10 February, 2018

THE DEMONS: Blu-ray Nucleus Films REVIEW

Demons, The (Blu-ray)

Jess Franco's wild blend of Nunsploitation and Witch burning gets a definitive HD release from Nucleus Films, including the complete version and the English language export. A fully loaded must-have.



THE DEMONS was Jess Franco's answer to Ken Russell's controversial 1971 Nunsploitation/Witchburning epic THE DEVILS, which specifically inspired producer Robert de Nesle (PLAISR A TROIS) to ask Franco for a film of the same style, content and genre. Franco delivered by essentially remaking his own earlier version of the same story, THE BLOODY JUDGE (1969), with Christopher Lee in the role of the historical Inquisitor Lord Chief Judge George Jeffry's (1648-1701), which was produced by Harry Alan Towers. There was also the Micheal Reeves-Vincent Price classic, WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which covered the same ground but in a much different style. The success of the 1970 MARK OF THE DEVIL insured that there was money to be had in presenting detailed tortures scenes of female witches. Franco denies he was interested in detailing torture or Sadomasochism in the 17m Featurette included here, Jess' Demons, and calls the film "bad" before detailing how he carefully planned the costuming, staging and background of the film.

The narrative follows two sisters, novice nuns Margaret (Britt Nichols) and Kathleen (Anne Libert), daughters of an executed witch who condemns Jeffreys and his corrupt consort Lady De Winter (Karin Field) in the opening scene (cf Mario Bava's MASK OF SATAN). They are arrested and tortured when Lady De Winter discovers their parentage and fears that they will carry out their mother's dying curse. Franco adds a scene where a demon (Satan?) appears in Margaret's convent room and rapes her. Or is it just her nightmare/fantasy?  Satan exists in the minds of the accusers as well as the condemned and the point of the film is that fear creates witches and people like Judge Jeffreys. This, of course, was also the theme of THE DEVILS and WITCHFINDER GENERAL, both of which were huge influences on Franco's film, which is more continental and idiosyncratic in tone. For instance, the early 1970s  prog/acid rock score of Jean-Bernard Raituex, added by sound editor Gerard Kikoine, is an inspired choice here, making the 17th Century mindset come alive in a late 20th Century context.

The performances of Karin Field and John Foster (Cihangir Gaffari, the Iranian-French producer-actor) as the tormentors are spot-on while Anne Libert and Britt Nichols effectively embody the desperate sensuality of the tormented sisters.  Franco's ever-active telezoom, controlled this time by Raul Artigot (director of the modern day witchcraft thriller THE WITCHES MOUNTAIN) ruthlessly examines the Portuguese architecture and landscapes, delivering striking and consistently engaging images. The religious paintings of the period, the torture chambers, the candlelit rooms are all impressively detailed. The scenes of torture are relatively brief compared to THE DEVILS or MARK OF THE DEVIL, and nowhere near as bloody. What Franco does concentrate on is eroticism, including the 3 minute plus self-pleasuring of Mother Superior (Doris Thomas) and the Satanic violation of Margaret. Witchcraft, sex and Inquisition are all part of the cycle of repression here, which Franco makes explicit in the last ambiguous shots..

The new Nucleus Films release finally delivers a  HD transfer of the longest, most complete 118m version along with the 88m English language "export" version (also in HD), which was the way I first saw the film, via UNICORN VIDEO. Much detailed restoration work has been done on the framing, images, soundtrack to correct all issues in previous releases. This simply looks and sounds great. It also restores an 8 second dissolve which shows the macabre dissolving of Lady De Winter's face into a skull after she has made forbidden love to Margaret, who is by that time the real thing, a willing daughter of Satan with supernatural powers. This image, seen in the above screenshot at the top of the review, was not in the previous Redemption Blu-ray presentation, but was in the 2004 XRATED KULT multi-disc set, which had its own problems otherwise. This Blu-ray is superior in every way to those previous editions, including the unfortunate 2003 "Director's Cut" in which Franco removed some of the rock style music and replaced it with rather inappropriate Daniel White cues from his previous unrelated films. That cut was also edited down, by Franco himself, to 101 minutes.

On top of all this the Nucleus release includes EXORCISING DEMONS, a new featurette with Stephen Thrower, who presents his own thoughts on the films, along with the American, French and German trailers, and German opening credits. One of the extras I really appreciate are the inclusion of some fascinating out-takes and trims (silent) of various scenes along with the (Clean) opening credits, which gives you the opportunity to enjoy Franco's wild camera work without the text credits to distract attention. There's also an extensive image gallery.

