Wednesday, December 4, 2013

La nuit des étoiles filantes (1973)

... aka: Among the Living Dead
... aka: Christine, Princess de l'érotisme
... aka: Erotic Dreams of Christine, The
... aka: Exorcismo per una Vergine
... aka: Labyrinth, The
... aka: Vergine tra i Morti Viventi, Una
... aka: Vierge chez les Morts-Vivants, Una
... aka: Virgin Among the Living Dead, A
... aka: Zombie 4

Directed by:
Jesus Franco
Jean Rollin (zombie dream sequence)
Pierre Quérut (additional sequences)

Like numerous other Franco films, this took on many different shapes as it bounced around European theaters in the 70s and finally made its home video debut in the 80s. Filmed under the title Le nuit des étoiles filantes ("The Night of the Shooting Stars"), Franco originally intended this to be a pseudo-surreal film about death and the afterlife. The distributors, however, had other ideas in mind. The release date is usually listed as either 1973 (the production year), 1974 or 1975, and the film may have debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in its original form in the spring of 1974 (sources give conflicting information). French distributors got their hands on it first and had director Pierre Quérut add brand new soft-core footage starring Alice Arno (as "The Princess of Eroticism"), Nadine Pascal, Pierre Taylou and Wal Davis (aka Waldemar Wohlfaart) so that it could be sold as a sex film. When it came time for its video release, hack company Eurociné bought up the rights, removed the added sex scenes, hired Jean Rollin to shoot completely unrelated new zombie footage to splice in and then it was issued under the title A Virgin Among the Living Dead. This cut was the one distributed by Wizard Video in the U.S. and then re-issued under the title Zombie 4 as part of a bogus series that also included Franco's Revenge in the House of Usher (1982) and D'Amato's Monster Hunter (1981). For the Italian release (under the title Exorcismo per una Vergine / "Exorcism of the Virgin"), someone combined this film with scenes from one of Rollin's earlier vampire movies. The version I watched had the French title Una vierge chez les Morts-Vivants, runs 78 minutes and does not have the added sex scenes nor Rollin's zombie footage. I believe this is the closest version to what Franco originally intended.

Kind-hearted teenage orphan Christina Benton (Christina von Blanc) arrives in a small coastal town from a London boarding school. She's been summoned there by a letter asking her to come visit her estranged family and attend to the reading of her late father's will. Arriving at an inn late that night, Christina receives a warning from the innkeeper about her planned destination; Montserrat Mansion, that she chooses to ignore. The woman also insists that nobody lives there, something Christina will be hearing a lot of over the next few days. Basilio (director Franco, as "Jesus Manera"), the mumbling, incoherent family servant arrives there the following morning to pick her up. After a long car ride where Christina observes strange behavior in the birds and ever stranger odors emanating from the plants, she arrives at the mansion and finally meets her bizarre extended family. While her stepmother Hermine is upstairs dying, her Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon) plays upbeat piano music, her inhospitable Aunt Abigail (Rosa Paloma) behaves zombie-like and emotionless and her cousin Carmencé (Britt Nichols) chain smokes, constantly coughs and laughs at the most inappropriate moments. Christina gets to see Hermine only briefly and she too spits out a warning ("Run... run away...") in her last dying breath. Everyone seems strangely unphased by any of this. And the strange events only get more bizarre from there.

None of her relatives seem to ever eat and any outsider she meets keeps insisting no one lives in the manor. Basilio runs around at night with a chicken head spouting gibberish. A blind woman named Linda (Linda Hastreiter) shows up in Christina's bedroom hoping to "help" her and says she'll pray for her to keep evil away and Christina meets a crazed old man at a nearby chapel who tells her to immediately leave the area. So what is that, four warnings now? Well, make that five as the ghost of Christina's late father (Paul Muller), who hung himself, starts calling to her at night and provides yet more wise advice to get the hell out of there. Dead bats appear on her bedspread, her Uncle slaps her across the face for attempting to bring a local boy into the home and she catches sight of Carmencé cutting up Linda with scissors so she can feast on her blood. A lawyer shows up to finally settle the estate, leaving everything to the naive young woman, but she insists all of these weirdos still stick around. Oh yes, and there is also a woman dressed in black lurking around who's referred to as "The Guardian of the Night" (Anne Libert); a seductive Grim Reaper-type figure.

An entertaining, often dream-like film; Virgin presents a tug-of-war between (s)exploitation and art typical of much of the director's other work. One moment it's going for straight-up sleaze ("You shattered the big ebony phallus!"), the next providing tongue-in-cheek macabre humor (Nichols nonchalantly painting her toenails during a funeral) and a minute later feeling like a haunting otherworldly meditation on death. Composer Bruno Nicolai seems to understand just what's going on and contributes a wonderfully weird and schizophrenic score to proceedings. There are tons of zoom shots, as well as some very stylish and well-executed moments like the dead father - noose wrapped around his neck - floating backwards to lead his daughter down a path and descending into the dark in the arms of the Grim Reaper-like lady. And, of course, there are some seriously smokin' hot actresses in this film who are naked as often as not. All of the brainless behavior and strange events are adequately explained by the final plot revelation. I've seen some refer to it as being ambiguous but it seemed pretty cut and dry to me personally.

Virgin has always been one of Franco's easiest-to-find and, as a result, most viewed of all his 200+ films. Here in America, the Wizard VHS, with its eye-catching art and large-sized display box, was a fixture of most video stores' horror sections. Image Entertainment released a DVD in 2003 under their EuroShock line. The release contained both the original cut as well as the one with Rollin's inserts (which increases the running time by 13 minutes).



Anonymous said...

This film was my introduction to Franco and I absolutely love it!

A common complaint about this film does seem to be that the heroine doesn't run away from the castle despite all the weirdos (even though she does just that during the middle of the film). It's important for people to realize that Christina is not aware she's in a horror movie. She's an orphan with nowhere else to go so her father's will is a really big deal. Besides, her family members, despite being creepy, never actually threaten her life until the finale. So I always interpreted her ignoring the warnings as simply being willing to put up with their quirks.

I personally prefer to watch the film in its original French dub (most dubs actually use it as a source for the music and sound effects/screams). Christina von Blanc, Howard Vernon, and Paul Muller all seem to be speaking in French.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

This was one of the best of his I have seen so far. Right now my personal favorites are Diabolical Dr. Z and Eugenie de Sade, but this would easily make my Top 10 cut.

Many of Franco's movies are very difficult to find and even then it's terribly confusing finding the versions of the films the way the director originally intended since many have been so hacked up / reedited / censored over the years by distributors and such. Throw in all the different languages the films were available in and that just adds another layer of difficulty!

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