Jesus Franco Manera passed away earlier today at the age of 82 in the wake of a massive stroke which he suffered last week. He was preceded by his life long mate, muse and caregiver, Lina Romay (Rosa Maria Almirall), who succumbed in February, 2012.
Rather than write a grieving obituary I choose to celebrate his life and work here. After the initial shock of hearing about his death I felt a sense of gratitude that he was able to make one final film in the last year of his life, AL PEREIRA VS. THE ALLIGATOR LADIES, a marvelously entertaining fantasia which encapsulated his entire career in a Fellini style circus atmosphere. It even got a limited theatrical release in Spain, his first in nearly 20 years. Jess was back and up to his old tricks again! I also felt gratitude for the lifelong inspiration he gave me in my career as a journalist, a writer of plays, scripts and stories, and in my own films. I made my first film in 1971, already somehow under his spell, although I had yet to understand his significance and am still involved with writing and producing films, a continuing passion which is always refueled and refreshed by infusions from his extensive 60 year long filmography. Thank you, Jess.
I first came across the name Jesus Franco while reading a cinema magazine in 1969. The name, which composited the founder of Christianity and the then dictator of Spain, stuck with me. I went through a period of hating his work after seeing EL CONDE DRACULA on TV in the mid 70s. It just seemed the height of ineptitude and boredom to me. Give me Terence Fisher any day! Years later, on cable TV and during the VHS boom, I would begin to discover his hermetic, intensely personal world.
There was something about his films which made them unique, difficult to get a handle on, and wonderful. He made films as a free man, fearless films. His last film was perhaps the most free form, personal and fearless of all. He enjoyed life, which was for him making and planning films. The shooting was almost a second thought. He always was planning more films. I spent many hours interviewing him in 2005 and found him to be a trickster (he insisted he was born in 1935), but also a generous, humble, dedicated cineaste. He was, as he said, a musician who made films and could talk endlessly about music. We spent a long time talking about classic American cinema, which he especially admired.
In a way Jess Franco was the Aldous Huxley of cinema in that his films explored the limits of perception and attempted to open the doors of consciousness to alternative cinema and present new ways of perceiving and experiencing reality. But he was no obscure maker of experimental cinema. He was, from the beginning, a worker in the salt mines of mainstream commercial cinema in Spain, then France, then Switzerland, then internationally, finally returning to his base in Spain for his last few decades of production. And did he ever produce! Over 200 features, including alternate versions. He's not the most prolific commercial feature film director (Joe D'Amato and William Beaudine may have him beat) but he's the one who most consistently made personal, experimental, obsessively improvised and transgressive, genre films (and sometimes created his own genres). At the end he became his own brand, his last film is one million percent "Jess Franco" and the film of someone who has nothing left to hide or lose.
He was a genuine auteur, but one who emulated old time Hollywood directors who just got the job done. He sometimes worked on 4 or 5 films at once, keeping his notes to himself (he disliked completed scripts). There are several years in the 70s and 80s where he completed 12 feature films, one for each month! 1973 may have been his Great Year, the year of LA COMTESSE NOIRE, AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO, LA COMTESSE PERVERSE, all of them no-holds-barred, no-budget, visionary journeys into uncharted alternate worlds. Delirious, erotic horrors which traveled under the radar and directly into your nightmares.
There are many ways to examine his filmography and individual films, you can watch one a half dozen times and see a different film each time. They are multi dimensional, multi linear, polyphonic entertainments, unpretentious and often filled with technical gaffes which somehow become endearing on repeated viewing.
He worked in every genre, turning out musicals, film noirs, gothic horrors, comedies, women-in-prison epics, westerns, cannibal/gore films, XXX porno, martial arts adventures, jungle films and even fare suitable for the whole family. He never stopped working and stretching his limits.
And now the necessary, updated reevaluation of his career must begin. He wasn't a hack, although he seemed at times to be one, he was closer to the kind of anarchist-artist figure so prevalent in the late 1960s. His heroes were jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Clifford Brown (a frequent JF beard on films made after 1970). There's so much more... the music of Jess Franco, the actors and actresses of his world, the locations, the hidden codes....
There will never be another Jess Franco...
I will be leading a reevaluation right here, starting right now....