French with English subtitles; English Dub Versions; Color; 1972 1080p HD; 24fps, LPMC
Highly recommended.
(C) 2018 Robert Monell

02 February, 2018

THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (1965) Redemption Blu-ray Review...


A woman whose face has been hideously disfigured with burn tissue is seen through a surgical mirror. She is lying on a hospital bed as if prepared for surgery. Suddenly she picks up a scalpel with a white gloved hand and begins to cut the scar tissue away in bloody close up. This is just one of the arresting images in Jess Franco's 1965 medical horror classic MISS MUERTE (THE DIABOLICAL DR.Z). It's an image which might recall a canvas by Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon or Rene Magritte. A jarring, surreal composition which can't be dismissed once it is seen. Welcome to the world of Jess Franco...

Austria: The aging Doctor Zimmer (Antonio J. Escribano), a student of the notorious Doctor Orloff ( one f in GRITOS EN LA NOCHE-1961), has been experimenting on animals with electro-magnetic energy he terms Z-rays, which are supposed to alter the chemical processes which control good and evil impulses in the human organism. A noted Chemistry Professor and independent thinker, he visits a local medical conference to gain permission from organizer Doctor Vicas (Howard THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF Vernon) to begin experimenting on humans. When he is violently repudiated by the committee, Zimmer collapses, suffering a fatal attack as a result of the public rejection. His daughter, Irma (Mabel Karr), also a scientist, vows to her dying father that she will continue his work. In the meantime, medical ethics be damned, she secretly plans deadly vengeance on the members of the medical board.


THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z was Jess Franco's fourth black and white horror film, and the third in which the transgressive medical theories and practices of "Doctor Orloff" (who is only mentioned in the dialogue here) play a key role in the plot. After the rather uneven EL SECRETO DEL DR. ORLOFF (1964), MISS MUERTE (Spanish title) registers as the aesthetic perfection of Franco's 1960s mad scientist series. By making the mad scientist a woman the director confirms his predilection for focusing his attention on female protagonists (cf his feature debut TENEMOS 18 ANOS) in a hostile, male dominated world. The stern, disturbing presence of Mabel Karr as the criminal with a complicated agenda is very effective, looking forward to such future Franco female super criminals/dominatrices/femme fatales as Lorna in SUCCUBUS/Necronomicon and LORNA, THE EXORCIST, Sumuru in THE GIRL FROM RIO, Irina in FEMALE VAMPIRE, Countess Zaroff in THE PERVERSE COUNTESS, the female prison wardens in 99 WOMEN, BARBED WIRE DOLLS, SADOMANIA, Tara Obongo in MACUMBA SEXUAL,  the daughter of Fu Manchu is ESCALAVAS DE CRIMEN (1987), the wild women in CRYPT OF THE CONDEMNED (2102) and many more deadly females. 

So, what is it with Jess Franco and wicked, transgressing women? There's much evidence throughout his filmography that he finds women much more fascinating and magnetic than men, even mentally unstable women, like Ana, the unconscious killer in AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO (1973), a film which Franco had originally planned to make around the time he made MISS MUERTE. Estella Blain, also an unconscious killer in this earlier scenario (co-written by Luis Bunuel scenarist Jean-Claude Carriere BELLE DE JOUR), has a vulnerable aura and a mysterious factor beneath her appearance as a beautiful young blond here. She's perfectly cast as the instrument of Irma's revenge, and reflects Irma's quiet resentment of women more desirable to men than herself.. Her performances in tight, glittering spider gear, seen from an overhead camera angle looking down at a spider webbed stage as she writhes toward a male mannequin, are the high points of this film. Other striking scenes include the stalkings and killings of Howard Vernon, in a Hitchcockian dining car (cf NORTH BY NORTHWEST),and the portly actor who played the mad scientist character in EL SECRETO DEL ORLOFF (Marcello Arroita-Jauregui, who was also a member of the Spanish censorship in the 1960s!). Scenes set in trains moving through the night and the dark alleyways of the small Austrian town also add Film Noir style ambiance, all superbly lit and framed by the masterful Alejandro Ulloa (COMPANEROS, THE DEVIL'S HONEY, EL CAMINANTE). His high contrast black and white lighting schemes really shine in this stunning presentation.

