22 September, 2016


I recently watched the Spanish DVD of Jess Franco's EL SADICO DE NOTRE DAME, which features the director's own voicing of the title character.  The stone cold medieval statuary of Notre Dame seem to look down upon the self proclaimed high priest of the Inquisition, Mathis Vogel who walks the streets of Paris in search human sacrifices to a dark God.

It's very effective that Franco's voice is on the soundtrack dubbing Vogel, the mad writer-killer who stalks the Notre Dame section of Paris in search of female victims, fallen women/prostitutes/loose women, whom he will murder in order to cleanse them of their sins. The multilingual director voices himself in French, in the hardcore variant, SEXORCISM, also. There are numerous versions of these films and the film they are based upon, the 1974 EXORCISM/EXORCISM AND BLACK MASSES/EXORCISME, a grim, artless creation which is further intensified when incorporated into the even more personal, confessional EL SADICO DE NOTRE DAME. None of these are easy to watch but they all are crucial to the understanding of the massive filmography of their creator.

This is the first part of a multi part series on the films. Partially updated and expanded from my previously published articles on the film in various publications. The Blu ray release of EXORCISM, future HD release of EL SADICO and some VHS versions will be discussed in further blogs.


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. The 1980 SADIST OF NOTRE DAME is largely made up of footage from the 1974 EXORCISM with new footage featuring Franco shot in later 1979 and early 1980. Franco shot the new footage in two one week shoots spread out over several months, the final post production work on SADIST was done in May, 1980. The most crucial additions to this final composite were an opening sequence, shot in Portugal, showing Franco as the Sadist, in an open air mental institution for homeless, mentally disabled men. We see him escape by hiding in the bin of a garbage truck, he is literally taken out of that environment with the trash. Other crucial scenes include the character's confessions of a priest in Notre Dame Cathedral. The priest is played by Franco's close friend and associate, the Spanish theater director Antonio De Cabo, who also played the lead kidnapper in Franco's 1980s cannibal film, DEVIL HUNTER. The priest also went to the same seminary as the Sadist and tells him he must repent for his crimes and accept human punishment. He also criticizes the Sadist's theory that the women he kills are sinners and he is judging them and saving their souls by murdering them. The Sadist even tells his first victim in the film that the Holy Inquisition has condemned her to death. This film is interesting to compare to Luis Bunuel's 1952 film EL, made in Mexico. The protagonist is a devout Catholic who has paranoid delusions about his wife's fidelity and acts out in violent ways against her. The theme of a hispanic Catholic who takes his violence out on women.. Franco's father was Catholic, although Franco himself rejected it as did Bunuel, but made films which satirized the religion, and Spain was a largely Catholic culture in the years of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

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 protagonist, Mathis Vogel/Laforgue (Franco), is a sexually twisted, religion-obsessed psychopath who murders Paris women. The film represents Franco's most severe vision of madness and evil. The thematic questions are, what constitutes madness and evil? Though these are familiar themes in Franco's works, the director never posed them so powerfully as here.
Note the wrought iron cross/crucifix in the foreground as Vogel abuses a victim (Lina Romay), framing the scene as iconic Catholic horror made by a filmmaker once condemned by the Vatican.

The XXX 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 make more bucks out of burnt-out material. But it's also his most personal film in that it reflects his own feelings at that point in his career when he had decided to focus on making films from his own material, often remakes or reworkings of earlier films for Emilio Larraga's Golden Films Internacional, which gave him complete artistic freedom and final cut. In some interviews he has compared himself to the Sadist character who can only express himself with acts of violence and is alienated in Paris, just as Franco had become alienated from the Spanish mainstream after working for years in France and Switzerland. When I asked Franco about it he just said, "It's my most personal film, not my best, but my most personal."
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 HENRY PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and 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

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 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 story-line as all the other versions, minus the 1979 footage in THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME showing Vogel repeated visiting the Notre-Dame cathedral, and confessing his murders to a priest (Antonio De Cabo, the villain in DEVIL HUNTER) 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. SADIST... also has a different opening, in which Vogel appears in a scene set in which he escapes from an insane asylum by hiding in the dumpster of a garbage truck. The symbolism has a very dark humor to it, which is typical of Franco.

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.

EXORCISM and its many variants are not conventionally well-made films. The minimalist visual style, under lit 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 THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME), 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 mutilation 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 to fool 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. SADIST's ending suggests Vogel will live to suffer another day.

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 the final resulting film, something that he has confirmed in interviews.

It should also be noted that Franco voiced himself in French on the French language tracks of EXORCISM, SEXORCISM and that he voiced himself in Spanish on the Spanish track of THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME>

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.

Robert Monell upated and expanded 2016

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