Color, 1973, 77m.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Alice Arno, Howard Vernon, Robert Woods, Tania Busselier, Lina Romay
Mondo Macabro (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 needless framing device in which the whole tale is imagined by a scantily clad female writer 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. This bastardized cut ran 88 minutes and turned out to be something of a mess, and 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.
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 a Trois and the marvelous The Obscene Mirror (both of which are worthy of US editions 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. Coupled with the label's earlier much-needed restored releases of Lorna the Exorcist and Sinner, Mondo Macabro is doing a really heroic job of finally shining a light on one of Franco's most neglected and misunderstood directorial periods, making this one of the year's most essential Eurocult releases.