Friday, June 29, 2012

Countess Perverse (1973)

If you were a fan of Jess Franco during the early 70’s you were lucky. While Franco was always a prolific filmmaker, often helming several films a year, the 70’s found him taking on a work load that even by his standards seemed a bit extreme, hell in 1973 alone he managed to complete 12 feature films. TWELVE, and there were others that for one reason or another were never finished. No matter what your opinion on Franco is, you can’t help but admire the man’s work ethic, it never ceases to amaze me, and personally speaking it’s one of the main reasons I hold him in such high regard as a filmmaker. I mean think about some the long lapses in time certain directors experience in between films, sometimes 4-6 years (not to mention the waiting impatient fans like myself endure). Not Franco though, finish one, move onto the next. Now, obviously when you work at that kind of a pace the results tend to be hit or miss, and even devout Francophiles will admit the man has had his fair share of misses, but a good number of the films that Franco directed during that time period turned out to be real good. Great in fact, as several of them are now considered to be some of his most essential, must see works. Films such as (but obviously not limited too) The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff, The Other Side of the Mirror, Female Vampire, Sinner: The Secret Diary of a Nymphomaniac, Plaisir à trois, and Countess Perverse. Countess Perverse was one of a few films Franco worked on that featured principle cast members Alice Arno, Howard Vernon, Robert Woods and of course Lina Romay. Out of the all the films he worked on with that motley crew, for my money, it’s Countess Perverse that stands out as the best.

Countess Perverse (original French title La comtesse perverse) is essentially Franco’s own unique take on the classic Most Dangerous Game hunting humans theme. Countess Ivanna and Count Rador Zaroff (Arno and Vernon) are two extremely wealthy debauched libertine aristocrats who live on their own private island of sorts, which they’ve turned into their own personal hunting ground. After wining, dining and “entertaining” (read that as being seduced by Ivanna, sometimes Rador joins in, other times he watches astutely from the sidelines) a guest, their true motives are revealed to their unsuspecting victim, and the next morning the victim is given the chance to escape the island while Ivanna hunts them down like a wild animal with her bow. If the attempted escape is unsuccessful, the head of victim becomes another trophy on Ivanna’s wall and the rest is cooked and becomes Ivanna and Rador’s dinner, and is served to the next unknowing player in their game as well, and they’ve just found the perfect victim in the young Sylvia (Romay).

Filled to the brim with sex, sleaze, beautiful uninhibited women, cannibalism, rampant lesbianism and black humor, Countess Perverse is defiantly Franco at his Francoiest. There’s no pretense when it comes to a film like this, it knows what it is and proudly flaunts it, making no apologies for it. More than anything though, it’s just damn entertaining. Countess Perverse is really a blast to watch, and if I have to make one complaint it would just be that I wish it were longer because at a short running time of only 78 minutes it’s over before you know it and if your anything like me you’ll want more. For starters the tight knit cast Franco assembled for this and some of the other previously mentioned films couldn’t have been more perfect. Arno and Vernon make for the perfect disturbed cannibalistic couple, and both are the personification of presence. Vernon has a way about him, that was tailor made for horror films and the deranged faces he makes in this film are almost worth the price of admission alone. He’s a magnetic figure in that black suit and glasses, no doubt. I don’t even need to mention just how dead sexy Arno is, simply a stunning, alluring woman and it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. Dangerous and seductive, she made the titular Countess a more interesting character. Did I mention she hunts her prey totally nude? Having her and Lina on the screen together almost seems like Franco challenging the viewer to see which one you can drool over more. Along with all the human hunting and flesh eating, Franco even finds room for some drama near the end when one of the procurers of the Zaroff’s victims, played by Robert Woods decides he has a heart and tries to put a stop to the Countess’ game. Admittedly this does turn into melodrama, but Franco quickly shifts the mood and ends the film on a darkly comic note. The morbid humor is one of the films definite highlights, the good majority of Vernon’s lines are real gems, one of the most popular being “She's dim, but she's certainly juicy.” referring to Sylvia after having passed out from the shock of discovering the Zaroff’s love of human flesh. One of my personal favorite scenes in the film is the dinner scene where the Zaroff’s share their favorite food with Sylvia. The dialogue between the three is pure gold, and the wide eyed look of bewilderment on Lina’s face the entire time is priceless