The Zimmer's weird, secret operating theater, filled with automatized operating tables equipped with retractable, metal claws, electronic generators, caged animals, blinking Strickfaden-style laboratory lighting, brings to mind both classic Universal Horror ( BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and Al Adamson's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN. They seal the film in its own unique, monochrome, mid-1960s Euro-horror atmosphere. Such William Castle style horror gimmicks as the needles which are inserted into human flesh, gender bending disguises and plastic surgery interludes add to the macabre environment. The Edgar Wallace like lead inspector is played by Jess Franco himself, in a high spirited, if world weary manner. The film's composer, the prolific Daniel White, a longtime creative partner of the director, appears as a visiting Scotland Yard observer. They both seem to be relaxed and having fun with playing their roles. Their presence may have been a typical Jess Franco in-joke or likely dictated by cost cutting considerations.  All this and much more make this a top tier entry in Franco's long,  twisting filmography. This works as a headlong thriller told in a sometimes Expressionist, sometimes Surrealist mode, and a continuation with Franco's career-long obsession with those who break medical and other ethical codes. He would use the exact same plot again, with Soledad Miranda as the sexy, robotized avenger, in the 1970 SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY. It was the penultimate film of Miranda, who, like Estella Blain would die a tragic, premature death. 

This shimmering HD 1080p transfer from Gaumont's 35mm element marks a significant upgrade of this key title, and is definitely the best it has ever looked on digital media, with bottomless backs, appropriate grain, with not much visible DNR on display. Much detail, depth and resonant definition are revealed, and each image is razor sharp. This HD presentation of the film is going to be a must for the serious Jess Franco student, cult movie collectors or anyone who wants to be introduced to his work via a demonstration quality presentation.

Special Features include a detailed, informative commentary by OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO co-writer Tim Lucas, who focuses on the themes of mind-control and gender in the film, the English and (preferred) French language tracks with English subtitles, along with the original theatrical trailer.
87 min, 1920x1080p (1.66:1, with some added information on both sides, top and bottom).
Daniel White's moody jazz music and both language tracks sound vibrant and crystal clear.

Highly recommended.
(2018) (C) Robert Monell

29 January, 2018

Vintage Reviews: DEVIL HUNTER and SNAKEWOMAN

DEVIL HUNTER (Clifford Brown, 1980)
 Credited to "Clifford Brown" this German, Spanish, French and Italian coproduction features Al Cliver [Pier luigi Conti], most familiar from Fulci's ZOMBIE, as a mercenary hired to bring back a starlet [Ursula Buchfellner] who has is being held for ransom on a tropical island. The only interesting performances are given by the intense, late Werner Pochath and Antonio de Cabo as nasty and increasingly frantic criminals. Conti/Cliver looks as bored as usual while German starlet Buchfellner looks almost anorexic and spends most of her screentime tied up nude to a tree getting abused by the criminals and a giant black cannibal. Watching Europeans like Eurocine regular Claude Boisson as the cannibal chief is a real hoot and the film is reliably unconvincing in just about every department. Note the equipment in the film producer's office; everything in this film looks cheap/bogus. Maybe that's the point.But it's Franco all the way in terms of out-of-focus shots both from the marauding cannibal's POV and other images, mismatched filmstock (the film was reportedly begun by BLIND DEAD auteur Amando De Ossorio), and editing between events which looks like it was meant to create ironic counterpoint (the paparazzi and the fashion show are intercut with the jungle pursuit of another nude female victim who is later tied to a tree, gutted and disgustingly cannibalized). Totally incomptent on the FX level, the cannibal is shown chewing on bloody meat scraps in extreme closeup, this will give no competition to the other Euro cannibal films of that era (cf CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST). It's pure exploitation for very desperate audiences. There is an interesting primitivist score by Franco himself (and Daniel J. White) with a delirious male vocal by Carloto Perla, heard in other 1980s Franco films. The stalking bug-eye giant nude cannibal has to be one of the most blatantly racist images in the history of horror cinema or a tip to the zombie in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE or both.

The Video Asia DVD of this, coupled with Manuel Cano's VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST (1972), is possibly the worst digital presentation of a Franco film yet. The opening credits are removed and the film starts in the middle of the first scene. There is digital censoring of the copious male and female nudity of the original, some extreme gore is cut and the bottom third of the image is masked presumbly to hide the presence of Japanese subtitles, video quality is significantly inferior to the more complete old TRANSAMERICA VHS: THE MAN HUNTER. I believe that this was indeed sourced from a Japanese video or disc and booted over here. The somewhat racist cover artwork reads TERROR TALES FROM THE HOOD: SPECIAL EDITION VOLUME 4. BLACK VOODOO EXORCIST (sic) plus THE GRUESOME SHOCK OF: THE DEVIL HUNTER: A 1970s style Afro coiffured female poses in a collage with a glowing eyed gravedigger, green hands emerging from graves holding cigarettes [!], etc. The back features more dated jungle nonsense wigh some stills and amusing promo notes {"the long banned masterpiece...[!]"}. But for under 10 dollars it may be an outre collector's item for some. Of course, now in 2018, DEVIL HUNTER has been released on Blu-ray, in two different languages, on a double bill with Eurocine's CANNIBAL TERROR, which makes DEVIL HUNTER look like a masterpiece in comparison. It seems to improve with the years, and in HD, as raw entertainment cooked for the masses by Jess Franco in his "Clifford Brown" mode. (C) Robert Monell 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED   


