Saturday, February 22, 2014

#176: Vampyres (Jose Ramon Larraz, 1974)

A 1970s shot-on-location creepy British horror film about a pair of sexy bisexual ghost-vampires who pose as hitchhikers to lure men into a spooky old mansion in the woods to drink their blood? Lots of moody atmosphere, plot incoherence, and gratuitous nudity? My inner teenage boy would like a ticket to this movie, please, and sign me up, too! Yes, most of the sex scenes are unnecessary and included primarily for commercial purposes, but this movie is so much better than it has any right to be. The English countryside has an inherently haunting quality that translates beautifully to film, and the two vampire leads may have been hired for their physical attributes, but they have a lot more to offer than their appearances.
The film doesn't waste any time, opening with a sex scene between our two vampire women, Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka). A mysterious person enters the bedroom and shoots the two women dead. As origin stories go, this one is pretty confusing. Who shot them? Why did he/she shoot them? Why and how did they become vampires? Are they ghosts, too? These questions are never answered. They won't be the only questions. Throughout the film, characters often say cryptic things to each other like, "I've seen you somewhere before," "You look very familiar to me," "I knew I'd meet you here like this," and "I recognized you by the mark on your forehead" without any narrative payoff. This might be annoying in a political thriller, but my favorite horror movies operate by their own dream logic, and this film has the feel of extended nightmare (plus sexy times), so I have a certain distanced oddball admiration for this narrative incoherence, whether it be intentional or just incompetent oversight.
Next, we meet Ted (Murray Brown), who looks like the product of a Grundle-fly teleportation-pod splice between Marcello Mastroianni and Oliver Reed before the weekend bender. He's a bit of a macho, condescending '70s British gentleman-carouser, enjoying spirits, cigarettes, and the company of amply-cleavaged women as long as he's not too inconvenienced. He picks up Fran, falling for her hitchhiking ruse, and is lured into the spooky old country house with the cemetery in front. Unlike the other unlucky sods who can't resist the lure of beautiful women even in creepy circumstances, Ted is not killed. Fran seems to enjoy her sexual trysts with the man, despite his lovemaking technique that seems to consist entirely of sticking his tongue out and blindly jabbing it at whatever is in front of him, but to each her own. She opens a cut on his arm while he sleeps and sucks a little blood from him every night, and the weaker, paler Ted keeps returning to the house for more erotically baffling tongue-jabbing and blood-sucking.
About the same time we meet Ted, we also meet a young couple on a countryside vacation. They're toting what we Americans call a camper and what the British call a caravan behind their car, and they choose to stop in the isolated woods near the spooky house for several days of fishing (for him) and painting (for her) in the rural idyll. Except the woman, Harriet (Sally Faulkner), has a creepy feeling about the place from the get-go, ever since she saw the vampire women hitchhiking by the side of the road in a wonderfully creepy early scene. Her boyfriend, the unbearably condescending John (Brian Deacon), refuses to take her seriously because she's a woman and John thinks women are weak and childish and full of silly notions. He patronizes her and tousles her hair whenever she expresses her reservations about the vacation spot. Harriet is a lovely, charming, interesting woman who also, like the other women in the film, looks great naked (as we find out in two completely gratuitous scenes), so she could definitely do better than John. It's unclear whether the filmmakers realize John is a wanker or whether they share his attitude, but I had zero sympathy for the guy.
The lives of all these characters soon intersect, and the film maintains a consistently eerie, chilling atmosphere that is only dissipated during the sex scenes and the occasional unintentionally funny line of dialogue. Marianne Morris and Anulka (who was once married to Tony Sales, son of Soupy Sales and bassist for Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Todd Rundgren) have great, cinematic faces and wonderfully sly delivery of their lines, and they embody these vampires (or ghosts, or ghost-vampires) completely, making it easy to suspend one's disbelief. They're both frightening and seductive, and they turn what could have been a mere sexploitation fest with great locations into a genuinely creepy horror film. The house in the country is an excellent location coup as well, and it became a staple of '70s film, making appearances in several Hammer films and The Rocky Horror Picture Show before turning into a hotel and resort, where you can book a room to this day.
Director Jose Ramon Larraz, who died last year at the age of 84, made several B-movies in England and his native country of Spain, and is in the running for director with the most pseudonyms. He directed Vampyres under the Anglicized Joseph Larraz, and also directed films under the names Joseph Braunstein, Joseph L. Bronstein, Jose L. Gil, J.R. Larrath, and Joseph Larrza, as well as his real name. I haven't seen any of his other films, but with titles like The Violation of the Bitch, Madame Olga's Pupils, The National Mummy, and Rest in Pieces, I'm sure I'm guaranteed some kind of experience (what kind, I can't venture to guess) if I explore his filmography further.

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