Blood Hunger: The Films Of Jose Larraz
directed by Jose Larraz
starring Anulka, Karl Lanchbury, Marianne Morris
Spanish grindhouse legend José Ramón Larraz started his career as a cartoonist and photographer for photo comics which dictated his visual style with his knack for strong but contained visuals. Extreme budget limitations forced his films into location shooting without a great deal of camera movement available to him.. He turns these obstacles into opportunity creating confined tableaus that never feel claustrophobic. Many of the shots in his fim, notably Vampyres, feel like they have come right off a comic page. Lurid, pop art spectacles in perfectly filled 1.85:1 rectangles. These same budget constraints also necessitated the need to hire inexperienced actors and in some cases non actors to fill roles in his films. The end result was having performers who were working more for the love than for money and were therefore more willing perform the amount of sex and nudity that the movies required. The sometimes stilted performances added to the often surreal nature of the work. Work that was often elevated by the photography and unexpected depth to some of the themes. Sadly time has not been kind to Larraz and many of his films have languished unseen and largely forgotten. Arrow Video has begun to rectify this with Blood Hunger: The Films of José Larraz. The three Blu Ray box set contains Whirlpool, Vampyres, and The Coming of Sin. All three have all been restored and loaded with extras. In addition to the three Blu rays there is also an 80 page photo illustrated book with essays and interview by Jo Botting, Tim Greaves and Vanity Celis. Whirlpool or The Coming of Sin getting any kind of release would be great, but the film getting this level of release is somewhat shocking and an affirmation of the career of José Ramon Larraz.
This one is a bit troubling. The only knowledge I have of Whirlpool is from a scant mention and photo in the notorious ’70s cash grab book Scream Gems by Mark Baraket. The movie doesn’t even rate a mention in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Horror. Although versions of the film have been available as bootlegs the quality was terrible and were from truncated sources. Arrow has brought the full film back to life.
Whirlpool opens with a “Jerry Gross Presents” title card certain to elicit excitement and trepidation in any exploitation film fan and Larraz and Gross do not disappoint with one of the sleaziest movies ever made, and that’s a compliment. Karl Lanchbury (Vampyres, The House that Vanished) stars as psychotic photographer Theo, sporting a mop of bleach blond hair giving him the look of a cut rate Klaus Kinski, but he plays Theo as a simpering man child. Pia Andersson is Theo’s “Aunt” Sara and Vivian Neves is Thulia, the innocent young model drawn into their dangerous world. As graphic as this film is with copious nudity, threesomes, rape, muder, they play cute with whether the incest is real or metaphorical. While Larraz’s films on Blood Hunger feature plenty of sex and nudity, Larraz is not simply interested in the sexuality of gorgeous young women, but also features the sexuality of middle aged women which is as much of a through line as anything else in these films.
Thulia is an aspiring model who is invited by Sara to stay at her country house to shoot with her nephew Theo. Thulia and Theo shoot some photos and the trio have dull conversations, drink copious amounts of Johnnie Walker scotch, smoke endless cigarettes, and play strip poker. There are hints of incest between Theo and Sara. At the end of the first evening Theo proves impotent when attempting to seduce Thulia, bringing up concerns about an earlier model Rhonda who has disappeared and Thulia assumes Theo’s issues are from him carrying a torch for Rhonda. The next day Theo and Sara amp up the perversion as Theo photographs a pre-arrainged rape attempt of Thulia and that night shoots a sapphic session with Thuila and Sara that culminates in a somewhat botched three way. Yep its a weird one. Thulia begins to suspect something is up and undertakes some ill advised sleuthing. When she ventures into the literal and figurative darkroom she uncovers the shocking evidence of her predecessor’s fate. Sadly, poor Thuia’s fate was sealed long before she ventured into Theo’s forbidden basement lair.
A plethora of extras are packed onto Whirlpool. Eurocult video stalwart Tim Lucas provides a much needed commentary for the film. His trademark mixing of history really shines on this rarely seen and nearly lost bit of exploitation. He demystified the film’s circular plot construction (hey it is called Whirlpool) and the background on the making of the movie. Lucas also discusses his memory of wanting to see it during his youth but being thwarted by the X rating and holding onto that disappointment for decades.
Obsessive Recurrence: The Early Films of José Larraz features Kim Newman in his flat discussing the narrative themes of Jose Larraz’s British period (Symptoms, Diversion, Whirlpool,The House that Vanished, Vampyres). He describes Whirlpool as a film no genre wants to take ownership of. He mentions the omission of the film in the definitive volumes on both British horror films and British sex films. He discusses the fact that Larraz’s films of his British period have no actual plot twists and just drive toward their inevitable conclusions working very much like fairy tales.
For a 1970 grindhouse cheapie that was reviled in contemporaneous reviews for its terrible cinematography has to literally look better than it ever has because the photography is far from terrible and is at times inspired. The transfer has a uniform soft grain that feels more of an artistic choice rather than a technical flaw. One can only imagine the quality of prints Jerry Gross and his Cinemation Industries unleashed on theaters and drive-ins in 1970.
