Review: A Virgin Among The Living Dead

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American cult movie buffs often speak fondly of early 80’s VHS distributor Wizard Video and its range of garishly-packaged nil-budget horror oddities. Among the titles offered, Jess Franco’s A Virgin Among The Living Dead gained particular notoriety due to the unexpected non-sequitur weirdness of a film that bore absolutely no resemblance to the gore-drenched zombiethon promised by comic-book artwork on its oversized box. For the unsuspecting, it must have proved a jolting introduction to the bizarre alternate universe created by its director; triggering curiosity in more adventurous viewers and contemptuous bemusement for the majority. Much later in the 1980’s, Careyvision (whose shoddily-manufactured tapes were seemingly only available on market stalls) released the same truncated, optically-censored print in the UK. While there’s a complete absence of nostalgia for that release, I’d be extremely surprised if I was the only British horror fanatic who experienced a kind of Franco epiphany as I found myself utterly beguiled by the mystical yet rough-hewn surrealism of a film now recognised as a highlight in the director’s vast filmography.

The young, naïve Christina (Christina Von Blanc) checks-in at a coastal resort hotel, informing the morose proprietor that she plans to attend the reading of her father’s will at nearby Montserrat Castle. Her host tells her that the castle is an uninhabited but dangerous place, and warns her to stay away. Unperturbed, Christina is collected the following morning by a mentally-impaired brute (Jess Franco) and driven through the mountains to Montserrat where she meets her extended family for the first time. This bizarre assembly of misfits, headed by sleazy Uncle Howard (Franco stalwart Howard Vernon), are initially welcoming but, after Christina’s inheritance of her father’s estate is announced, their eccentric, sexually-charged behaviour intensifies, and the hapless virgin begins to realise that it’s not just her chastity in jeopardy…..

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For all their unique qualities, even Franco’s best movies tend to appeal more on an aesthetic than emotional level. To modern sensibilities at least, the Sadean violence and much of the erotic imagery that dominates his films will fail to elicit the intended strong reactions, working instead as mesmerising, subversive avant-garde, charming kitsch or, frequently, both simultaneously. Like the sorrowful Female Vampire (1973), Christina, Princess Of Eroticism (the version of A Virgin Among The Living Dead on which this review is based) is more emotionally sophisticated and complex than most of his preceding gun-for-hire productions. A more personal project, made soon after the untimely death of his muse Soledad Miranda, in certain scenes, the film has a poignant funereal beauty that transcends the customary one-dimensional characterisation, alienating ambience, and occasionally clunky cinematography. A haunting sense of quiet resignation in the face of mortality is touchingly evoked in the spellbinding closing scene thanks, in no small part, to Bruno Nicolai’s achingly plaintive theme. But this mournful tone is a key element of the entire film, emerging at frequent intervals and, somehow, never undermined by the outrageous psychedelic imagery and comical (intentional and otherwise) moments that also comprise its unique character.

Christina, Princess Of Eroticism (as much of a misnomer as the later retitling) is rich with inventive, artful images that reveal Franco to be a great cinematic surrealist, whereas many of his other films, for all their delirious set pieces, only hint at this aspect of his creativity. A nightmarish sequence in which Christina’s father (Paul Muller) reveals the truth about his death while floating through a forest, hanging from a noose, is particularly haunting and infused with poetic melancholy. Equally captivating is an earlier scene where his seated apparition slowly withdraws into darkness as the mysterious, sultry Queen Of Darkness (Anne Libert) appears from the ether to reclaim him. Franco also achieves an intoxicating surrealism with the unnervingly bizarre funeral sequence. The spectacle of the deceased propped upright on a chair, glazed eyes staring at the ceiling, as the family chants and the sluttish Carmenze (Britt Nichols) nonchalantly paints her toenails, is as disorientating as it is comically absurd. Without doubt, the film’s most powerful image comes when Christina interrupts Carmenze and her blind cousin as they indulge in a sadistic sex act involving a pair of scissors. In a sequence of protracted depravity, we are assaulted by the grotesque sight of the insatiable cosmetic-caked predator inflicting wounds on the woman’s breast, sucking blood from the lesion with lustful relish. The most disturbing aspect of the scenario is the zombified passivity of the blank-eyed ‘victim’ as she allows Carmenze to abuse her naked body. An extraordinary sado-sexual moment in a filmography overflowing with such aberrations.

