Following the death of her father, Christina Benson (Christina Von Blanc) travels to an isolated chateau for the reading of the will. There she is greeted by her cold-skinned Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon), Aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar), the beautiful Carmenze (Britt Nicholls) and babbling Basilio (Franco himself), none of whom she has met before. Her arrival coincides with the unexplained death of her father’s widow, and things continue to unravel from there. A local man warns her that the valley to which she has travelled is cursed, she finds dead bats in her bed and stumbles upon one of her newfound ‘family’ – Carmenze – naked, licking blood from another woman’s chest. Worse still, she has recurring visions of her dead father, noose around his neck, warning her to leave the chateau.
Alternately, following the death of her father, Christina Benson travels to an isolated chateau for the reading of the will. Suffering a breakdown on arrival, she is admitted to a psychiatric institution where she is haunted by terrible dreams, where her grief manifests itself in images of a bizarre extended family and her dead father, noose around his neck, warning her to leave the chateau.
Logic and linear storytelling take a backseat to mood and atmosphere in many of Franco’s best films, and A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971) is one of Franco’s best films. Dreams also tend to play an important role, and the film at hand is punctuated with shots of Christina in bed, causing the viewer to speculate as to whether the events unfolding on screen are entirely as they seem. In some respects it’s an outlier though, because while the likes of Succubus (1968), Venus in Furs (1969) and Vampyros Lesbos (1970) offer precedents structurally and thematically, they’re very different tonally, lacking the sense of loss which is almost palpable here. At its best Franco’s cinema is daring, it’s exciting (at its worse it’s slapdash, it’s boring) but it’s rarely as emotionally affecting as it is here.
The root of this unusual emotional component, this pervasive solemnity, may be located by considering its place in Franco’s broader filmography. The year of production is normally listed as 1973 – and that may be accurate in terms of its first release – but the film was actually shot much earlier, most likely in 1971. That places it within (approximately) a year of the death of Soledad Miranda, which may be important in terms of the mindset of its writer / director. To be clear, Franco had continued to make films with Artur Brauner after Miranda’s death, but these are (by all accounts) fairly uninspired endeavours, presumably made out of contractual obligation or the desire to keep busy. I believe A Virgin Among the Living Dead was the first ‘personal’ project undertaken following her passing, the first initiated (and partly funded) by Franco himself.
Whatever the cause – and as Tim Lucas points out, the opening shots of the Portuguese coast, taken from a moving car, would seem to support the speculation – credit must go to cast and crew for the execution, particularly of the scenes which bring together father and daughter. Their first ‘direct’ encounter finds him (Paul Muller) seated at a desk in the gloomy interior of the chateau, noose around his neck, ‘Queen of Darkness’ (Anne Libert) by his side. He advises, ‘I am a shadow among the shadows’, before receding into darkness, pulled back by an unseen force. We see them again thereafter, this time in a forest, and this time he is hanging by the neck, albeit we never see what from, and we never see what is pulling him backwards, keeping him out of Christina’s reach, luring her, against his will, into a trap.
“Even the flowers have the stench of death.”
Paul Muller is fantastic in these scenes, conveying the despair of a parent unable to save their child, forced to look on as their fate is sealed. Indeed when Christina is stabbed, it is he who bleeds, emphasising – somewhat paradoxically – the pain of those who survive. I also love Anne Libert’s wordless contributions as the personification of death. Beautiful, dressed from head to foot in black, she looks more like a mourner than a monster, and at one point even appears to be comforting the (un)dead man.
From a technical point of view, the scenes I have mentioned are more elaborate than one would ordinarily find in a Franco film of this period. More generally, the cinematography of Jose Climent does a good job of contrasting bright, vibrant exteriors with dark, foreboding interiors that seem unlikely to sustain life. Bruno Nicolai’s score also contributes significantly to the mood, oscillating as it does between lush string arrangements, wistful vocals and minimalist, almost atonal pieces.
I should acknowledge the possibility than some people reading this essay will wonder what film I am referring to, given it exists in at least three distinct forms and two of them are seriously compromised. Indeed, all three are comprised to the extent that none bear Franco’s working title, the poetic if somewhat oblique ‘Night of the Shooting Stars’. The ‘Virgin’ moniker was actually applied by Eurocine after the fact, presumably after purchasing the finished film from Jess and Robert De Nesle.
With regards to the different versions, the Virgin title apparently did not suit the demands of the market at the time, so Pierre Querut – who would go on to have a small role in Female Vampire (1973) – was hired to shoot an extended softcore sequence and ‘Christina, Princess of Eroticism’ was born (the mind boggles). Later still, in the early eighties, Jean Rollin was hired to shoot footage of Romero-style zombies for inclusion, and the film came back into circulation under the Virgin title. Sadly, this version was the most readily available for many years, and it’s the furthest removed from the original.
I should also acknowledge the presence of moments of black comedy, which would appear to be somewhat at odds with the broader tone of the film. I’m thinking primarily of the wake which occurs early on, during which Uncle Howard smokes a cigarette, Carmenze paints her toenails and Basilio appears to be nodding off (a feat he accomplishes later, during the reading of the will). The film is peppered with bizarre, borderline surreal images though, so the moments of humour – if that’s what they’re intended to be – don’t really undermine the overall sadness, they simply add a note of strangeness to it.
