30 October, 2006

A JESS FRANCO HALLOWEEN TREAT!

The Sundance Channel will present the US Televison premiere of three Jess Franco films featuring the late Soledad Miranda (1943-1970) on Tuesday October 31, starting at 10PM with SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY, followed by VAMPYROS LESBOS at 1130PM and THE DEVIL CAME FROM AKASAVA at 1PM. These were the last three films which Franco completed with the legendary cult actress before her tragic death in a car accident on August 18, 1970.
This Halloween triple bill comes as a welcome surprise considering that all three films have been released on US DVD, most recently by IMAGE. Beside the smoldering presence of Miranda, always billed as "Susann Korda", all three films were scored by the avant-garde composers Sigi Schwab and Manfred Hubler. Their intoxicating rhythms for VAMPYROS LESBOS are particularly memorable and some of those cues are repeated in the SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY soundtrack.
Much has been written about VAMPYROS LESBOS, but the erotic melodrama SHE KILLED... is equally stylish and the plot in some ways predicts the recent heated debate about stem cell research. I'm also very fond of the completely wacky overuse of the telezoom in the Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptation, THE DEVIL CAME FROM AKASAVA. All three films were coproduced by Artur "Atze" Brauner's CCC company, headquartered in Berlin, Germany.
Watch and Listen!
COMMENTARY COPYRIGHT ROBERT MONELL: 2006



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28 October, 2006

UNA VERGINE TRA I MORTI VIVENTI CD


Bruno Nicolai is perhaps our favorite composer of movie soundtracks for European genre films of the 1960's and 1970s, from his charming uprhythms for Eurospy adventures like UPPERSEVEN (1965), to his rumbling, ominous atmospheres for EL CONDE DRACULA and THE BLOODY JUDGE(both 1970), to his soaring Spaghetti Western soundscapes. One of his most compelling scores was for Jess Franco's 1971 horror oddity A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, with its driving percussion beat, soulful arias and clashes of turbulent instrumentations and lyrical interludes (he reused some its distinctive cues in his score for the 1972 giallo THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS).

Nicolai's UNA VERGINE TRA I MORTI VIVENTI is finally available on CD on Oct. 31 from http://www.digitmovies.com/.

Thanks to and check out the Bruno Nicolai site: http://brunonicolai.homestead.com/nicolai.html

Commentary Copyright Robert Monell: 2006

25 October, 2006

OPALO DE FUEGO: Assignment for a Female Spy

Working as a mostly uncovered undercover agent for a US Senator (Olivier Mathot), Lina Romay takes time out from her job as a stripper in a Canary Islands resort to gather incriminating evidence against an international crime ring in Jess Franco's OPALO DE FUEGO (1978), now out on Manga DVD in Spain. This is the alternate Spanish language version of a film also known as TWO FEMALE SPIES IN FLOWERED PANTIES!
Several screencaps from the DVD, including the one above, can be viewed on the Francomania board of www.bloodyplanet.com . The video quality looks certainly better than the old video dupes of this I've been watching for decades! Spanish language only with no English language option or subtitles.
The English language dialogue on the TWO FEMALE SPIES... version is a hoot and Franco probably didn't have anything to do with it. It seems that coproducer Eurocine had the final say on this version, which is the English dubbed export of the French version. That's why the Spanish version may more closely reflect JF's intentions, if he indeed had any beside making another sexploitation item.




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24 October, 2006

LEON KLIMOVSKY SPEAKS!

Alex Z., a regular reader and contributor to this blog has kindly provided some very interesting excerpts from his 1993 interview with the legendary Leon Klimovsky, a prolific filmmaker from Argentina who moved to Spain in the 1950s. After directing numerous melodramas, thrillers, musicals, comedies and Eurowesterns, Klimovsky, at an age when most men are a few years into retirement, became one of the prime movers of the 1970s Spanish horror boom with his 1970 LA NOCHE DE WALPURGIS, scripted by and starring Paul Naschy. (RM)

The entire interview was published in "2000 Maniacos" #14, 1994; Ed. Manuel Valencia. Excerpts translated by Alex Zinefilo from his interview with Leon Klimovsky.


On Horror films and Paul Naschy:
"I was afraid of making horror films, of not being qualified enough to reach the level of my favourites horror movies, but Paul Naschy encouraged me to do LA NOCHE DE WALPURGIS, he was sure if I do that script I would be successful"

On Patty Shepard:
"Patty Shepard didn't want to do Walpurgis until the very end, she said that wasn't worth it"

Influences:
"My influences came very much before Hammer Films, I would say Caligari, Vampyr, Epstein, Murnau's Nosferatu..."

Favorite films and Spaghetti Westerns:
"My favourites are "La Noche de Walpurgis" and "La saga de los Dracula". The ones I like less are the spaghetti westerns, I did those just for the money."

Author's comments:
He was very old when I talked to him, very soft spoken, quiet and nice. I think of him as a very professional craftsman, but also very refined and intelligent. I guess he would love to do another kind of film, more "serious", but in any case [didn't regret] any of his movies. He was also a musician.

Thanks again to Alex for providing and translating these selections from his interview for this blog.

COPYRIGHT ALEX ZINEFILO: 2006.

22 October, 2006

EL SEXO ESTA LOCO: THE SHOW

Inside a spacecraft from the planet Argoyos, the "audience" applauds a live sex show featuring Lina Romay getting impregnated by a group of silver skinned aliens!
Jess Franco has said that it's enough for him to put on a good show, an "entertainment" which will take the audience out of the quotidian. EL SEXO ESTA LOCO is perhaps the most extreme example of immersion into pure Cinema. There is no reality which has any kind of connection to the world outside the film, just a series of dreams, one after another, linked by the dreamer who shuffles characters and fantasy events around as in Bunuel's THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE or THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY. We meet Franco playing "the director" who sometimes appears in mirrors filming the "action" with his camera crew. We're not talking French Deconstructionism here, it's the director having fun and giving us a look at the show behind the Show...
Commentary COPYRIGHT Robert Monell:2006

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EL FRANCO ESTA LOCO




Uncle Jess enjoys a cigarette and confers with other cast members of the film-within-a-film in his wild and crazy EL SEXO ESTA LOCO, which is now available on Spanish DVD [Manga: 1.33:1; 4:3; R2-PAL; Dolby; Spanish language only]. I believe this is the first time on DVD for this rarely seen, Godardian mixture of science fiction, comedy and series Z experimentation from the outer limits of cinema where Jess Franco lives and breathes.

The scene begins as our dreaming heroine (Lina Romay) tracks her fellow "actor" and lover (Tony Skios) into the Club Europa where Jess and friends smoke, drink and play poker. She is captured, tied to chair and tortured by a couple of nude dancers! During this activity the "reality" of the scene presentation is constantly questioned by showing the clapboard thrust into the frame, technicians entering the scene, and the "director" gesturing and shouting instructions from the card table. Keep talking and smoking, Jess!





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21 October, 2006

Be at Jack Taylor's 70TH Birthday Party tonight!

Jack Taylor (background-left) checks out Lorna's transgressive act in Lisbon...
Or is it Berlin? Time and place are as shifty as Identity in SUCCUBUS (1967).
A good, solid actor (rn: George Brown) who worked (sometimes as "Grek Martin") in US TV during the 1950s, then in Mexican horror features (NEUTRON CONTRA DR CARONTE), Eurowesterns (BILLY THE KID), spy films (AGENTE SIGMA 3: MISSIONE GOLDWATHER), until Franco tapped him in 1966 for NECROMONICON. Franco would again find signficant roles for him in NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT, EUGENIE, HER JOURNEY..., EL CONDE DRACULA, SEX CHARADE (still unavailable but we're hoping...), FEMALE VAMPIRE, TENDER AND PERVERSE EMANUELLE, and others. He also did a damn good job as the art director on THE BLOODY JUDGE (1970). He went on to become one of the most prominent leading men in Spanish horror films of the 1970s (THE MUMMY'S REVENGE, NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS, THE GHOST GALLEON, ORGY OF THE VAMPIRES, etc.). He's still active (check him out in the Francoesque THE NINTH GATE) and has some interesting things to say in Uwe Huber's documentary BACK TO BERLIN on BU's recent SUCCUBUS DVD.
Effective as the "Mickey Spillane" type in SUCCUBUS, TENDER AND PERVERSE EMANUELLE and his Eurospy adventures, a good Quincey Morris in EL CONDE DRACULA, but I think my favorite Jack Taylor performance is as the charming and chilling psychopathic brother of Madame St. Ange (Maria Rohm) in EUGENIE, HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION. The melancholy poet who succumbs to the loves of Irina in LA COMTESSE NOIRE would be a close second.
What's your favorite Jack Taylor performance?
Happy Birthday, Jack. Hope to see you in more Jess Franco and other films in the future.
COPYRIGHT ROBERT MONELL 2006.



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20 October, 2006

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DIANA LORYS!

The seductive ballerina in Jess Franco's first horror film GRITOS EN LA NOCHE (1961) was born 66 years ago today. Franco also cast the smoldering actress as a femme fatale in his underrated Eurospy affair RESEDENCIA PARA ESPIAS (1966), one of Lord Jeffries' "witches" in THE BLOODY JUDGE (1970), and, perhaps most memorably, the pathetic victim of a criminal conspiracy in NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT (1969). Other Spanish horror roles followed, such as a buxom vampire woman in Amando de Ossorio's first horror film, MALENKA (1969). She was also excellent in Carlos Aured's 1973 Paul Naschy vehicle HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN as the embittered, deformed spinster who was a sympathetic witness to the wretched fate of Naschy's hounded criminal. She also appeared in several Spanish westerns.
Kit Gavin informed me that she had moved to Germany after that, continuing to act in local theater. There have been reports that she returned to Spain in recent years. A striking woman and one hell of an actress. Her very, very, very, very slow striptease in NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT is one of her, and Franco's, most exquisitely erotic and affecting scenes.
Diana Lorys, wherever you are, Happy Birthday!
COPYRIGHT ROBERT MONELL 2006.



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18 October, 2006

Klaus Kinski was born 80 years ago today...

In Gdansk/Danzig, Poland. The rest is, as they say, history. But what a history! Some say he was mad! Crazy like a fox may be more like it since he knew that taking the money while he could was the way to go, especially for a child of extreme poverty. If he were still around it's likely that he'd be performing in some capacity.
Along with his Werner Herzog-directed triumphs there was his career in European war movies (FIVE FROM HELL, A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE, HEROES IN HELL) where he often played a Nazi, ironically since he spent some of his early years in a concentration camp, Spaghetti Westerns (his soft spoken villain in the Sergio Corbucci masterwork IL GRANDE SILENZIO is indelible), krimis (THE AVENGER, THE CREATURE WITH THE BLUE HAND), Italian gialli (DOUBLE FACE, SLAUGHTER HOTEL), and four roles for Jess Franco: The Divine Marquis in JUSTINE; the playboy killer in VENUS IN FURS; Renfield in EL CONDE DRACULA; the title character in JACK, THE RIPPER. Franco wisely cast him as these very human monsters probably knowing that he would manage to move inside their tortured psyches and reveal the primal fear behind their madness.
In a way, he was the perfect Jess Franco actor who, as the director has pointed out, was an attention commanding presence, yet managed to find sympathy for the Devil.
One of my prize possessions is a rare 1988 hardcover edition of his long-withdrawn autobiography "All I Need Is Love", which was later republished in a toned-down, retitled version. This original version names famous names and is a chock full of all kinds of actionable material, a high powered attorney's dream come true. Everyone who Kinski came into contact with during his long film career, from Herzog to Billy Wilder to Pasolini to Margaret Lee, gets axed or ratted out (Kinski loved to detail the hidden sex lives of the rich and famous). His only comment on his Franco work is that JACK THE RIPPER was "trash" which he filmed in 6 days betweens rounds of tennis!
What is your favorite Klaus Kinski performance?
COMMENTARY BY ROBERT MONELL: Copyright 2006



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17 October, 2006

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR

 
 
One of Jess Franco's key films in the rather obscure 1973 production, AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO, a harrowing psychodrama of the downward spiral of a young woman (Emma Cohen) into madness and murder. Brilliantly acted, scored and directed it was defiled by Franco himself at the behest of French coproducer Robert de Nesle, who prevailed upon the director to shoot sex inserts which distort the form of the original and shatter its spectral mood. This was finally released under the French title, LE MIROIR OBSCENE, and should be avoided as much as AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO should be sought out. The final scene when the mirror is shattered and a vortex of evil is unleashed is reminiscent of one of the most famous sequences in a certain film by Orson Welles (whom Franco collaborated with on CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and the unfinished TREASURE ISLAND). If Welles' cinema, starting with CITIZEN KANE, is one of smoke and mirrors, the central image of Jess Franco's filmography is the mirror which becomes a window into a secret, parallel world: The World of Jess Franco.
 
MISS MUERTE, NECRONOMICON, EUGENIE DE SADE,  LORNA THE EXORCIST, NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT, SHINING SEX, and many more of his films have key scenes where the female protagonist confronts her reflected reality in a mirror resulting in the kind of instantaneous consciousness-altering frisson which is a kind of Franco trademark. Just as his later films reflect his previous works and he returns to the same characters, themes, stories and images over and over and over, there is no vanishing point in the films and career of Jess Franco. A dangerous passage though a hall of mirrors from which there is no easy exit. 
 
We hope that someday AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO will get the kind of deluxe DVD presentation which it deserves.
 
COMMENTARY BY ROBERT MONELL: Copyright 2006

16 October, 2006

Born 100 Years Ago Today, This Director...

 
Played a rather important role in the career of Jess Franco and in the history of Spanish Horror.
 
Who is he?

15 October, 2006

FU MANCHU: From Karloff to Franco

The Mask of Fu Manchu

Having just seen Boris Karloff as Dr. Fu Manchu in the new, must-have Warner Brothers 6 movie HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION's DVD presentation of THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, I finally have found MY Fu Manchu. Maybe not yours, but mine.

I never really liked Christopher Lee's take on the character, expecially in the two Jess Franco versions. I know he's going for iconic aloofness but after seeing Karloff I just don't really care if I ever see him or anyone else in the role. But let's leave aside the ridiculous and consider the sublime. I had never seen Charles Brabin's 1932 film and it was a  treat to have it served up in a new transfer from original camera negatives. Now that all the controversial racial material, along with the sexual-sadistic elements, has been fully restored, I'll let others argue about that. Yes, it's dated and policitally incorrect but it seems to me that this Fu Manchu gives as good as he gets. Consider his outrageously camp exhortation: "Kill the white man and take his women!" Brabin (THE RAVEN-1915) may be too dull to be considered any kind of auteur but Tony Gaudio frames Cedric Gibbon's deliciously detailed sets with style. Consider the introduction of the bad doctor in a distorting mirror or the many secret chambers, trapdoors, reptile filled grottos, torture implements, which are all filmed with the intensity of a fetishist (Luis Bunuel, anyone?). The coup de grace for me was Kenneth Strickfaden's Death Ray, which does get a work out at the climax. If Karloff and the sets weren't enough, Myra Loy's very naughty daughter of Fu Manchu is a show within the show. Her delight at the various tortures ("Harder...faster") is the central erotic attraction within the delirious mise en scene. There have been several "Daughter of Fu Manchu" films including Jess Franco's 1987 ESCLAVA DEL CRIMEN.
 
Karloff is the polar opposite of his previous role, the silent, hulking monster in FRANKENSTEIN. As the often avuncular Dr. of Philosphy, Law and Medicine he elegantly beholds the tortures and seems to want to pet his agonized victims. It's a sensuous, hypnotic transformation for an English gentleman.

I did watch Jess Franco's final Fu Manchu, THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU directly after MASK and it really could be considered the death knell of the legend, leaving aside the Peter Seller's parody, etc... . Franco inserts miles of stock footage, from previous Fu Manchu films, other films, explosions, etc, and himself into the action as the Turkish police inspector, but he's only present as an ironic observer, a witty tour guide who has fun with his color gel lighting, his only remaining signature from a project which he knew would be edited by others and thrown to the dogs. But even Jess Franco probably cannot kill Fu Manchu and he has revisited the oriental-villain ethos with his more recent DR WONG'S VIRTUAL HELL.

The above image depicts an earlier video presentation, not the DVD from the Warner Brothers boxset.

I have the feeling the world will hear from Dr. Fu Manchu again, until then this lavishly appointed new DVD presentation (which comes with an expert commentary and 5 other 1930s horror rarities) is highly recommended.
COPYRIGHT ROBERT MONELL: 2006

13 October, 2006

FRIDAY THE 13TH JESS FRANCO QUIZ

In what Jess Franco film is someone murdered in Room 13?
 
 If you answer correctly by 11:PM EDT OCT 13th there will be a prize mailed to you at our expense (US destinations only, please).
 
 You will even get a choice of prizes, all of which you may turn down

12 October, 2006

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAHLIA LAVI

 
Every so often we'll digress from the topic of Jess Franco to consider other cinematic wonderments, like Dahlia Lavi, who was born 66 years ago today in Palestine. A sultry, mysterious, spectral beauty, whose singular presence suggests a repressed passion which when aroused will certainly spiral out of control. The imbd lists 32 film and TV roles, some in series, between 1955 and 1997. No features after 1969's SOME GIRLS DO.
 
Her long absence from feature films is perhaps indicative of changing market values and a loss to some of us. She has an indefinable appeal in terms of the ability to project eroticism and there's something of a Threat in her manner. A Class Act but impenetrable, with a mystique which maybe you don't want to behold for too long. I imagine she's well known in Europe for her TV roles over there and probably best remembered for TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, LORD JIM and as The Detainer in that irresistably bloated Eurospy spoof CASINO ROYALE (1968). Any hope that she'll have a cameo in the upcoming version?
 
Her indelible characterization of the murderously masochistic Nevenka in Mario Bava's 1963 THE WHIP AND THE BODY is the one that continues haunt us. An equisitely subtle performance and a definitive study of the progression from victim to perpetrator. She illustrates a masochism which is not the polar opposite of sadism but the shadow of it. Her Nevenka exists in a kind of trance state which erupts into an all-consuming, perverse rapture under the blows of the whip. It's a profoundly disturbing, somewhat terrifying performance with full fledged tragic resonance.  Probably because WHIP was an obscure, B budget Italian horror film she didn't win any awards or significant critical attention at the time. She did seem to find some success in the Hollywood and European mainstream as an actress and singer but she will always be remembered as Nevenka, first and foremost, as far as we're concerned. Wherever you are Dahlia Lavi, Happy Birthday!
 
COPYRIGHT ROBERT MONELL: 2006

11 October, 2006

THE VOYEUR AND THE EXHIBITIONIST

 
Having been dismayed by the most recent effort of Brian DePalma (sometimes referred to as "the American Argento") we managed to catch up with the recent Anchor Bay DVD of Dario Argento's 2005 telefilm TI PIACE HITCHCOCK? and are happy to report it's a bracing and pleasantly surprising experience. Certainly his best work since the eternally underrated THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, a decade ago. Argento is, of course, often referred to as the "Italian Hitchcock" and the difference between him and DePalma is between being creatively inspired by an artist and blind imitation. DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? could be the title of a Brian DePalma biography. It's a small scale masterwork. A just-about perfect 93 minutes of pure cinema. It's drenched in the kind of joyful cinephilia that reminds us of the topic of our blog here: Jess Franco
 
The obsessions of Argento's voyeur (Murnau's NOSFERATU, Fritz Lang) are also the masters of Jess Franco who always announces the Murnau classic as his all time favorite film followed by Lang's silent MABUSE epic. Argento's primary source may be REAR WINDOW but it allows us to discuss here an obscure Franco hardcore from 1985 which strikes us as one of his most polished (on no budget) considerations of voyeurism, exhibitionism and cinema. The film is EL MIRON Y LA EXHIBICIONISTA, which has been released as a Spanish newstand DVD. Don't hold your breath waiting for it to appear on any US label.
 
The central metaphor is the same: a man armed with binoculars obsessively spies on the sensual adventures of a woman occupying an adjacent high rise. The intrigue in Franco is mainly erotic whereas Argento presents a more prosiac, if delightfully twisty, mystery a la Cornell Woolrich (who, of course, was the author of the source story for REAR WINDOW). In OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO the director identifies Simenon as an inspiration for EL MIRON... and Franco is an ace detective of the female form in an deliriously erotic environment. Both films are about the pleasures and dangers of "watching." The protagonists use a visual aid as a sex substitute, although the sex is far more graphic in EL MIRON... while Argento is still finding startling, artful ways to stage bloody murder. Hitchcock spoke of REAR WINDOW as being influenced by the pure cinema of the Russian montage experimenters (Pudovkin) of the silent era. EL MIRON...(credited to "Lulu Laverne", it was generated from idea by the featured Lina Romay and it is sometimes said she directed it, but Franco has claimed it as his own) is a coolly assured, gracefully composed and magnetically edited study of a casual obsession, silent complicity and clandestine release on the Costa de Sol. HITCHCOCK, placed in modern Turin after a Primal Scene set in 1990, can also be described in those exact same terms (although I have witnessed flame wars between the admirers of both auteurs). It  could also be read as Argento's wickedly amusing commentary on a present subculture where obsessively watching cult movies alone in the dark on your HD monitor is the foreplay for the action which often occurs on Internet Message Boards (something we can certainly relate to).
 
We hope you search out EL MIRON Y LA EXHIBICIONISTA, but the prospects aren't good that you'll find it. We also recommend that instead of expecting TI PIACE HITCHCOCK to be another DEEP RED or INFERNO (it may end up being seen by more people than both put together) you will be able to enjoy it for what it is.
 
COPYRIGHT ROBERT MONELL: 2006

09 October, 2006

THE BLACK DAHLIA, Jess Franco & Me...

As I watched Brian DePalma's maddening THE BLACK DAHLIA last night I kept wishing I was watching George Marshall's 1947 THE BLUE DAHLIA, from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler. The REAL deal, but a Dahlia of a different color. I most wished that DePalma had the guts to forego color altogether, even the slightly stylized scheme he employs and filmed it all in b&w instead of just the nudie reels the cops keep running over and over and over...
 
When I asked Jess Franco who his favorite directors were he immediately said "Orson Welles." No surprise there. Then he said "Brian DePalma" and I stifled a groan. But I understood what possibly attracted him to the director of BLOW OUT, SCARFACE and BODY DOUBLE, the last DePalma films which I felt had something exciting in terms of style. And what is Brian DePalma without STYLE? Decadence, voyeurism, Hollywood.

My mainstream filmgoing has gone down to maybe two or three times a year since the turn of the century. Why? I simply no longer enjoy the experience mainly because I don't like being trapped in a black box and forced to watch 25 minutes of of obnoxious previews played at FULL BLAST for movies I have no intention of seeing and then struggling to HEAR a film over those inevitable audience members who always seem to be seated directly behind me and are certain they are at home in front of their monitor and can chat their silly heads off. Stadium seating and Digital Sound? Thanks, but no thanks. When I do go it's just to get out, be with friends and discuss the movie we have just seen. In other words, to socialize rather than see a specific movie.
 
The reason I went to see THE BLACK DAHLIA is that my friends had heard it was so bad that it just had to been seen to be believed. As a die-hard Ed Wood fan that was reason enough for me to join them. And I made sure I brought ear plugs for the previews. When my friend nudged me to signal that the feature had started I opened my eyes to behold a neo-Wellesian crane shot down a 1947 Hollywood street set and was hoping the director would keep it going a la TOUCH OF EVIL. But then he cut. Knowing that the film had been chopped by an hour on studio orders and that it was a German coproduction partially filmed in Bulgaria [!], my last hope was for a kind of alternate universe epic of Le Bad Cinema and I wasn't disappointed. I have not read the James Ellroy novel on which the film is based, am no longer a DePalma fan and care little about the actual Black Dahlia case, which remains unsolved. What I did do was prepare myself by visiting the IMBD message boards for the film, which make the war in Iraq seem tame in comparison. People either love this film or HATE it. There's simply no middle ground to be found anywhere. I even posted there after seeing it.
 
I noted a prominent shot of a movie marquee for THE BLACK ANGEL, an actual 40s noir and the original title of Franco's VENUS IN FURS. I haven't seen THE BLACK ANGEL but it's based on Cornell Woolrich, a very important writer in understanding the evolution of Jess Franco's career. It has always seemed to me that his monochrome MISS MUERTE is more Woolrichian than Truffaut's direct Woolrich adaptation, THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, which seems rather tepid Hitchcock in comparison. And while DePalma hasn't returned Franco's salute it also seems that he's now regularly referencing Dario Argento rather than Alfred Hitchcock. A Hollywood exec once confided to me that Franco's SUCCUBUS has been screened more than a few times by a number of high powered Tinseltown writers and directors for outre inspiration. So it's understandable that Argento is a European "cult" filmmaker whom an Italian-American stylist like DePalma would turn to when another screening of CITIZEN KANE or VERTIGO would be just too much. I was also reminded that Jess Franco also made a kind of Hollywood mystery in his latest, SNAKEWOMAN, which references femme fatale Marlene Dietrich (TOUCH OF EVIL) and also has b&w porno loops from a bygone era at its center.
 
I found a kind of Zen relief in the fact that THE BLACK DAHLIA makes no sense. Understandable, considering that the studio knife descended. But will the inevitable "Director's Cut" DVD clear anything up? I also took considerable solace in the numerous phantom ladies laid out for display like glittering, slutty prizes. There is no "story" in this film, no "acting", no direction and yet it has way too much plot (and not enough), completely over-the-top histrionics performed by players who seem as clueless as we are, while DePalma now seems to be able to use his camera as a kind of X-Ray which doesn't so much photograph things as see through them. While our homicide detective protagonist is little more than an animated mannequin around whom the "action" plays like the last frenetic scenes in Godard's ALPHAVILLE when the image keeps going into negative as the very Noirish Eddie Constantine escapes the technological city. It's not really a film noir, it's something else altogether. Perhaps a fractured critique of Hollywoodland and its deliciously corrupt legacy of illusions. After all, we're all decadent voyeurs obsessed with Hollywood murder mysteries, aren't we?
 
Then next time I talk with Jess Franco I'll have to remember to ask him what he thought about THE BLACK DAHLIA.
 
COPYRIGHT ROBERT MONELL: 2006

08 October, 2006

DVD REVIEW: MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD

Jess Franco's iconoclastic blending of jet black comedy, commentary on the BLIND DEAD series, uncredited adaptation of the tales of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer and post-modern consideration of the lingering effects of the Spanish Inqusition, LA MANSION DE LOS MUERTOS VIVIENTES  is one of 12 [!] features he made in 1982 for Emilio Larraga's Golden Films Internacional.
 
Candy (Lina Romay) and three of her friends, German waitresses who have saved all year for a vacation on Las Palmas, one of the Canary Islands, arrive off-season at a deserted International resort hotel to be greeted by the remote Carlos Savanorola (Antonio Mayans) who, like Norman Bates in PSYCHO, has more than a few things to hide. Like the fact that he keeps his sex-slave wife (Eva Leon) chained to the wall in one of the rooms and leads nightly ritual sacrifices of abducted women who are brutally raped and murdered by his secret sect (the Brotherhood of Cathar) inhabiting a nearby 18th century monastery.
 
I once termed this a Blind Dead film without blind dead, but it's not part of that series of 1970s films. Franco inverts the imagery, filling his film with transgressive humor as the "undead" rape, torture and murder Candy's scantily clad companions. But nothing is as it seems in this subversive burlesque of Spanish Horror. It's not even a zombie film per se(as Franco points out in the documentary interview THE MANSION JESS BUILT). It's an 100% Spanish (as Franco describes it) enterprise which wildly fluctuates between neo-Gothic imagery (the MANSION is the monster, to paraphrase Roger Corman's explanation of his 1960 THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER to AIP executive Sam Arkoff), sex comedy (the amusing Albino Graziani, dubbed by Franco himself, is the crazed hotel gardener who sings arias to his flowers and is always attempting to peep at the lesbian antics of Candy and her semi-dressed girlfriends)and interludes of graphic sexual violence. This is the only film I can think of, with the possible exception of Hitchcock's FRENZY, which plays the extended rape-murder of a screaming woman for humor [!?]. Perhaps it's Franco's take on the macho attitudes of the modern Spanish male or the sexual hypocrisy of the Spanish Inquisition (Savanorola!) and that legacy in Catholic Spain of the post General Franco era ( the director hints at both in his interview). Some will condemn it as vile sexploitation. The absurd plastic Halloween fright masks worn by the sect (who describe themselves as those who wear white habits to cover their "black souls") will certainly invites nervous laughter, and perhaps that's exactly what Franco intended.
 
There's more than a little cinematic skill in the visual and aural presentation of the windswept locations, where palms gently sway in the midnight breeze, the rustling never quite drowning out the victim's screams of horror. Credited as an adaptation of a novel by "David Khunne"[?!] this is a gorgeously shot film which only reveals itself after repeat viewings, if then. The citron color scheme is based on available light and is quite beautifully, ironically entrancing considering the grotesque, sadistic events within Franco's well-appointed mise en scene. The aforementioned rape-muder of Mabel Escano and the rat-poisoned final meal of the starved Eva Leon are especially difficult to watch. Everything else becomes subtext and trivial in comparison.
 
The new SEVERIN FILMS DVD presentation is definitive, finally giving the film its visual and audio due, which is crucial in a film where everything depends on the deceptive way things look and sound. The tolling of the mission bell, the eerie midnight windstorms, the distant chanting of the Templar like sect have never been more effective heard in Dolby Digital Mono and the 2.35:1 Techniscope transfer from crisp, clean and remarkably colorful elements is enveloping. As in any good horror film it's hard to look away from the screen even during the excruciatingly detailed rape scenes and the spectral light of the Canary Island locales is atmospherically rendered. It's also a film where empty spaces inhabit the Techniscope frame for extended periods and this unique compositional strategy (a suspense technique also familiar from Hitchcock) can finally be fully appreciated.
 
THE MANSION JESS BUILT is an information packed interview with Jess Franco and Lina Romay, who reveal that Jess' numerous covers like J.P. Johnson, Clifford Brown and Dave Tough were hommages to American Jazz musicians who had a specific artistic appeal to Franco (graphics of the Jazz artists are helpfully provided). Jess also comments on the zombie films of George Romero ("Primitive") and reveals that the long sought-after "novels" of "David Khunne", the credited sources for this film and the classic GRITOS EN LA NOCHE (1961), never existed. So much for that myth. Franco really seems to enjoy coming clean about all this.  He also admires the first BLIND DEAD film while pointing out the source for inspiration here was not Amando de Ossorio but the 19th Century poet Gustavo Adolfo Becquer (1836-1870), a writer of Romantic-Fantastique tales who is considered to be the Spanish Poe. Becquer's "Leyendas"--"La Cruz del Diable", "El Miserere", "El Monte de los Animas" were adapted by Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy for John Gilling's 1975 LA CRUZ DEL DIABLO, a project Naschy later denounced after he was fired as the lead actor and his script altered. Both MANSION... and LA CRUZ... feature marauding Templar-like sects and a lot of sexual mayhem, although Franco never mentions the specific Becquer story which inspired him. But all this is fascinating background information and sheds new light on the history of Spanish horror and MANSION... in particular.
 
This deluxe presentation of one of Franco's most outlandish creations is a must-have. David Gregory and his colleagues have done a terrific job with this and their MACUMBA SEXUAL disc. We  hope more of Franco's rarely seen Golden Films Internacional titles will get this kind of quality presentation in the future. MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD will be available from SEVERIN FILMS on Oct. 31st.
 
Thanks to Mirek Lipinski for his help in the background research for this review.
COPYRIGHT ROBERT MONELL: 2006

MACUMBA SEXUAL: The Severin DVD Review

 



"I'm an unspeakable dream. I'm everything that's forbidden, that's shameful...a black woman with undefined sexuality...shameless and irresistable." Princess Tara Obongo

Bahia Feliz, Canary Islands: Princess Tara Obongo (the late, legendary Ajita Wilson)is the living dead "mirror of evil" warns Meme (Jess Franco), capable of possessing her victims through a sinister form of sexual voodoo. Her most recent targets are tourists Alice Brooks (Lina Romay), a real estate agent, and her husband (Antonio Mayans), who is working on a new novel. Their vacation at "Happy Bay" is interrupted when Alice's employer calls to ask if she can locate the wealthy local resident Tara Obongo and offer her a property in Atlantic City. Tara eventually seduces and sexually enslaves the couple , but each time they believe they have escaped her erotic snares another level of the nightmare begins. Is it all an obsessive, macabre sex fantasy, a premonition, one of her novelist husband's stories coming to life, or something else altogether?

Ever have a nightmare from which you couldn't awaken? You know it's only a dream but each time you think it's over another chapter starts. MACUMBA SEXUAL (1981) opens in the midst of one of Alice's serial erotic fever-dreams and ends with her encountering an omnipresent voodoo fetish signaling the onset of yet another hallucinatory state. And it all seems willed by Tara, a Black Athena who invades the Unconscious without having to leave her perch atop a sand dune under the blazing tropical sun. The disturbing fetish (which resembles a shriveled up Donald Duck!) keeps appearing as a kind of warning. There is no escape from the psycho-sexual curse according to Meme.  Every time Alice sleeps Tara takes control, thrusting her into totally alien reality: sexually magnetic, terrifying and rich in ancient African symbols.

One of Franco's most delirious films, MACUMBA SEXUAL is a mind warping, sex-drenched shocker set on the sun baked Canary Islands where the landscape and architecture evoke Mother Africa. For Jess Franco, who wanted to reclaim his Spanish cultural identity after decades abroad, it is a milestone and probably the most representative of his Horror y Sexo Golden Films Internacional period: made with total creative freedom, almost dialogue free, nearly hard-core and driven by the moaning, eerie voodoo rhythms credited to "Pablo Villa", a name which usually indicates the composing team Daniel White and Jess Franco. These synth-driven voodoo chants are  just about perfect in their uncanny ability to establish the locale and create a sense of floating dread.  They greatly enhance a film that immediately puts the viewer in an altered state mind which lingers long after the final chilling image. Lina is in her prime scream-queen mode, wearing a blonde wig, running around in a skimpy bikini or totally nude. Franco's own bit as the babbling Meme is a way over the top reprise of his role as Memeth in the similar VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), his first appearance amidst a collection of petrified subaquatic life forms is a jaw dropper worth the price of admission. Franco amusingly discusses how much he enjoys playing mentally defective characters in the accompanying documentary interview.

Note that a "Lorna Green" (the name of the main character in SUCCUBUS) is credited as a supporting actress, this is actually Genoveva Ojeda, who, along with Jose Ferro, appears as one of Tara's nude, dog-collared sex slaves. Ajita Wilson is absolutely hypnotic in the role she was born to play. Her overwhelming presence, the nightmarish music and visuals of this exotic chamber piece are far more effective than the minimal narrative, which is obviously derived from Franco's 1970 Soledad Miranda vehicle, VAMPYROS LESBOS. All these elements are finally given a proper chance to perform their magic in Severin Films pristine, luminously colorful DVD, which presents the film in 2.35:1 OAR, is 16X9 enhanced, DD Mono and offers the original Spanish language soundtrack with correct, optional English subtitles. For a film which is essentially Pure Cinema and so dependent on location, mood and music, seeing this DVD was like seeing it for the first time after having to suffer a fullscreen, fuzzy VHS mailorder dupe which was our only alternative until now. One of Franco's most carefully composed films, the compositions are stuffed with pertinent details--the African sculptures, the primitive local architecture, the geometric arrangements of the actors in the numerous group sex scenes can all now be fully appreciated, along with the almost phosphorescent hues and blinding sun devils.
 
Equally revelatory is David Gregory's excellent documentary VOODOO JESS, during which Jess and Lina Romay discuss the question of Ajita Wilson's transexuality (Jess says he wasn't sure while Lina, who also had numerous hardcore scenes with the late performer in Carlos Aured's 1981 APOCALIPSIS SEXUAL, confirms it); why Wilson was so right for the role (Jess calls her "a presence... a force of nature" and compares her to Christopher Lee; the creative challenges of making such a film with a miniscule budget (Franco notes that he had to use such local elements as the Ghost Galleon tour ship and the African wood sculptures as free but very effective props) and uncanny occurences which haunted the set (Jess tells of a day when there was a mysterous  onset incident where the atmosphere suddenly seemed to explode, breaking glass and injuring a technician). It's all fascinating commentary.

Essential Franco and an essential new DVD presentation available from Severin Films on Oct. 31st.
COPYRIGHT ROBERT MONELL: 2006

06 October, 2006

FIRST LOOK AT THE SEVERIN JESS FRANCO DISCS...

Mansion of the Living Dead
We've waited for over twenty years for decent home video releases of MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD and MACUMBA SEXUAL,  Jess Franco's unique and delirious early 1980s Horror y Sexo  zombie epics. Filmed on Las Palmas, the exotic Canary Islands locations can now finally be seen in all their eye-popping glory. Having just spent the afternoon luxuriating in Severin Films brand new 2.35:1 transfers of these titles we are pleased to report that they are simply gorgeous. With necessary, helpful English subtitles and finally in their Techniscope OAR, the time for appreciating these previously obscure titles is at hand.
 
Franco's Golden Films Internacional period  is quite different from his other work and these DVDs, from crystal clear, luminously colorful vault elements reveal layers of visual and thematic detail which just wasn't available in all previous presentations. Jess Franco and Lina Romay are also on hand with more surprising revelations, finally confessing the true identities behind Jess' many pen-names, the circumstances of production, Franco's evaluation of George Romero's zombie films, the truth about the "novels' of David Khunne and much, much more. David Gregory has proven over the years to be in a class by himself at producing quality supplementary interview documentaries and the ones here illustrate that he continues to improve-- stuffing as many facts, new revelations, compelling questions, appropriate graphics and a sense of humor into a breezy package that one wishes were even longer.

These discs will be must-haves for all serious fans of Jess Franco. Detailed reviews of both discs and the accompanying documentaries will soon follow. Stay tuned...

COMMENTARY BY ROBERT MONELL: COPYRIGHT 2006

05 October, 2006

DEPARTED 2006: Renato Polselli

Black Magic Rites (aka The Reincarnation Of Isabel) 
I don't know where Renato Polselli is right at this moment, but I have the feeling he's having a laugh at the world he left behind at the age of 84 last weekend. The most underrated and least understood of all the Italian directors of popular genre films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s he kept hoping to make yet another film right up until his death. Holding a degree in Philsophy his films would become increasingly structured as a series of dialogues, presentational rather than representational in style and emphasizing ideas through images. He was different than his colleagues Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti in that he disdained even low-tech special effects, continued to embrace the Italian Neorealist aesthetic which they broke away from, and in his first horror film recontextualized through satire and irony the Gothic stylistics which are now revered by fans of that era.

A wonderfully dubious pleasure, L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO (1960), which beat Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY to the post as the first modern Italian vampire film (Freda's 1957 I VAMPIRI had no vampires, only a blood-draining scientist), is a film in which one shares its author's amusement with its wacky characters and atmosphere. It never takes itself too seriously and like the Cheshire cat, leaves its smile behind. Perhaps RP took his cue from Ernesto Gastaldi's script, but vampirism in that film is presented as a an evolutionary perversion, a kind of codependency practiced by Walter Brandi's marauding blood bank which is visited for regular withdrawls by the Countess. Quoting Fisher's DRACULA, Dreyer's VAMPYR and Fernando Mendez's Mexican brace, IL VAMPIRO and its sequel (also quoted in Polselli's even more outrageously avant-garde IL MOSTRO DELL OPERA (1964), Polselli also created another genre mutation: the horror-musical. Brandi's unique, ugly vampire in L'AMANTE... and Giuseppe Addobatti (someone should write some kind of study on this great, neglected actor) in IL MOSTRO...are like no other vampires before or since. The slutty "ballerinas" of the former and the trashy ballet of the latter provide the sleaze for boxoffice while Polselli presents his horror scenes from one stunningly original camera angle after another. There's also a sense self reflexive humor and an incongrously light, breezy tone to the affairs alternating with the thunderously scored vampire attacks.
 
Polselli totally did away with linear story telling with the jaw-dropping RITI..., best known as THE REINCARNATION OF ISABEL, which begins in the middle of its tale of a burned witch's vengeance (shades of Bava's BLACK SUNDAY again) and the true origins of the legend of Count Dracula. Not an easy film to watch or comprehend for even those who are receptive to its almost Godardian attempts to force the viewer to abandon Aristotilean poetics and genre templates and reconsider what cinema can be if one is willing to leave all preconceptions behind. It's also chock full of nudity, blood, gore and tortured performers screaming Polselli's consciousness-cracking theorems.
 
A mention must also be made of the even more extreme DIABOLIQUE-like giallo LA VERITA SECONDO SATANA (1972), in which the late Isarco Ravaioli (whose 1984 death was reported on the internet recently) finds 1001 ways to mentally, sexually and physically torture Polselli's favorite scream queen, Rita Calderoni (who also appears in DELIRIUM, RITI..., and the 1979 TURIN, HEADQUARTERS OF VICE for Polselli, appearing increasingly stressed and aroused by the sadomasochistic excesses she's called upon by RP to perform, and she always performs them with courage and passion). Mickey Hargitay wondered on the DELIRIUM DVD's making-of documentary whatever happened to Rita Calderoni and one can only speculate, but she must have been some gutsy lady to endure this series of films which such dignity and class. She was a trouper.

LA VERITA... doesn't tell the gospel truth at all, ironically, but is a series of "lies" which add up to a version of the truth: Ravaioli stages his murder as kind of the ultimate sexual/emotional revenge only to get caught in his own dialectic, finally getting a much desired and deserved real death the second time around, leaving the murderess to phone the police on herself. This is all interrupted by Ed Wood-style orgies (cf TAKE IT OUT IN TRADE) orchestrated by a wildly enthusiastic black actress with VERY big hair. She's a joy to behold. This film also has one of the most hauntingly beautiful female vocals lines we have ever heard.

Interestingly, the final image of LA VERITA..., or at least the version we consulted, is exactly same as one the opening shots of OSCENITA: the film's heroine posed nude in a stylized posture on a table as pulsating colored lights play over her body.
 
Even crazier and more experimental (although the forced alterations by the Italian censor may account for the discontinuity this time out) is the category-defying OSCENITA, filmed in 1973 and finally released in an redubbed version in 1980. Once again Ravaioli stars, but this time as an questionably enthusiastic sociologist who moderates a therapy session of a group sex addicts whose symptomatic behavior is illustrated by mondo-style flashbacks (or are they flash-forwards or sideways? It's hard to keep track of timelines in the mad world of RP). This film features every transgression under the sun and then some. If you can imagine it, it's here. Polselli may have had a modern day DECAMERON in mind, but this is far, far away from the mainstream or any other stream on Planet Earth.

Filmed at Gordon Mitchell's legendary Cave Filmstudio there are everal hardcore and softer versions of OSCENITA, all of which are nearly impossible to see except through 9th generation bootlegs. This was made, according to Polselli, to illustrate the abuse of the female of the species in a socio-historical context. Some will damn it as vile sexploitation. Opening scene: a man forces himself on a female patron in a cinema playing a film featuring Dean Stratford (Dino Strano) ripping off the clothes of the female lead in OSCENITA which becomes a Catch-22 style structural conundrum as our screaming heroine flees Stratford's assault by flagging down a passing motorist only to be sexually assaulted by the equally brutish driver who pulls her out of the car, begins to rape her but is elimated by some guys who pop out of the bushes only to continue their own attack upon our heroine, who is eventually rescued by Stratford after he has finally caught up with the action. But we never get a similar chance to "catch up" to the increasingly frenetic and always sexually explicit action as Polselli's wildly swish-panning camera, blinding lighting design and free-associative montage is designed to barrage the retina, tease the Unconscious and outrage the moral majority in all of us.
 
 Every single object in this film is fetishized and becomes an erotic component of Polselli's obsessive, macabre mise-en-scene.  He always frames actors as objects viewed through anthropomorphic screens such as statuary, furniture, grates and miscellaneous architecture. His wildly unfettered use of zip-zooms in and out of figures and space makes Jess Franco's notorious telezoom-asthetic look conservative in comparison. Once again, this is not an easy viewing experience and some of the images depict very ugly events. Although it's never clear, and when it is it's always disturbingly subversive, Renato Polselli had SOMETHING to say and created a boundry breaking style to say it with.
 
COPYRIGHT ROBERT MONELL: 2006