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