a.k.a. Vampyre Orgy, Daughters of Dracula
***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Marianne Morris, Anulka, Murray Brown, Brian Deacon
screenplay by Diane Daubeney
directed by José Ramón Larraz
by Bryant Frazer SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. One of the hallmarks of Eurohorror is brightly-lit sex scenes. Rather than reveal nudity in chiaroscuro, or in the kind of colour-gelled Hollywood glow meant to suggest candlelight or moonlight, cinematographers working in this mode step right up and wash light over their actresses to ensure that no detail is lost in shadow. This tableau looks a little strange from a contemporary vantage--off the top of my head, I don't think anybody but Paul Verhoeven and maybe the mumblecore crew shoots sex scenes so plainly these days--but it's a stylistic disconnect and a marker of a sense of time and place that makes these films a conduit for nostalgia among cinephiles of a certain age. José Ramón Larraz, a Barcelona-born director working in England, doesn't let Vampyres out of the gate before staging a bedroom scene involving two young, completely naked women. The sleepy brunette Fran (Marianne Morris) and the pale blonde Miriam (Anulka, a former PLAYBOY centrefold) are rolling around in bed before a killer in a top hat arrives in silhouette and fills their nubile bodies with bullets. (Were the title not Vampyres, you'd be forgiven for assuming the film had just announced itself as a giallo.) With that violent flourish, the opening credits begin.
The scene is not especially convincing. As horror, it's anaemic. If the idea was to pay homage to one of Mario Bava's masked-killer movies, fine, but this implicit murder mystery plays out in clumsy contrast to the rest of the film's narrative. And as erotica, it's unappetizing. The sexy stuff plays better later in the film, after the two women have been properly introduced to us, and we understand a bit about their characters as well as what they're up to. Vampyres didn't grab my attention until a few scenes later, when young couple John and Harriett (Brian Deacon and Sally Faulkner) pass a mysterious hitchhiker as they motor across the English countryside, camper in tow. John sees Fran, resplendent in black, purple, and magenta, shooting come-hither looks from the side of the road. It's eagle-eyed Harriett who claims to have noticed the tiny Miriam lurking in the background, hidden among the trees. "Perhaps you're seeing things," John tells her, to which she responds, "No, I'm sure."
I'm not generally inclined to get all interactive with my movies on first viewing, but I backed up the disc to take another look at the shot. I was certain that only one woman had been visible in the frame, but on a second pass, I saw that it was true--Miriam was absolutely in the shot, peering out through some branches perhaps 20 ft. behind the other woman and not far from the centre of the frame. Like John, I had failed to see what was in front of me. I'm not sure why this resonated so strongly with me, but suddenly Larraz had commanded both my attention and my respect. Like an illusionist, he had undermined my confidence in my own capacity to properly read his film. He also had me thinking in extra-textual terms about the story he was telling. That's probably not his intention, though it was useful preparation for taking in the remainder of Vampyres. As ever, vampirism is a metaphor, but for what? Traditionally, supernatural female temptresses are expressions of outright male sexual panic, yet it seems possible that these rapacious lesbian vampires symbolize something else: neediness and vulnerability.
Fran and Miriam live together in an old, dark house in something approaching conjugal bliss, sleeping during the day, fucking and feasting at night. The local tourism industry provides a steady supply of food. Fran regularly stands at roadside, seeking a lift home from an unwary motorist. Said driver will be lured inside for an evening of wine, women, and exsanguination, his body deposited back on the motorway where, along with his now-wrecked car, it will present an exercise for the ambulance corps. While camping couple John and Harriett seem to have dodged that particular bullet, it's less than fifteen minutes in when thick, middle-aged Ted (Murray Brown) stops his sedan to give Fran a ride, declaring, "You're not the usual hitchhiker." It's unclear exactly why this paunchy bloke catches Fran's fancy, but they're in her bed before long--and, unlike Fran's usual bedmates, he wakes the next morning in good health but for a hangover and a nasty wound on his arm. To Miriam's chagrin, Fran is treating Ted as a suitor rather than as supper, stretching her time with him beyond the usual one-night stand. Either she enjoys his company or there's something about the sex. "You're playing a dangerous game," Miriam warns Fran. Then, dropping to her knees in the shower and pressing her face against Fran's pelvic region, she implores, "Kill him before it's too late."
