Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on April 4, 2013
If you tuned into TCM Underground on March 15th you may have had the pleasure of seeing Jesús “Jess” Franco’s eerie and atmospheric horror film THE AWFUL DOCTOR ORLOF (1964). When the movie aired I noticed a surprising number of classic film fans discussing the movie on social media sites such as Twitter and I was thrilled that one of my favorite directors was gaining new fans thanks to TCM Underground’s eclectic programming choices. I had no idea that I’d soon be mourning the man who had given me so many moving images to contemplate and enjoy. Jess Franco passed away on April 2 following complications from a stroke. He was 82 years old and still making movies.
Instead of writing another obituary I decided to approach fellow Franco fans and many of his most stalwart supporters who have often championed his work against a tide of indifference. I asked them to simply share their favorite Franco films with Movie Morlock readers in an attempt to introduce you, as well as TCM viewers, to more of the director’s films but what I received was some of the most impassioned and insightful Franco commentaries that I’ve ever come across. I hope you’ll enjoy the results. This is more than just a simple roundtable or survey. This is a lengthy love letter to one of Spain’s most prolific directors and a celebration of everything that made his movies so special.
“I can’t exactly remember when Jess Franco became part of my cinematic periphery vision. It might have been through an old gray market video catalog or Pete Tomb’s classic tome, “Immoral Tales.” Regardless of how the man came into my life, when I had my first taste with ’68′s SUCCUBUS, I was hooked. The underbelly of beauty and the dreamy torture of it all, Franco at his apex was a true maestro. It makes perfect sense that the man was an avid Jazz fan and musician, because his films tend to have the deceptive asymmetry and lush texture of the best of that genre. Maybe Franco was the Coltrane or Miles Davis of his field but truth be told, he was incomparable.
The Franco film that has left the deepest mark for me, however, is 1969′s VENUS IN FURS. Having nothing to do with either Sacher-Masoch’s book or the Velvet Underground song, instead, VENUS IN FURS deals with Jimmy, a musician who discovers the nude body of a beautiful woman washed up on the shore, murdered. He is haunted, unable to escape the past, especially when it creeps back up in the form of Wanda, who is the spitting image of the woman on the beach. The image of James Darren, who is best known in the States for teen fare like GIDGET, brooding with such melancholy to the point where at times he is almost ghostlike, has forever stained my memory. Darren, who was relegated to teen idol status and TV appearances here in the US, is perfect as Jimmy. He wears weathered well.
As the titular Venus/Wanda is producer Harry Alan Towers’ lovely wife, Maria Rohm. It may seem like a vanity casting at first, but Rohm brings the goods as the mysterious and equally troubled heroine. Wanda and Jimmy are two sides of the damaged coin, lost in a world filled with violence, abuse of the undeserving and moth-eaten lust. VENUS IN FURS has the slow burn of a nightmare tinged dream. Losing a filmmaker like Jess Franco, we’ve lost a man whose dedication to cinema pushed him through genres, decades, 35mm to video and the seven headed beast that can be the film industry. But we at least have his massive body of work, in which VENUS IN FURS is one of many shining moments.”
DAVID GREGORY (David is co-founder of Severin Films. Severin has released some of Jess Franco’s films on DVD including MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD, MACUMBA SEXUAL and BLOODY MOON.)
“When I’m asked what my ‘favorite’ Franco films are I usually jump to the top shelf fever dream stuff, the films which play like Jess has his storytelling mind focused on his beloved jazz music rather than linear narrative coherence. EUGENIE – THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION is a safe intro to this world as it incorporates staples such as brilliant Nicolai music, garish visuals, stunning locations, a coterie of great Franco actors and plenty of his trademark erotic obsessions. VENUS IN FURS, VAMPYROS LESBOS, EUGENIE DE SADE, NECRONOMICON, BUT WHO RAPED LINDA?, VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD are some other prime examples. But then I also like THE DEMONS and MACUMBA SEXUAL and AWFUL DR. ORLOF, or an outrageous fumetti inspired women in prison flick like SADOMANIA, or my first encounter with his work, the almost traditional splatter flick BLOODY MOON, and even the hilarious job for hire works like DEVIL HUNTER and so on. The world of Jess is a kaleidoscopic one and thankfully I still have much to discover.”
TIM LUCAS (Tim is the editor of Video Watchdog magazine and is the author of a number of books including Mario Bava All the Colors of the Dark and Videodrome: Studies in the Horror Film. He has contributed to publications such as Fangoria and Sight & Sound Magazine and regularly blogs about film at Video Watchblog and Pause. Rewind. Obsess)
“It’s an overused, exhausted phrase but there’s no need to say it again after this: the passing of Jess Franco marks the end of an era – the era of exploitation. A quick scan of his voluminous credits dredges up titles like THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, LUCKY THE INSCRUTABLE, EUGENIE -THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION, THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU, A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, LORNA THE EXORCIST, ILSA THE WICKED WARDEN, WHITE CANNIBAL QUEEN, THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME, SEXY SISTERS, DOWNTOWN HEAT, even LULU’S TALKING ASS — it hits you like a montage of the greatest, grimiest hits of 42nd Street. But if you actually bought a ticket, there were thrills and epiphanies and winks to be had.
