Color, 1973, 77m.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Alice Arno, Howard Vernon, Robert Woods, Tania Busselier, Lina Romay
Color, 1973, 100m.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Alice Arno, Lina Romay, Howard Vernon, Robert Woods, Tania Busselier, Pamela Stanford, Pierre Taylou, Monica Swinn
HOW TO SEDUCE A VIRGIN
Color, 1974, 86m.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Alice Arno, Robert Woods, Lina Romay, Howard Vernon, Tania Busselier, Alfred Baillou
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
The early '70s marked one of the most productive periods in the career of director Jess Franco, not just in terms of quantity (which he could certainly match on a continuing basis for several decades) but the sheer energy and creativity of his output. His French-financed productions included such titles as The Demons, The Obscene Mirror, Lorna the Exorcist, and A Virgin among the Living Dead. One of the great "lost" films from this period was The Perverse Countess, now retitled Countess Perverse for its first official DVD release as well as the world premiere of its original director's cut. The first of Franco's takes on the familiar scenario of The Most Dangerous Game (with humans hunted for sport on an island), it was later remade by Franco as Tender Flesh (more or less) but also owes a debt to his earlier Sadean saga Eugenie... The Story of Her Journey into Perversion, at least in its first half.
On a sunny beach, Bob (Woods) and Moira (Busselier) spy a naked woman lying in the surf and bring her up to their cabana. There she tells of how she was searching for her missing sister and swam to the isolated island of the Count and Countess Zaroff (Vernon and Arno), who treat their guests to a strange and tasty form of meat for dinner, show off their animal and human head trophies on the wall, and then molest them in bed before tying them up for unspeakable horrors. Unfortunately it turns out Bob and Moira are actually helping to procure new victims for the Zaroffs and return the distraught girl back, then set their sights on a new conquest: Silvia (Romay), a naive young thing whom they engage in a threesome before spiriting her off to Zaroff island for a weekend of savage fun and games.
True to its title, Franco's film is truly a perverse piece of work, both darkly humorous and erotically tragic. The storyline weaves together many of his pet visual themes, particularly the blending of death and sexuality within the sea, and the image of Arno strapping on a bow and arrow and absolutely nothing else to hunt her equally unclothed prey across the island is one of the most memorable in the director's filmography. On top of that the delirious Morricone-on-crack music score gives the film a dreamlike, percussive edge, coupled with some gorgeous color photography and beautifully abstract architecture.
Unfortunately this sex-fueled cannibal fantasia proved to be a tough sell to distributors upon its completion, and Franco's completed cut had to be retooled severely to finally earn a meager French release as Les croqueuses, the version used for previous gray market copies floating around. This version adds a completely new and tonally different framing device in which the whole tale is imagined by a scantily clad female writer (Romay, of course) attracted to "dark monsters" while her bikini-clad pal tries to get her to live it up. Some brief explicit added scenes were also tacked on, most notably a new intro to Lina's character with her pleasuring a couple tied back to back (a la Erotic Rites of Frankenstein) at an orgy, including Exorcism's Taylou. This bastardized cut runs anywhere from 88 to 100 minutes depending where you find it and turned out to be something of a mess, so it's something of a miracle that the earlier version finally got a release courtesy of Mondo Macabro. It's a much more coherent, streamlined, and impressive work all the way, with a clearer expression of Franco's ironic view of love as a predatory game among the idle and the victimized. Without the graphic inserts it's still plenty sexy and actually feels far more erotic; while all of the cast members have protracted nude scenes (which is more pleasant in some cases than others), the real libidinal charge here comes from the surreal power dynamics on display and the unbridled abandon shown by even the most innocent characters.
Mondo Macabro gave the film its official U.S. debut on DVD in 2012, and despite the "anamorphic" note on the packaging, this new HD transfer is actually presented at 1.33:1 and looks far better that way. Even the old SECAM VHS copy used for those bootleg copies was missing a substantial amount of information on all four sides, and this looks much more spacious and aesthetically pleasing. Even more important is the restoration of the very vivid original color palette, including some crimson interior shots that will make Euro pop culture devotees' eyes pop. This really is a gorgeous film when seen in pristine condition like this. The original French audio track is presented with optional English subtitles. On the extras side, you get the usual articulate essay about the film and its unfortunate history, a video discussion of it by the always insightful and convincing Stephen Thrower, and a video interview with Woods, who also worked with Franco on other films like Plaisir à trois(more on that below) and the marvelous The Obscene Mirror, which needs a US edition one of these days. Yours truly was involved in this one so it's tough to critique, but hopefully the info will be both entertaining and helpful to understanding this portion of Franco's career. It's a massive gift to Franco fans from a label that already outdid itself with its much-needed restored releases of Lorna the Exorcist and Sinner.
