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Vampyres Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Vampyres Review

    They shared the pleasure of the flesh, and unleashed the horrors of the grave!

    Blue Underground come up trumps once again by ransacking the movie barrel labelled “Taboo” and hauling out the notorious 1974 UK/Spanish horror exploitationer Vampyres for some Blu-ray re-appreciation. This is one of those films that many people think they know quite intimately even without ever having sat and watched it. Horror tomes and top-shelf mags liberally splashed images from it all over their pages and the likes of Allan Bryce's ace The Dark Side publication regularly regaled the film's brazen charms. Uncut copies of it seemed to proliferate at car boot sales and at film-fairs and the infamy of Jose Ramon Larraz's really rather odd and relaxed saga of slinky undead vixens preying on the sleazed-up travellers that they can lure back to a Gothic country mansion goes on titillating and bemusing fans to this day. As with all of Blue Underground's unearthings on hi-def, there are some who will be scratching their heads and wondering why, exactly, that such material would even warrant such a presentation. But, as they have proved with lavish transfers of The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue and The New York Ripper (both reviewed separately) the company has proved that they can provide a valuable new platform for these offerings of, admittedly, limited-appeal to enjoy.

    As far as Vampyres goes, there really isn't a story to concern yourself with, as such. Two bisexual vamps live it up amid the rather gloomy English countryside, waylaying passing motorists and tempting them back to the decadent folly that becomes their feeding-ground. When one of the pair, the more demonstrative Fran (Belgium-born model Marianne Morris) commits the cardinal sin of actually falling for one of her potential victims, their sexy-cum-ghastly existence becomes threatened. This situation is further exacerbated when a young couple park their caravan in the woods that surround this secluded pad of debauchery and become curious about the strange, cloak-clad, nightie-flapping comings and goings that the pale ladies make across the lawn at dusk and daybreak to and from a nearby graveyard. And the unsavoury number of apparent “road accidents” that occur in the vicinity is sure to cause concern amongst the locals. Much blood is spilled and much flesh is bared, but the film is most definitely not your conventional vampire-flick.

    Jose Larraz, who hails from Barcelona, actually wrote the screenplay, himself, but used the more bankable English pseudonym of Diana Daubenay, who was actually his wife, and enlisted the young British editor, called Brian Smedley-Aston, that he had gotten along so well with on his previous production, entitled Symptoms, as his producer and financier. The Spaniard was beginning to make a name for himself on these shores with low-budget horrors and thrillers and had already garnered something of a rascally reputation for nudge-nudge, wink-wink sensationalism. Having provided plenty of nudity and murder in both Symptoms and the earlier Scream And Die!, and even cornered the market in quite controversial sex scenes - an Oedipal clinch in that latter Giallo-esque thriller from 1973 was a rare shocker on the circuit - he was ideally suited to take such steamy material and run with it. History has often seemed keen to make him out to be some sort brutish task master on-set, rubbing his female cast members up the wrong way and arguing with his crew, but most of his leading ladies like to speak of their implicit trust in him and of a lingering fondness for his care and respect. Certainly the continued friendship between himself and Smedley-Aston speaks volumes. Whatever the truth may be, he had enormous success at persuading women to disrobe for his camera and even pushing them into acts - simulated, of course - that most had previously avoided with extreme strenuousness.

