by Jeffrey Greene
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
While recuperating from a heart attack in 2008, I happened to see an old black-and-white movie on late-night television called Princess Blood, which was based, like Daughters of Darkness, Countess Dracula, and other horror films of the sixties and early seventies, on the half-mythical life of the Hungarian Countess Erzsebet Bathory. Though filmed in Spain in 1962 by Tierso Diego-Renteria — a doomed protégé, I later learned, of Jesus Franco, dying of a heroin overdose in 1964 — the movie was an international production, performed in English, at least in the version I saw.
The quite-young lead actress was named Vivian Roos. Besides playing the notorious Blood Countess at an almost unbearable pitch of evil relish, her performance was greatly enhanced by her unforgettably asymmetrical face and deep, mesmerizing voice. Feeling a tingle of professional interest, combined with a certain grim urgency, I began researching Ms. Roos’s life as soon as my health permitted, the bare facts of which can be briefly summarized.
The career of Vivian Roos, in relation to the much better-known British actress Barbara Steele, her slightly older contemporary, represents a kind of monarchy-in-exile to Steele’s unchallenged supremacy as the Queen of Horror in the 1960s. This undeserved obscurity was due less to Ms. Roos’s considerable talent than to her almost pathological perfectionism and a well-earned reputation as a holy terror on the set.
An actress of unusual height — at six feet, she towered over many a leading man — startling intensity, and a beauty so close to frightening that she found herself typecast in horror films as vampires, witches, werewolves, succubi, ax murderesses and the like, Ms. Roos was classically trained and began her career in 1957 at the age of seventeen with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing a luminous, if rather formidable, Ophelia.
Lured into the career quicksand of horror films by the producer Harold Starling, who was deeply impressed both by her “scarifying beauty” and magnificent figure — the equal, some said, of Sophia Loren’s — she signed an extended contract with him and made her film debut in 1960 with a small part in The Lamia, written and directed by Scipio Andecavi.
In a very busy fourteen years, she appeared — mostly as the star — in an astonishing thirty-three pictures, not a single one of which was made in England, France or the U.S. Her last completed film was Castillo de Sade in the spring of 1974. The seventies were not kind to her legacy, and several of the later films were of the Hammeresque, plunging neckline, lesbian vampire variety. She further descended to at least one film of that odd Mexican genre in which the hero is a masked wrestler named Santo.
She granted very few interviews, most of them years after her retirement. Why had she made only a single attempt to venture beyond the horror genre? One of several answers — each wildly different from the other — that she gave to this often-asked question was the following:
I grew up in Cornwall, where the fishermen learn at an early age that when the pilchards (i.e., sardines) are running, you stay on the water, day and night, netting until the hold is full. For me, the pilchards were running in the Latin countries throughout the sixties and into the seventies, so that’s where I fished for roles. Harold Starling offered me an exclusive contract when I was still in my teens, and I took it. Would’ve been a bloody fool not to.
And forget all that rubbish about the noble craft of acting, and my brief stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was never trying to out-Dame Judith Anderson, or Edith Evans, or anyone else. I did it for Shakespeare’s reason: money, and the film business pays ever so much better than the stage.
I had a certain look and voice my directors liked, and horror films were the one place where being a tall, rather strange-looking woman wasn’t a disadvantage. I had a good figure and, in the monstrous bitch department, I could hold my own with what publicists liked to call my chief rivals: Barbara Steele and Ingrid Pitt. That’s really all there is to it.
Considering the almost suffocating intensity of so many of her performances, I regard her entire answer as more of an extemporaneous monologue than the deflatingly candid response it appears to be. She is simply putting on the interviewer, a sport she enjoyed with journalists. By most accounts, Vivian Roos was always acting, on and off camera. Like Marlon Brando, like Robert Mitchum, she took pleasure in publicly belittling the craft at which she excelled and to which she was, to judge by the least of her performances, fanatically devoted.
She is held in varying regard by the always-male authors of horror film encyclopedias, ranging from frigid neglect to unrequited love. Walter Messing, author of the almost dementedly comprehensive HorrorDrome, praises her performance in an obscure but quite chilling Belgian-French adaptation of Robert Aickman’s enigmatic short story, “The School Friend.” Directed by Henri Batchelor and filmed entirely in Ghent, it was her best film, in his opinion. In it, she co-stars — but has the much juicier role of Sally Tessler — with the tragic Irina Stossel, who was murdered by her estranged husband only a year later.
Roos’s dense red hair, northern complexion, cruelly elegant nose, high cheekbones, bold yet thin-lipped mouth, and enormous, slightly protuberant green eyes could equally express both terror and malevolence.
Mr. Messing thinks it no coincidence that The School Friend was not only the best, but also the last black-and-white film she ever made. After soldiering through every film of hers I could find, from excellent to abysmal, it seems safe to say that her style flirts with but never quite edges into camp. She was always the well-prepared professional and never, not even in the ludicrous Santo picture, does she condescend to the material.
Her career ended prematurely in late 1974, after she was critically injured in an auto accident in Crete during the filming of Medea, a generously budgeted international production that was to have been her first A-picture. She suffered a ruptured spleen, several crushed ribs, a punctured lung, and most damaging to her career, a left leg so badly mangled that it had to be amputated just above the knee.
