14 June, 2024


The Films of Jesus Franco, 1953-1966 by Francesco Cesari and Roberto Curti The name Jesus Franco carries a charge that means different things to different people. To someone not aware of the name of the prolific director of numerous European exploitation genre films such as FEMALE VAMPIRE, COUNT DRACULA and VAMPYROS LESBOS, the name may seem like a humorous blend of the name of the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ, and the name of the dictator of Spain (Francisco Franco) from the Spanish Civil War to his death in 1975. To film scholars and fans it is the formal name of “Jess Franco”, a prolific maker of low budget, European produced genre films, otherwise known as European Trash Cinema; to his detractors it is the name behind scores of “bad” films, lurid horror films, commercial comedies, quickie hardcore porn films, Spain’s most notorious “hack” film director. Then there are the thousands of international fans who consider him an outlaw artist who left the world with over 180 unique, personal and sometimes macabre films. A self described “jazz musician who makes movies” whose films are “shot like long improvised solos,” Franco was the artistically inclined son of military doctor Colonel Emilio Franco Martin. His father looked down on young Jesus’ nightlife predilections for frequenting and performing le jazz hot in Madrid nightclubs. He enrolled his rebellious son in a religious law school located in an ancient monastery which Jesus fled after a year, enrolling in literature, music and cinema curriculums. Later Franco would compare his authoritarian father to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. The young Jesus withdrew from his parents and was emotionally nurtured by his protective older sister, Lolita. His older brother, composer and music critic Enrique Franco, had already provided him with an early musical education. The fact that Franco would describe himself as a musician first and a film director second only underlines his double identity as a lifelong jazz fan/musician and cinema auteur. The aim of the book under review is to examine that double identity in depth. The Films of Jesus Franco, 1953-1966, written by Roberto Curti and Francesco Cesari, is a deep dive into the early life and film career of a “walking contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction,” as the lyrics to the Kris Kristofferson song “The Pilgrim” go. The book distinguishes itself from other previous Franco books by acting as an intensively detailed critical biography and a film by film analysis of his developing style as a film artist. As this book makes clear Jess Franco had, what he himself described in an introductory biographical note “…two passions, music… and cinema… cinema as a vice, and as a game, and as a dream.” There have been previous books on the film career of Jess Franco, but this one aims to be the first edition in a multi-volume critical survey, looking into his often overlooked early short films, the first of which Theory of Sunrise (1953), a 14 minute silent short which already contains the seeds for his future feature filmography. A noirish series of scenes opening witha crime of passion, proceeding into a minimalist city symphony, featuring love, crime, romantic longing and murder at the break of dawn, Theory of Sunrise would later bloom as a structural template in such feature titles as LABIOS ROJOS, DEATH WHISTLES THE BLUES, THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS, LAS CHICAS DEL TANGA, among others.
Equally fascinating is a chapter on the unmade LOS COLGADOS/LOS VENGADORES (aka The Hanged, The Avengers), a project set in an early 20th Century Central American country under seige by violent revolutionaries. Centered around a couple of lovers caught up in the fatal whirlpool of revolution it illustrates Franco ambition to move far beyond the comedy/musical genres of his first three films. When the government censors rejected the project Franco ended up making his first horror film instead, the macabre Gothic horror film, GRITOS EN LA NOCHE, the 1961 feature which would point his career in a totally different direction. Nonetheless, he would continue to make a name for himself with his atmospheric 1960s series of monochrome horrors, THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS, EL SECRETO DEL DR. ORLOFF and THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z.
There’s also a chapter on his another planned Eurospy feature, SANGRE EN MIS ZAPATOS aka 077 ESPIONAGE IN LISBON. A project packed with such future Franco tropes as a radio controlled female mannequin, messages encoded in music and actor Fernando Rey (ATTACK OF ROBOTS, ESMERALDA BAY) as a villain. It ended up being watered down by replacement director Tullio Demicheli (ASSIGNMENT TERROR) when Franco left the project to work on second unit photography for Orson Welles’ Shakespeare adaptation, CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. Franco’s shooting on the unfinished Orson Welles production of TREASURE ISLAND is also detailed in a separate chapter. Another scripted project, THE NIGHT HAS EYES, rejected by the censors, is also detailed. A fascinating, eerie story of mind control/possession, insanity, murder, it focuses on a predatory female who becomes mind controlled serial killer after her father kills himself. A Poe like tale of the macabre, it blends elements of classical tragedy and modern pyschoanalysis. Many plot elements would later find their way into MISS MUERTE, NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT, LORNA, THE EXORCIST, MIL SEXOS TIENE LA NOCHE and AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO. The final chapters on the visually arresting MISS MUERTE, and his two Eddie Constantine Eurospy adventures, CARTES BOCA ARRIBA and RESEDENCIA PARA ESPIAS, illustrate how Franco had finally achieved an aesthetic (if not technical) mastery over such genres as the musical/comedy, Gothic horror and spy/adventure which resulted in a kind of double vision, allowing him to stand outside various genres and critique their tropes while at the same time resulting in a commercial product which would entertain its target audience. What would become to be known as a “Jess Franco film” had arrived. Illustrated by dozens of rare photos from his childhood, his family, behind the scenes shots, exhaustively researched from documents at an impressive array of Spanish archives, meticulously footnoted, THE FILMS OF JESUS FRANCO 1953-1966 is a feast of new information, biography and critical analysis of the director’s formative years. Most importantly it proceeds in deep detail while creating an ongoing background survey of Spanish popular culture, history, morals, economic development, censorship and political pressures which kept its popular cinema on a short lease for decades. This background is crucial when dealing with the cinema of Jess Franco. It concludes at the point where Franco would become an international auteur with such future films as SUCCUBUS/NECRONOMICON, VENUS IN FURS, EL CONDE DRACULA, EUGENIE DE SADE, while continuing to move female characters to the center of his universe in such films as VAMPYROS LESBOS, LA COMTESSE NOIRE, THE PERVERSE COUNTESS, A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO, BARBED WIRE DOLLS, DAS FRAUENHAUS, MIL SEXOS TIENE LA NOCHE, BROKEN DOLLS, SNAKEWOMAN, AL PERIERA VS THE ALLIGATOR LADIES among many other titles. Leaping ahead of all existing Franco books it creates a hunger for future books by Francesco Cesari and Roberto Curti on the rest of Jess Franco’s gargantuan filmography.
McFarland Books https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/The-Films-of-Jesus-Franco-1953-1966/ © by Robert Monell 2024