Ivanna: Do You like our favorite meat, Sylvia?
Rador: Don’t ask the sweet girl to lie. This meat is rather tough. Not up to our usual standard. But next time… Oh, sorry - you won’t be here.
Sylvia: Why? Am I upsetting you?
Rador: On the contrary.
Ivanna: Just that you will have left by the time we start cooking.
Rador: Oh yes, that’s a fact. Already left indeed. 

I’m going to sound like a broken record here because just as I did when I reviewed Lorna the Exorcist (1974) and Justine (1969) I have to point out Franco’s knack for getting the most out of a location, using every possible resource at his disposal to his advantage. You’d never would have guessed how low the budget was for a lot of Franco’s films just going by the scenery alone, and Countess Perverse is no exception. It goes without saying that the island setting is gorgeous but it’s the way Franco uses his surroundings to give off this incredible atmosphere that fans know all about but first time Franco viewers might have never expected to feel in such a film. Early on there in the film there is a flashback segment where a woman recounts her voyage to the island while Franco focuses the camera on the massive rocks surrounding the water and island. The woman describes the fear the rocks instilled in her by claiming that the rocks warned of death, and therein lies Franco’s genius. There is indeed something oddly menacing about those monstrous, natural formations, and the thought of being surrounded by them in the middle of the water does give off some odd sensations. The incredible eerie organ theme enhances the scene tenfold, and it’s a theme that’s heard numerous times throughout the film to great effect. You can’t talk about this film without bringing up the Zaroff’s house, as it‘s an unforgettable sight. (Francophiles will instantly recognize the house he previously used it in She Killed In Ecstasy (1971)) The best way I can describe the look of the house is an Escher paining come to life, and the bizarre architecture gives off a real unsettling aura, as Lina’s character of Sylvia exclaims “This house scares me.” as the aforementioned organ theme plays. Just as visually stunning are the interior shots taking place within a set  of huge red stair casings (which were filmed in the building right next to the main house), which, just like the exterior of the house have a very surreal, nightmarish quality. The overall oddness of both not only bring forth a disorienting sense unease, but also allow Franco to conjure up that hallucinogenic dream like state he creates all to well.

Once again, Mondo Macabro proves to be at the top of their game when it comes to the world of DVD. Their treatment of Countess Perverse is every bit as impressive as their previous Franco releases of The Diabolical Dr. Z plus the previously mentioned Sinner and Lorna. The transfer is the best this film has ever looked, and probably will ever look, now it’s a full screen picture as originally intended which might irk a few people but honestly will that really hinder your viewing experience? It shouldn’t, as it looks fantastic. Another brilliant restoration from Mondo. Once again included is an interview with author and Franco expert Stephen Thrower which is great as he throws out quite a bit of information about this particular period in Franco’s career as well as some tidbits about the famous house used in the film (named Xanadu) it’s architect, and late Lina Romay. The most fascinating part of this segment to me though, is where he makes the connection with some of Franco’s work with that of the Marquis de Sade. While Countess Perverse isn’t one of Franco’s Sade adaptations, the thematic influence of the Marquis is ever apparent. Thrower will have an in depth book about Franco and his films published sometime later this year. That will be a must buy for sure. Also included is an interview with actor Robert Woods who reminisces fondly about his time in Europe and his work with Franco, nothing but nice things to say about the man. Good stuff. As an added bonus Mondo threw in a nice write up about the films colorful post production history which is fascinating to say the least, plus some cast bio’s. I’m not sure how many people actually read those but they’re nice additions, the one on Arno especially. This was one my most anticipated DVD’s of the year and without question it’s worth every penny. A fitting treatment for one of Franco’s most fun and best looking films. An absolute must have.

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