This is neither scripted nor performed with much more panache than you'd expect from a typical mid-'70s entry in the erotic-horror sweepstakes, but the results are clearly a notch superior, owing largely to Larraz's visual sensibilities. A former comic-book artist, Larraz finds interesting angles on his shots, sometimes using elements in the foreground to create unique geometries in the scene or simply to suggest a POV shot that underscores the frankly voyeuristic tone of the sex scenes. Through it all, the camera remains highly mobile, whether it's following over the shoulder of a character exploring the lower reaches of the house, locating the right vantage on a pair of nude bodies rolling around in bed, or frantically keeping Fran and Miriam in frame as they reduce one of the hapless victims of their roadside trawling to a bloody corpse. The extensive T&A content is integrated surprisingly well, storywise, although the aforementioned shower scene is not merely a little cornball but outright uncomfortable, featuring some of the least convincing Sapphic smooching in film history. (Advocates of equal-opportunity nudity will note that Brown's penis makes a brief, bobbing appearance near one edge of the frame.) The mood isn't completely removed from that of a typical English horror film of the period--DP Harry Waxman had recently completed one of the most celebrated British horror films, The Wicker Man--but the film's emphasis on sex, plus its dark, dreamlike intensity of image, also reflect the sensibilities of Continental Europe, where horror movies from the likes of Jesus Franco, Jean Rollin, Amando de Ossorio, and Mario Bava were growing more lurid and sexually explicit (and sometimes inexplicable) all the time.
But Vampyres has a sense of humour about it, too--perhaps the best sequence in the whole picture depicts Fran and Miriam's seduction of a good-timing playboy who knows a thing or two about wine and suspects his basement rendezvous with these two knockouts represents an impending upgrade to his Lothario status. The actor, Michael Byrne (now a regular on the British soap "Coronation Street"!), is just excellent in the role, and the fun of watching his carefree turn as the luckiest man in Oakley Green comes from the certain knowledge that awful death awaits him. It's one of those moments when you can't help but root for the bloodsuckers. In fact, the film's best feature may be its Gothic undercurrent, which prizes a sense of romanticism and unease over stake-through-the-heart heroics. All the sex and gore doesn't drown out the film's aura of sadness. A certain melancholy suffuses the airy manor and lingers about the beauty of the women. Larraz declines to depict them as vampires in a traditional sense. Though they clearly drink blood, they have no fangs, and such tropes of the vampire film as the coffin in the basement or the aversion to garlic and crosses are absent. At the end of the film, as Ted realizes that a bloodthirsty lover has compromised him, there is no victory over the forces of evil. There is only escape.
Even on that point, Vampyres is ambiguous. It's true that Ted manages to extricate himself from a very sticky situation, and, in a conventional film, his triumph would climax the story. Instead, the picture culminates in perhaps its most brutal murder scene. Having already taken out camper John, Fran and Miriam drag poor Harriett into the wine cellar and tear her nightshirt off. Miriam holds her arms behind her back, conveniently displaying her breasts, as Fran rears back and slashes the woman's throat. Despite its simplicity, the murder feels as savage and cruel as any more ornate construction from a slasher film by Fulci or Argento. Larraz follows that image with a postcard-ready shot of a misty forest, God rays peeking through the branches of a massive tree that dominates the right half of the frame. In the next shot, Fran and Miriam are scampering away from the camera, arms held out delicately from their bodies, as though they were children running blamelessly from the scene of some accident. To me, that's the signature shot of the film: these women, these would-be victims of passion and circumstance, avoiding harm and confounding further discovery of their crimes.
That's how I prefer to leave Vampyres--as a dreamy, tongue-in-cheek tribute to women's sexual power and the dangers of allowing yourself to love someone who breaks you out of your routine and, perhaps, threatens your existential safety. Unfortunately, there's still the problem of that pre-credits double-murder, in addition to an equally WTF coda that includes a cameo by Bessie Love (a Texas-born actress whose IMDb resumé reaches back to a role in Intolerance). I won't break it down for you here--listen to the audio commentary near the end of the Blue Underground DVD and Blu-ray if you're curious about the director's intentions--but it's difficult to interpret these bookends in a way that doesn't undermine the delicacy of what the rest of the film almost achieves. Similarly problematic is the clumsy introduction of that camping couple into the proceedings. Vampyres would be more coherent and effective if it concentrated on the mad-love triangle of Fran, Miriam, and Ted without dragging uninterested (and uninteresting) third parties into it. Regardless, viewers with a taste for blood will find it to be a remarkable Eurohorror specimen with a lyricism that belies its in-a-hurry and on-the-cheap origins.
|Click for hi-res BD captures|
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Blue Underground delivers Vampyres on Blu-ray in a typically solid package. Though the 1.85:1, 1080p transfer admirably has the look of a 35mm print, it lacks the pinpoint sharpness that characterizes other BU titles mastered from the camera negative. (The jacket copy makes no claims as to the provenance of this disc's source material--it could be an interpos or interneg or even a clean release print.) If the image has been grain-reduced and/or dust-busted, this was done judiciously, without robbing the picture of any apparent detail, and I noted no evidence of "sharpening" around high-contrast edges. A bit of gate-weave is evident in some shots, particularly the pre-credits sequence, and while that sort of thing bothers some viewers, I find it oddly endearing. It's quite a lovely presentation, despite a slight softness throughout. Normally, this is where I'd complain that the disc is only a BD-25 as opposed to a more capacious BD-50, but as artifacting is not a problem, it's unlikely that a higher bitrate would have made a visible difference.