22 May, 2024

Je Brule de Partout (1978) Pulse Video Blu-ray LE [UPDATED 5/21/24] Last year I was lucky enough to score one of now OOP LE Blu-rays of Jess Franco's rarely seen erotic crime drama, Je Brule de Partout ((1978). It sold out in record time from PULSE VIDEO, in partnership with Vinegar Syndrome. Queen of Euro-erotica Brigitte Lahaie emerges from a sea of grain in an X Pro-III grab from the opening disco scene. A welcome indicator in this 2k scan from 35mm elements. The plot in rudimentary: A detective investigates the abduction of the daughter of an American gangster in Lisbon. After swimming in the cultural cesspool of this film's depressing SexWorld, he comes up with results that punish the guilty and rescues the heroine (Susan Hemingway). A jazz filled, downbeat immersion into the director's familiar criminal netherworld of drugs, kidnapping, extortion, white slavery, sex, international intrigue and violence. It's another Franco specialty, Women-In-Peril, a sub-genre of Women-In-Prison.
Robert de Nesle's last or next to last production, made back to back with COCKTAIL SPECIAL, using some of that film's cast and locations. Here's what I initally thought of the film after viewing it via a vey poor French language VHS dub about 30 years ago [From MHVD archive]: aka JE BRULE DE PARTOUT. Directed by Jess Franco (credited as Jacques Aicrag). Jenny Goldstone (Susan Hemingway) is abducted after a night at a popular discotheque. She is the most recent victim to fall into the hands of an international white slavery cartel. The point person is the beautiful, blond Lorna (Brigitte Lahaie) who, along with her henchmen, bundles the girls aboard a ship fitted with an orgy room into which a sedating "love drug" is piped. The victims are arranged on mattresses and the "action" is viewed from overhead camera angles, locking the viewer into a voyeuristic POV. They are transported to a brothel in Portugal where one of Jenny's customers will turn out to be her own father, ironically revealed to be the financier behind the ring. But there is someone else on the trail of the abductors, a certain investigator whose name will be familiar to those familiar with the filmography of Jess Franco, Al Pereira.
One of Jess Franco's more obscure sexploitation efforts, this one is of note mainly for the alluring presence of Ms. Lahaie who would go on to be featured in several memorable Jean Rollin titles (FASCINATION, NIGHT OF THE HUNTED). Lahaie, like Rita Calderoni or Rosalba Neri, is one of those Euro-cult actresses whose stunning beauty is equaled by a formidable acting talent. She can play a mean bitch (as here, or in FACELESS) or a pathetic victim (cf NIGHT OF THE HUNTED), and sometimes a bit of both (cf FASCINATION).
Robert de Nesle (1906-1978). Producer and CEO of the legendary CFFP, a production house responsible for dozens of Peplums, Westerns, Eurospy, erotica and horror from the late 1950s onward. He died on April 21, 1978, at age 71. This was shot in less than a week and really looks it. The "love drug" sequences are represented by smoke being forced through crudely cut rubber tubes. The love drug concept also turns up in the Franco filmography as early as THE GIRL FROM RIO a.k.a. SUMURU 2 (1968), and is also prominent in keeping Ursula Buchfellner as one of the CAPTIVE WOMEN aka LINDA/NAKED SUPERWITCHES OF THE RIO AMORE (1980) {see the self-explanatory still on p 143 of OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO to get a taste of the latter title}. I term all the above mentioned titles as Women-In-Peril, a related offshoot of the Women in Prison genre, also a goldmine for JF. Some plot elements, especially the father-daughter erotic complications, are also present in Franco's COCKTAIL SPECIAL, another adaptation of Sade's PHILOSOPHY IN THE BEDROOM, also made in 1978, the reported year of Robert De Nesle's death. It's also interesting to compare this film to the Franco film made for Erwin C. Dietrich the year before, DAS FRAUENHAUS, which is almost full strength Franco, featuring an Op-Art style mise-en-scene illuminated with saturated color filters.
(Above) Robert de Nesle, CEO of the production company Comptoir Français de Productions Cinématographiques (CFPC). Ms. Lahaie apparently quarreled with Franco on set and she doesn't look like a happy camper, but she does look terrific and can act, as she verified forever in Jean Rollin's NIGHT OF THE HUNTED and Franco's FACELESS (1988)! My favorite part was the opening, set in a glittering disco. Franco pans up from Lahaie's black leather boots to the neon colored-light show and you immediately know you're in Jess Franco territory (despite the use of one of his rarer pseudonyms during the amusing spoken credits). The director even manages to work in his trademark Al Pereira P.I. character, but Jean Ferrere's thug-like visage is no match for the more ambiguous mug of Antonio Mayans, my own favorite interpreter of JF's favorite Private Eye. Daniel J. White's moody, brassy score adds a dash of much needed atmosphere.
This rather obscure title was one of three quickies produced by the late Robert de Nesle and directed by Franco in 1978, the year of the producer's death and one of the director's less than favorite years. It represents someone coming up for air following a deep sea dive (in this case the colorful rush of productions the director made in his two years with the Erwin C. Dietrich factory. It should be noted that this film doesn't contain any hardcore footage, as do both COCKTAIL SPECIAL and ELLES FONT TOUT. NOTE: I have recently come across this quote from Brigitte Lahaie in a 2009 interview on the website PSYCHOVISION "Jess [Franco] who has a certain talent unfortunately ruined by some confusion [...]." This was about 20 years after Franco give her role of the female villain in his gore epic FACELESS (1988), in which she was absolutely terrific. I guess she was thinking of her more negative experiences on JE BRULE DE PARTOUT.
Is this essential Franco? Hardly. But it's not as dull and tacky as ELLES FONT TOUT, produced as part of the same Portuguese-lensed 1978 bundle (later remade as the superior HOTEL DE LUIGES during Franco's Golden Films Internacional period) and really doesn't deliver the hardcore action demanded by that market. If you must see this film, see it as a tribute to the gorgeous Ms. Lahaie, even though she now rejects it as part of her catalogue and the best she can say in the Bonus interview is that it's not as bad as it could have been, an attitude shared by Stephen Thrower in his interview on the Blu-ray. The cinematography is rather bland and straightforward, especially compared with the best of Franco's previous Dietrich productions. It lacks the Sadean tone/textual reference points and more transgressive content of COCKTAIL SPECIAL, culminating with incest while sharing its interiors and exteriors, shot in a coastal suburb of Lisbon, the White City ( IMDB: Cruise terminal of Rocha do Conde de Óbidos, view of the movable bridge and in the distance to the left the bell towers of Church of São Francisco de Paula.). It certainly looks better in this HD presentation than could have been imagined, given its rushed production, grungy settings, clinical staging and overall bottom of the barrel aesthetics. (C) Robert Monell --2024

