I may be coming around to Jess Franco. My experiences with the director have been limited to his entries in Kino’s Redemption series of Euro-horror Blu-rays, and the first batch (Oasis of the Zombies, Female Vampire, Exorcism) were tired, dull little numbers, far more cheap than artful. Now with The Awful Dr. Orlof and A Virgin Among the Living Dead arriving on Blu, I can finally start to see what Franco’s appeal is all about. The disc for A Virgin Among the Living Dead is an interesting case, as it presents two different versions of the same film. Franco’s cut is Christina, Princess of Eroticism and the title version, A Virgin Among the Living Dead, is that same film with added zombie footage shot by Franco’s friend, director Jean Rollin.
Christina, Princess of Eroticism is a far more lurid title than the film deserves. There are touches of the erotic, but they take third place after unsettling weirdness and flashes of blacker-than-black humor. The film’s title character (Christina von Blanc) is summoned to her family’s estate for the reading of her father’s will. It’s a side of the family she’s never met, lead by her cruel Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon) and his stone-faced wife Aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar). There’s also a “maniac” played by Jess Franco himself as a babbling idiot and what we assume are Christina’s cousins, an aggressive blood-drinking nympho (Carmenze, played by Britt Nichols) and a swarthy blind woman who can see the color of people’s souls (Linda, played by Linda Hastreiter).
I’d never seen Franco even attempt anything that could even remotely be called humor, but there are a couple of scenes (and a darkly playful tone) in Christina that caught me off guard. The sight of Carmenze painting her toenails during a funeral is so wrong that it’s right, and Franco’s Basilio snoring loudly through the reading of the will is another highlight in what could’ve been an entirely somber affair. It inches the film closer to something like The Addams Family or Spider Baby, where logic clashes in delightful ways with a grotesquely creepy family, but bear in mind, this isn’t a laugh riot either.
In fact, Christina’s dreams are plagued by her noose-necked dead father’s pleas to leave her family behind at all costs, and there’s hardly a moment when Christina doesn’t feel like she’s in danger in some way. So while the film flirts with dark comedy, it’s married to something far more sinister. The dessicated bats left behind on her bed, the incestuous sexual leering, the crosses drawn in blood, and a chapel that no one can enter all hint at something Satanic binding the family, a curse controlled from the shadows by a mysterious figure called the Queen of Darkness.
Christina, Princess of Eroticism is an unusual, haunting work of arthouse horror that asks questions about how healthy it is to be part of a dysfunctional family simply because the blood ties exist. The answer, according to this film, is no, it isn’t healthy at all. “Dreamlike” typically describes a film that is sort of airy and deliberately paced. Christina is just a hair past dreamlike into something more narratively grounded and comparatively fast-paced, but it’s still a nightmare for sure.
A Virgin Among the Living Dead adds ashen-faced, grinning zombies at Christina‘s one-hour mark, emerging from wet piles of leaves to threaten an actress who definitely isn’t Christina von Blanc (she’s shot from behind or with a faceful of hair). This scenes builds to a climax in which the undead surround her and wiggle their fingers at the camera menacingly, occasionally slapping at Christina’s head. The Queen of Darkness is also played by someone new, as she oversees all of the zombie finger-wiggling for this wholly unnecessary segment. Rollin also extends a rape scene from Franco’s tasteful cutaway into something longer, more explicit, and more exploitative, again with noticeably different actors. All of the low-rent asides cut into Christina detract from the overall film, and though the title on the cover may be A Virgin Among the Living Dead, Franco’s Christina cut is this reviewer’s preferred version.
The poster art used for the Blu-ray cover promises a heavy metal gorefest about 180-degrees from the reality of the films contained inside. It’s garish and rather awesome, but just so off the mark. Transfers on both versions are typical Kino quality, meaning strong colors and contrast even through the source material’s noticeable print defects. Virgin is more loaded with features than most Redemption titles. There’s the aforementioned two cuts of the film (French with subs or English dubbed), plus additional (lame) orgy footage from a softcore porno cut, an interview with the late Jess Franco, audio commentary by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas, and two short documentaries – one on Franco and one on the film itself. The film and its features are a standout in Kino’s diverse Redemption line.