Born in Madrid in 1930, Jesus Franco Manera would go on to become one of the most prolific filmmakers that international cinema has ever witnessed. Under his professional name Jess Franco, the man would, starting in 1959 and then continuing all the way to the year of his death in 2013, ultimately come out with no fewer than 173 films (!), all of which he either directed, wrote, produced, and/or appeared in as an actor. Franco’s films covered an enormous variety of subject matter – horror, sci-fi, giallo, war movies, “adult films” and so many others – and his distinctive visual style, heavily dependent on the ol’ zoom lens, remains instantly recognizable. The man was a true auteur, but his filmography, with its seemingly endless number of offerings, may initially strike newcomers as an intimidating one. I have already written here on FanLit of just one of Franco’s classic horror outings, 1970’s Vampyros Lesbos, starring his female muse, Soledad Miranda, and in today’s Shocktober column, would like to shine a light on six more interesting tidbits from the enormous Franco oeuvre. Needless to say, any one of these just might make for perfect viewing on some stormy October evening…
It is very difficult for me to discuss the various merits of the 1962 Spanish-French horror film The Awful Dr. Orloff without comparing them to the French-Italian horror film Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face), which came out three years earlier. While both films concern a deranged doctor who kidnaps young women in order to procure skin grafts for his mutilated daughter, Les Yeux… is by far the classier of the two; more literate, more shocking and more poetic. Still, despite its lousy reputation, Jess Franco’s Orloff does have lots to offer. It is beautifully shot in B&W, with consistently interesting camera work, and features an effectively creepy score, utilizing mainly piano, percussion and weird sound effects. Thus, a genuinely unsettling aura is achieved throughout the picture. The film also boasts some surprising nudity and a few shock scenes; these latter are not as gross as the ones in Les Yeux… but still make an impression. And whereas Les Yeux… gave us the sinister and beautiful Alida Valli as the mad doctor’s accomplice, Orloff gives us Morpho, a scarred, bug-eyed human robot whose every appearance is visually fascinating. The gorgeous Spanish actress Diana Lorys also stands out here as the police inspector’s ballerina girlfriend who goes undercover to stop the demented doctor. Though a fairly paint-by-numbers affair, Orloff still proved a fun and riveting entertainment for me, and, thanks to the fine folks at Image Entertainment, it has been nicely transferred to a fine-looking DVD. Too bad about the terrible dubbing, however; subtitles would’ve been so much more preferable.
THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS (1962)
There seems to be a world of difference between the dozen or so films that Spanish “bad boy” director Jess Franco made from 1960 – ’67 and the 160 or so (!) he has made since. Those early films – including such titles as The Awful Dr. Orloff, The Sadistic Baron von Klaus, Dr. Orloff’s Monster and (especially) The Diabolical Dr. Z – feature truly gorgeous B&W photography, Gothic compositions, interesting and understandable story lines, high production values and a NONreliance on the ol’ zoom lens. His latter works, a slapdash mixed bag at best, to my experience, are a whole different game. …Von Klaus, one of Franco’s releases from 1962, shows him at a point where his creative powers were burning very strongly. In the film, a series of sex murders has begun to once again afflict the village of Holfen, as has been the case for the last 500 years. Centuries ago, Baron von Klaus had been discovered to be the maniac killer, and his spirit is said to sporadically inhabit the bodies of his descendants. So is the modern-day baron (played by Howard Vernon; Dr. Orloff himself) responsible, or possibly his nephew, a young pianist named Ludwig (Hugo Blanco, the titular star of 1964’s Dr. Orloff’s Monster), or is it perhaps someone else? That’s what no-nonsense police inspector Borowsky (Georges Rollin) and a reporter from Maidens and Murderers magazine (Fernando Delgado) endeavor to find out, in Franco’s very entertaining and impressive film. The picture boasts a handful of memorable and bravura sequences: Ludwig’s fiancée’s nighttime awakening to an ominously ticking clock; the midnight attack on bar owner Lida in her bedroom, and the subsequent chase, down cobblestoned streets, after the killer; the matter-of-fact revelation of the psycho’s identity; and the startling rape and torture scene that comes near the film’s end. This scene, replete with nudity, bondage, whipping and red-hot pokers, and accompanied by some bizarre musique concrete courtesy of Daniel White, must have been truly shocking back in ’62, especially considering the fact that the film’s previous murders are quite tame and bloodless by comparison. In all, a well-done if at times plodding horror outing, put way over the top by Franco’s imaginative direction and exceptionally fine B&W cinematography. Francophiles who are only familiar with the director’s later, cheezier efforts will certainly be stunned.
THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (1966)
Of the dozen or so films directed by Jess Franco that I have seen, from his gigantic oeuvre of over 170 (!) pictures, 1966’s The Diabolical Dr. Z is easily the best of the bunch. Aptly described by the excellent reference book DVD Delirium 2 as a “beguiling mixture of drive-in sleaze and European art film,” this French/Spanish coproduction – from a director whose output has been wildly variable, both in terms of quality and subject matter – greatly surprised me. In it, Dr. Zimmer dies of a heart attack in front of the medical convention to which he had come to present his latest findings. Using her father’s recently invented gizmo that enables one to control the minds of other men, Irma Zimmer enslaves a psychotic strangler and a taloned cabaret performer with the oh-so appropriate appellation Miss Death. With these two cat’s-paws, she sets out to avenge her father on the three convention members she holds responsible for his demise. The picture has a roster of fine attributes that sets it way above the usual horror fare, including (and foremost, for this viewer) some sensationally gorgeous B&W photography by DOP Alejandro Ulloa, a mournful, outre and discordant jazz score by Daniel White, and a story that just keeps getting wilder as it proceeds. (The plot device of a woman going after the medical men she deems responsible for a loved one’s death would be revisited by Franco in the far inferior film She Killed In Ecstasy in 1970.) In the roles of Irma and Nadia (Miss Death), Mabel Karr and Estella Blain are simply outstanding, and Franco regular Howard “Dr. Orloff” Vernon, as well as the director himself, offer amusing performances in lesser roles. The film is taut, exciting and really an incredible experience to sit through. Dare I say it: a Jess Franco horror masterpiece! The Mondo Macabro DVD that I recently watched comes with the usual bounteous array of extras, including an interview with “The Bad Boy of Spanish Cinema,” Franco himself. The print looks great, offers excellent subtitling for the French-language soundtrack, and is a must for all fans of well-made Eurohorror. I, for one, loved it!
VENUS IN FURS (1970)
Jess Franco’s Venus In Furs is a strange, trippy mood piece of a film that is a bit difficult for me to write about, for the simple reason that I’m not quite sure I totally understood it. On the surface, the picture seems to be about a jazz trumpeter played by James Darren, who finds the body of a beautiful blonde on an Istanbul beach. Months later, the same woman walks into a club in Rio where Darren is playing, seemingly back from the dead, and apparently seeking vengeance on the two men and one woman responsible for her killing. But then comes a twist ending that throws all the viewer’s ideas of what might have been going on into the proverbial cocked hat… But a clear-cut story line really isn’t what this film’s thrust is all about anyway. This picture is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen; a totally sui generis experience. Franco’s direction, the bizarre editing, the use of multicolored filters and smeared camera lenses, the oftentimes outre score by Manfred Mann, the lack of synchronized sound, and the dreamy acting styles all combine to make for one truly surreal ride. Indeed, Darren seems more spatially and temporally displaced here than he did in TV’s The Time Tunnel, if that’s possible! The film also boasts beautiful location shooting; fine support by Klaus Kinski, Dennis Price, Barbara McNair and, as the ghostly “Venus,” the lovely Maria Rohm; and some exceptionally good jazz. Ultimately, though, the picture is a real head scratcher (a second viewing left me even more confused than the first!), and can justifiably be accused of having more style than substance. But man, what style! Oh … and a great-looking DVD has been provided from the good folks at Blue Underground, loaded with very fine extras, too.
SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY (1971)
You never know what you’re going to get with a Jess Franco film; whether it’s going to be a well-done horror picture (The Awful Dr. Orloff), a trippy head scratcher (Venus In Furs), an ineptly put-together adventure movie (The Devil Came From Akasava), vile and sleazy garbage (Ilsa The Wicked Warden) or stylish, good-looking junk (The Girl From Rio). Having over 170 (!) films to his credit, this slapdash director is certainly a dicey proposition at best. She Killed In Ecstasy, I feel, falls into that last category. A German-language film that was shot in Spain, it is yet another filmization of Cornell Woolrich‘s The Bride Wore Black, which had been excellently brought to the screen by Francois Truffaut just two years earlier. But Franco is no Truffaut, to put it mildly, and he seems to have only a single trick in his director’s kit – zoom in, zoom out; zoom in, zoom out … and that gets tiresome very quickly. Soledad Miranda (here credited as Susann Korda, for some reason) plays the widow seeking murderous vengeance on the quartet of doctors who denounced her husband’s embryo experiments (an even touchier subject today!) and led to his suicide, and gorgeous as she is, she’s no Jeanne Moreau. (She may do lesbian, but she sure ain’t a thespian!) The seductions of the four doctors (one played by Dr. Orloff himself, Howard Vernon; another by Franco; and still another by a beautiful blonde woman) are well done, but the homicides themselves are fairly lame and unconvincing, and a funky, sitar-laced, completely non sequitur soundtrack does not help matters one bit. The film doesn’t wrap up after 80 brief minutes so much as suddenly stop and fade; very strange. On the up side, She Killed In Ecstasy features some striking sets and gorgeous scenery, and the DVD that I recently watched from Image is one of the crispest-looking I’ve ever seen; an absolutely lustrous, first-rate transfer. And the picture is surely worth a gander at Soledad Miranda! By the way, I can almost imagine a 21st century updating of this film’s classic story line; call it She Killed ON Ecstasy!
ILSA, THE WICKED WARDEN (1977)
There are tens of thousands of DVDs out there for the customer to purchase or rent, but viewers will have to look long and hard before finding a sleazier one than Jess Franco’s contribution to the Ilsa saga, Ilsa, The Wicked Warden. Here, Dyanne Thorne, who thrice before portrayed everyone’s favorite buxom blonde sadist, plays a buxom redheaded (her natural color … who knew?) sadist who’s in charge of a women’s mental hospital in some unnamed tropical country. (Though filmed in Portugal, the picture seems to be set somewhere in Central or South America.) Franco, an incredibly prolific, oftentimes slapdash director in many film genres, with over 170 (!) titles to his credit, throws quite a bit into this Ilsa story to guarantee a good time (well, better make that “memorable experience”). Thus, we get to see electroshockings, a human pin cushion, cannibalism, feces eating, shower fights, vaginal cauterization (yikes!), transgendered lesbianism, gang rape, bloody whippings and so on. While the tortures on display are not as hard to take as the ones in Ilsa’s first foray, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1973), this picture somehow feels … well, “sleazier” is the only word that keeps coming to mind. Ilsa herself, monster that she is, looks absolutely outstanding here, and her just deserts at film’s end will long linger sickeningly in the viewer’s memory. The DVD that I recently watched looks terrific – a first-rate transfer job from the fine folks at Anchor Bay – although the execrable dubbing throughout the film is a significant drawback. I suppose this picture is best recommended for Jess Franco or Ilsa completists only; needless to say, it is NOT the movie to watch with Aunt Petunia! It is as sick and, well, sleazy as can be, but for lots of folks out there … hey, that’s entertainment!
Well, FanLit viewers, so much for this half dozen from Jess Franco’s lifetime output. If these six doozies don’t sound as if they might strike your fancy, all I can say is, the man’s got almost 170 other films that just might! Happy hunting, and again, Happy Shocktober!