14 May, 2024


DIE SKLAVINNEN/SLAVES (1977), now released in a restored version by Full Moon, is not really a women-in-prison film, but it exists in a related sub-genre, the women-in-peril film. A story about women brutalized/kidnapped/tortured/manipulated/murdered by ruthless criminals or sometimes friends and associates. Other women-in-peril Jess Franco films include his two Fu-Manchu films. THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1970), ESCLAVAS DEL CRIMEN (1987), JE BRULE DE PARTOUT (1978), EUGENIE, HISTORIA DE UNA PERVERSION (1980), OPALO DE FUEGE (1978), DIE TEUFLISCHEN SCHWESTERN (1977), MADCHEN IM NACHTVERKEHR (1976), FRAUEN OHNEUNSCHULD (1977), ORGIA DE NINOFOMANAS/LINDA (1980), the last a personal favorite. SLAVES falls squarely into the sub-genre. American exploitation cinema also had a run of these films, termed “roughies” or “nudie-roughies” films which focused on sexualized sadism visited upon captive/exploited women. In fact the US VHS release of LINDA was retitled CAPTIVE WOMEN 5. Many of these women-in -peril titles where German co-productions. SLAVES opens with a shot of a huge tropical plant somewhere in the jungles of a tropical island, more shots of foliage before the action shifts to an office of the Federal Police. Marta (Esther Moser SEXY SISTERS) makes her way through the jungle (now represented by some obviously potted/artificial tropical flora decorated a dark interior set), finally collapsing as she reaches the police outpost. The sleepy duty officer wonders why she is dressed in only see-through lingerie, something is up. The rest of the film is narrated by Madama Araminda, or Princess Arminda, the owner of the Pagoda, a highly profitable brothel located in the jungles of Chao Island, frequented by police officials who give Arminda protection. Cut to Arminda escaping from Snake Island Prison, where she has been incarcerated on Marta’s testimony. Her escape is enabled by two individuals who have plans to gather a fortune in ransom from one of the kidnappings executed by Arminda’s drug financed syndicate. The rest of the film is narrated by Arminda, this sudden change in point-of-view, complicated by a flashback structure, makes for a kind of tropical Film Noir, and the fact that it’s narrated by a dead person illustrates the influence of the Billy Wilder classic, SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). The escape is filmed with Franco’s typical pan-telezoon style where he zooms back from the Golden Gate style bridge in Lisbon and then zooms in on Arminda lowering herself down the side of the prison. Very efficient, very minimal, all done without fuss. Picked up Ebenholz (Aida Vargas) she is immediately abducted by the brutal agent (Jess Franco) of Amos Radeck (Victor Mendes), who spends the rest of the film directing Franco through various torture methods, cigarette burns, waterboarding, bondage, etc. Radeck’s daughter (Martine Stedil) was kidnapped by Arminda and disappeared after he paid a film million dollar ransom. Cat faced Stedil does a good job of playing the blase victim whose demise is preordained. Franco regulars of this period, Peggy Markoff and handsome hunk Eric Falk are also on hand, albeit in small roles. Torture, lesbian interludes, rape and summary execute abound in this trim 76 minute effort. In the end, if there is a point, is that it’s a dog eat dog world and only the most ruthless survive. The most interesting elements here are the eye catching Zurich and Sintra locations, filmed in a less fly-by-night than usual fashion by Franco, who shared DP tasks with the reliable Peter Baumgartner, who lensed the Dietrich produced, JACK THE RIPPER (1976), which is probably the best feature of Franco’s two year contract with the producer. There’s also a sometimes jazzy, sometimes brooding score by Walter Baumgartner, along with the constant sounds of wild jungle animals. Stock footage represents Chao Island, (cf the opening scenes in CALL OF THE BLONDE GODDESS, also 1977). Franco’s trademark Nightclub scenes all seem to have been shot in one day, in a black walled set, dressed with wicker furniture and a few more tropical plants. The Zurich interiors tend to be rendered in hot pinks and ice cold blues while the Portuguese jungle settings, including Sintra’s Monserrat Palace, familiar from A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD and CECILIA, are sometimes breathtaking to behold, the latter scenes were the work of Peter Baumgartner, according to the director.
The massive Victor Mendes is in full Syndney Greenstreet mode as the sinister billionaire who read comics as Franco conducts the torture shows. Lina Romay is also quite credible as the shifty, coldhearted Arminda, who pays the ultimate price for her criminal activities. Franco himself is also quite effective as Radeck’s quietly efficient enforcer, who has the last laugh in this very downbeat crime film. SLAVES is a very watchable, entertaining feature which is now available remastered and restored from Full Moon in razor sharp definition. The colors are absolutely stunning, eye piercingly vivid as they pop off the screen. The definition is razor sharp, brimming with detail. The soundtrack is in German, with English subtitles. The most intriguing Special Feature is a 40m interview, FRANCO, BLOODY FRANCO, conducted with the director at a Zurich hotel, during the making of JACK THE RIPPER in 1976. This was an unsubtitled Feature of previous Ascot Elite Blu-rays. I’m very pleased it’s now more widely available in an English friendly release. Franco speaks in French, stating his theory of directing, to let the action evolve from the daily shooting, rather than strict adherence to the script, and his respect for the talents of Klaus Kinski. He also details how he visioned the film as a further examination into the themes in his first horror film, GRITOS EN LA NOCHE, and how he wanted to explore the twisted personality of the Ripper while maintaining a sympathetic distance. Nothing the difference between historical suggestions on the Ripper identity, he comes down on the side of Fantastique, rather than a realistic-historical approach, which he did not want to make. He also has some very negative things to say about Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy, rejecting his induction into the realm Fantastique creators and the dubious aesthetics of Hammer Horror. He lavishes much praise on the American B movie titan, Roger Corman, whom he claims as a spiritual equal. A vintage trailer reel is also included. English subtitles are included for the extended interview which has been ported from the German Ascot Elite JESS FRANCO GOLDEN GOYA COLLECTION, which was a HD release. As far as I’m concerned this release is worth the price for the revealing Franco interview alone. (C) Robert Monell 2024

