Cult films aren't made by design, just as nobody sets out to become a cult director or actor. Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy were intended to be moneymaking exploitation pictures, not cult items, and director Jesús ("Jess") Franco and actress Soledad Miranda never planned to end up as the object of veneration by cult film fans. Hence the fascination generated by both of these movies and the people involved with them: the films are amateurish, clumsy, primitive, and weird, but all in such an unselfconscious and unmannered way, they end up generating an endearing fascination. You can't fake this stuff, and you shouldn't try.
The secret of Franco's success, I suspect, was that he wasn't trying. He was making exploitation pictures on tight schedules with minimal resources, and under those circumstances, whatever natural point of view he had for his material was bound to emerge unbidden. The very crudeness of Lesbos and Ecstasy, shot back to back within a matter of weeks, makes them curiously endearing -- not in the sense that they're the works of an unfairly maligned or undiscovered talent, but in that it's hard to feign being this unpolished or artless. And they both feature Soledad Miranda, a performer whose mere presence in front of a camera was special even if she was surrounded by a movie that seemed determined to be anything but.
With Vampyros Lesbos, the title all but tells it. Somewhere in Turkey, legal firm worker Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stroemberg) finds herself having overwhelmingly erotic dreams about the vampire Countess Nadine Carody (Miranda). When Westinghouse travels to Carody's island villa in Anatolia to settle an inheritance, she falls under the seductive vampire's spell, one that has ensnared any number of other women and driven them mad over time. Those victims, now under the care of Dr. Seward (Dennis Price), remain telepathically connected to the Countess, even as she finds herself running short of victims to survive on, driving Linda into her own frenzy as well.
A plot description like that doesn't do justice to the free-associative way Franco shoots and assembles his material. Long stretches of the movie play like modern music videos, where hallucinatory images of Miranda (not always clothed) float past the camera, ostensibly as a way to cast over us the same erotic-hypnotic spell that Carody weaves over her victims. What plot there is advances in ungainly lurches, mainly by way of dollops of alternately cheesy and banal dialogue. Shots that should last a few seconds, tops, pad themselves out for what feel like minutes on end. It should all be unwatchable, but it becomes curiously dreamlike instead.
Ecstasy is the lesser of the two films, not because it eschews any fantasy elements for a more straightforward revenge tale but because in doing so it has that much less reason to be willfully strange. Here, Miranda plays the wife of a scientist driven to disgrace and madness when his colleagues condemn the putatively unethical work he's done with human embryos. After his suicide, Miranda tracks down the members of the board that hounded him, seduces them -- male and female alike -- and finishes them off as the police close in on her.
What makes both movies work is, again, the way the whole package adds up to something greater than the sum of the parts. Ecstasy and Lesbos share the same stream-of-consciousness storytelling and editing, the same mannered camerawork, garish colors, and bizarre 1970s-era décor, and especially the same magnetic presence of Miranda at their centers. Even if the movies don't really add up to anything significant, their compulsively hypnotic oddity makes up for it -- they're just so strange to watch unfold that you can't help feel something special is going on, even when it's not. And every now and then Franco finds a great image and zings you with it, as when Linda stumbles across a comatose Carody floating in a pool, clad only in a (blood-)red scarf.
Another big part of the spell woven by the two films comes courtesy of their swinging, sitar-drenched psych-rock scores. When Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab (as "The Vampire's Sound Incorporation") had their music released as an LP, it gained something of a life of its own apart from the films, to the point where Quentin Tarantino included a track ("The Lions and the Cucumber") as part of the score for Jackie Brown. Fun and funky as the music is out of context, it makes far more sense when paired with its source material. The music-video comparison makes even more sense now that I think about it, given how many times Franco paves over relatively static action with music to make it feel like something's going on even when not a lot is.
And then there's Soledad Miranda herself. I confess to being a fan of actors and actresses whose presence alone is reason enough to see a movie, no matter what they look like. Harry Dean Stanton is nobody's idea of handsome, but his haunted eyes are impossible to look away from (see: Paris, Texas); even a movie that uses him in a throwaway fashion is enriched by his presence. Miranda, likewise, was the source of a good half or more of the mesmerism exuded by these two movies. Put her onscreen, even doing nothing, and it's impossible not to look at her.
A Spanish actress who had originally only been known for light musical roles and soap operas, Miranda had actually stepped back from acting before Franco scouted her for seven of the movies he made from 1969 and 1970, including these two. It wasn't hard to see how Franco took inspiration from her breathtaking on-camera presence. Like Japanese actress Meiko Kaji (of Lady Snowblood, Stray Cat Rock and Wandering Ginza Butterfly fame), she embodied a mixture of dreamy beauty and steely intensity, and was extraordinary even when given material that didn't even try to complement her presence and talents. Unlike Kaji, though, Miranda's career was cut short before she could leverage the newfound attention she was getting; she died in a car accident not long after filming Ecstasy -- a movie that ends, creepily enough, with a fatal car crash all its own.
One of the problems I have with the cult veneration of bad movies is how many people seem to think the lesson with those films is that because they have an audience, you can have one too by making self-consciously amateurish work. Lesbos or Ecstasy were artless exploitation pictures, but they came by their current status more or less naturally; they were made before the idea of creating things to appeal to a self-identifying "cult audience" became commonplace. Next to smarmy junk like Sharknado, they're downright sincere. They are a product of their time in more ways than one.
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