On the island of Madeira, sexy, mute vampire Countess Irina Karnstein (Lina Romay) prolongs her immortal existence via death-dealing doses of overwhelming oral sex. Emerging through the mist, naked save for her black cloak and leather boots, she suckles the “life essence” of various victims at a local holiday resort. After quizzing the countess about her vampire heritage, bikini-clad journalist Anna (Anna Watican) is haunted by nightly apparitions. She eventually succumbs to Irina’s sapphic passion with inevitably fatal results. Irina’s activities soon alert the authorities, but also a pensive poet (Jack Taylor) who believes he is fated to join her in the world of eternal life.
Given Spanish schlockmeister Jess Franco first saw the late Lina Romay as something of a reincarnation of his tragically short-lived, original muse Soledad Miranda, it is little wonder their first collaboration with Romay in the lead plays like a variation on Vampyros Lesbos (1970), which featured Miranda in her signature role. The Bare Breasted Countess, which exists under an array of alternate titles for variant versions ranging from straight horror (Female Vampire) to hardcore porn (The Loves of Irina), opens with a typically idiosyncratic Franco shot combining his propensity for the lyrical and the crass. As a naked Romay strolls towards us, her languid gaze seemingly confronting the viewer with their own voyeuristic impulses, Franco glides his camera down her body, lingers on her bare breasts then zooms into her crotch. Yet rather than simply sleazy, there remains something intriguingly elegaic, almost wistful about the film, an aspect underlined by its tranquil seaside setting and the beautiful score by Franco’s regular composer, Daniel White.
Although Franco sold his films on the porno circuit, he seldom catered to the tastes of their audience. The melancholy tone of The Bare Breasted Countess is at odds with a grindhouse fan’s expectations of overheated eroticism and liable to disappoint those unsympathetic to his more contemplative agenda. As Irina’s mournful monologues make clear, she takes no joy from killing but is driven this need to feel alive by means of sexual communion, even as she longs for an end to her immortal existence. The film bears all the usual bugbears of Franco filmmaking: zoom-happy camerawork, somnabulant pacing, dialogue that wavers from disarmingly poetic to outright gibberish (sometimes in the space of a single sentence), gratuitous crotch zooms. But in spite of its obvious failings there remains something laudable about Franco’s attempt to convey an almost indefinable intermingling of loss and desire, an emotion key to the mystery of human existence but almost incommunicable onscreen.
There are surprisingly lyrical sequences, such as when Irina leads a presumably undead Anna into the afterlife and Franco even makes slightly silly scenes with a naked Romay writhing sensually in bed, sucking and humping the bedpost, strangely poignant and powerful. Though she never utters a word, Lina Romay delivers a surprisingly expressive performance and is ably supported by co-stars Jack Taylor and Anna Watican, who each convey a genuine frisson of terror and arousal in their encounters with Irina. Stock Franco players Monica Swinn and Alice Arno also appear in a frankly incomprehensible interlude where Irina is held captive and abused by two lesbians at an S&M nightclub until her powers drive them to turn on each other. Franco himself appears as forensic pathologist-turned-would be vampire hunter Doctor Roberts who consults none other than Doctor Orloff. The film hints this the son of the mad scientist from his breakthrough horror film, The Awful Dr. Orloff (1961), played in very eccentric fashion by Belgian film critic and underground filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bouyxou who waxes philosophical about the countess’ killings: “How are we to know that pleasure isn’t worth life itself?” Of course, he says this whilst probing his fingers inside a dead woman’s vagina. But, hey, you take your pearls of wisdom where you can get them.
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.