13 May, 2024


(a.k.a. BOCCATO DI CARDINALE) As the title indicates, this is another cannibal movie in the ever-expanding Franco filmography. Recycling elements of his own THE PERVERSE COUNTESS (1973), which in turn was lifted from THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, TENDER FLESH avoids the strictly gross approach of the director's 1980s zombie flicks (THE MAN HUNTER, WHITE CANNIBAL QUEEN). It's more of an updated remake of his 1973 LA COMTESSE PERVERSE, with Lina Romay playing a villain role instead of the victim.
The famous French chef Paul Radeck (Alain Petit) and his predatory wife ( Romay) hire Carlos (Mikel Kronin) to find an uninhibited woman to join them in a sensual island vacation. Joining in the fun and games are international financier Kallman (Aldo Sambrell) and his dominating wife (Monique Parent). Paula (Amber Newman), an American tourist in Spain, is auditioned and paid to join this oddball group. Once at the Radeck estate, the vacation turns into a twisted nightmare for her. Everyone wants to have sex with her. Paul constantly records the activities with a camcorder. The food for the feast is seasoned with Radeck's secret recipe, which includes human urine contributed by a live-in sex slave Furia (Analia Ivars). This disgusting brew is similar to the titular concoction in Franco's 1978 COCKTAIL SPECIAL. Things get really out of hand during a televised "treasure hunt" staged by the Radecks, in which Kallman puts up the cash prize, hidden in a briefcase on a boat, that has to be located within a specified time limit. Paula jumps at the chance, but she is hunted by the rest of the players. In addition to their other perverse habits, they are cannibals who cook and eat their prey after an elaborate stalk and kill.
Franco seems to have reinvented himself as a lightweight satirist with this irreverent comedy-of-manners. Shot in English as a USA-Spanish co-production, Franco combines contemporary American performers with Euro-veterans Aldo Sambrell and Lina Romay. The result is an odd culture clashing erotic adventure. Franco begins the film with an amusing and appropriate quote from James Joyce and keeps his tongue firmly in cheek throughout. Monique Parent is wonderfully bitchy as the huntress while Romay, Sambrell, and Petit wisely underplay their sinister characters to good effect. The one completely over-the-top turn comes from by the statuesque Ivars, as the Super-Freak Furia, a mute (except for one hilarious word at the end) and scantily clad siren with a forever darting tongue. This lizard-woman is perhaps Franco's wildest creation since the bird-woman from EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Also, Franco plays with the relationship between audience and movie. For instance, in the climatic hunt sequence he distances the action by putting a canned laugh track over the sequence, complete with audience whistles and catcalls as things turn bloody. (C)Robert Monell 2024

07 May, 2024

JUEGO SUCIO EN CASABLANCA (Dirty Game in Casablanca) 1984

A surprisingly well-resourced Manacoa Films production, this remake of Tulio Demichelli's JUEGO SUCIO EN PANAMA (Ace of Hearts) has an important change of setting (to the Casablanca of Hollywood mythology) as well as an admirably sustained downbeat mood. This 1984 Jess Franco neo-noir was written by Santiago Moncada, a prolific Spanish writer, a novelist, playwright and screenwriter of such Jess Franco films as LA ESCLAVA BLANCA (1985), LAS ÚLTIMAS DE FILIPINAS (1984) and the excellent JUEGO SUCIO EN CASABLANCA, all in dire need of a HD restoration in an English friendly versions. It is a 1980s neo-noir set in the legendary city, featuring an outstanding performance by the late William Berger as an alcoholic writer trapped in plot hatched by corrupt colleagues. It's also a downward spiralling love story embedded in a thriller which also culminates in a twisted story of unrequited love.
The main action takes place in a crooked nightclub not unlike Rick's Cafe Americaine in the Michael Curtiz CASABLANCA (1942). Franco had also satirized the classic war romance by playing a piano player named Sam in his 1983 neo-noir LOS BLUES DE LA CALLE POP (AVENTURAS DE FELIPE MALBORO, VOLUMEN 8) who keeps the PI protagonist (Antonio Mayans) informed through musical cues. That film also features a poster of Bogart in CASABLANCA on the wall of the bar. Dean Baker (William Berger) an expatriat American writer, who has become a pathetic alcoholic, haunting Casablanca's gambling dens, manages to win a small fortune at a card game which he consigns to payment to one of the card players to fulfill his death wish by killing him by a certain date. Continuing the CASABLANCA parallels the owner of the gambling club is played by the gargantuan character actor Ricardo Palacios (ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS) recalling the mammoth Sydney Greenstreet in the 1942 version. A further layer of classic noir is added by the startling image of Baker's body floating in a swimming pool which directly references Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD.
Franco handles the action as somber flashbacks followed by a structural twist which intoduces a bittersweet third act featuring a collective unhappy ending for the main characters. The atmospheric score by Julian Sacristan sends vocal and guitar rhythms wafting through the tropical nights during which most of the film unfolds. A rare break from the familiar Daniel White cues Franco was still using during this period. Analia Ivars and Muriel Montessey (as Silvia Motez) are both impressive as the two women who struggle for Baker's attention as he tries to solve the mystery.
It's also suprising how convicing the various interior sets and locations are considering Franco's previous dependance on hotel rooms and tourist style shots for interiors and exteriors (here including locations on the Costa Del Sol and in Spanish Melilla on coastal Morroco) in the majority of his 1970s and 80s films. A Blu-ray was promised by Dorado Films but has yet to materialize, a restored HD English friendly release is long overdue .
(C) Robert Monell, 2024

