Arriving in British Honduras, amidst an eerie seaside town, innocent young Christina (Christina Von Blanc) is immediately unsettled when the local innkeeper insists nobody lives at Castle Montserrat, even though it has been her family’s home for years. Having returned for the reading of her late father’s will, Christina finds Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon) blithely playing piano whilst her stepmother lies dying upstairs in bed. The ailing woman warns Christina to flee, but she chooses to stay. Over several torrid nights, goes skinny-dipping in a lily pond, watched by two elderly perverts, stumbles upon beautiful cousin Carmencé (Britt Nichols) suckling blood whilst making love with blind psychic Linda (Linda Hastreiter), and discovers frosty Aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar) and homicidal mute Basilio (Jess Franco) have hacked off her stepmother’s hand to steal her valuable diamond rings. Every night, Christina hears her father’s voice calling her into the forest.
It goes without saying as a narrative this makes no sense yet as a tone poem meditating on the nature of sex and death, A Virgin Among the Living Dead is weirdly compelling. By rational standards it is a “bad” movie but if you can appreciate what Jess Franco is out to achieve, the film exerts a uniquely hypnotic power. Largely a mood piece heavily reliant on Christina’s poetic voiceover, its stream of consciousness filmic style will send some screaming, but ardent Franco-philes will recognise another trademark exercise in reality-bending. It does not hit the heady heights of his twin masterpieces: Eugenie… The Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969) and Eugenie De Sade (1970), but there are a few inspired scenes buried beneath the murky, meandering plot. Howard Vernon playing piano while Britt Nichols writhes sensually on the floor and the climactic satanic tryst between Christina and the naked Queen of the Night (Anne Libert) are psychedelic set-pieces in the familiar Franco mould. The standout however is the eerily beautiful sequence where Christina is led through the woods by her father’s ghost (Paul Muller), still dangling from the noose by which he hung himself.
Being a curious mixture of spoof and art film, Franco pays tribute to old dark house mysteries like The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Bat Whispers (1932) and of course, The Old Dark House (1932), and indulges his comical side throughout the hilarious reading of the will. However, the overall atmosphere is one of haunting melancholy and the film concludes as Libert’s erotic personification of death welcomes the heroine with a kiss into an Arcadian afterlife, one more sad than scary. Early on, a lady doctor insists Christina “should never let anything distract you from your goal.” The pursuit of inexplicable, elusive dreams may well be the guiding theme behind Franco’s work.
The film is something of a family affair, chock full of the familiar faces of Franco’s favourite collaborators. Anne Libert and the lovely Britt Nichols return from Franco’s trilogy of eroticized Universal horror tributes - Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1971), La Fille de Dracula (1971) and The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1972) - as does the great Howard Vernon, while Christina Von Blanc is a blank-faced yet beguiling lead who somehow captures the film’s childlike fascination with the supernatural. Bruno Nicolai supplies a fascinating score mixing lovely strings, funky bass, atonal jazz… and cackling monkeys.
Legendary director of predominantly sex-and-horror-based material, Spanish-born Jesus Franco had as many as 200 directing credits to his name. Trained initially as a musician before studying film at the Sorbonne in Paris, Franco began directing in the late 50s. By using the same actors, sets and locations on many films, Franco has maintained an astonishing workrate, and while the quality of his work has sometimes suffered because of this, films such as Virgin Amongst the Living dead, Eugenie, Succubus and She Killed in Ecstasy remain distinctive slices of 60s/70s art-trash.
Most of his films have been released in multiple versions with wildly differing titles, while Franco himself has directed under a bewildering number of pseudonyms. Actors who have regularly appeared in his films include Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee and wife Lina Romay; fans should also look out for his name on the credits of Orson Welles' Chimes of Midnight, on which he worked as assistant director.