The Loves of Irina
AKA: Les Avaleuses, The Bare-Breasted Countess,
Jacula, Sicarius -- the Midnight Party,
This review is intended for Mature audiences only.
(Yeah, right. Mature audiences reading a review
of a Jess Franco movie. Suuure.)
While there is no explicit material contained in the review,
and in fact, nothing more offensive than you might hear
on the prime time news broadcasts,
it is still recommended only for readers 18 and above.
This means you.
I'd hate for this review to be a bad influence
on impressionable young minds.
Especially since this movie, while deserving an X rating,
is often found on the general Horror shelves of video stores,
with no warning labels or anything.
Hell, I've even seen it in the Drama section.
And most video store owners, clerks, and parents
haven't the slightest clue what it really is.
So SCRAM, KIDS. I'm sure you have better things to do...
Skin and horror both have a certain box office appeal, but few moviemakers have been successful at combining the two.
I'm not talking about anything subtle (or even meaningful) here. I don't mean "erotic horror" in its demure, R-rated form. I mean movies like Caress of the Vampire rather than Interview with the Vampire; or Jean Rollin's Phantasmes rather than Lèvres de Sang. The makers of these films understand that there's a loyal audience for both horror and porn (soft- or hardcore), and seem to think that combining the two will appeal to both camps.
Detractors of both genres often insist that horror and porn are related, in that they both strive for a physical reaction on the part of the viewer. I think that's an oversimplification, but it does help point out one of the big problems film makers face if they want to mix sex and blood: they must strike a balance between erotic attraction and the repulsive power of horror.
There are a number of ways they can do this. For instance:
- they may mix in a third genre, comedy, which lessens the impact of both;
- they could emphasize the violent, dangerous aspects of the strong sexual content, to fit with the dark, brutal emotions of horror -- with greater (Vampyres) and less (Orgy of the Dead) results; or
- they may subordinate horror to sex, usually with rotten results (the Witchcraft series).
Unfortunately, adding skin to horror rarely results in a better movie. When horror meets T&A, the rules of the genres collide. Combine the "anything-goes", no-consequences unreality of porn, soft or hard, with the unreality of horror -- which is all about punishment and consequences -- and your movie creates too much disbelief to be suspended.
But then there's Jess Franco's Loves of Irina, a film which defies description. On the one hand, it's clearly a sex film, with all the requisite acts: solo, straight, girl-on-girl, S&M, etc. On the other hand, its central concerns are death, loss and anguish. The grim seriousness of the movie's tone, and its undercurrent of despair, make it seem like a porn flick gone horribly wrong. Loves of Irina may have one foot in the grindhouse and the other in the abbatoir, but -- ahem -- it's what's in between that matters most...
The movie opens with Countess Irina Karlstein [sic] (Lina Romay) walking out of the mists. She is wearing a standard-issue vampire cape, a thick leather belt, high boots, and nothing else. Franco's camera zooms in to her face, her eyes... dropping then to her lips... dropping still further for a good ogle at her breasts... dropping still further to... OK, you can guess where his camera's going to end up. I don't want to have this site removed by my host, so while Jess is revealing much too much of his leading lady, let's talk about the music.
Daniel White's main theme for the picture is a haunting tune for strings and piano. It's lush and romantic, sentimental but just at the threshhold of saccharine. Hear it once, and you will always remember it. Unfortunately, during the course of the movie, you'll hear it over and over again; by the time Loves of Irina is over, the tune will have been pushed so far into your brain that nothing short of a full lobotomy will ever get it out. Relax as the tune wraps itself comfortably around your mind, and begins to gnaw.
I think it's safe to go back to the movie now. Franco reluctantly pans back up Lina's body, having given us a good hint about what's in store for the rest of the film.
