Vampyres

Anulka and Marianne Morris in Vampyres.
(© 1974 Essay Films Ltd. All rights reserved.)
 

D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Vampirism is a none-too-subtle metaphor for sex. The penetration of skin by sharp canine teeth easily evokes both violence and eroticism. Fear and desire become entangled. Not surprisingly, filmmakers from Jean Rollin to Jess Franco have capitalized on this allure/revulsion by fashioning vampire movies with an enhanced sex quota (and critically-respected directors such as Francis Ford Coppola have followed their lead).

Vampyres (1974) is one of the more successful movies to enter this terrain. It's not a particularly profound piece of filmmaking. It's primarily a case of filmmakers finding a marketable subject and then exploiting the topic to the full extent by cranking up the sex content. This was the impetus for creating Vampyres. After director José Larraz (named "Joseph Larraz" in the movie's credits) completed Symptoms in 1974, producer Brian Smedley-Aston approached Larraz: "He told me that if I could make a film like Symptoms -- but with more naked girls and blood -- he would produce it," says Larraz. Being in a lull between projects, Larraz accepted Smedley-Aston's offer. However, Larraz envisioned more than simply a grindhouse project. In Immoral Tales (St. Martin's Griffin, 1995), authors Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs quote Larraz as saying about pornographic films, "I find them stupid and in bad taste … I don't think [they are] erotic."

With Vampyres, Larraz found a way to satisfy Smedley-Aston's requirement that the movie contain a high sex-and-gore quotient while simultaneously grounding the story in the characterizations. The two female leads -- ex-Playboy centerfold Anulka and nude model Marianne Morris -- were cast for their bodies and not their acting talent. As a result, both actresses were subsequently dubbed by other actresses in the release print of Vampyres. But Larraz uses the actresses remarkably well. When Miriam (Anulka) peers from the side of the road as Fran (Marianne Morris) tries to hail a car ("Will you give me a lift? It's not far."), Larraz captures a feral quality in Anulka as she leans forward, her gaze sharpened by her blood-lust anticipation. Or when Fran and Miriam run home through a cemetery -- trying to beat the rising sun -- Larraz captures their dazed expressions as they pant and gasp for air. Fran and Miriam don't become mere objects for the camera's gaze -- as frequently happens to vampires in the cinema of Jean Rollin, for example. Larraz elicits characterizations by his camera placements.

Coming from a background in comic books (he lists Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff as influences), Larraz doesn't adopt a conventional approach to filmmaking: "Each frame is like a frame in a comic book," he says. As such, Vampyres is filled with unique and surprising angles. When Fran and Miriam run through the subterranean tunnels beneath their castle, Larraz drops the camera down low, emphasizing the massive stonework and the weight over their heads. He traps us in front of them with the camera pointing back at Fran and Miriam. They run with their heads up, blood trailing down their chins, their eyes wild and animalistic. It's a truly terrifying sight. But the movie's most horrific images come during the blood-letting scenes, when Fran and Miriam slice their victims with knives and then lap at the open wounds as the wounded prey gurgles and thrashes. Larraz doesn't allow the murder scenes to become stylized paeans to the joy (or beauty) of blood and gore (as in Coppola's Dracula). His death scenes are brutal and difficult to watch. His vampires attack with a blood-lust of ferocious intensity and urgency. "I imagine my vampires turn almost to cannibalism, to eat somebody, to take the blood from anywhere … Anywhere! I can't imagine anyone coming to suck blood gently. It would be … very quick, with urgency… urgency because the sun rises. Urgency for the kill, urgency for the blood, because it's what they need."

Vampyres' most notorious moments come during its sex scenes, which are nearly as frenzied as the movie's violent scenes, but Larraz devised a way to make the sex scenes an outgrowth of the characterizations and an integral part of the story. Fran and Miriam are vampires who lure men back to their castle by hitchhiking on the nearby road. Once in their lair, they use the unlucky customers for sex and then slice them up. After discovering a particularly vigorous lover, Fran takes only enough blood to satisfy her appetite. Ted (Murray Brown) wakes dazed and weakened, with a hideous scar on his forearm, but he's alive. He considers leaving, but when in the presence of Fran, he can't help himself. When she sheds her clothing and stands in front of him buck naked, all his doubts evaporate -- and with Marianne Morris' statuesque physique, it's hard to condemn him for his stupidity. But every morning, he wakes up a little weaker. Miriam pleads with Fran to finish him off. "It's dangerous," she says. But Fran is as enthralled as her victim. Her avaricious appetite for sex causes her to compromise both her and Miriam's livelihood. To convey the extent of the passion between Fran and Ted, director Larraz takes his camera into Fran's bedroom to reveal in fairly explicit fashion their frenzied fucking. (No other word will do.)

While Larraz takes great care to make the sex scenes necessary and not simply exploitative, he probably should have expended more care with other elements of the story. For example, after Fran and Miriam are done with their victims, they typically slap them back in their cars and stage accidents. The local police then show up to cart away the cars and drivers. How often does this have to happen before the police begin to suspect that something unusual is at work? However, the police function as little more than street cleaners. In addition, the movie's opening sequence makes little sense: an undisclosed killer discovers Fran and Miriam in bed together making love and riddles them with bullets. So they become vampires after this? Meanwhile the movie suggests that Ted may be returning to the scene of a crime that was committed many years ago, but it's best to forget about the ludicrous opening sequence and simply focus on the present day events.

After Vampyres, José Larraz created nothing else with the same intensity. Larraz's Symptoms (filmed immediately before Vampyres) can be recommended (it stars Donald Pleasance's daughter, Angela), but Vampyres is arguably the high point of his career. Filmed on an exceptionally small budget, Vampyres is far from a perfect movie, but it's also a compelling portrait of the power of lust -- both blood lust and sexual lust -- to overcome reason and leave us exposed and vulnerable.


Vampyres is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment in a widescreen presentation that preserves the movie's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This disc includes audio commentary on an alternative track by director José Larraz and producer Brian Smedley-Aston. (Larraz's command of the English language isn't great, but he makes himself understood.) In addition, the disc includes a stills gallery, talent bios, and both international and U.S. theatrical trailers. This DVD has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Suggested retail price: $29.99.