By Rod Lott.
Death aside, it’s a good time to be José Ramón Larraz. The Spanish director finally gets his due, a quarter-century after Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs made the case for it in their seminal book, Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies, 1956-1984. The seeds they planted arguably started to take root four years ago, when his most well-known picture, Vampyres (1974), earned a remake (Víctor Matellano, 2015).
Then bloomed the Blu-rays. If Code Red’s release of the occult shocker Black Candles (1982) didn’t get your goat, the ever-tardy Dorado Films label came through with a double bill of thrillers Stigma (1980) and Emma, puertas oscuras (1974). More recently, Mondo Macabro unleashed 1974’s Symptoms, while Dark Force Entertainment revisited 1973’s The House That Vanished.
Now, Larraz’s coronation as genre auteur is as official as it gets: a full-fledged, sharply presented box set from Arrow Video. Across three Blu-ray discs, Blood Hunger: The Films of José Larraz houses as many movies, collecting the aforementioned Vampyres, plus Whirlpool (1970) and The Coming of Sin (1978), each of which finds the director playing in a different corner of the cinematic sandbox. In the words of UK critic Kim Newman, who does his usual good job of providing context in a 25-minute interview, these are “films no genre wants to own up to.”
If Whirlpool has been remembered for anything, it would be for adorning the front cover of Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s essential Sleazoid Express book since 2002. Hopefully, Arrow’s release will change that. The killer thriller marks Larraz’s debut, but bears the more nondescript, Americanized moniker of J.R. Larrath – a move, one assumes, on the part of notorious producer Jerry Gross (I Drink Your Blood), who distributed through his Cinemation Industries.
In the solitude of a country cottage in England live the middle-aged Sara (Pia Andersson) and her nephew, Theo (Karl Lanchbury, in his first of four Larraz collaborations), a talented young photographer. Theo is described as “delicate,” “sensitive” and “artistic” – code for perverted, beta-male impotence, for the purposes of this story. His kink is killing the beautiful women Sara lures to their home to pose for his lens; Theo’s camera clicks with the cruel force of a triggered mouse trap. Their latest model is Tulia (Vivian Neves), a sexy blonde who dimwittedness for not sensing unease in her hosts’ post-dinner penchant for strip poker is matched only by her decision to explore Theo’s basement darkroom. In Whirlpool’s first act, Sara tells Tulia, “I think you’re the kind of person who’s inclined to be susceptible to atmospheres” – a line that very well could apply to Larraz, who manages to craft an intoxicating visual haze out of a drab, then-in-vogue palette of baby-poo browns, yellows and greens.
While his screenplay may be short on surprises, the end result is more of an exercise in mood than plot machinations – one that succeeds enough to fit snugly within the fucked-up family subcategory of the psycho-cinema sweepstakes.
Note the spelling of “Joseph” Larraz’s Vampyres with a Y, because Y not? In actuality, adherence to the Gothic usage further suggests an “otherness” at play that threatens to upend formula; indeed, although not credited as such, the 1974 picture owes a massive spiritual debt to another Joseph: Sheridan Le Fanu, whose classic Carmilla injected lesbianism into the whole vampire idea — rather daring for 19th-century literature. (It’s too bad science assigned the Y chromosome to the male gender, as that alignment with the title would be all the more delicious.) Taking advantage of the silver screen’s increased permissiveness, Vampyres tightly wrings all subtlety from Le Fanu’s novella starting from frame one, with the titular women caught in flagrante delicto and shot dead, all in a single scene. If that is not the most informative of backstories demanded by mainstream audiences, it is all Larraz offers, which works to the film’s benefit in economy and speed.
Make no mistake: although saddled with the dowdy names of Fran and Miriam (respectively, Marianne Morris and Playboy Playmate Anulka Dziubinska), the now-undead duo are stone-cold vixens squarely in the softcore-horror mold, hitchhiking their way (through botched day-for-night shots that barely try) toward their next conquest-cum-meal. The pendulous Fran calculatingly and patiently slinks out of clothing and into bed with her freshest mark (Murray Brown, also seen that year as Jonathan Harker in Dan Curtis’ made-for-TV Dracula), making her the old pro in contrast to Miriam’s more impulsive, impatient child.
Befitting of low budgets, Vampyres essentially takes place at one location: the requisite isolated, spooky mansion and the forestry enveloping it, all with built-in production value that Larraz uses to his advantage. On these grounds, acts of the weird and wild occur: watches are stopped, cuts sustained, orgasms enjoyed.
The Coming of Sin
That last activity serves as the primary connective muscle between Vampyres and The Coming of Sin, the outlier of Arrow’s Blood Hunger set. Also known under several titles, including (in order of escalating lewdness) Vice Makes a Visit, Sodomania, and The Violation of the Bitch, the 1978 Spanish-language film is pure melodrama, like a romance novel – an awfully twisted one, mind you – come to life. Interested in sex above all else, both poetic and off-putting, the picture has an artfulness in image that strives for Radley Metzger territory, but falls short of that mark, landing more in line with John Derek’s ’80s vanity projects for wife Bo (e.g., Bolero).
Lidia Zuazo lacks the “it” factor as that iconic “10,” yet has no problems with nudity, which seems to be Larraz’s only requirement. Her teenaged Triana takes up temporary resident with Lorna (Patricia Granada), a lonely painter, and suffers nightmares of being raped by a man who rides nude on horseback. Her dream threatens to penetrate the realm of reality when the man, a gypsy named Chico (Rafael Machado), suddenly appears in the, um, flesh. As is par for the course in such films, a “throuple” takes shape between them.
Whereas the sex in Whirlpool and Vampyres is far from sanitized, it feels lathered in Irish Spring compared to the sleaze of Sin, especially in today’s pins-and-needles environment. Its tortured history of cuts (and inserts) comes as no surprise, each version detailed in an amusing six-minute extra by Marc Morris, doing the Lord’s work – assuming the Lord were a charter subscriber to Video Watchdog. (Speaking of, Tim Lucas contributes an insightful commentary to Whirlpool.) I only wish The Coming of Sin felt more worthy of the lavish treatment Arrow gives it, because outside of its celebrated surrealism in the dream sequence, the film is a rather pedestrian slog.
Still, as the adage goes, two out of three ain’t bad! Mitigating any sour aftertaste left by the lackluster Sin is a generously illustrated 80-page book covering the trio of movies, as well as Vampyres II, the planned sequel for which Larraz was unable to secure funding. On the discs, his involvement with the aforementioned 2015 Vampyres remake is discussed, courtesy of director Victor Matellano (Wax).
Larraz, who passed away half a dozen years ago, participates in Blood Hunger via interview excerpts recorded for Immoral Tales’ research phase; not meant for broadcast, these segments look and sound poorly, but are appreciated for completeness’ sake, as well as bringing Tohill and Tombs’ attention to the filmmaker to wide-scale fruition.
Rod Lott runs the genre film website FlickAttack.com. A former professional journalist, he has written for Psychotronic Video, Something Weird Video, and numerous books.