    At around this time, vampire movies were uniformly distancing themselves from the period dressing that Hammer had firmly established. Gone were castles, carriages, torch-wielding townsfolk and assertive puritan/academic slayers in favour of the more modern milieu of guns, cars and motorcycles. America hit the wooden stake on the head with its revamped take on regal bloodsuckers seeking to extend their cultural knowledge and to add more spice to their diet in the process, with the great Robert Quarry double-bill of Count Yorga, Vampire and its direct sequel The Return Of Count Yorga (we won't, ahem, “count”, the nominal third entry of The Deathmaster), and even the inevitable blaxploitation take on the theme with Blacula, and Europe had long begun a vein of hypnotic mood-pieces centred around the undead with Mario Bava's celebrated The Mask Of Satan and Black Sabbath, as well as his future-Goth phantasmagoria Planet Of The Vampires. But the English vampire tale had heard its own death-knell sounding with the endless repetition of Christopher Lee's bestial, red-eyed snarling and Peter Cushing's incessant and increasingly gaunt derring-do, so something new needed to sink its teeth into the genre on these shores. What Larraz came up with wasn't new, of course. The plot is precisely the kind of folk-tale that got the legend started in the first place, but the style with which it was depicted was something that definitely did break the mould that Hammer had started with the likes of Lust For A Vampire, Twins Of Evil and The Vampire Lovers - which no self-respecting (and self-abusing) horror fan of a certain age can refute having had an immediate infatuation with. Unmistakably, however, these old favourites of school-yard sniggers were massively influential upon him. Ingrid Pitt, Madeleine Smith, Yutte Stensgard and those Collinson twins, who all bared more than just their fangs for the audiences in those aforementioned films may have been carrying over the literary tradition of lesbian vampirism, but once that cinematic seed was sown, the electrifying prospect of girl-on-girl action was a marketing allure that no bloodsucking script at the time could do without. Jose Larraz just took this to a much more explicit degree than his forebears - and with such jaw-dropping beauties as Marianne Morris and Playboy Centrefold Anulka, as her right-hand bitch, Miriam, to bend to his every whim who can blame him?

    “I always knew we'd find each other. By this sign, I'll recognise you.”

    The film pays homage to Hammer in many ways, of course. But the most crucial aspect of this adoration is the use of (the house) which had, quite splendidly, once been the seat of power for the “Studio That Dripped Blood” with its very close proximity to Bray Studios. Harefield Lodge and Oakey Court, both of which had served as authentic locations for many a Hammer Horror, especially the latter which provided some fantastical atmosphere for what many consider to their most beautiful film, The Brides Of Dracula. Larraz had even fully utilised the shell that was Harefield Lodge for the previous Symptoms, so he and his props department knew very well how to furnish and redress it. However, Larraz doesn't favour misty woods, dark shadows, branches across the full moon or, in fact, any of the more conventional visual tropes that made Hammer's such a well-known and overtly theatrical modus operandi, and if such flourishes do materialise, it is more down to his DOP than any creative choice by himself. For him, the supernatural really has no illustrative resonance. Instead, Vampyres combines the mundane - in that nothing we see is ever conventionally supernatural or mysterious - with the outright explicit. The supposed dusk and dawn set-pieces are usually filmed during the daylight - as overcast as they appear to be - and this, being charitable, lends further timeless surrealism to the show. Plus the fact that both vamps are clearly seen in broad daylight as they waylay passing motorists. But this visual languor is part of the film's fable-like mood. For Hammer, the rules of the supernatural game were quite strictly adhered to, particularly when it came to the undead. For Larraz, as with most European genre directors, practically the opposite is true. In his world, there are no rules. Even time seems to stand still for all those unsuspecting fools who contrive to end up as house guests. Just spells and moods that can be manipulated.

    So, taking the sexiness of Hammer's bloodsuckers and evoking something of the dreamy quality of Jean Rollin's vampirical Gallic sauce - The Nude Vampire, say - Larraz's film is semi-surreal and almost dream-like in its depiction of endless nights of debauchery and murder. Something of a cause-celebre at the time it came out (double-billed with Robert Fuest's ludicrous The Devil's Rain, of all things), the film was also, unsurprisingly, the recipient of censor cuts. Filled with soft-porn and murder, and featuring plenty of blood-on-bare-breasts and lingering paroxysms of orgasmic death, this was exactly the sort of the thing that fans lapped up and the Mary Whitehouse brigade would vehemently lobby against. Whilst the sex is frequent and unabashed, it is also ethereal and leads to Black Widow-like tragedy that tempers any desires to go wandering around to our girls' creaky old haunt. What I will say is that those who remember the difficulty of freezing the frame on the old VHS tape at just that right second, will be very happy with this 1080p incarnation. Although, I should also state that a later, and pivotal, sequence in which Sally Faulkner is subjected to the rather more vicious approaches of the vampiric duo and forcibly stripped-down does appear a little less clear than I have seen it before on older prints. There is even something of the old Herschell Gordon Lewis approach of protracted sexual cruelty and dominion being wielded over a helpless victim during some of the actual attacks. And, naturally, it was this aspect that the censors found most troublesome, the film losing minutes of footage on both sides of the Pond, though mainly in England. All thankfully reinstated here, though.