The audio is exceedingly clean--too clean, for my money. The purist in me insisted on watching the film with its original mono soundtrack, but a sampling of the hilariously overspec'd DTS 7.1 alternative (Blue Underground putting a lesbian vampire film out on Blu-ray with 7.1 channels of sound reminds me for some reason of Spinal Tap turning their amps up to 11) revealed it to be a viable option for serious viewers. Foley and other sound elements generally reside up front with the dialogue, while the full surround field only opens up when bits of the music score spread into the rear speakers. It doesn't sound like anyone went to the trouble of separating the film's original stems, but rather that filtering was used to steer different frequencies to different locations in the mix. Not a bad trick, and it works much better these days than it did in the pioneering era of DVD remasters, when "multichannel" mixes of mono movies were often an embarrassment to all concerned. The discrete track also benefits from lossless DTS MA compression, the mono lossy Dolby Digital running at 224 kbps. To be honest, Vampyres sounds really good in mono, but the DTS has the extra oomph and nuance you'd expect. (I hasten to admit that, as always, I was listening to only the 1.5 mbps core of the DTS MA track; the lossless version is no doubt that little bit better.) It would be a nice touch to provide a mono soundtrack for movies like this that was unrestored, preserving more of the flavour that an optical track might have had on release, but it sounds as if all three mixes on the disc (a Dolby Digital Surround EX option running at 640 kbps splits the difference between the DTS and the mono) come from the same scrubbed and remastered source.
As enjoyable as the movie is, the real fun is to be had in the supplementals on Blue Underground's disc. "Return of the Vampyres" (14 mins., SD) shows that Marianne Morris and Anulka remain absolutely lovely women in relatively up-to-date interviews (these extras were recycled from a 2003 DVD release), in which they gamely reminisce--separately, alas--about their experiences on the film's three-week autumn shoot. Anulka confides that the actor Sir John Mills had recently given her the advice that, as an aspiring actress, she should take every part she was offered. "The very next day, I was offered Vampyres," she says by way of explanation. (But, she goes on to explain, her agent declined a more explicit role in The Story of O on her behalf.) Morris briefly touches on Larraz's decision to dub over both women's voices in post, noting that he was using English actresses Georgia Brown and Annie Ross as vocal models for her character. This news comes as a complete surprise to Anulka. "Is it dubbed over?" she asks her unseen interviewer. "How pathetic!"
And I can't say enough about the yak-track, which reunites Larraz with his producer, Brian Smedley-Aston, for a rollicking recollection of their time collaborating on this film. Smedley-Aston is actually an accomplished film editor who cut Larraz's previous picture, Symptoms (and Performance, which must have been quite an assignment!), but here he basically plays straight-man to the free-wheeling and entirely un-self-conscious director, who opines on a range of topics from film lighting, music, and nudity to the superiority of American films, his censored-for-British-release "Vatican cut" of Vampyres, and the difficulties of passing kidney stones. Smedley-Aston discusses in detail the film's locations (such as the use of the Oakley Court mansion that had already been made famous by Hammer Film Productions), and he mentions cost overruns that had him mortgaging his house to make up a budgetary shortfall. Quite possibly, he is the unsung hero of this whole story, wrangling the funds that allowed Larraz to do his movie while guiding the writer-director's creativity in useful ways. Still, it's Larraz's non-stop vocalizations, delivered in charmingly broken English, that are most entertaining, especially when they get inappropriately randy. Explaining his preference for little blonde Anulka (as compared to co-star Morris), he declares, "If, one day, I need to be sucked by a vampire, I prefer to be sucked by a blonde vampire!" Describing his reaction to the reluctance of his lead actress on Symptoms to bare her ass for the camera, he blurts out, "Why don't you go to fuck off? The only thing we want to see is your ass, and that is not exactly beautiful!" Of his female stars in this film, he says, not exactly diplomatically, "These two girls were intelligent girls, and they knew very well they were not actors. If they went to that house, it was to [be] put naked in bed. For what other thing would we call them? Not to talk about Socrates or Plato." Nice. The guys at Blue Underground could have promoted this track with its own Twitter feed: @shitjoselarrazsays.
The package is filled out with two standard-def trailers: For a change, the international version is the dry one and the U.S. version features lots of violence, not to mention full-frontal nudity and a square-sounding announcer explaining, repeatedly, that these vampires are "very unnatural ladies." Can't argue with that. Originally published: June 3, 2010.