The sun has just risen as Irina arrives at a farm (already we know this isn't going to be a standard vampire flick, because Irina's walking around at daybreak). She runs into a farmhand; wordlessly, she leads him off to a poultry pen. If this was a standard vampire flick, you'd expect her to suck his blood at this point. It is emphatically NOT his blood she sucks, though the results are the same. Having drained him of at least one life-fluid, Irina leaves him, er... impeached.
As the farmhand expires, he gives a shriek of combined ecstasy and terror. Funny thing, though: his cry is heard by Jack Taylor, sitting on his hotel-room balcony several miles away. Hearing the cry of existential despair, Jack takes off his glasses. Then he puts them back on. Then, thoughtfully, he takes them off again. Immediately reconsidering his hasty action, he puts them back on.
Following this gripping opening, we get some lovely exposition. It seems that Countess Irina Karlstein is the last descendent of a decadent noble family, who practiced bizarre sexual rites in Madeira, Portugal. Irina is mute, but we hear her thoughts as a voice-over. She has returned to Madeira with her lumbering henchman, who is also mute. Emerging from the misty woods, she stands on top of a hill and begins flapping her cape.
Again, this is not your usual vampire film, so she doesn't turn into a bat. Instead, we jump-cut to a bird-shaped hood ornament, whose wings flap irregularly as the car speeds on. In the background, we hear Daniel White's melody -- arranged for the inevitable wordless soprano, "bad Euro-horror soundtrack"-style. Irina's voice-over describes her anguish over her deathless corruption, and her remorse over her "hiney-ous [sic] crimes".
Next, we cut to Jack Taylor in his hotel room. As a jazz piano improvises some swingin' variations on Irina's Tune, we watch Jack shave. It's fascinating: See Jack. See Jack's razor. See Jack put on shaving cream. See Jack shave. Shave, Jack; shave. Did I mention he's nude? Of course he is; this is an Art Film.
Outside, by the hotel pool, the vampire Irina lies sunbathing. Again, this is not a typical vampire film, otherwise she'd be a withered crisp. Anyway: a tall blonde woman in a bikini comes up and introduces herself: she's a journalist who's come to interview the great Countess Karlstein. In the best journalistic tradition, she advises Irina to "Just answer yes or no..." to her questions. Irina nods her approval, and the two go off to Irina's room.
"First," says the journalist, "I'd like to inform you this story I'm going to write from this interview will appear in all the major newspapers and magazines of Europe and America." Here, we're solidly in porn-film territory, where we accept without question that Reuters is waiting breathlessly for a report from some bimbo in a bikini. It gets sillier: "I won't waste much of your time," she continues, "because I have prepared the questions in advance." Good thinking!
Irina's inability to speak is no barrier: "I know that you're a mute," says the journalist, "but I also know that you can hear very well. You are the Countess Irina... ?" Irina nods solemnly. The journalist asks a series of bizarre, weighted questions, and Irina nods her reply. Eventually, they get to Irina's twisted family history, the legends of vampirism, and the possible causes of her muteness. "Do you think that this affliction is a consequence of the curse that has weighed upon your family for centuries?" Nod. I wonder if the journalist will be wearing the same bikini when she accepts her Pulitzer?
The difference between Irina and a straight-out porn film is that at this point, Irina and the journalist do not go to bed right away. Skin flicks usually have a linear, episodic approach, and when one scene is done, another self-contained vignette follows immediately (actions don't usually have consequences in porn films, and neither do story lines). Here, the journalist simply leaves, though the groundwork has been laid for an encounter later on. It's a small, but telling difference, and it shows that Franco was at least a little concerned with plot development.
Waiting for this plot line to resume turns out to be a daunting task. The action is mainly focused on Irina doing various naughty things, like putting on a little solo exhibition for her stolid henchman, or practicing her skills on a pillow and a bedpost. The henchdude brings in a young man to be Irina-fodder; she indulges in some "hineyous crimes" with him, at one point slipping from soft- or tumescent-core into the Real Thing... unfortunately, the young man commits the ultimate act of post-orgasmic thoughtlessness: he drops dead. I have to admit that Lina Romay does a shockingly good job at this point. She seems so caught up in a stupor of ecstasy that she hardly even notices he's dead. Mournful celli intone Irina's theme, as she keeps on humping the corpse. She's entirely caught up in her own emotions, like a frustrated animal trying to get food from an empty box.