27 April, 2024


Orloff's missing link: SÓLO UN ATAÚD
Ever since Jess Franco decided to lift the name of Bela Lugosi’s surname in The Dark Eyes of London (1939) to christen his villain for The Awful Dr. Orloff (1961) probably the filmmaker’s first distinctive film, the Orloff moniker has become something of a recurring motif in Franco’s filmography, whether applied to title characters or supporting roles. In the midst of all this we find two “apocryphal” Orloff movies – with Howard Vernon in the role but not under Franco’s direction. Of these the most familiar by far is Pierre Chevalier’s Orloff and the Invisible Man (1971), which feels like a project Franco himself might have undertaken. As for Santos Alcocer’s Les orgies du Dr. Orloff (finished in 1966, released in 1969), this appears to have been seen by mighty few people. Some might regard it beforehand as a missing link in the Orloff filmography; on closer inspection, this is debatable as it inhabits quite a different world from that of Franco and even Chevalier (a contemporary British setting, in fact). And moreover, it only marginally qualifies as an Orloff film at all. The film that was screened before French patrons as Les orgies du docteur Orloff is really called Sólo un ataúd(aka El enigma del ataúd), basically a Spanish production with some French financing, written and directed by the Spaniard who was later to give us the belated Karloff vehicle Cauldron of Blood (1970) and, as based on a novel by the comic book writer Enrique Jarber, certainly not intended to link with Franco’s Orloff films. Indeed, although Vernon may be present once again in the ubiquitous Coracera castle outside Madrid, the Spanish soundtrack clearly identifies his character – not, by the way, a physician or scientist of any kind – as Dan Gaillimh. Whether this Irish surname was replaced with that of Orloff in the reportedly racier version that played in France is something I don’t know but in any case the French distributors did choose to name it “The Orgies of Doctor Orloff”. Even if not visibly inspired by anything Franco had made at the time, it may, paradoxically, have inspired Franco himself into making La noche de los asesinos (1976) the following decade as the storyline betrays a distant kinship with The Cat and the Canary. Vernon’s eccentric millionaire, diagnosed with liver cancer, invites his much-hated relatives to his sinister castle (the ubiquitous Coracera, which had also housed Vernon in The Awful Dr. Orloff) to announce that, since he has dissipated much of his fortune, his inheritors will simply share the insurance resulting from his death. Some time after Gaillimh has gone to lie in his coffin, where he is not expected to awaken, the castle guests discover that he has been stabbed in the chest. Whether this has been suicide or murder, either possibility precludes the effectiveness of the insurance and the duly heirs go out of their way to conceal the fact and hasten the burial. Soon, the castle’s remaining inhabitants become subject to various mysterious goings-on: Gaillimh is briefly seen alive by his widow; his corpse reappears mysteriously in sundry places; one of his nephews is shot dead by a mysterious hand but his body immediately disappears; the police receive anonymous calls to the effect that Gaillimh was murdered… On the whole, this is less a horror film than a mystery thriller whose talkative script is made all the more objectionable by Alcocer’s ponderous direction. The top-billed Howard Vernon is confined to a few scenes while the film itself is dominated by Danielle Godet (the scheming woman from Franco’s Devil’s Island Loversof 1974), who plays one of the few inheritors not characterised by alcoholism, by religious fanaticism (as in the case of Tota Alba’s role), some colourful neurosis or just plain malice. Most of the characters assembled, in fact, appear to be defined with some broadly stated character trait likely to make them instantly recognizable with each reappearance. Given the convolutions of the plot, maybe this is just as well. Text by Nzoog Wahrlfhehen

25 April, 2024

NIGHT OF OPEN SEX (Jess Franco, 1981)

La Noche de los Sexos Abiertos 1981 90 MINUTES Severin Films Blu-ray; King Home Video (Spain) CAST: ROBERT FOSTER, LINA ROMAY, EVA PALMER, ALBINO GRAZIANI, TONY SKIOS, JESS FRANCO =======================================
Moira (Lina Romay) is a sexy cabaret stripper by night and a secret agent by day. She is attempting to gain information on the Segunda Guerra Mundial, an international criminal group who are about to locate a hidden consignment of gold bars which was secreted beneath the desert during the last days of the Nazis. Private detective Al Crosby (Antonio Mayans) is also on the trail of the gold and teams up with Moira. Eventually, Prof. Von Klaus (Albino Graziani) provides a complex code which, when deciphered, will reveal the location. Moira is briefly captured by the opposition, tortured, and then freed by Al. They make a concerted effort to break the word puzzle, and finally succeed in locating Von Klaus's desert villa, in which there is a secret room containing the gold.
First though, the right notes have to be played on a keyboard which will electonically trigger the lock mechanism. It involves playing a segment from Liszt's LIEBESTRAUM. When Moira performs the piece, a door opens and the treasure awaits them. The idea of a musical code which contains embedded information goes all the way back to Franco's 1967 KISS ME MONSTER. Considering the fact that Jess Franco has returned to Euro-spy genre again and again throughout his career, it would seem the genre holds a special fascination for him, as well as providing the profilic director with narrative action that functions as a necessary backdrop to his trademark erotic scenes, personal touches, visual spirals, and private jokes. It is impossible to separate the sex from any generic conventions at this point in Franco's career. His later Euro-spy feature DARK MISSION (1988), offers evidence that he could leave aside the obsessive focus on eroticism and make a relatively straight commercial product, but as his more personal early 1980s Golden Film Internacional period and his recent films show Franco is at his best when he is allowed to be Franco.
LA NOCHE... opens with a deliriously filmed strip by Lina Romay, performed in the driver's seat of a classic fifties American car. This all takes place in an ultra-glitzy night spot, where the sexy action is bathed in gorgeous neon hues. Lina's gyrations, Franco's camera work and glittering lighting design seem in perfect harmony this time around, and the sequence is hypnotic. This is a visually gorgeous film about very sordid happenings. There are many elaborate strip tease interludes, references to Poe's story THE GOLD BUG, double crosses, torture sessions (one outrageously borders on a hardcore level of sado-erotic intensity), exotic locales in Las Palmas and Alicante, a hilarious cameo by Franco and Lina Romay has never looked more sexy. She also proves to be a capable comedienne at the center of this frenetic action painting which Franco has composed. (C)Robert Monell 2024

26 February, 2024

DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN (Jess Franco 1972) Severin Films Blu-ray Review.

DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN is 100 proof Jess Franco. It unfolds at a rapid clip thrusting the viewer into a magical dimension of Franco's creation, somewhere between a fumetti and a Gothic cartoon. The plo,t is a highly compressed fantasia of the Universal Pictures horror classics DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, only shot in lurid color on a dollar store budget. Filmed in 1971, along with at least 5 other films, it attempts to cram as many classic monsters as possible into a hectic mise-en-scene. The paucity of dialoge (there isn't any for the film's first quarter hour), the rumbling Bruno Nicholai score imported from Franco's previous EL CONDE DRACULA and JUSTINE, the proliferation of zoom shots from the very first image onward, all combine to creater an overwhelmingly onieric atmosphere. Dr. Seward (Alberto Dalbes) stakes the sleeping Dracula (Sartana in the German version) turning the Count into a dead bat. Dr. Frankenstein (Dennis Price) appears with his assistant Morpho (Spaghetti Western regular Luis Barboo), revives Dracula to his original form, and also recharges the dormant Frankenstein monster. There's also a vampire woman (Britt Nichols) and a werewolf (Brandy, who would stunt double for Paul Naschy's werewolf character in THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI) who join in the final monster bash. Dr. Seward races to Castle Dracula to stop Dr. Frankenstein's mad plan of world domination via classic monsters. The final fight between the Frankenstein monster and the wolfman owes a lot to Universal's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN. Part of the magic of Franco's treatment of these cine-mythologies is that he adds such surreal touches as having his 19th Century villains drive around in 1970 model hearses and sedans, something that the Universal and Hammer studios would never allow. Howard Vernon's Dracula may be a long way from the the Bela Lugosi and Christoper Lee incarnations of the character and would return in the more conventional follow up, LA FILLE DE DRACULA (1972). DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN is purely Jess Franco's unapologetic take on the iconic characters. Fernando Bilbao's silver skinned Frankenstein monster would return in the outrageous 1972 EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN.
The 2006 IMAGE DVD of Franco's minimalist monster-rally DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN (onscreen title) was a disappointment. This no-budget 1972 French Spanish coprodcution was one of Franco's personal favorites and, depending on your critical perspective, a film you'll either embrace or be sorely disappointed with. Just compare it to his EL CONDE DRACULA, made for Harry Alan Towers with Christopher Lee in the title role, and notice the difference in treatment. Of course this isn't at adapting Bram Stoker's "Dracula", it's Franco's termite version of Universal's HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), only in color and scope. And that's where this DVD fails both the film and the viewer. The image is consistently soft throughout, the colors murky and it's all misframed at 1.85:1. The PAL 2003 Divisa DVD is also misframed with similar color and sharpness issues. One advantage of the Divisa release is that it's the only home video release so far to include an opening text, credited to "David Klunne" (another Franco beard), which recontextualizes the monster tale into Franco's own arcane personal dimension. Franco told me when I interviewed him in 2005* that he shot this film in Techniscope to achieve a multiplane perspective, he wanted the right, left and center fields to be of equal importance and to have a flow of action within and across each area. This strategy, along with an agressive use of the telezoom, ONLY works when the film is seen in its correct 2.35:1 Techniscope ratio. Seen fullscreen or partially letterboxed it looks clumsy and compositionally confusing. And it's not. It's one of his most carefully composed and visually experimental works. Once again, comic book panels were a major inspiration while Bruno Nicolai's score (recycled from EL CONDE DRACULA-1970) along with use of animal noises (cf Luis Bunuel's THE MILKY WAY-1969) are used as much as possible to replace exposity dialogue with a completely stylized sound environment. Franco's comments were very specific, "for some films, like DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN, I preferred Techniscope. I liked it because it literally gave you more 'scope', you can show more of the castles, the landscapes. It can be beautiful and gives a mysterious look to everything. You can show more on the sides of the [main] action. But shooting in scope can be more expensive because of the anamorphic lenses. It's more expensive to shoot and edit in scope."
The previous Blu-ray of this title, DIE NACHT DER OFFENEN SARGE from Germany's Colosseo Film, was correctly frame at 2.35:1 but had a dark, unsharp image quality with damp, desaturated colors. Severin's new 4K scan from Spanish, French and German release prints finally restores the film to what Franco intended. The 2.35:1 compositions are sharp, detailed and as color saturated as possible given the low budgeted production on Portuguese, Spanish and French locations. It's also the first disc release to allow the extended end music to fully play out rather than abruptly cut off. Special features include an interview with Franco author Stephen Thrower, Part 10 of In The Land of Franco, with Alain Petit and Thrower, the alternate Spanish opening credit sequence with the aforementioned "David Klunne" text and a deleted scene from the English language version which features a reading from Dr. Frankenstein's diary post produced by English language dubber Richard McDonald and written by David Mills. This post-production insert goes all the way back to the fullscreen WIZARD VIDEO VHS release, THE SCREAMING DEAD. A 3 minute 20 second trailer, "Master of Black Horror", is also included. *"Truth Will Out: A Final Audience With One of Cinema's Greatest Visionaries, Jess Franco." By Robert Monell ART DECADES magazine: December 2017, Issue # 13. Thanks to Kit Gavin for arranging the interview with Jess Franco. (C) Robert Monell, 2024

14 February, 2024

LILIAN ( LA VERGEN PERVERTIDA) (Clifford Brawn/Jess Franco, 1983)

