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Jess Franco’s “A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD” (Blu-ray Review)

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Those that dismiss the elephantine and obsessive filmography of the late cinema slinger Jess Franco would be wise to sit down and absorb what might be his greatest film of the 1970s, if not his storied career: CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM or, as it’s more commonly referred to as–including on the sleeve of Repemption/Kino Lorber’s superlative Blu-ray release–A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD.

Filmed by Franco in 1973 in scenic Portugal as NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS, the film, like many Franco pictures during the Eurocine period, was re-cut several times with senseless and limply shot sex scenes inserted and, in the case of the widely seen VIRGIN version, with tacked on sequences of grotty, horny zombies chasing women around and hiding out in the forest. Said ghouls were massaged into the picture by iconic filmmaker Jean Rollin at the request of producers in the early 1980s to capitalize on the success of DAWN OF THE DEAD and its myriad Italian offshoots. It’s that version, with its elaborate Wizard Video cover art, that most VHS-era horror fans ended up being duped into watching, one of many erroneously marketed Franco films that were bound to disappoint the average horror fan on a Friday night rental binge.

Thank goodness that the “purest” version of the film is available here under the CHRISTINA handle— minus the ridiculous Alice Arno-starring orgy sequences—so that fans, both serious and casual alike, can appreciate what a loose, atmospheric masterpiece of pure cinema it really is. In it, Christina von Blanc plays Christina, a wide eyed beauty who travels to her family mansion in Montserrat for the reading of her father’s will. There she meets her extended family (including her Uncle Howard played by Franco staple Howard Vernon), all of whom are leering, oversexed and more than a bit off. Among them is Franco himself as a lazy-lidded servant named Basilio, a troll who delights in playing with severed chicken heads and making a general nuisance of himself.

Very quickly, reality and fantasy bleed together in ways that only Jess Franco can weave. Scenes of the divine von Blanc having erotic fantasies while tossing nude in her bed bump up against bloody, violent sexually charged images of her kin and sumptuous, zoom lens-happy passages where Christina meanders around the stunning grounds of her home. All of this dreamy delirium is fuelled by the great Bruno Nicolai’s (Franco’s COUNT DRACULA and many, many others) absolutely first rate experimental score that careens between bass heavy fuzz rock and tinkling crystal, tapped and treated with heavy reverb. It’s a remarkable work, created in collusion with the musical Franco, whose already powerfully eerie strains are hit home by the trailing, haunting vocal stylings of the wonderful Edda Dell’Orso. When one thinks of the great Eurohorror scores, thisis certainly near the top of the list.

Redemption/Kino Lorber present a crisp, bright high definition transfer, with any flaws or grain present only adding essential grit that a film of this lineage needs for its maximum otherworldly effect. Included on this release are the full uncut, Rollin-tweaked cut under the VIRGIN title, a typically edifying commentary by Tim Lucas, whose tireless work in the 1980s were essential studies in understanding the work of Franco, the aforementioned Arno orgy sequence, a pair of talking head docs—one on the history of the cutting of the film into three different films and the other a speculation by some of Franco’s friends and colleagues about where Uncle Jess might be now, posthumously. Best of all is a David Gregory-directed, Elijah Drenner-edited interview with Franco (one of his last) about the film. Here we see an old man, still full of life and with a crystal clear memory, recalling how much the original film meant to him and how upset he was by the endless butchering it received. It’s a beautiful, emotional segment, filmed after the passing of Franco’s muse and life partner Lina Romay and one weighed down by the obvious sadness the director is suffering through. “Life is terrible, life is hard” he says at one point. It is at that, but it’s the dedicated vision of passionate people like Jess Franco that make it all bearable.

This is an absolutely essential release.

And you can still pick up FANGORIA’s special cover story salute to the work of Jess Franco in issue #325 by visiting our store here.

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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