Since Franco was really on fire in this period between 1973 and 1974, a period in which some of his best work with producer Robert de Nesle remained unseen for decades by most English-speaking fans. Among these is the aforementioned Plaisir à trois, released by Mondo Macabro on DVD in 2013 under its obscure UK release title of How to Seduce a Virgin. It's also a significant entry in Franco's career as it offered the first leading role for Romay, who became his companion for life and his primary screen siren in an increasingly astonishing roster of exhibitionistic performances. Shot in the Canary Islands in 1973 back to back with Countess Perverse (which shares essentially the same cast), the film recounts the simple but twisted tale of Countess Martine de Bressac (Arno), a libertine existing in a private erotic realm of her own creation alongside her equally decadent husband, Charles (Woods). We already know she's a bit off since she's done time in an asylum after hacking off the manhood of one of her lovers, and now the happy couple also keep a collection of immobile human captives (who seem to be almost but not quite dead) posed in the sinister basement of their estate. Also on hand are their mute house girl Adele (Romay), the odd manservant Mathias (Vernon), and even a voyeuristic gardener (Baillou). However, everything changes when the debauched couple spies a young woman, Cecile (Busselier), pleasuring herself on the grounds nearby, and with a little parental manipulation, the girl soon becomes their house guest. Twisted fun and games ensue as Martine and Charles decide to corrupt the girl as much as possible, with the other inhabitants taking stabs of their own as well.
Though it flirts with elements of horror and the director's most obvious literary inspiration, the Marquis De Sade, How to Seduce a Virgin has an oddly quirky, artistic atmosphere that makes the subject matter more palatable than one might expect. There's a huge amount of sex, of course, including Franco's beloved recurring scenario of scantily clad women performing with mannequins, but the film's visuals are also worthy of other European art house practitioners of the time. The villa's striking, angular construction makes for some eye-catching compositions throughout the film, creating an effective sexual battleground as well as an effective filmic fantasy where the usual rules of right and wrong don't seem to apply. As with Franco's other elusive French productions from the same time, this film was given a much-needed restoration for an uncut release on home video. This debuted first on French DVD at the end of 2012, albeit without any English language options whatsoever. A much better option is the Mondo Macabro release, which finally features English subtitles and looks gorgeous. It's a much darker film overall than Countess Perverse so the transfer doesn't pop quite as much, but given the source material, it's hard to imagine it looking any better. The articulate, perceptive Stephen Thrower turns up for another video analysis, this time a 21-minute dissection of the film's production and themes including its obvious voyeuristic slant and the disquieting nature of those "dead" people downstairs. He also puts this in perspective within Franco's career at the time, explaining how it really comes part and parcel with the films around it as the actors seem to shift power dynamics between each title. Writer Alan Petit also appears for a 12-minute interview (in front of an eye-catching wall of Franco video releases) focusing on the film's literary inspirations and Franco's "love affair" with De Sade, including his frequent contemporary takes on the characters of Justine and Eugenie. Also included are the usual extensive "about the film" text essay,bios for the actors and Petit, and the usual sizzle reel of other Mondo Macabro releases, all of them about as essential as you can get.
In 2017, Mondo Macabro revisited both of these key Franco films for a very stacked Blu-ray release that presents both titles in glorious 1080p, looking as pristine as you can imagine with eye-sizzling colors intact. Franco's a filmmaker whose work often benefis from the leap to HD given his emphasis on texture and gradations of light, so this is no exception and a real treat for fans. The DTS-HD MA French mono tracks sound excellent, with the same optional English subtitles. The Petit, Woods, and Thrower pieces are carried over along with the promo reel, so basically you can consolidate your two DVDs down to one superior Blu-ray.
On top of that they throw in Sexy Nature, the altered release version of Countess Perverse in its longest 100-minute iteration with all of its madcap editing and semi-explicit antics intact. Anyone tired of seeing VHS bootlegs or unsubtitled Euro releases of this one will be overjoyed to behold it in perfect condition here, presenting this curious alternate cut (that wound up being the primary one for decades) from one of Franco's most delirious directorial phases. The two-disc numbered limited edition sold exclusively through Mondo Macabro's store also contians a bonus CD of the Blue Phantom album Distortions (which provided music for both Countess Perverse and Sinner) as well as a liner notes booklet by Pete Tombs.