|Jesús Franco Manera: 12 May 1930 – 2 April 2013|
A month or two ago, when planning out the next handful of months' content here on the blog, I found some difficulty in deciding upon the most appropriate track to take for April, the month of Nessun timore's one year anniversary. Naturally, I wanted to dedicate the month to something significant. After considering more than a few themes, it struck me: over a year of blogging and hundreds of pages of words, I'd only written about one film by perhaps my favorite director of them all, Jess Franco (that film being Nightmares Come at Night (1970), which I wrote about nearly a year ago). Often maligned by cinephiles who should know better (or who simply haven't seen enough of them, or who are prejudiced against Franco's more-than-occasionally shoddy production values, sleazy content, and breakneck turnaround times), the uniquely provocative cinematic exploits of Jess Franco are always worth discussing, if for no other reason than to commend the obvious love he held for the medium. The sheer volume of his films in existence (by most counts, just shy of 200 feature-lengths) has provided genre fans with decades of evaluative and re-evaluative viewing, allowing us to unearth the numerous profound and emotional gems nestled in his filmography. To this date, his surreal and touching eulogy A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973) is the only film to inspire me to weep openly.
Having settled on this theme and having begun to watch the sixteen of his horror films I'd chosen for the month, this anniversary endeavor took on a more poignant air when Franco himself passed away at the beginning of April at the age of 82, the week after his final film (Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies) premiered in Spain. The tragic loss of his wife, muse, and caretaker, Lina Romay, early last year to cancer, coupled with his advanced age, did not bode well for Franco's longevity, yet his death still came as painful news to the paracinema and exploitation community. Though European genre cinema has long since evaporated as a commercial reality, his passing marks one of the final blows for those of us imagining these films would garner wider appreciation from modern audiences before their creators were to fade away. Monstrously prolific to the end, Franco is a (if not perhaps the) key figure in European exploitation cinema, having mounted productions in every conceivable genre across Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom while working with international stars as diverse as Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, and Mercedes McCambridge. Though he has left us, his films-- mesmerizing and groan-inducing, accomplished and fraying at the seams, sublime and detestable all-- will endure.
(Les prédateurs de la nuit)
Because the majority of Franco's 1980s output fast devolved into hardcore pornography, the decade is commonly viewed as that during which he lost both his workable budgets and creative talent. A pleasing revelation for any fan willing to more closely explore Franco's work in the '80s is that this isn't exclusively the case: though perhaps not reaching the dizzying psychosexual heights of his films from the early '70s, the decade's highlights nonetheless display a filmmaker of considerable satiric and poetic talent. Faceless, a reconfiguration of Franco's own The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (1960), falls on the satiric side, with the added appeal of a smattering of crowd-pleasing gore effects, eclipsing those he employed earlier in the decade in his slasher film Bloody Moon (1981). (Franco's face transplant scenes are the queasy definition of one-upmanship). A George Micheal-lite opening credits tune gives way to the main narrative, concerning the efforts of Dr. Frank Flamand (Helmut Berger) to remedy the severe facial disfigurement of his sister, Ingrid (Christiane Jean), which was caused by one of his disgruntled patients. See, Dr. Flamand runs a specialized plastic surgery and therapy clinic that caters to vain elderly women by helping them revitalize their youthfulness. Flamand accomplishes this by having his kinky assistants abduct and drain the blood of young women, which is then used to synthesize a magic age cream or something along those lines. This subplot results in the film resembling a particularly twisted version of the Countess Bathory tale, in which the young are sacrificed for the vanity of the old and decayed. (One cutting scene features a particularly cloying patient of Flamand's in her clinic room as she interacts with the doctor and displays a pathetic inability to accept her own age, the walls of her room plastered with old headshots from her youth). Another intriguing, if ultimately underdeveloped, subplot involves the peculiar dynamic between Dr. Flamand and his sadistic assistant, Nathalie (Brigitte Lahaie), who engages-- gleefully-- in Fulci-level eye violence while completing Flamand's dirty work, the doctor sitting meekly by, getting off on voyeuristic security camera footage. Faceless is a flawed film, but to be flawed because of an excess of ambition hardly seems a crime: the film incorporates slasher tropes, private eye investigations, mad scientist plots, Vietnam War angst, and Edgar Allan Poe irony. It's all over the place, and, appropriately, Faceless boasts one of Franco's most impressive casts of recognizable faces-- Telly Savalas, Helmut Berger, Brigitte Lahaie, Chris Mitchum, Caroline Munro, Anton Diffring, and Howard Vernon (reprising the role of Dr. Orloff once again)-- though the wealth of talent results in issues like the ever-hammy Chris Mitchum seemingly existing in another film for much of the running time and Telly Savalas phoning in his performance (literally, while sitting at a desk to which he must be attached). Bleak, sprawling, and nihilistic, Faceless is the type of film in which the baddies win and you couldn't fathom any other conclusion.
