Monday, April 22, 2013

Meltdown 08: Francophilia (Part III)

Jack the Ripper 

 (Der Dirnenmörder von London


A variation on the Orloff theme, Jack the Ripper replaces one wide-eyed European genre star (Howard Vernon) for another, even wider-eyed European genre star (the incomparable Klaus Kinski) and throws him into much the same situation faced by his his predecessor in The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962). The similarities the films share are less in theme or tone than in explicit narrative structure: once again we have a respected doctor of high society who murders women after wining and dining them; we have a lengthy scene documenting how the ongoing police investigation is aided by a composite sketch of the suspect, drawn from various eyewitness reports; and we even have the chief inspector's gal-pal, a ballerina (another one!), who decides on a whim to involve herself in the investigation, without prompting, as disguised bait for the killer. Befitting of its 1976 pedigree, Jack the Ripper is a whole heck of a lot sleazier than the already-quite-sleazy Orlof, with Kinski's Jack suffering through some debilitating "Mommy Was a Whore" issues that result in him being more likely to stab his female victims half to death before beginning his clumsy, impotent sexual assaults. There's some interesting symbolism (Kinski's predatory owl-like gaze is contrasted with the benign old man's blindness) and a bit of effective, perception-shifting frame composition (Kinski's near murder and rape of Lina Romay's burlesque singer is filmed from a distance in a static shot, replacing the expected leering quick cut closeups that would typically grace such a visceral scene with some distance that creates a disquieting pathos for both victim and perpetrator). Speaking of Lina Romay, she gleams like never before in her cutesy and frivolous song and dance number that winds up as the chief highlight of the proceedings. In a film full of wide eyes, she pulls the widest.

Mansion of the Living Dead 

(La mansión de los muertos vivientes


Yet another example of Franco still possessing cinematic chops in the decade of mullets and denim is his ghosts-and-girls-on-vacation romp, Mansion of the Living Dead. The film is a romp in part, certainly, but we'd be equally as apt describing it as a funeral procession, and one not too dissimilar from the melancholy cinematic dirges of a certain like-minded genre arthouse pioneer. Although Franco and his French brother in arms, Jean Rollin, spent (by all reports) the entirety of their careers having little to do with one another, it would be foolish to proclaim they weren't familiar with each other's work. Mansion of the Living Dead is proof enough of this familiarity, as it's the closest Franco ever came to luxuriating in the same moody supernatural romance elements that Rollin filled his filmography with. What makes the film more curious than a direct theft of Rollin's milieu is that Franco deftly blends the brooding romance with his standard cheeky sleaze and nutty sadism. Four near-middle-aged Spanish lesbians (stock Franco characters if ever there were ones) arrive at a perpetually windy abandoned seaside resort hotel. While they wonder where all the other guests are and writhe around together in the nude, clues like a knife that has been chucked at the ladies by unseen forces and the discovery of the creepy concierge's flower-eating wife chained to a bedpost by the neck provide hints that all is not well in paradise. (Well, to us, anyway. The girls assume the best, asking themselves, rhetorically, "who would want to murder four hotties like us?") From there the Franco and Rollin sensibilities commingle all over the place, allowing scenes of Exorcism-esque torture and sexual sadism to butt up against breathless whispers about reincarnated princesses and the loneliness of being a ghost. These frequent transitions between disparate tones and styles (including playful eroticism, moody romance, sleazy mystery, and occult sadism; one brief moment, concerning the concierge and a desk redirection gag, is more or less a truncated Monty Python skit) are indeed jarring, but this is a film whose villains' motivation rests on a bewildering contradiction ("Bless you and damn you"), so one can't help but feel that the structural chaos is appropriate. Mansion of the Living Dead is thick with atmosphere and ideas (arguably too thick with each), but it's one of the best of Franco's later years and an undeniable treat for the initiated.