An image which sums up the hard-boiled dimension inhabited by Al Pereira (Antonio Mayans). Cigarettes, a gun, a few drinks, suggesting a minimalist pattern of a gritty life and a story which ends with Al executing the club owner (Emilio Linder) who drugged, raped, and turned out Lilian (Katja Bienert). In the opening scene of this neo-noir the young, naive Lilian opens a door to the upscale villa in which she is staying and confronts a hardcore scene between Lina Romay and Jose Llamas. That perfectly sums up the issue with this project, which began as Clasificada "S" thriller which had to be upgraded/downgraded to a hardcore feature, necessitating the removal of some 20 minutes of the original's runtime (84m). The reason was a Spanish law which had been suddenly imposed restricting the showing of "S" product in Adult houses. Jess Franco had to scramble and add this footage since his film would not be playable in more mainstream locations. I assume the film did reasonably well, probably due to those grudgingly added hardcore scenes, and may disappoint those who look for something more than another Franco hardcore. LILIAN... tells the downbeat story of a young woman (Katja Bienert) who collapses while staggering though a desert-like area. She has been drugged, held prisoner and forced to be the abused party in an S&M show staged for the edification of the local police official (Daniel J. White) who is supposed to be leading investigations. Instead he takes detective Al Pereira off the case when he gets too close to the truth.
Al has discovered the comatose Lilian, who recounts her terror in a delirium at the residence of retired cop and friend Bernardo (Jess Franco), who counsels Al to forget it. He doesn't. Corruption is endemic here as in LES EBRANLEES (1972) and BOTAS NEGRAS, LATIGO DE CUERO (Golden Films Internacional, 1982), two very similar Al Pereira episodes. As in those films, Al Pereira  is depicted as a hotheaded, high minded loser who will ultimately trigger his own exile from the human race. The villains, the drug lord (Emilio Linder) and his wife (Lina Romay). who fetches him party girls and druggies at her nightclub, are oh-so-chic, part of the local glitter scene. Franco shoots this as a 1980s Film Noir, a virtual encyclopedia of noir references and visual quotes. Using long takes and wide angle lenses in the style of Sam Fuller (UNDERWORLD USA) and Robert Aldrich (KISS ME, DEADLY), but also incorporating his personal favorites THE KILLERS (Robert Siodmak version) and Howard Hawks' THE BIG SLEEP in the flashback structure of the former and the opening credits of the latter, which are recreated in the penultimate scene when the camera lingers on a pack of cigarettes (American, of course), two whiskey glasses and a pistol on a table. The drug lord had just been sitting there having a drink when Al Pereira burst in and summarily executed him, Dirty Harry style. Al leaves his pistol as a calling card, knowing the police will trace it to him. Then he quickly hops into his car and drives away into a future life of assured damnation. One evil bastard is done away with, but the corporate  evil of the big combo will continue under the averted attention of the corrupt police official. And the principled avenger and seeker of justice Al Pereira will suffer the punishments of our sinful, fallen world. The film has a brutal, nihilistic tone which is mediated by one of Daniel J. White's most breathtaking scores, incorporating a kind of funk theme and an ethereal line. Some of these cues can also be heard in the director's 1985 Jungle adventure, L'ESCLAVA BLANCA, a Manacoa production. If one can forgive or fast forward the hardcore scenes there's a good film in there. Franco and Antonio Mayans are superb as the world weary receivers of Lilian's sad story. This element of delirious confession to authority figures evokes EUGENIE DE SADE (1970) and Sade's theater piece, DIALOGUE BETWEEN A PRIEST AND A DYING MAN (1782). The Spanish "kiosk" DVD version was screened for this review. It has very good video quality, sharp and colorful with acceptable Spanish only audio.  This version lasts approximately 73 minutes. We're left with a moral vacuum, set in the glitter scene, which is made into a sexual hell by the insertion of much routine hardcore footage, taking advantage of Spain's newly liberalized censorship. With strong performances by Lina Romay, Jess Franco as the retired cop and frequent Franco composer-actor Daniel J White as the corrupt police official. The opening escape by the delirious heroine staggering across a beach is indicative of Franco's ability to throw the viewer into a scene's atmosphere quickly, efficiently and without any dialogue or context. This was released on Spanish VHS before appearing as a "kiosk" DVD. Filmed on locations in Madrid and Huelva.

08 February, 2024


la esclava blanca 1985 87 MINUTES Video Search of Miami (U.S. import) DIRECTED BY "CLIFFORD BROWN" (JESS FRANCO) WITH: JOSÉ LLAMAS, MABEL ESCAÑO, MIGUEL ROS, AUGUSTÎN GIL, LINA ROMAY, CONCHI MONTÉS --------------------------------------------------------------------
Of the eight other films Franco made in 1985 (half of them hardcore porno features), this very low budget adventure stands out because of an absorbing, multi-layered script by ace Spanish screenwriter Santiago Moncada. Besides writing Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, THE BELL FROM HELL, and THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER, Moncada has written and produced screenplays for a variety of European genre directors (Manuel Cano's SWAMP OF THE RAVENS, TARZAN'S GREATEST CHALLENGE, and VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST were all based on Moncada scripts). 牋牋 In LA ESCLAVA BLANCA, Moncada gives us three separate stories that gradually interweave and come together in the final scene. The first story seems to based on Macbeth. A weak-willed jungle guide is manipulated by his domineering wife into committing a series of crimes. During a safari, he leads a honeymoon couple (José Llamas and Conchi Montés) into a trap laid by the Tobongas, a Stone Age tribe that worships a giant lizard god. The bride is tied to a sacrificial altar for later sacrifice. 牋牋 The second story starts out in the city, where a karate student and two of her instructors accidentally discover the secret of the Tobonga. In the third story, two expeditions make their way back to the Tobonga camp. One of these groups includes the original guide, who has been abducted by the karate instructors (they have also killed his wife). The other consists of the husband of the abducted woman and the female karate student (Lina Romay) who has split off from the school. During the long trip back, the guide has a change of heart and decides to repent, turning against his captors and helping the people he originally betrayed.
牋 The climax of the film, expertly shot and edited despite the budgetary restrictions, may remind some viewers of a miniature version of the final scene in THE WILD BUNCH. The very last scene, in which the Tobonga gold is thrown away, echoes THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE. Franco's film, of course, is a lot less ambitious than those two classics, but maybe that's why it works so well. The massacre at the Tobonga camp, the abduction scene, and the opening safari are as well-staged as anything Franco has ever done. There's also an amusing dose of voodoo dancing thrown in for good measure. The film has no artistic pretensions. It is simply a programmer, made for showings at Spanish grindhouses or low profile mainstream houses. The fact that it's entertaining pulp illustrates Franco's realization that he's making a film for a certain audience in a certain marketplace.
Daniel White's pulsating drum and vocal score is familiar from some of Franco's other jungle adventures, but this is by far the best of the lot. Miguel Ross and Mabel Escaño are both very effective as the safari guides from hell. With its karate scenes, voodoo rituals, adventure story, literary and film references, LA ESCLAVA BLANCA seems typical of Franco's 1980's output (minus the XXX sex material). It's good fun while it lasts. It might be compared to a Saturday afternoon adventure matinee with Franco's encyclopediac knowledge of cinema built into its unassuming, carefully crafted mise-en-scene. (C) Robert Monell 2024