In between the naughty bits, we have lots of talky filler, featuring Franco himself as the Van Helsing-like Doctor Roberts. Roberts, appalled by the signs of chewing on the bodies of the dead, turns for help to a blind occultist named Doctor Orloff.
Boy, is it strange to see Jess Franco deep in conversation with a character called "Dr. Orloff"! Orloff, of course, was the principal character in Franco's very first horror film, Gritos en la Noche/The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962). The original Orloff was Howard Vernon, who played Orloff-like mad scientist characters for Franco many times over his career. Franco not only kept on cranking out Orloff-sequels well into the 80's, but he also virtually remade Gritos... several times over the years, replacing Orloff with characters including Jack the Ripper or Roderick Usher. Orloff's original sidekick Morpho also kept turning up through Franco's oevre, but Orloff is the Man, the figure that haunts the darkest corners of Franco's film universe.
So here is the director himself, confronting his greatest creation. Franco often appeared at least briefly in his own movies, usually playing a mute idiot, but here he plays a competent man of science. Orloff is also a changed man in this appearance. He's younger than usual (he's played by Jean Rollin regular Jean-Pierre Bouyxou. Of course, he's described as a descendant of the original Orloff, but that's a quibble to explain his appearance in the modern world), and instead of being accompanied by a blind henchman, he's blind himself. Even stranger, Dr. Orloff isn't a tormented villain any more. Perhaps, like a character from mythology, his demons have been driven from him at the cost of his sight in the earthly world. Now he has become a figure of metaphysical knowledge and wisdom.
But this is a Jess Franco film, so the grand implications of this meeting are deflated even before the two men have opened their mouths. Once they start talking, it's clear that the real center of attention in these scenes is their hair... obnoxious, unkempt 70's hair. They're not having a battle of wits; they're just trying to out-do each other's facial foliage.
Orloff tells Franco's Dr. Roberts that according to the "Early Books of Fantos", some vampires nourish themselves on hormones rather than blood. In a later scene, Orloff walks up to a girl's body on Roberts' autopsy table, and unceremoniously shoves his hand in the corpse to feel for tooth perforations. Ecch. Orloff suggests to Roberts that perhaps the vampires' existence represents a higher state of being.
Meanwhile, the intrepid Jack Taylor sees a bat. Oo, scary.
Having delayed the lesbian encounter between Irina and the journalist, Franco now returns to that plot thread. And he botches it. The journalist is wandering, distracted, wearing a pair of hideous white thigh-high go-go boots. She's trying to appear listless, obsessed with the memory of Countess Irina. Instead, she merely seems bored, and her scenes are stolen by those boots.
Suddenly, Irina appears in the room! Just as suddenly, she is gone, leaving the journalist upset and bewildered. Naturally, she decides to take off her clothes and step into the shower.
Irina's tune returns, in its original version for strings and piano, and eventually so does Irina. Then Irina is gone again, leaving the journalist weeping in frustration.
By this time, the audience gets the point that the woman has fallen under Irina's power, and may be merely hallucinating her presence. Unfortunately, Franco feels the need to draw the action out -- farther than the limited abilities of his cast can support it. To make matters worse, he also insists on cutting away to some more scenes of Jack Taylor... looking thoughtful, reading a book, musing, showing off his eyeliner and generally being tedious as all hell.
After an eternity of Jack, at last we go back to the journalist, still in tears on her bed. Irina comes in again, and this time the two of them get down 'n' dirty. This scene has drawn an undue amount of flak, from viewers disgusted by the journalist's "beer gut". I don't think that's fair. The trend today may be for actresses with 0% body fat and supernaturally-buoyant, silicone enhanced udders -- but that's no reason to be nauseated by a slightly pudgy, very ordinary-looking woman.
