The protagonist of EL SADICO DE NOTRE DAME, Jess Franco's 1979 composite film, Mathis Vogel/Laforgue, is a sexually twisted, religion-obsessed psychopath who murders Parisian women. The film represents Franco's most severe vision of madness and evil. The fact that the obsessed killer is played by Jess Franco himself only intensifies the atmosphere, giving the film a razor sharp personal edge. The thematic questions are numerous.What responsibility does religion have in the consequences of its doctrine when applied by a disturbed individual? What is the relationship between art and crime. What constitutes evil? Is the film an allegory, spiritual autobiography or just a hacked together sexploitation "roughie"? These are familiar themes in Franco's works, but he rarely posed them so clearly and powerfully as here.
1974 93 MINUTES Video Search of Miami, European Trash Cinema, and others (U.S. imports) DIRECTED BY J.P. JOHNSON ("JESS FRANCO ") WITH: LINA ROMAY, "JESS FRANK," PIERRE TAYLOU, "LYNN MONTEIL" (NADINE PASCAL), MONICA SWINN, OLIVIER MATHOT, ROGER GERMANES, CLAUDE SENDRON, RICHARD DeCONNICK, CLAUDE BOISSON, DANIEL J. WHITE, CHRISTINE CHIREIX, DAVID ATTA, FRANCE NICOLAS, SAM MAREE, CAROLE RIVERE, PHILLIPPE LEBRUN, RAMON ARDID, ALBERT LERNER, CATHERINE LAFERRIERE, FRANCOISE GOUSSARD
(a.k.a. LA SADIQUE DE NOTRE-DAME, THE SADIST OF NOTRE-DAME, and EL SADICO DE NOTRE-DAME [expanded versions from 1979]; DEMONIAC [cut U.S. Wizard video of the expanded 1979 version]; CHAINS AND LEATHER; EXORCISME ET MESSES NOIRES; SEXORCISMES; EXORCISME; EXPERIENCES SEXUELLES AU CHATEAU DES JOUISSEUESS; LE VIZIOSE)
This outrageous project exists in so many variants, at so many different running times it would be impossible to view them all (since some are not even available on home video) much less detail the differences. Of the versions now available on tape, the softest is undoubtedly the cut Wizard Video version, DEMONIAC, released in the late 1980s. A running time of 87 minutes is listed on the Wizard video box, which also sports stills of scenes not included in this particular cut. They released a recut version of LA SADIQUE DE NOTRE-DAME a 1979 Spanish-French co-production that mixes footage from Franco's 1974 EXORCIME ET MESSES NOIRES and scenes shot five years later on Parisian locations. This film has a softcore sex and violence, English-language variant, titled EXORCISM, which was the film which started it all. This would eventually be released on Bluray.
The 1975 hardcore version of this film, retitled SEXORCISME, can be had in two slightly different cuts available from U.S. mail order companies. These include an 71-minute English-subtitled version, taken from a French-language video; and a longer 82-minute variation which also has a slightly different scene arrangement. The latter is available in French language only.. Both of these version drop much narrative material and several major characters to include several lengthy and over-the-top XXX sequences, some of which show Franco himself participating in hardcore action! The gory, English-language EXORCISM was unavailable for many years and in some ways it is the most disturbing of all the versions.
The XXX hardcore sex versions were desperate attempts to make an unpleasant film more commercial, at least on the adult movie market, and the hardcore situations only enhance the film's sense of sexual delirium and blasphemy. The fact that all these version have scenes which later found their way into the 1979 remake SADIST OF NOTRE DAME indicates that Franco was attempting to more bucks out of burnt-out material.
The hardcore versions look so cheap and shoddy, though, that one guesses they had difficulty even on the "money-back guaranteed" sex circuit of the mid 70s, which probably explains why he recycled the scenes.
The English language EXORCISM anticipates in tone and style such slasher fare as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and Franco's character is in some ways even more sinister than Hannibal Lector. However, EXORCISM and the later SADIST OF NOTRE DAME are very somber. The gore scenes are repugnant, and include the torturing of both Carole Riviere and Lina Romay with a knife. As they are being cut up, the killer chants sections of the Roman Catholic mass in Latin.
The most grotesque addition is a scene which shows him murdering The Countess (France Nicholas) on a hotel bed. This is accomplished by shots of him slashing her open and ripping out some of her internal organs. Also, this version also makes clear the Black Masses Vogel witnesses are staged events, the human "sacrifices" are not harmed but are willing participants, the knives they are "stabbed" with have retractable blades, and the blood is fake. with the notable exception of a dove which is decapitated in the opening credit sequence of EXORCISM/SEXORCISMES. This time the director is the audience and the scenes he witnesses, his own creations, become a substituted reality. As in NECRONOMICON and many other Jess Franco titles the theme of appearances rears its head, as well as his career long examination of performance art and the audiences who watch it.
As these explanatory scenes are missing from all other versions, Vogel's mania and the Satanist's agenda are a lot clearer -- Vogel is a deluded fanatic and the Satanists are just harmless hedonists, even though their dedication to evil is total. Another aspect this version restores is a conversation between the various police inspectors (Olivier Mathot and Roger Germanes) and an Interpol investigator, in which Vogel's murders are linked to rituals from the Inquisition. Connect this with Vogel's description of himself in SADIST OF NOTRE DAME as an agent of the Inquisition.