Silence of the Tomb
(Un silencio de tumba)
Having no proper English-language release leaves Silence of the Tomb as a bit of a Franco rarity, though subtitled bootleg versions are easy enough to come by for those curious. I certainly became curious after glimpsing the poster on the right of your screen, imagining the film as the sort of Gothic chiller that Franco (on the rare occasion) dipped his toes into (see: the exquisite Night of the Skull (1974)). This is partly the case, though not until the film's final act and its candlelit corridor chase scene: prior to then, the film resembles a Ten Little Indians plot, with the crew of a Western film in post-production (who are staying as guests on an island retreat) cropping up as corpses one by one after the mysterious and inexplicable kidnapping of a child. The film plays up its traditional mystery angle, with each of the guests being as likely a suspect as the next, in scenes such as one in which all of the guests sit around in the parlor and cast dramatic, accusatory glances at one another. Much of the film's action is punctuated with zooms into the bloodshot eye of the killer observing the suspicious guests as they wander about the island mansion. Livening this typical (and unremarkable, if technically competent) mystery narrative is a strong and nuanced focus on our protagonist, Valerie (Montserrat Prous), the jealous sister of a movie star, who is stranded on the island and forced to care for her nephew while she's driven towards madness. Valerie is a fascinating protagonist, by turns both a troubled, sympathetic heroine and a monstrous, neurotic tyrant who wishes harm on her flighty sister and all of her associates for reasons as legitimate as the neglect of her nephew and as petty as the male attention her sister receives. (Valerie admits to feeling instant psychic relief immediately after her sister is killed-- even before the body is discovered!-- which casts some momentary suspicion on herself when viewed alongside her growing-- possibly psychotic-- instability.) She's perhaps a difficult character to root for without reservation, but when she expresses her pitiable situation with such conviction ("I can't remember a single moment of happiness in my life") it becomes equally as hard to begrudge her the pat ending that the film provides for her. She's a more complicated and compelling heroine than one would expect to discover in this breed of well-acted, atmospheric mystery-thriller. A lovely title song composed by Fernando García Morcillo rounds out one's enjoyment of Silence of the Tomb's lazy island charm.
Lorna the Exorcist
(Les possédées du diable)
An affecting synthesis of eroticism and mythic horror, Lorna the Exorcist is Franco at his drowsy, hallucinatory best. A haunting and repetitive guitar score echoes over the film from the first frame to the last, coating the proceedings with a sense of melancholy supernatural longing and concealing the trauma that lies just beneath. Lorna is a slow and deliberately paced film, and so is decidedly not for some viewers. Like Female Vampire (1973) and several other of Franco's erotic horrors, much of the film transpires in the confines of bedrooms, centering on writhing bodies in various states of pleasure and pain. And yet, this confined setting is never less than totally enthralling when paired with Lorna's tragic incestual domestic drama by way of a Rumpelstiltskin-esque demonic twist. Newly legal Linda (Lina Romay) travels to a vacation spot with her mother and father (Jacqueline Laurent and Guy Delorme) and soon has a series of run-ins at their hotel with Lorna Green (Pamela Stanford), a mysterious and witchy woman in Divine's makeup who eighteen years previously struck a deal with Linda's father for his firstborn daughter's soul/virginity. Lorna, a sterile woman "from beyond" aims to transfer her "infinite powers" to Linda through lesbianism, erotic breastfeeding, and a bloody dildo. Along the way, Lorna will also see fit to give Linda's mother crabs (literal crabs, that is, crawling around in her pubic hair). Rendered in text it all sounds tacky and tasteless, doesn't it? And yet in execution these events are powerfully realized, the sexual activity broadly symbolic and devoid of cheap titillation. Rather, the erotic component in Lorna the Exorcist is one steeped in the tortured shame and anger of one betrayed by a loved one, being informed as it is by the scars left on the family unit due to Linda's father's infidelity and his incestuous desire for his own daughter. The chilling finale, in which Linda assumes Lorna's role entirely and exacts revenge against the violating paternal figure, might stand as Romay's most captivating acting, as her wide-eyed face morphs from screams of horror to the laughter of cathartic release.
(El sádico de Notre-Dame)
A conceptually and thematically strong film with an arguably flabby running time, Exorcism (a.k.a. The Sadist of Notre Dame) commences with a startling tableau that soon takes life and proves to be as cheeky as it is horrific: a nude woman (Lina Romay) is chained up in a theater mocked up like a dungeon, and while an audience watches she is rubbed with bird blood by another woman, forced to drink it, and eventually stabbed to death as she moans in ecstasy. Her horror gives way to desire which culminates in her apparent murder. At the end of the show, both women-- torturer and the tortured-- smile and bow for the applause from their audience. Exorcism presents a society that requires the visual stimulation of such phony but sadistic Black Masses in order to get off, hinting at the degraded moral fiber of the culture at large. Our hero-villain, Vogel (Franco himself, in his juiciest role), is an ex-priest who has turned to writing sadomasochistic pornography "based on history" that is gobbled up by the eager public. Vogel, however, is an essentially "moral" man, from a religious standpoint, and so eventually cracks under the weight of the cognitive dissonance created for him by his society. Witnessing one of the erotic Black Mass stage shows, Vogel assumes that the participants are possessed and vows to save them by exorcising them (read: sensually running knives along their bodies before stabbing them to death). Vogel is a damaged man, a walking contradiction, crying as he stabs, putting into practice that which is only erotic play in his own society. When he murders a couple girls and kidnaps the actress character played by Romay, one might imagine this to be a rude awakening for those involved: their kinky exploitation of torture and violence for kicks isn't so fun when it has real consequences. And yet that's not the case: he's the monster, not the culture that has in part created him by deeming his actions arousing in theory. (This pointed critique carries over to the audience that is watching Exorcism and receiving the same vicarious thrills of violent fantasy. I wouldn't go so far as to argue that Franco intends to criticize his audience for enjoying the very type of film he makes, but the film does seem to provoke its audience to question why it watches such films and to what end. Do Franco's films exist solely for the erotic gratification of their sadistic audiences? I'd beg to differ.) When Vogel commits a live murder in front of the crowd at the Black Mass theater, the audience screams and flees, though not before a notable delay in reaction. After Vogel is killed by the police at the film's conclusion, the detectives responsible chat flippantly about their plans for later that day. The inference one can draw from moments like these is that Vogel is the first aberration in a society sick to its core, blind to-- or worse yet desirous of-- the violence it has encouraged.
Next time: The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), Dr. Orloff's Monster (1964), The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff (1973), & The Sinister Dr. Orloff (1984).