    Indeed, some scenes are quite nasty. Voluptuous brunette Marianne Morris, especially, exhibits a tremendous zeal when she dispatches people. The film also incorporates a few subjectively bravura shots of the vamps advancing upon their blood-drained and weakened victims that deliberately recall similar imagery seen in Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, the notorious cellar-sequence from which is clearly evoked in a savage basement execution in Vampyres. This is, also, a very European style of shot that makes the murder scenes all the more vicious and literally “in-yer-face”. However, it should made clear that the violence is all rather staged and theatrical. Lashings of fake blood spills down thrashing naked flesh, but we never actually see a wound, either a slicing via blade or a proper vein-guzzling, and no prosthetic effect ever seems to have been incorporated, other than a neat cut nestled in the crook of Murray Brown's arm. It is all just Kensington Gore syrup swilled down convulsing nudes. But it is the ecstatic gusto with which the violence is delivered that puts the appropriate sting in the tale. What is interesting is that these vampires (or vampyres) actually do have intercourse which is something that the undead myth tends to obscure. Okay, the lesbian angle was explored by Hammer, but the actual act of penetrative sex is not normally part of the vampire's repertoire. Seduction is the name of the game, certainly, as is the craving of a bodily fluid - blood - but when comparing and contrasting the two giants of the monster-race, the vampire and the werewolf, it is predominantly the werewolf who actually indulges in the full caboodle, even if he then ends up ripping his partner to shreds in the process. The vampire, traditionally, never gets any further than first base. Just a neck-nuzzle and they are done. Thus, Larraz turns this trend upon its head with Fran freely and frequently enjoying the full attentions of her captive who, in a sly reworking of a very familiar genre device, never seems able to get very far from the house even if he does manage to get away from it in the daylight.

    “You've been seeing ghosts ever since we got here.”

    Our two leading ladies are absolutely exquisite, both exuding that eternal glamour of the 70's. Voluptuous and liberal-minded enough to engage in plenty of mutual pleasures, the screenplay doesn't exactly task them with much more than parading about in the buff, yet both manage to radiate an aura that expands way beyond their threadbare characters. Neither was a proper actress - which is hardly surprising - but Morris, crucially, brings a confidence to the role that she, herself, claims not to have had at all as a person at that time, especially when you consider that she was suddenly finding herself on a film-set, totally naked, and under the lecherous scrutiny of the wily old Larraz. These were the days when real curves were all that mattered ... and muff-explosions weren't something to baulk at. Anulka creates a weirdly affecting and sultry image of Miriam loitering, hidden, behind a roadside tree as her partner-in-crime catches the human flies that bumble by along the country lane. Despite that tantalisingly exotic name, blonde bombshell Anulka Dziubinska (to give the girl her full moniker, which most advertising blurb omitted to preserve for her an enigmatic air) was actually born in Preston, Lancashire. Marianne Morris is given the lion's share of the film, but it is to Anulka's credit that her presence is felt even when she is not present. Awkwardly, both women wound up being dubbed and, if anything, this only endears the film even more to lovers of the Italian and French horrors that were circulating at the time, adding more of that otherworldly and dislocating European vibe.

    For poor Sally (Polanski's Macbeth) Faulkner, who was also committed to baring all as the young artist camping on the grounds with her boyfriend and foolishly incurring the wrath of the fanged felines, the shoot was quite arduous. One of the few who hasn't backtracked on the Spaniard's likeability - she didn't get on with him at all - she struggled with the production as she also feeding her baby who was only a few weeks old at the time! Surprisingly, this exhaustion produces a convincingly realistic performance. It's hardly Oscar-worthy, but one of those quintessentially British low-tier and decidedly un-showy portrayals that would place her in the cult niche of 70's horror icons that would be forever cemented by her crazy role as one of the lesbians playing host to a weird, flesh-eating alien invader in Norman J. Warren's micro-budgeted shocker-oddity Prey.

    In many ways, the film is like a treatise on the predatory instincts of the female and the profound vulnerability of the male of the species. Which, of course, reverses the much more commonplace theme of the horror film at large. It isn't clear how much of this narrative switcheroo Larraz actually intended, but it makes Vampyres a film that women need not necessarily shun despite some obvious reservations they might have over its content. And the actresses, aware of this rebalancing of theme or not, imbue the movie with an empowerment that wouldn't be re-explored for a long time.

    The same can't be said about the menfolk in the film. Murray Brown plays the unfortunate (or extremely fortunate, depending on how you look at it) to whom Fran takes a shine and then keeps as a drained captive in the house, too weak to escape and too addled to fully comprehend what is going on around him. This is actually a nice irony. Brown once played Jonathan Harker in the Jack Palance TV version of Dracula - and Harker, as any Stoker-fan will recall, was also a luckless inmate held prisoner by a vampire. The effete Karl Lanchbury, who had starred in Larraz's earlier Scream And Die!, appears here, too, as another buffoonish wastrel who comes to a sticky end. It is often remarked upon how similar he is to one of the seventies' other blonde “pretty boys”, the far more accomplished Shane Briant (from Hammer's Captain Kronos and Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell and, most notably, the nasty Straight On Till Morning) - and whilst there is a similarity between the two genre-players, Lanchbury actually looks like that bloody meercat from those annoying commercials a whole lot more. And Brian Deacon, playing the rather thankless role of Sally Faulkner's other half does pretty well for himself, considering that he is merely a talky hanger-on that Larraz remembers as being somewhat rude and above himself. Only TV-regular Michael Byrne commits any sort of confidence to his character, as his vino-guzzling connoisseur is duped into an unwise trip downstairs to the wine-cellar that is sure to give him one hell of a hangover. But make no mistake about it, Vampyres is all about the ladies and, in their wake, the guys just tend to blend in with the stately décor.

    “Ahh, it's a Saint Julian!”

    “Wrong. It is from a remote region of the Carpathians.”

    Wine-tasting, Vampyres-style.

    A brief mention should go to the sublime photography from Harry Waxman that many would simply ignore to the nature of the low-grade film-stock that showcases it. He finds some interesting angles and frames with which to capture his ladies of the night as well as some fine shots of the spooky, if gloomy, exteriors. Especially striking are a few excellently stylish shots of the morning mist, sun-struck, around a cool Tim Burton-esque tree standing proud in the grounds. And the score from James Clark is actually very good, once you get past the 70's groove of the main title theme. Full of mysterioso touches and unsettling passages that straddle the transition from Hammer's James Bernard with altogether more assured subtlety than Larraz's visuals. His music, as well as Waxman's camerawork maintain that this is a horror movie, whereas Larraz would be quite content with just his sexual psycho-drama unfolding in quasi-limbo-land.

    Many modern reviewers denounce this film, and although this snobby and dismissive attitude isn't hard to understand, it doesn't actually matter one iota to those who know it and those who can appreciate the threadbare exploitation that Larraz and Smedley-Aston were attempting to thrust our way. Titillation and blood. That's what it is all about and Vampyres is certainly more enjoyable and stimulating than many of the later Hammer efforts that, arguably, paved the way for such sordid celluloid sleaze. The two feisty femme fatales utterly sell the show with full-blooded invigoration even if the supporting cast seem a little jaundiced. The story, itself, is completely implausible and the script just full of lazy, half-baked conversational patter. But, once again, you're not watching it for the story. You are watching Vampyres for the lingering raunch - accentuated by cameramen who didn't care about what they could get away with showing, and a director who really, if we are honest, just wanted to lens a gothic porn-show. The result may be slow and occasionally detached, but the mood is thoroughly pervasive and certainly delivers on the promise that Hammer perpetually made but rarely delivered with its bodice-ripping fang-fests. Rarely frightening, though fascinating in a morbid, as well as an erotic manner, this weaves a spell of illicit home county wickedness and wanton sexuality.

    Not for everyone, then, but Vampyres was a trendsetter and delicious exercise in stylishly controversial taboo-breaking that helped play an important role in how the horror genre's most-filmed subjects are viewed today. Fully uncut and available on region-free Blu-ray from Blue Underground, there should be a lot of older fans salivating at the prospect of getting this.