EXORCISM has the same storyline as all the other versions, minus the 1979 footage of Vogel repeated visiting the Notre-Dame cathedral, and confessing his murders to a priest who was a friend in the seminary that Vogel left. Without these scenes, EXORCISM and the hardcore SEXORCIMES are much more nihilistic. Vogel seems much more monstrous and, ironically, slightly more sympathetic.
Some of Vogel's background and motives are not explained, which colors him as a mysterious, almost abstract, icon of insanity. He is insane, but perhaps not evil in the same sense as the Satanists, who are upper-middle class dilettantes and choose evil as a way of life. Vogel's self-proclaimed holy war upon them and the loose women of Paris is his philosophical statement on the amorality of the modern world, but he sees his sick actions as totally moral, a necessity in the face of perceived evil.
EXORCISM and its many variants are not conventionally well-made films. The minimalist visual style, underlit cinematography, ragged editing (exacerbated by the XXX inserts of some versions), and painfully slow pacing contribute to a viewing experience which is hard on the viewer's eyes and patience.
Perhaps this reaction is precisely what Franco was looking for, as the theme of the film is the nature of "viewing." Vogel sees the sadomasochistic rituals, which he misinterprets, and we are the viewers of Franco's sado-thriller. Where does Franco's responsibility end and ours start? Sadism and pornography were not created by Jess Franco. They have been constant throughout the human and Art history.
EXORCISM's opening credits are printed over an eerie, satanic S&M ritual (missing from SADIST OF NOTRE DAME and DEMONIAC), in which a nude Lina Romay, writhing and bound to a martyr's cross, is whipped, caressed, and then smeared with the fresh blood of a beheaded dove (we actually see this appalling animal violence as the credit "Directed by J.P. Johnson" appears onscreen).
The camera obsessively follows the movement of a leather-clad torturer (Lynn Monteil), as the unholy and gothic atmosphere intensifies with Andre Benichou's funereal, haunting score (the SADIST OF NOTRE DAME version was re-scored by Franco regular Daniel J. White). Seen in its uncut form, this scene echoes the sado-performance rituals which open one of Franco's best earlier works, NECRONOMICON (1967).
It is also instructive to note that Vogel's occupation, a writer. His soda-masochistic tales are actually first-hand accounts of his own murders. They are published by "The Dagger and Garter," a sleazy magazine operated by one of the organizers of the satanic masses. Vogel may be a demented visionary, but the Satanists are shown as seemingly normal citizens who are able to hide their perverted activities from the authorities, something Vogel cannot do.
The publishing offices and the rococo castle in which the orgies are held are facades which exclude the outside world. Franco expresses this theme of deceptive appearances by the way he shoots these locations, panning and zooming into the architectural details whose aesthetic qualities ironically contrast with the blood orgies executed within.
These visual tidbits may also underscore the ancient or Medieval nature of Vogel's obsessions. The casting of beady-eyed Pierre Taylou and Lina Romay, as the arrogant publisher and his airhead secretary, works in perfect contrast to Franco's performance as the seedy Vogel. Taylou, in his tacky mid-70s leisure suit, and Romay, in her then-fashionable maxi-coat, represent common complacency and hypocrisy. In contrast, Vogel appears at least honest about his crusade. "One must know evil in order to fight it" he tells them. This battle between Vogel's mania and the cult's more socially acceptable depravity is the film's main trumpet call. The endings of EXORCISM and SADIST OF NOTRE DAME are quite different. In EXORCISM, Taylou jumps into the pursuing police car after Vogel has murdered a cult member (an interesting touch reminding one of Fritz Lang's M, in which the police and the underworld both pursue a killer). In SADIST OF NOTRE DAME, the chase is abruptly cut off when Vogel is taken into custody at Notre-Dame. In EXORCISM, Vogel is tracked to his suburban house where the lead inspector takes him out with a DIRTY HARRY-style shot that just misses Lina Romay, who is being held hostage. As Vogel falls dead into the front seat of his car, a dog howls mournfully in the distance. This effective touch can only be heard in the French-language version.
The film ends as the camera quickly pans up to the roof of Vogel's house as the police absurdly speed away, leaving the dead Vogel and his traumatized hostage unattended! Even with all these rough edges, EXORCISM and its many variants haunt the memory as an uncompromising version into the center of madness and depravity.
Franco's own performance here is brave and affecting, the total opposite of his usual tongue-in-check cameo appearances in his own movies. The voyeuristic scenes where he spies on Romay and her lesbian lover are especially chilling, due to the subdued way Franco moves his eyes and body as he peers through the window. Although he doesn't utter a word, his emotions are clear. The fact that Franco's acting here is superior to the direction indicates that the role itself was more important to him than the resulting film.
Completest collectors will probably want all these alternate versions and make up their own mind about which is the most effective as both a psycho-sexual thriller and modern morality play. Or maybe it's just another chapter in Jess Franco's 200 title filmed autobiography.
Robert Monell updated and expanded 2016