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For all its hallucinogenic shocks and artistic ambition, Christina… is also punctuated by moments of offbeat humour. Franco excels as Basilo, a bumbling yet sinister imbecile whose outrageously theatrical grunts and groans add a welcome silliness to otherwise sombre dialogue scenes. His finest hour comes when he confronts Christina with a chicken’s head. Unsurprisingly alarmed, Christina flees, leaving the drooling goon to pull faces and make childish hand gestures at the dangling poultry. Later, he becomes even more hilariously excitable as he watches Carmenze sprawling on the floor, performing a ridiculously awkward ‘erotic’ dance routine. Equally amusing is the sequence where two middle-aged sleazebags gawp at Christina as she bathes nude in the Castle’s pond. With their school-boy chuckling and lewd remarks, the scene plays out like a more explicit Benny Hill skit, made all the more hysterical by their overwrought facial expressions.

As much as Christina… possesses a formidable visual impact, the importance of composer Bruno Nicolai’s contributions cannot be underestimated. His outstanding score – enveloping tender Edda Dell’Orso-sung lullabies, clattering avant-garde jazz, delightful early 70’ muzak, and pulsating prog rock – is perfectly married to the diverse imagery. The more assertive, up-tempo pieces lend a thrilling, panic-laced momentum to the horrific scenes whereas the eerie, ambiguous closing sequence becomes genuinely moving as accompanied by a mournful, heartrending theme overlaid by Vernon’s sombre monologue.

Although Franco seems to have invested considerable more emotion and effort here, Christina… still bears the trademarks of a rushed production with plentiful use of that infamous zoom lens and some ragged panning shots. To Franco fans, they’re an essential part of the experience; an accidental (?) stylistic identity. In fact, the extensive use of zoom lens works to great unsettling effect in Christina…., mercilessly catapulting us into to the weird facial features of Uncle Howard’s clan as they impart their portentous dialogue. Of course, to mainstream cinemagoers and even admirers of more technically slick exploitation film, these elements are likely to be grating in the extreme. Nevertheless, the sometimes crude cinematic values on display in Christina…, give the film an intriguingly inscrutable schizoid quality with any technical shortcomings ensuring that its aloof profoundness is offset by an earthy grubbiness. And it’s that particular balance of gleeful, budget-restricted exploitation and cerebral arthouse that distinguishes Christina… as perhaps the director’s most interesting work and certainly one of the most daring and imaginative euro-horror productions of all time.

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Redemption/Kino’s blu-ray features two cuts of the film: the version closest to Franco’s original vision and a more widely-seen re-edit which incorporates zombie attack scenes filmed much later by Jean Rollin and inserted to capitalise on the success of Dawn Of The Dead (1978) and Fulci’s Zombie (1979). In no way do the pathetically stagey ‘living dead’ segments blend successfully with the esoteric tone of the original but, as long as the unadulterated version remains to be appreciated, it’s an enjoyably trashy variant and a welcome addition. In common with their previous high-definition Franco titles, Redemption/Kino has undertaken little or no restoration work on either print. While the enhanced quality certainly does bring out detail and accentuate colour – particularly the lushness of the Castle’s gardens – the picture is plagued with small white scratches for much of the running time. Fortunately, after the initial disappointment has faded, the damage becomes less distracting, but when you consider the repair work bestowed on far lesser Franco works such as Jack The Ripper (1976), it’s frustrating that the visual quality is so far from pristine.

As compensation, Redemption/Kino provides a raft of supplementary material. As well as a short documentary on the various incarnations of the film, and a wholly risible deleted scene, there’s an interview with the late director where he cautiously expresses an affection for his cut of the movie and discusses his collaboration with composer Bruno Nicolai, and the shooting conditions in Portugal where Christina… was filmed. The most rewarding extra feature, however, is film critic Tim Lucas’ erudite commentary track. While considering the various influences on Franco’s creative mindset, he also interprets the film as an expression of the director’s grief-induced depression as brought about by the loss of Soledad Miranda, which certainly lends an authenticity to the melancholic mood that emanates from the more lyrical scenes.

Overall, the blu-ray’s flaws are far outweighed by its many virtues and, suffice to say, it’s an essential purchase both for devotees and the curious.

ADE FURNISS

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