few minutes, and wake up to the DVD menu playing. When Redemption announced a Blu-ray release of the film, I knew I had to try again having seen in recent years Franco's excellent Awful Doctor Orlof, and Diabolical Dr. Z, I felt I was more prepared for this film.
The film stars Howard Vernon as the current Baron Von Klaus, a many who returns to his castle to defend himself against a murder accusation. There have been a rash of killings in the community, and not only is von Klaus thought to be the murderer, but they believe he is possessed by the spirit of his ancestor who had committed atrocities centuries before. The Baron coupled with his lover Margaret must resolve who is committing the murders in order to fully free him from blame.
The film has a slow and plodding first half that is made up for in the second half with some interesting twists, and a sequence of violence that seems out of place for a film from 1962. The best part of the film is the intense performance by the late Howard Vernon as Max von Klaus. There are some interesting kills, and some general strangeness in the third act, but not enough to really recommend this to anyone but the Franco faithful.
Audio/Video (4/5, 4/5, 3.5/5)
Both Severin Films Blu-ray releases are presented in 1:66:1 AVC encoded 1080p transfer that looks quite brilliant. As far as the non-import market goes Severin have been the finest work in restoring and releasing Franco stateside, and these Blu-ray's go along way showing why. Fine detail is excellent for the most part, black levels are inky and deep, and colors are bold and striking where they need to be and natural other wise. There is a healthy grain structure at play throughout both films.
The Redemption Films releases is presented with a 2:35:1 AVC encoded transfer, and also like quite good. Though in keeping with the Kino/Redemption style of restoration it appears not much outside of an HD scan was done to the film. We do have very nice contrast, fine detail, and an organic grain structure present throughout. There is some damage from the source material on occasion, but nothing too prevalent or overly distracting.
Extras (5/5, 5/5, 1/5)
Severin has created 2 Criterion-worthy special editions for their releases of Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy. Both contain lengthy on-camera interviews filmed by the Severin's during Franco's latter years. It is, of great benefit to the director's fans that they secured so many of these interviews as they are informative, and entertaining, and manage to give us the participation of a director that is sadly no longer with us. Both discs also contains a documentary featurette called Sublime Soledad discussing the career and legacy of the film's star Soledad Miranda. They both feature film exclusive interviews with Franco biographer (and former Coil member) Stephen Thrower. Vampyros Lesbos contains a bootleg DVD of an alternate cut of the film, and and as a 2nd disc on She Killed in Ecstasy we are treated to the classic 3 Films by Jess Franco Soundtrack. Both discs also feature other featurettes, interviews, trailers, and more.
The Redemption Films Blu-ray release of Sadistic Baron von Klaus contains the film's trailer.
So begins the Summer of Franco, in May we have these 2 lovely releases from Severin that have wonderful A/V and an abundance of extras. In June we get the Sadistic Baron von Klaus with quite decent A/V, but lacking in extras. Apparently in July Severin are releasing Franco's Devil Hunter, and then in August we are getting Erotic Rites of Frankenstein by Redemption. It has been said that later in the year we might be getting more releases from both companies, and also Blue Underground whose excellent slate of Franco titles have been consigned to DVD hell. As for The Severin, Soledad Miranda Blu-ray's they are HIGHLY RECOMMENDED (I would have to be insane not to write that), while the Redemption Sadistic Baron von Klaus is RECOMMENDED.