Vampyres is far and away José Larraz’s best known film having been in circulation on various home video formats since the ’80s. The film updates the vampire tale to modern day, while keeping much of the traditional gothic flourishes. It may be short on plot but Larraz lets the visuals tell the story and there are some truly memorable and iconic imagery on display.
The two vamps Fran and Miriam,played with great style by model Marianne Morris and Anulka, pick up men on the road, drain them of blood and stage their deaths as car accidents this signature style gets interrupted by Fran’s posseive behavior toward one victim, Ted, who Fran wants to keep around for sex and blood instead of their typical drain and ditch method. This creates tension between the women. Further complicating matters is the young couple camping on the grounds of the castle the vampire women call home. These aren’t your typical vampires. There is no curse, no brooding, no miserable creatures hoping for a release, these women are having the time of their afterlives. A decade before The Lost Boys, Jose Larraz made vampires fun. There is also very little plot and the neophyte actresses have to carry the film with their looks and their style. Anulka exudes a fairy tale princess type innocence while Marianne Morris is the older dominant vamp despite the two women being the same age. Without the strength of their performances the film does not work. The women here, and in other Larraz films, are not merely accessories for the male leads but they drive the narrative and look fabulous while doing so.
Kat Ellinger flies solo on the audio commentary. Ellinger puts Vampyres into context with similar films of the era including Daughters of Darkness, Fascination, and The Velvet Vampire. She discusses the transgressive nature of the female vampires who enjoy being vampires who take pleasure in killing, in feeding on blood, in sex. These women are the living dead with agency. They are beholden to no masters in their living lives or their undead continuance. Men are quite secondary in the narrative. Men don’t drive the plot or save the day and basically serve no function in the film except to pleasure and nourish the vampires.
Arrow Video has not only scrubbed up the film so it looks better than it ever has, it also shows more than any previously released version. The R rated version we have all been accustomed to has been augmented by an additional six minutes of blood and breasts which, although gratuitous, is pretty much the point of Vampyres and who would ever complain about seeing more of Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska?
The Coming of Sin
I first became aware of The Coming of Sin aka Violation of the Bitch in Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’ essential eurotrash film bible Immoral Tales. The indelible image of a nude woman concealing herself in an obviously sexual pose inside a statue of a horse while a nude man on horseback rides around her is not something easy to ignore or shake off. Sadly apart from the occasional some mentions in obscure books the film just wasn’t readily available and there were always more pressing purchases during the VHS bootleg heyday of the mid to late 1990s. Judging from the disparate quality of the various cuts of the film waiting was very likely for the best.
The film which could have been the kind of forgettable standard sexual awakening melodrama that filled out the late hours of the night on Showtime and The Movie Channel in the 1980s is given a surrealist bent that easily raises the film to cult status. Now it certainly ticks all the boxes of your standard European sex film of the time, Sylvia Kristel’s Emmanuellee series was in full swing at the time, so genteel lesbianism, rape (?), light bondage, and a three-way/romantic triangle are all on full display. Speaking of full display the two lead actessess are frequently on full display throughout the film, and just to keep things fair so is the lead male, and he spends much of his screen time naked on horseback.
The plot revolves around a Lorna, a female artist living in rural Spain who takes in an Triana, an illiterate young woman as an assistant. Triana is troubled by erotic nightmares of being pursued by a naked man on horseback, dreams that begin to intrude on real life. The dreams are also interpreted as a prophecy that if Triana ha sex with the man in her dreams that violence will result. Lorna and Triana quickly begin a mutual seduction that starts with Triana as the innocent who soon flips the power dynamic on her older and seemingly more experienced lover (and employer). The film is genuinely sexy, surreal, disturbing, and startling transgressive. The sex is quite realistic for a movie, aided no doubt in the fact the film in Italy contained hardcore scenes.
The audio commentary discusses the various cuts of the film. How the film changes once Chico shows up and Larraz begins to explore the class distinctions amongst the three main characters. They also touch on how Triana could be viewed in almost vampiric terms. The discussion also centers on the lead women in this film, and other Larraz films, who have more agency than is typically thought of in sexploitation features of the era. This is attributed to Larraz’s love of women, and not just 19 year old starlets, and his use of novice or even non-actors in the roles. They feel the awkwardness of the two lead actresses, who have barely a half dozen screen credits between them help fuel the surrealism. Kat and Samm have the great chemistry together like Kim Newman and Steve Jones where they not just discuss the film from a strong critics’ view, but also come off as two friends watching and discussing a movie. It never feels like a pre-scripted piece and doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of the cast’s IMDB pages or trying to nail down what day a certain scene was shot on. Kat and Samm’s love of the film help make the viewer fall in love with it too.
The restorations on Arrow Video releases are uniformly excellent so it is shocking to see how rough parts of The Coming of Sin look. The elements they had to work with had to be ghastly as most of the transfer is lovely. Some of the scenes are probably culled from some of those same VHS bootlegs that kept the film from being completely forgotten and lost to time. Often with Italian and Spanish genre films I don’t express any particular preference on language tracks, and often prefer the English tracks in these films where the leads are often non Italians and all the versions are overdubs. With The Coming of Sin, the English track is not only poorly acted, but actually alters the tone of the film, so please stay with the Spanish track.