The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus 

(Le mano de un hombre muerto


Despite having the snazziest poster of any Franco film, The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus might be his dreariest. Gosh, what a slog it is, and what a let down after such a promising premise! The premise is this: the OG Sadistic Baron lived 500 years in the film's past, and after having tortured and murdered a young girl from the nearby village he disappeared into the swamps surrounding his property, becoming-- as legend would have it-- a ghost eager to possess his descendants and urge them towards continuing his slaughter of the innocents. That's more or less standard horror stuff, sure, but it's aided (at least momentarily) by a cozy backwoods Gothic atmosphere (this spooky set-up is revealed to us through a hushed conversation at the village's musty bar, for example, with talk of vampires(!), bats (!), and ghosts (!)). But to expect an opulent tale of horror would be to set yourself up for disappointment: The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus falls more squarely into the contemporaneous krimi movement in European mystery cinema-- which often placed flamboyant horror film baddies in the confines of procedural murder mysteries-- than it does into the Gothic horror genre. That  distinction doesn't make it a bad film by default, as krimis are often delightful, but Baron Von Klaus is almost entirely  concerned with its procedural elements, and considering that our not-so-mysterious killer can only be one of two possible suspects, it takes us merely as long as it takes to explain the film's premise for us to have the case solved. The film has a nice jazzy score accompanying it and there's an amusing bit at the climax in which the killer, finally revealed and fleeing from the police, submerges himself into the swamp water, muttering "I am the swamp man!" Baron Von Klaus came out in the same year as The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), and even though both films hunker down in similar narrative and aesthetic territory, it's no mystery why the latter is held up as one of the key foundational components of European horror and the latter is only remembered for a brief shot of a lady's sideboob.

The Diabolical Dr. Z 

(Miss Muerte


A madcap, pseudo-scientific revenge thriller with all the fine trimmings of Gothic horror, The Diabolical Dr. Z stands as one of the best of Franco's first decade of filmaking, and-- barring Succubus (1968)-- probably his early weirdest. We find the visual content and narrative concerns of the film both looking forward to future films of Franco's (there's the seeds of images and ideas that would later blossom into Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Venus in Furs (1969) present here) and backwards to what had already worked in the past (the notion of mind-controlled zombies who desire to defy their master is straight out of Dr. Orloff's Monster (1964). In fact, Dr. Orloff himself is even name-dropped by the diabolical doc). What begins with a serial killer's dark and stormy prison break ends with a man who is being restrained by robot arms bracing for the pain of the giant knitting needles his mind-controlled girlfriend in a mesh spider-patterned bodysuit is about to skewer him with. How these two points of interest join together involves (if you haven't guessed) a few twists and turns. Fortunately, every one of them is a loopy pleasure to watch. The film is scored with skittish jazz and features striking cinematography that's a cut above that of many of Franco's later films while still relishing the sloppy trademarks of days to come (catch those quick zooms!). It sounds smooth, looks delectable, and feels like a knitting needle through the skull. It's one to cherish.

And to make it even sweeter, The Diabolical Dr. Z also sports one heck of a complicated lead villain. One sort of assumes that the titular Dr. Z would be the first Dr. Z introduced to us, a Dr. Zimmer (Antonio Jiménez Escribano), who claims to have discovered the physical capacities for good and evil within the brain, but this isn't the case. In order to eliminate evil entirely, Dr. Zimmer asks a board of his peers for permission to begin experiments rehabilitating violent criminals, and when the other doctors not only deny him this but also call him a Nazi monster for even suggesting it, Dr. Zimmer immediately plops down dead of shock and distress. The adjective of the film's title is then earned by his wicked daughter Irma (Mabel Karr), who is also an accomplished amateur doctor of a sort (she's so tough, she performs facial reconstruction surgery on herself), who fakes her own death (rather disastrously)  in order to carry on her father's work in secret, with the sole aim of using his work to punish the men who she feels are responsible for his death. There's a really interesting dimension-- or, rather, lack of dimension-- to Irma's character: she's a woman who literally and figuratively surrenders her own identity in favor of the identities of others. This aspect of her character is first discernible in both of the film's most common titles (The Diabolical Dr. Z title has her adopting and sullying her father's professional title, while Miss Muerte refers directly to brainwashed dancer Nadja's stage name but more accurately describes the willfully murderous Irma). But this eradication of self is present in Irma's actions throughout the film, too: Irma drops everything in her own life to achieve revenge for her father's death and to continue his work; she callously murders her double (a random woman who closely resembles her) and symbolically burns the body, burning her own face in the process (go figure!) and, in a sense, the most recognizable part of her own identity; she dons disguises throughout the film, concealing her identity from those suspicious parties; and, moreover, she shifts all of the physical responsibility for the revenge murders off onto another woman (who she also vaguely resembles), keeping her own nonexistent hands clean but also denying her the catharsis of doing the deed herself. Irma becomes a sort of nefarious ethereal presence, always machinating from behind the scenes but physically subsumed by her father's ambitions and unable to become even the deadly feminine black widow she must be in order to take revenge for herself. She's diabolical-- naturally-- but also a little bit sad.

Last up: Count Dracula (1970), Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972), Daughter of Dracula (1972), & Revenge in the House of Usher (1988).

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