What is revolting is what happens when Irina raises her head from the lap of her very satisfied, very dead partner. I don't think there's anything else I can say about it here, except: What the hell?? Let it go: the scene concludes with Irina walking back into the foggy woods, followed by the (dead) journalist -- now one of the undead, but still wearing those white boots.
OK. It's about time to pay a few more visits to Jack Taylor, wandering lonely as a cloud, wearing 70's clothes and makeup that would get him beaten up today. Thanks, Jack: we'll call you. Back in our story, Dr. Roberts tries in vain to convince the police that something extraordinary is going on. There's a brief, unbelievably silly bit of business involving smuggled drugs in a stuffed animal; then the Doc has a fruitless interview with an Inspector. Here's some actual dialogue from this scene:
For some reason, the Doctor's impassioned outburst fails to impress the Inspector. Perhaps it's because the Inspector speaks English. Anyway, the Doctor realizes he's on his own against the vampire.
Inspector: Go see a good doctor -- a psychiatrist. Me, I can not help you.
Doctor: You can well listen: I am quite sane, and I state that this murder... is surrounded by a mystery not easy to elucidate!
The Doctor doesn't know that Jack Taylor is also searching for the vampire, for different reasons (bet you were wondering when we were going to get around to Jack's real place in the story!). Jack's been consulting an ancient, arcane paperback, where he reads the following evocative passage:
At this point in the movie, I must be very close to Serenity myself, because MY head is throbbing to the bursting point. Maybe it's the peppy organ version of Irina's tune that's pushing me over the edge.
When you will be familiar with the nearing of the Unknown;
When the sound of flapping wings will become deafening
To the point that your head will throb to the bursting point,
Then you suddenly will reach Serenity,
And the deepest silence will reign around you.
Jack's time is fast approaching, but first we have another porno-movie interlude. Two girls we've never seen before are sitting playing chess. Irina enters, and distracts them from their game. Together, the three go to an impromptu dungeon, where a dead girl is chained to the wall. While one of the chess-playing girls looks on, the other begins beating Irina with a whip. This goes on for a while, until Irina's had enough fun. She grabs the whip... and then, she and the passive girl advance on the other, and...-- CUT! --
In spite of all the uncensored shenanigans in The Loves of Irina, the following lesbian S&M scene has been sloppily removed. As usual with Jess Franco's films, this movie exists in several different cuts. Franco actually shot some non-explicit scenes of traditional vampire bloodsucking for a tamer cut of the flick, which is known as Erotikill. A drastically cut version, lasting about an hour and with no explicit scenes at all, was released in England under the title The Bare-Breasted Countess. Rumors persist of an even more explicit version than Loves of Irina, and that version probably preserves the kinky bondage scene... but which version that is (Jacula? Les Avaleuses [The Swallowers]? Sicarius -- the Midnight Party?) I don't know.
Jack eventually catches up with the elusive Irina. He feels strangely drawn to her, and she to him... though they both know what will happen to him if she gets too close. He says he wants to go beyond the mists, so Irina reluctantly takes him into the twilit netherworld. "It must be Destiny," he says (his internal monolgue is showing). Irina is either reluctant to draw him into the curse, or else is scared by his habit of pontificating to himself -- she tries to run away, but Jack manages to catch up to her. Once again, we hear Irina's tune in its super-romantic strings version.
The pair comes to an old house. Irina sits at a piano, and Jack insists that she play.
Oh, but yes. Now we have another version of the Melody that Wouldn't Die, a version for solo piano. Jack now tells her not to pity him, only to take him. "Life is not important," he says. "I don't want to stay alone. Even if I hadn't known you, I would have left this world." Poor Jack... and he's only heard Irina's theme once!
So off they go for a quick fatal schtupp. Oh, the lengths to which some men will go for a little oral gratification! As Jack expires, the music gets all bitonal and interesting for a moment. Then he's gone, and Irina is left alone again.
With an ominous sky in the background, Irina (through her voice-over) blathers some more about the cursed meaninglessness of her existence. Then she goes to see Doctor Orloff, telling him (telepathically) that she and all her kind will go back to the land of shadows, never to return.
The intrepid Dr. Roberts doesn't know this, though. Off he goes to find the vampires and destroy them. Irina's hulking henchman finds him sneaking in; there is a fight, and Roberts kills the mute. All that's left is for him to find the Countess Irina and finish her off.
Irina is in her bathtub, splashing nakedly in what's obviously supposed to be blood... but which looks more like black cherry Kool-Ade (if such a thing exists). Doctor Roberts peers in through the doorway, and sees Irina thrashing about in the brown liquid. Evidently he is stunned by her beauty, because he is unable to complete his task. He just stands there, leering like the camera as Irina poses and caresses herself in the tub.
And here we have probably the key moment in Franco's whole filmography. Here we have a knowledgeable man, played by the director himself, who has started a project with a keen sense of purpose. Suddenly, he's confronted by the nude body of a woman... and he is paralyzed. He forgets everything he knows and just loses himself in the joy of voyeurism. I can't think of a better metaphor for Jess Franco's whole career. I wonder if this was intentional?
Voices whisper Irina's name as she goes back into the misty woods. Apparently, she has drowned herself in her bath of blood, and now has gone into the world of the dead forever. It's not clear whether the voices which summon her are the voices of others like herself (which is hinted at in Irina's message to Orloff), or if they're the lost voices of her "loves", the dead ones who will always be with her, though forever out of reach. We hear Daniel White's music for the last time in the movie, though many viewers will be hearing it in their heads for years to come.
Like the melody, The Loves of Irina will prove to be a difficult experience for many viewers to forget. The overall impression this movie creates -- its lingering sense of loss and sadness -- will stay with the viewer, long after memories of the film's shortcomings have faded. I know a surprising number of people, and have read reviews by several more, who speak with affection and approval of Irina, though after a little discussion, most of them will confess that they initially found the movie as tough to sit through as it was to forget thereafter.
I suppose Irina is closest in spirit to some of the female vampire movies of Jean Rollin. Certainly, Irina's central theme -- the terrible consequences of trying to hold on to any of the things which make life beautiful, meaningful, or even bearable -- is more typical of Rollin than of Franco.
Rollin has a much more poetic screen vocabulary than Franco, though; and, unlike Franco, he has a clarity of vision which often makes up for his budget restrictions and lack of technique. His central characters, however wispily drawn, have an emotional weight to them which makes their obsessions believable, even if their actions and dialogue are not.
Rollin's inner conviction also helps unify his work, each film providing new insights into the areas he finds artistically important. Franco, on the other hand, has never really established a consistent voice for himself, in spite of occasionally recurring themes and characters. His approach is scattershot, and he's liable to change direction several times in the course of a single movie -- depending on what interests him at the time. Irina is fascinating; but it's neither the culmination of a significant stage in Franco's development, nor is it even coherent within itself. It seems to me to be as much of an enigma in Jess Franco's work as it is in the wider context of exploitation cinema.
If you see only one Jess Franco movie... it should not be this one. See Gritos en la Noche instead, on the wide-screen DVD; or watch Succubus/Necronomicon, or track down a copy of Venus in Furs. Heck, for a really wild ride, get Video Search of Miami's composite edition of A Virgin Among the Living Dead/Christina, Princesse de l'Eroticisme... a film that will either stultify you or change your life. Or possibly both. Anyway, each of these films has a generous share of the haunting quality that makes Irina interesting, but with fewer lapses into conventional tedium.
But if you want to broaden your horizons a bit, and see some of the reasons Franco has gained a loyal (if not overly critical) cult following -- and it you don't mind a heavy dose of skin and kitsch -- then by all means see The Loves of Irina.
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