SNAKEWOMAN - Jess Franco, 2005, États Unis/Espagne
Jess Franco doesn't make "films" anymore, he makes video but the results are still, even in glossy HI-DEF, 100% Jess Franco. I spoke to Jess during the conception of this film and he was quite excited about attempting an updating of VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), which this in essence is, but it's also more than that. Carmen Montes is the title character, a female vampire who wears nothing but a long red lined black cape and a tatoo of a double headed python which curls around her torso. She dominates a netherworld {Malaga, Spain} where "walk-ins" appear and disappear as suddenly as her attacks. Her most recent victim is a female reporter (Fata Morgana), the Jonathan Harker character, and Christie Levin is a demented female Renfield who is kept in a private asylum by the mad Dr. Nostradamus (Antonio Mayans). The reporter has come to investigate the estate of the legendary actress-composer Oriana Balasz. The Snakewoman may be her descendant or her continuation. It begins and ends and is often interrupted by telezooms onto flocks of tropical birds which recall the kites in VAMPYROS LESBOS. The music is spectral but will not enter the imagination in the same way as the ground breaking score for that 1970 cult classic. Carmen Montes does evoke the late, great Soledad Miranda and the film is filled with captivating images. Franco's director credit appears over an old b&w photo of Marlene Dietrich and this may be another subterranean homage to the cinema of Von Sternberg. In fact, Franco's digital films look more Sternbergian as one contemplates them beyond mere attempts to stay working in his late period. There are a lot of lesbian interludes (Franco told me he wanted to call it VAMPIRE INTERLUDE) but not as many as in some of his recent work and they don't smother the film. The acting is above average and it's worth seeing on the SRS DVD where it is coupled with DR. WONG'S VIRTUAL HELL and some still galleries. (C) Robert Monell 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

17 January, 2018

Stephen Thrower update of NUCLEUS Jess Franco Blu-rays

I copied this from Stephen's 1/17/18 post on FACEBOOK, which details some of the intensive restoration work done on these UK RB releases. I'll be reviewing these at some point and comparing them to the X RATED KULT, REDEMPTION and the US VHS releases.

An update by Stephen Thrower on the new Nucleus UK releases of two Jess Franco horror classics. I'll be reviewing these on my Franco blog in the future.
Stephen Thrower added 3 new photos.
THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE DEMONS: two peak period Jess Franco movies that no serious fan should be without, now available from Nucleus Films (http://nucleusfilms.com/) and featuring on camera interviews with yours truly! I'd also say that these two films are well worth buying if you're curious about Franco but uncertain about where to start. Some will counsel caution and recommend the slightly more sober and conventional 1960s titles, but to hell with all that. Why not throw caution to the wind and grab these two - they'll give you a fantastic insight into his freewheeling style in the 1970s.
Nucleus majordomo Marc Morris has done a huge amount of extraordinary work restoring THE DEMONS in particular. Here's a list of some of the work he's done which viewers and reviewers may not otherwise be aware of:
1. Incorrect aspect ratios on numerous shots fixed throughout.
2. White line frames removed throughout.
3. The soundtrack was out of synch throughout (sometimes by as much as 6 seconds). Marc has fixed this.
4. The soundtrack was missing audio, and in these scenes had been badly looped. Marc has located audio from alternate sources and replaced the annoying looped audio with correct audio where possible.
5. There was some German dialogue on the French soundtrack, which Marc has replaced with the correct French dialogue.
7. There were numerous instances of actors speaking with no dialogue heard on the soundtrack - now fixed.
8. There were numerous instances of dialogue spoken, with the actors' mouths not moving - now fixed.
9. The dissolve from face freeze frame to skull was completely missing - Marc has added this back.
10. He has also created from scratch an English language master, which is believed to match the original English language export version.
11. German Trailer - On the Kino Blu-ray, this was incorrectly dubbed with random French audio from the movie. This has been replaced with the original German soundtrack.
12. Marc has also corrected the frame rates from 23.976 fps to 24 fps, so if you have exquisitely perfect musical pitch the soundtrack will now match your LP record of Jean-Michel Lorgère's Trafic Pop!
And finally, look out for the startling fx shot included in the French trailer for Erotic Rites of Frankenstein which as far as I can recall doesn't appear in any currently available version of the film. Face-ripping!