He may have been the first post-modernist in horror and fantasy; he did in that area what Jean-Luc Godard did with crime pictures in BREATHLESS. SUCCUBUS is probably his key film; it was boldly original for its time, and somehow still more boldly original in the context of his filmography — a profoundly mysterious and erotic art film in the wake of DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER and ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS. It namedrops a number of his influences: Fritz Lang, Heinrich Heine, Alain Robbe-Grillet, François Villon, Jean-Luc Godard. Strangely, it doesn’t mention Orson Welles — whom he assisted on FALLSTAFF (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT), directing its acclaimed battle sequences — but his love of Welles drenches his movies, from the beginning, with their low angle wide shots and Dutch angled medium shots.
Anyone can watch THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, but it means something else when you realize that Franco revered director John Brahm and writer Edgar Wallace; people always compare it to Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE but its real forebears are Brahm’s THE LODGER and Wallace’s THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON (filmed in 1939 as THE HUMAN MONSTER). Anyone can watch THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z but it means something else if you’ve seen ALPHAVILLE. Or ALRAUNE, for that matter. His first film, TENEMOS 18 ANOS (“We Are Now 18″), resonates in THE PERVERSE COUNTESS and LINDA’S HOT NIGHTS. Each of his films plays call-and-answer with all the others (and there is in excess of 200 others), in a way that parallels the molecular theory of reality that says we’re all one. He was such a fanatical filmmaker that he didn’t permit himself closure between one project and the next.
His best movies are dark, introspective, hypnotic jazz poems concerned with the mysteries of love and death and obsession: THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, SUCCUBUS, VENUS IN FURS (inspired by a meeting with jazz great Chet Baker), LORNA THE EXORCIST, EUGENIE – THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION, VAMPYROS LESBOS, EUGENIE DE SADE (a contemporary gem which he was reputed to have improvised without a set script, working from the 18th century Sade story “Eugenie de Franval”).
There remain a few real gems of Franco that await fuller rediscovery, like his first feature TENEMOS 18 ANOS (a real grab bag of ideas that he continued to rework throughout his career, featuring multiple performances by Spanish comedian Antonio Ozores that predate similar work by Peter Sellers for Stanley Kubrick); THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR (with a compelling one-shot performance in his oeuvre by the Spanish stage actress Emma Cohen); BAHIA BLANCA (like THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, a twist on Woolrich’s “The Bride Wore Black” but perhaps the most humanistic and moving of all his films); and CAMINO SOLITARIO (possibly the best of his many films about private detective Al Pereira, with Antonio Mayans giving one of his most feeling performances).
The loss represented by Franco’s death is obviously immense, but he has left us so much to discover. He left us more than 200 movies and variants – some are silly, some are shocking and pornographic, but they are all provocative in some way. That’s more than a filmography; it’s an ocean of cinema we can get lost in.
In the words of Chet Baker, let’s get lost.”
“My favorites are AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO (aka THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR), LA COMTESSE NOIRE and SUCCUBUS (aka NECRONOMICON), all journeys into altered states and strange locations which could only have been made by Jess Franco. What I find most interesting about his work is that his films can be viewed in many different ways: as entertainment, low budget art films, exploitation, personal genre experiments, personal statements…. You can watch them over and over and see new and different things each time around. They are a gift which keeps giving.”
NATHANIEL THOMPSON (Nathaniel manages the invaluable Mondo Digital website and is the author of the DVD Delirium guides.)
“As a movie-gorging kid, I knew the films of Jess Franco long before I was old enough to actually watch them. Thanks to tomes like THE PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM, titles like SUCCUBUS, 99 WOMEN, and THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z burned into my consciousness despite the fact that no TV station, movie theater, or video store would have anything to do with him. They say you often remember your first time the most fondly, and that’s definitely the case with me and Jess thanks to what remains my favorite of his works, VENUS IN FURS. This mad, jazzy, fragmented injection of cinematic bliss was mainlined straight from my VCR into my veins, and there was no turning back after the first 30 seconds. No one has ever used landscapes, music, light, and the textures of human skin to create a hypnotic symphony like Franco at his best, and when he really hit a fever pitch, he was the purest distillation of pulp poetry I’ve ever seen and one of the few cases where the auteur theory doesn’t just hold water, it’s flat out undeniable. In his wake we now have hundreds of his movies (and I still probably have a few dozen left to catch up with myself), a rich and fertile world for all of us to keep exploring for the rest of our lives.”
PETE TOMBS (Pete is the author of Mondo Macabro : Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World and the co-author of IMMORAL TALES: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984, one of the essential texts on Jess Franco.)
“Jess Franco may have died, physically, on April 2nd, but I think his soul is still here, flitting about, from scene to scene, from cut to cut, within that vast body of work that he left behind. Jess Franco is dead… Long live Jess Franco!
What I value most about his films is the atmosphere they create. The fact that it was achieved on minimal resources and in record breaking time is remarkable, but it would have been remarkable whatever the production circumstances. Most memorable films – LORNA THE EXORCIST, MISS MUERTE (aka THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z), VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR, EUGENIE, COUNTESS PERVERSE.”
DAVID ZUZELO (David is a regular contributor to Exploitation Retrospect: The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media and the co-author of Tough To Kill Volume 1 – Italian Action Explosion. He maintains a number of noteworthy blogs including TOMB IT MAY CONCERN.)
“On April 2nd, 2013 Jess Franco passed on from the realm of flesh and his omnipresent smoke and became not only a cinematic legend, but now his name can safely be used to define its very own genre. Because while others may mix pulp with porn, phantasms with fetishes and humor with horror while managing to deliver film after film to producers from around the globe… none can do it with the strange style and subtle elegance (at times) that Jess Franco could. The merit of many of his films can be debated for decades, and they have already done just that, but what is most interesting to me is how admirers of the cinematic addict that was Franco become each and every one unique in their own way. When you start the path in the dark at 3:45 A.M. with a random viewing that concerns a mad scientist and his crazed sex monster assistant (was that really in Black and White???) I don’t think anyone can prepare the open minded viewer for what could happen next. It’s a strange trip, because the celluloid (and unspooled videotape) labyrinth of Franco’s legacy doesn’t come with a map. There are some amazing cartographers and their work available for the intrepid for sure! However, the moment of real freedom, the kind of freedom Franco would indulge when coming upon a plan to shoot a faux slow motion sequence for BARBED WIRE DOLLS with a nude Lina Romay (jiggling in real time!!), comes when the viewer abandons all of the other admirers to our own devices and you join the shared community of loving the journey as much as the films themselves. There is not another experience I’ve had in my 40 years of obsessing over films that can even begin to match it. There is no sense of mastering the catalog of Jess Franco to me, just blissful exploration.
So, can you have a favorite Franco film? I’m going to say no. Well, not exactly. Those that become dedicated to these films, for whatever reason they find be it an unfulfilled need to be a librarian of cinematic minutia or to have a weird kink in their back (or other places) rubbed with reckless abandon, may have similar experiences to mine. Each film becomes a cog built of characters, nightclubs, scenarios and cast members, endlessly rotating amongst a larger and somewhat gleefully diabolical machine that works much like your own imagination. You’ll zoom to black on the curtains of the nether regions because he liked it there. You’ll start to believe that anything can happen in that mystic nightclub where intrigue runs high, smoke swirls free and the beautiful woman everyone wants has a Dutch angle to play on that horny private dick in the corner.
I believe that following Franco films doesn’t give you a favorite film, but a favorite environment, a period in his cinematic travels that sparks your imagination. For some it is the carefully constructed films of the 60s, full of decadence and delightful flesh landscapes. For others, it could be the less sensual and more shocking 70s, or the humorous adult comedies of the 80s. I’m partial to the hand stitched in discarded VHS stock efforts of the 90s. You’ll find yours and then we, all of us Franco fans, will discuss and debate them in the same spirit of experiential cogs in the Franco universe. But at the end of the day, the Franco path can be solitary; your imagination is engaged with the films, filling in spots where budgets fail with recalled bits of other efforts even! It’s a contact high with pure cinema on a good night.
The greatest tribute I could pay to Franco is to know that my imagination was changed by his work, and that my love of movies of all stripes is informed by the passion I have for his. And I will watch them all again I hope. I’ll do it to find the connections get all the stronger between this Orlof and that Orloff and the many Morpho’s that have shambled across the screens. Being a Francophile (as some would say) is like becoming a skeleton key in a very large and intricately designed building. You may or may not fit into the lock of every door, but given enough tweaking and perhaps lubricant, you’ll surely try and be rewarded by what lies beyond that next threshold.
I hope Franco is in an afterlife with his beautiful partner Lina Romay and that he is shooting the movie that was behind his eyes the entire time. He never relented when he was with us, now that he is beyond the flesh, who knows? In the wild world of Jess Franco, there is NO certainty.
Franco was cinema. Franco is cinema. And who here doesn’t love cinema?”
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