The director, Kryn Vyverberg, was driving the car but was only slightly injured. He had claimed from the beginning that Roos was irreplaceable, that in fact he had co-written the script with her in mind. He immediately abandoned production, and the film was never finished.
His very public affair with Roos had already cost him his marriage, and he must have known that his refusal to cast another actress would doom his chances to get future financial backing. In fact, he never made another film. Both director and star dropped out of the film world altogether. Vyverberg died under sordid and rather grotesque circumstances in 1977 and, although it was ruled an accidental death, Ms. Roos persisted in believing that he had hanged himself in despair and remorse over the car crash that had ended not just their careers, but their affair.
Roos, who in spite of her prosthetic leg was still young and attractive, was romantically linked to several prominent men over the next decade, including the English playwright Colin Westbrook, whose most famous play, Iris by the Sea, was inspired by a brief affair with the actress.
Westbrook desperately wanted her to play the part he’d written for her, but she — many thought, cruelly — refused him, vowing never to act again. She was exceedingly self-conscious about her artificial leg and always covered it either with ankle-length skirts or long pants. Walking with it required a rolling motion of her hip, which she learned to do with a fluid grace that almost looked natural, although she was unable to rid herself of a slight but noticeable limp.
Her small, devoted fan base notwithstanding, Roos began to recede from public view in the early nineties and, by the end of the decade was living as a near-recluse in a Georgetown row house in Washington D.C., of all places for a film actress to end up. The property was deeded to her as a parting gift by a wealthy boyfriend of several years, a real-estate developer she had met in Aspen, who left her for a younger woman. She contracted breast cancer and died at her home in 2002 at the age of sixty-two.
As I binged on her films, taking notes and eventually succumbing to a moderate case of biographer’s infatuation, I soon discovered that in spite of the outright awfulness of more than a few of them, her performances are invariably compelling, and often quite disturbing in their emotional nakedness, which is all the more starkly on display when contrasted with the hams, hacks and plodders that so often surrounded her. Taking her fourteen-year career as one long sojourn through the exploitation side of the Latin film industry, it begins to seem like a monstrous but ultimately failed conspiracy by the (largely) European film community to degrade and humble a superior talent.
I knew, of course, that Roos was at least partially responsible for the typecasting cul-de-sac in which she found herself. But after repeated viewings of as many of her films as I could locate, I felt that her career had been jinxed by an unlucky combination of factors: her slightly odd physiognomy, the bullying charisma of Harold Starling, some missing gene of higher ambition and her devastating car accident. They consigned to the genre ghetto what could have been — and perhaps, in spite of everything, really was — one of the great actresses of her time.
I had the privilege, after much cajoling and some begging, of seeing the rushes of the unfinished Medea courtesy of the late Harold Starling’s son-and-daughter producing team, and I honestly can’t imagine a single living actress capable of playing that part with the same combination of cold purpose and volcanic rage. The film world grew a little more impoverished on the day Vivian Roos climbed into the passenger seat of Kryn Vyverberg’s Aston-Martin convertible.
While Walter Messing is correct in his assessment of The School Friend as her best overall film, my other essays on Vivian Roos have analyzed the films that feature not merely her strongest performances but those four that in my view best illuminate the many aspects of her darkly complex personality.
These films are uneven in quality, and she would have been the first to insist that none of her thirty-three films is a bona fide masterpiece. To repeat, for those coming to this study for the first time, the four films are: Berenice (1961), Demoness (1963), Lilith, Queen of the Vampires (1964) and The Resurrectionist (1965). I have chosen to examine in some detail what I believe to be her most chilling and nuanced performance, that of Sister Angelina in The Resurrectionist..
Ms. Roos rarely commented on her work and claimed she never saw one of her own films. But she made this unfortunately brief answer to Edgar Rampo’s question about The Resurrectionist in an interview for Cold Dish Quarterly in 1996: “I’ve always had a soft spot for devil’s-bargain stories — too quaint a plot device to get away with on the page anymore, yet somehow always gripping when filmed — and this was the only one I ever did. Kirk Jeffries’ script, adapted from his novel, was excellent, much better, I’m afraid, than the picture itself, although Silvio (the director, Silvio Masciatti) had the best of intentions.”
Jeffries is a now nearly forgotten writer of supernatural fiction, whose work was briefly in vogue following the Second World War. He knew Harold Starling from their days at Eton, who offered him the rare opportunity to adapt his 1954 novel to a screenplay, which accounts for the unusually literate script and the degree of faithfulness to the source material. It was a piece of luck never to recur in Ms. Roos’s career.
Another stroke of good fortune was the hiring of Benedetto Calvi to compose the film score. With the notable exception of Mario Bava’s striking, if wildly uneven, oeuvre, the music in Italian horror movies, like the lighting, tends to be murky and distracting. However, Calvi enjoys a reputation only slightly below that of Nino Rota.
For his only “American” project, he seems to have been inspired both by the spiky, homespun modernism of Charles Ives and the tastefully measured suspense of Bernard Herrmann. He clearly did his homework on American gospel music, having found the darkest and most minor-key examples available to him. The result is a score that actually augments rather than detracts from the story.
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene