Friday, 22nd March saw the Spanish (and indeed the world) premiere of Jess Franco’s latest film, Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies, this English title serving indeed as its name even in Spain. The following day, a one-day Barcelona showing followed at the Maldá theatre, preceded by an advertising campaign promising an interactive event. I feared the worst but what followed exceeded even that. This, unfortunately, was the only way Franco’s latest effort could garner a showing in Barcelona.
As I stood outside the Maldá, I did my best to observe the film’s future patrons while still remaining discreet. I could make out some of the words exchanged within a small group of middle-aged people: they made references to Fu Manchu and Victor Israel, indicating perhaps that they were in the know about the world inhabited by Jess Franco. The rest were all young and trendy types, many of them in freshly laundered, freshly ironed punk gear, including a group of girls seated in a circle on the ground. From the smell, I could make out what it was they were smoking.
The price of admission was a very un-prohibitive 4 Euros, upon which payment each and every patron was entitled to a bottle of beer. I certainly helped myself to that.
What followed was some cavorting around by Rakel Mandela, a drag performer in a blonde wig and a Mexican wrestler mask.
As for the screening, when it did arrive, it could be said that Franco (luckily not present) had been reduced to the status of the Don Martin character played by Paul Lapidus in the director’s own Broken Dolls. I should have noticed the resemblance between the poster announcing the premiere and that read out by the daughter and the guitarist in that 1999 film. The visual quality of the screening was fine, which cannot be said of the sound reproduction, even considering the generally poor quality of Franco’s direct sound efforts. Not that this really mattered as, whenever the film was perceived as hanging fire, the sound was replaced by some pre-recorded cues the management had prepared, ranging from Macarena to Star Wars. Rakel Mandela would appear in front of the film from time to time to crack jokes and, at one point, the screening was interrupted to make way for another performance by the rock group. The audience certainly joined in enthusiastically, yelling comments at either the film or the transvestite and, as the screening was nearing its end, one member of the audience stood up and exhibited his manhood for all of us to see.
Such, apparently, were the conditions for Franco’s film to get a Barcelona showing at all, bringing the event in line with the Badfilm marathons of the Civic Center of the Sants neighborhood, (although the Maldá is actually in the Old Quarter). They are a stone’s throw away from where I live but have never paid them any attention even if I easily come across their advertising posters. Thanks to the miracle of the underground train, I can go to the Sagrera quarter and view showings at their Civic Center, organized by the El Buque Maldito fanzine and featuring showings of Spanish horror films. There, the lousy blown-up DVD screenings of the films in question are more than made up for by the presence of relevant actors or directors, who will answer questions after the film. Silent audiences are also a plus. Their next showing, in April, will be León Klimovsky’s The People Who Own the Dark, with the presence of Antonio Mayans (Al Pereira himself!) and Teresa Gimpera.
As for the Sants ethos, here transported to the serious Maldá cinema, what can I say? The possibility of enjoying or at least judging the film is obviously of no concern but, most crucially, such events, attended by hipsters who know beforehand they are to shout back at the screen, lack the unforced interaction I have occasionally witnessed at genuine grindhouses. Watching Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park at the Arenas cinema, before it relocated and became a multiplex, and hearing audience reactions at the onscreen goings-on, was much more fun. By contrast, the “fun” at such youth-oriented screenings is reminiscent of partygoers who pump up their high spirits as the late-night party draws to its close.
Then, of course, there is the film – lost amidst the mayhem - and I won’t pretend to have really seen a film I had to watch under these conditions. Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies landed in Barcelona in such dismal circumstances as to bring back memories of the “Puppet Show and Spinal Tap” sign in Rob Reiner’s film. But then it must be admitted that, from the mid-eighties onwards, Jess Franco seems to have increasingly estranged himself from any other audience than his small but international coterie of followers. The death of the grindhouse that was the natural habitat for his product seems to have left him in a state of self-involved irresponsibility, using his increasingly dwindling budgets for the manufacturing of hugely self-indulgent revelings in his filmic past. It is with the knowledge of this past, rather than independently, that these films gain any sort of meaning. Inasmuch as it was possible for me, I recognized (and welcomed) those old and familiar Daniel White cues, one of them being the striking organ theme from El sádico de Notre-Dame; I enjoyed Antonio Mayans’s turn as Al Pereira; and I liked the indoors lighting, as well as the exterior shots, filmed in a manner that is characteristically Franco’s. The final third also contains a rather striking dance party scene, although I could not, in these surroundings, make much sense of it. All I will say, provisionally, is that the filmmaker’s admirers (several of them, anyway) will derive enjoyment from paying another visit to Franco’s increasingly private world. They would also, to be sure, appreciate some peace and quiet.
If little else, this experience gave me the chance to meet the film’s producer Ferrán Herranz, who has himself written about Jess Franco. Herranz kindly lent me some of his time after the screening and the results were as follows:
Let’s start out with the differences between yesterday’s premiere in Madrid and today’s premiere here, in Barcelona.
There’s a curious difference between Catalan, Basque and Madrilenian audiences, between the audiences, that is, in different Spanish regions. For instance, the public at the Sitges Film Festival last October was very tolerant of the film towards the end even if they had found it hard to sit through the first forty minutes, whereas yesterday in Madrid, it was the other way round: people would laugh and make comments during the first half, but all the crazy stuff at the end left them a bit cold. And I guess it was much the same today. Each showing generates a specific energy and there’s no way to control that.
Was the showing organized the same way in both Madrid and Barcelona?
No. In Madrid they’ve got an alternative kind of venue called the Artistic, which is, in fact, run by personal friends of mine, so we had no problems there. As for Barcelona, let’s say it was not possible to give it what you might an ordinary showing. The situation is different in Madrid, where the film’s actually being shown at a theatre every day at the same hour and is slated to run for at least a week, which means it’s had an opening proper. In Barcelona, however, it was only possible to get it shown as part of an event of the type we’ve just seen: with comments, adornments, music, like a kind of happening. Let’s say there were no exhibitors willing to show it the usual way.
Nobody from the film has been present today.
Well, I’m the producer and here I am! Anyway, if it’s only going to be one showing, we can’t afford to spend that much money. Jess needs somebody to move him around, Antonio Mayans is in Madrid …Just to give you an idea, I’m the producer but I’ve come here in the underground and have myself brought the poster for the film. We’re talking a very economical type of production, which precludes any kind of superfluous spending during premieres.
What was the audience reaction like in Madrid?
Oh, it was fine! There was lots of humor, lots of comments, audiences laughing both with and at the film. Let’s say Jess is perceived in a somewhat peculiar manner and that’s that. Jess makes the movies he wants to make and people take them the way they take them. It’s a rather limited public but well, that’s what we have.
Did more people turn up at the Madrid showing?
No, there have been more people today, at the Barcelona premiere.
Is that so?
Yes, the number of people in Madrid was, I don’t know, somewhere between 65-70.
Yes, but surely here it was publicized in advance as an interactive event so there would have been more people from outside the Franco cult.
Possibly, yes. In fact, I’d say that Franco followers as such merely amounted to some three people. Many of those who came here wanted to see the group and watch the show, so you’re right. I once went to see The Diabolical Dr. Z at the Catalan Film Institute and there was an audience of just twelve, including myself, Jess and Lina. Let’s face it: Jess is certainly not for a majority audience.
Text and interview by Nzoog Wahrlfhehen
(Special thanks to Ferran Herranz)