“8 ½ Doors of Death” Film Review
A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD (1973)
By Jerome Reuter
Synopsis: When her father dies, a young woman named Christine moves from London to her family’s crumbling estate to hear his last will and testament. After arriving at the residence, she soon finds herself at the center of a twisted world of perversion and depravity among the inhabitants. After learning that her father’s death was a suicide, she begins to hear his call from the grave, and the mysterious queen of the night.
There’s a lot to be said about the late Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco. To some, he was a force of nature, and an artist who did everything on his own terms. To others, he was simply a purveyor of smut, whose creative output bore a strong resemblance to soft-core pornography. Despite whatever one might think of him or his work, one thing’s for certain; his dedication to his craft was impressive and undeniable. With a filmography that boasts over 100 titles, spanning multiple subgenres, it’s safe to say his place in film history has been properly secured. The man was ambitious, uncompromising, and continued to work until his tragic death in 2013.
One of his most well-known and accessible titles is A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD (1973). One of the many videocassettes distributed heavily from Wizard Video, its popularity continues to grow, as does its reputation for its gratuitous content. Based on the title alone, one might assume this is just anther entry in the zombie craze, cashing in on the fascination with all things postmortem. Although zombies did eventfully make an appearance after some post-production footage from Jean Rollin, this is far from being another “living dead” cash in. Thankfully, recent releases have omitted Rollin’s additional footage, and restored Franco’s original vision. If one were to properly summarize the movie, the best description would be “an erotic haunted house picture.”
Treading a thin line between eroticism and horror, A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD reflects a unique period in the director’s career. As the 1960s drew to a close, Franco relocated from his native Spain to France. This enabled him to work without the strict censorship guidelines his home country enforced on its filmmakers. His move to France seems more than appropriate, considering his admiration for The Marquis De Sade. As he had previously released MARQUIS DE SADE: JUSTINE (1969) a few years earlier, he was certainly no stranger to bringing the author’s words to life. Throughout Franco’s career, he seems to have built a kinship with De Sade, as both are vilified or held in high regard, depending on who’s opinion you seek out.
Despite using a single sentence to describe the film in question, the foundations and story aren’t so cut and dry. Franco’s effort is a stylistic journey into the surreal, and at times feels like something one comes upon in a dream (or nightmare, if you prefer). The film opens with the scenery of a coastal town. We’re introduced to our lead, Christina (played by Christina Von Blanc), en route to an old family estate for the reading of her late father’s will.
After arriving at the estate, we’re introduced to the family, who will be the primary focus of Christina’s ordeals throughout the movie. It’s from this point forward that the entire film takes on a life of its own, in every sense of the word. Anyone with prior knowledge of De Sade’s body of work is familiar his disdain for the church and figures of authority, as well as the lust for sexual freedom and liberation.
De Sade’s influence is felt throughout the course the film. Christina is somewhat reminiscent of Justine (the main character from the novel of the same name), who’s naïve and blissfully unaware of the danger she places herself in. The world we’re brought into is one of vice, all tied together with the supernatural and the bizarre. Franco uses eroticism to further these details, expressing the vulnerability of our protagonist, in sharp contrast to the excess and depravity of the antagonists she’s forced to exist with. The family members, who we can assume might have once held a social standing comparable to the aristocracy, completely lack the morays of the noble class. They project the outward appetence of people completely removed from reality, and exist only in the world in which they’ve created for themselves. In it’s own way, the estate is its own entity, completely shut off from the reality of the outside.
(IE—More than once Christina talks to outsiders about the house, and they insist it’s abandoned and no one lives there. This whole angle adds to the film’s atmosphere, and furthers the assumption that everything that she’s experiencing is a dream.)
The debate of whether or not the events are indeed a dream, or a slow journey into madness, are open to interpretation. One thing’s for certain: the analogy of a walk through the “valley of death” is right to the point. Despite the excessive nature of some of Franco’s choice in imagery, which is highly charged with sexual energy, there’s a lot that lies beneath the surface with this one.
© Copyright 2017 by Jerome Reuter