Logline: An exotic dancer moves in with her biggest fan and begins having nightmares that she's murdered someone. All well and good except for the fact that she's waking up with actual blood on her hands. Gasp!
At this point it feels safe to call myself more than a casual admirer of the cinema of Jess Franco. Franco, that excessively prolific Spanish wunderkind, has directed (as of 2012) nearly 200 feature length films, the best of which all fall under his unique brand of erotic horror. His low budget productions are often criticized for their lack of quality control, stylistic flairs, thematic impenetrability, and pandering to exploitation markets. Personally, I feel that any sort of close scrutiny of his corpus would reveal precisely the opposite: Franco is the closest horror cinema has to a poet outside of anyone besides Jean Rollin. Where Franco has the slight advantage of Rollin is in his sheer quantity and breadth of genre exploration (which of course may be part of the problem in re: the general conception of Franco--how can someone who produces so much so quickly possibly be any good? For an answer, look towards Fassbinder), but also in the chasm in-between their respective approaches to filmmaking: Rollin knows he's crafting poetry, while Franco is creating cinematic visions closer to abstract jazz. Some of his best films (A Virgin Among the Living Dead, Eugenie de Sade, Succubus, Venus in Furs) all operate on this basic level of free-wheeling experimentation and improvisation, becoming all the more hypnotic for it. When he's really on the mark, it becomes difficult to look away from a Franco film--his best bewitch and ensnare the viewer with their sensuality and psychoanalytic fervor.
Nightmares Come at Night is not a film produced at those same heights of profundity, but it's an intriguing picture with enough elements to recommend it. Filmed in the same year as Franco's Vampyros Lesbos, Eugenie de Sade, and She Killed in Ecstasy, it is decidedly the lesser entry of the bunch, possessing neither the intense focus or beguiling eccentricities of any of those films. It's not even much of a horror film, though it finds some touchstones in the contemporaneous Italian giallo movement and the wonderful Gaslight-inspired thrillers. What the film does have is a lot of style: a crafty, foreshadowing still frame montage credit sequence; scenes of eroticism filmed in extreme close up, falling out of focus to capture little but entwined limbs; cutaway shots of parrots flapping around; fascinating play with light and shadows; a truly magnificent and eclectic score by Bruno Nicolai; a few all too brief scenes with the late Soledad Miranda, the most entrancing woman ever captured on celluloid. The film's highpoint occurs in flashback, as the nightmare-inflicted protagonist recounts (and we become visually-privy to) her old strip routine at the nightclub she used to work at--it's more than 10 minutes of lazy seduction as she performs what may be the slowest and least active striptease ever captured on film (the majority consists of her laying down, caressing a feather boa, and shaking off a slipper). A scene like this captures our attention not simply because of its titillating content, but because it allows us to become the actual audience referred to, lingering and enjoying the deferral of completion that the voiceover explains. It's a cheeky interlude with an ever cheekier conclusion, and it boils down to a fine mush one of the aspects that makes Franco's films so eminently watchable--they're a knowing tease.
The thematic content is nowhere Franco hasn't been before. We see abusive and destructive dependent relationships leading to betrayal and personal cataclysm, half-baked into a convoluted crime plot about stolen money and murder that, in all honesty, I could hardly make sense of much less follow. Not that it matters much-- Nightmares Come at Night, like most Franco, is an experience rather than a linear narrative: a free-form assemblage of sights and sounds that is as likely to unnerve as excite.