Another film featuring parental suicide is 1973’s The Other Side of the Mirror. Here, a widowed archaeologist hangs himself on the eve of his daughters wedding, seemingly unable to bear the thought of her leaving the family home. Her response is to break off her engagement and flee Madeira altogether, starting a new life playing with a band in Lisbon. Beautiful and talented, men are inevitably draw to her but she seems unable to reciprocate, haunted as she is by images of her father hanging by the neck.
Deeply melancholy, this is another very unusual entry in Franco’s filmography. For a start, it’s among his most technically accomplished films, free of the tell-tale signs of a hurried or half-hearted production. Secondly, relatedly, its among the most even, entirely devoid of the lifeless exposition we often find linking the more inspired (and inspiring) sequences. To be clear, it is recognisably Franco from the first minute to the last – with its themes of sex and death, its extended nightclub scenes and cinematography which prizes landscapes and location details – but it’s a Franco film completed with unusual care and attention.
It’s also a Franco film completed with unusual restraint. Indeed, there’s only one scene of frontal nudity in the Spanish version – we’ll come back to the different versions – and one brief, fairly chaste sex scene. The violence – of which there is really very little – is also depicted quite soberly, and while I appreciate that restraint is not something we would ordinarily look for from the director, it is to the betterment of the film on this occasion, more supportive of the overall mood.
The other aspect I feel compelled to praise at the outset is the performance of Emma Cohen, who borders on mesmerising as a young woman beset by feelings of loss. Franco’s cinema tends to be based on ideas rather than characters, so the actors who make the greatest impression generally do so by virtue of either their presence or the degree to which they embody those ideas. Cohen’s performance is quite different, it’s somehow more natural than we’re accustomed to, more communicative of her underlying humanity. To an extent the same can be said about the supporting cast, who do not inhabit the archetypes with which we are so familiar. That’s not to suggest their characters are particularly well-drawn but the film is deliberately elliptical in this regard. They come into Ana’s orbit from nowhere and with no backstory because this is not their story.
Going back to the violence, I’m reminded of the questions raised by similar incidents in Succubus (1968) – admittedly a very different film stylistically – questions over culpability and the influence of external forces. When Ana sees her father’s image, when she hears his voice calling, is the source psychological or supernatural? The matter is actually clarified by the film’s beautiful closing sequence, but for much of the running time one is left to wonder whether her grip on reality has slipped or there really is something on the other side of the mirror.
The construction of the murder scenes is interesting in this context, with the first two seeming to occur while she is an entirely different location, while she looks on from a distance through some sort of trance. By contrast, mind and body seem to be aligned at the time of the third, which utilises the tried and trusted method of a knife through the back of the neck (as seen in both Succubus and She Killed in Ecstasy). It would seem to be significant that this alignment coincides with her finally accepting the advances of a suitor, a man who has already commented that he is old enough to be her father.
Another intriguing aspect of the film’s final attack is the change in Ana’s attire which precedes it. Having returned to Madeira in the care of her friend Carla (Alice Arno), she is seen in a number of strikingly colourful outfits, which would seem to suggest either a brightening of her outlook or a deliberate attempt to initiate one. It is thus very noticeable when she arrives at a party in (an approximation of) a man’s dinner suit, which seems to reflect a significant shift in her psyche.
“In this world, nobody is free.”
Given the prominence afforded to music in Franco’s cinema, it’s somewhat ironic that Adolfo Waitzman’s score is the weak link in one of his finest films. We see Ana working out the melody early on, and variations of this basic theme recur throughout the film thereafter. We hear the song it develops into in full when she is in Lisbon, people sing the main theme as they drive through the streets of Funchal and an incidental character plays it on the piano in a hotel bar. Indeed when asked to play something more upbeat, he simply increases the tempo, as though it’s the only tune in his repertoire. In fairness to Waitzman, while the piece is not really to my taste, it is this repeated use which is problematic, which is frankly irritating.
The score is actually replaced in the French version of the film, which is another radical reworking and as such brings us full circle. Another international co-production, Robert De Nesle apparently thought the version described above would be difficult to distribute in France and commissioned Franco to rewrite and reshoot in order to add erotic content. The Obscene Mirror – the 92 minute French version – introduces an entirely new character to this end, a sister played by Lina Romay. Crucially, in this iteration it is she who commits suicide and whose image haunts Ana thereafter.
To be clear, I haven’t had the opportunity to view this version (Tim Lucas argues they constitute separate films) but intend to do so. The introduction of a lusty sister seems likely to wreak havoc with the poetic tone of the original (not to mention render the conclusion incomprehensible) but Franco was complicit in the revisions so it should be considered a legitimate variant, certainly less of an affront than the post-production changes Virgin underwent. Either way, I imagine we will return to subject of inserts, variants and authorship when we look at La Comtesse Perverse, La Comtesse Noire (both 1973) and Exorcism (1974).
WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes.
Tim Lucas’ commentary track on the Redemption blu ray of A Virgin Amongthe Living Dead was particularly helpful when researching that film.
The Other Side of the Mirror has not had an official, ‘English friendly’ release in any digital format, which probably explains why so little has been written about it. I consulted reviews of the French release from Artus films at avoir-alire.com and DeVilDead.com during the preparation of this piece.
The following, though not especially illuminating with regards to these films, are recommended to anyone interested in Franco’s cinema.
Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombes and Cathol Tohil (1994)
Bizarre Sinema! Jess Franco, by Carlos Aguilar (1999)
The Films of Jess Franco, by Antonio Lazaro-Reboll, Ian Olney et al (2018)