25 January, 2024


los blues de la calle pop 1983 80 MINUTES Galan Video (Spain) European Trash Cinema (U.S. import) DIRECTED BY JESUS FRANCO WITH: ROBERT FOSTER, CANDY COSTER, TRINO TRIVES, MARY SAD, JOSÉ LLAMAS --------------------------------------------------------------------
(a.k.a. AVENTURAS DE FELIPE MALBORO, VOLUMEN 8) Today it's easy to find a recent film with a popular hero/anti-hero based on a vintage comic book, cartoon, television show or film. Jess Franco beat them all out of gate with this amusing 1983 neo-noir based on one of his own creations, the hapless PI Felipe Marlboro. Franco, being a legendary smoker, not only names his lead character after a well known brand, he also shows up as Sam Chesterfield in a signficant role as the piano player in a sleazy club with punk clientele. Felipe Marlboro, gamely incarnated by Franco mainstay Antonio Mayans ("Robert Foster"), is a seedy private investigator who takes up a missing person case in punk infested Shit City. All the men seem to hang out in a smoky bar decorated with posters of Bogart and Mae West, waiting for trouble to erupt. The residents of this corrupt town all look like they base their fashion sense on MTV. The men look like either Sid Vicious or a member of A Flock of Seagulls, and the women sport the slutty attire and pouty sexuality of Robert Palmer's back-up vocalists in the music video of "Addicted to Love." Likewise, (as the visual style of the film is a whacked-out array of colors and weird camera angles. The film's stylized locale, Shit City, also anticipates Robert Rodriguez's SIN CITY.
The plot has Marlboro enlisting the aid of piano player Sam Chesterfield (played by Jess Franco himself) in an all out effort to bust the town's drug and dirty money kingpin Saul Winston (Trino Trives). This witty and visually striking neo-noir parody is one of Franco's personal favorites, and it's easy to see why. Almost every shot in the film is a loving homage to 1940s private eye cinema (such as THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP) filtered through a 1980s MTV-style lens. Franco has stated that he attempted to create a sustained comic-book look, and he has totally succeeded in that while creating his most entertaining film since his amusing 1967 spy spoof LUCKY THE INSCRUTABLE. Antonio Mayans is the perfect fall guy in Franco's off balance world of pimps, whores, killers, and thugs. Sexy Analia Ivars makes for a perfect lean and mean femme fatale. Franco stages all the standard private eye cliches in his usual off-kilter fashion. For instance, when Marlboro gets a beating for asking too many questions, the guy who kicks the living daylights out of him is a flashy flamenco dancer who performs his dance steps in between each punch and kick. Most amusing of all is the twisted ending, which finds Marlboro seduced by the woman who has set him up for extinction. The a quick-paced editing style, color gel lit locations shot through diffusion lenses and a rousing New Orleans style jazz score by Fernando G. Morcillo make LA BLUES DE LA CALLE POP a continual delight to see and hear. Franco's experimental deployment of colored filters is especially interesting (as in the similar ESCLAVA DEL CRIMEN) and makes me wonder why he didn't continue in this style. (C)Robert Monell, 2024

17 January, 2024


aka La Coccolona (Italian release), Heisse Beruhrungen (German version). LADY PORNO (Spanish version) Directed by Tawer Nero (Julio Perez Tabernero) for Titanic Films.* This is a sexy spy film once directed by Jess Franco in just a few days at a hotel in Southern France. A typical Franco strategy. Around the same time, he shot two other films there (Le Grand Motte) with the exact same rooms, casts and crews (DE SADE'S JULIETTE, SHINING SEX).
The version under consideration here has the onscreen title Lady Porno, a Spanish variant of Franco's original MIDNIGHT PARTY. Julio Perez Tabernero, an actor turned producer-director (he can be seen in Franco's own SADISTEROTICA/Two Undercover Angels)acquired it for his Titanic Films (Julio, your company needs a new handle!) and reconstructed it as an "American-Belgian" co-production. It's very amusingly redubbed and rescored with lewd comments, bawdy music and direct-to-the-viewer takes. --Sylvia is a very hot stripper who carries on an affair with a cheap detective, Al Pereira (Olivier Mathot) behind the back of her longtime squeeze Red Nicholas. This is not really another of Franco's Al Pereira episodes, as he is mainly a player in Sylvia's story.
This is kind of like a live action cartoon (cf LUCKY, THE INSCRUTABLE) with Lina Romay giving it all she has as the resourceful Sylvia. This might actually be my personal favorite of her performances, she mercilessly teases the viewer directly as the interactive approach allows her to pose, stick her tongue out, and make alluring remarks to the audience before turning back to the scene and players at hand, resuming in the traditional fourth wall mode. It's all a lot of good natured fun. Except that the subject is torture. Torture that really hurts! Sylvia is taken by Radeck/Agent 008 (Jess Franco himself), a spymaster and professional torture mogul who takes his business very seriously indeed. Look at the way he abuses poor Sylvia: after being stripped and sexually abused by henchpersons Monica Swinn and Ramon, she's poked, punched and cigarette burned by the ingrates under the very close supervision of Radeck. They take her to the "torture clinic" which, this being a Jess Franco shoot, merely means another hotel room (or the same hotel room slightly redressed and shot from a different angle). Choosing a metal tool they try pulling out her toenails, as Radeck is beginning to lose his patience. At this point one of my favorite moments in Franco's monumental filmography occurs, and it only last a few seconds--Radeck simply puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it. That's it! The exact way which actor Jess Franco jabs the smoke into his mouth and fires it up has to be experienced first hand. It's a grand bit a business, something small made into something very special by a seasoned professional.
Radeck drops the pose at the end, as Sylvia and Al are escaping he faces the camera and admits to us that it was all an illusion. We have been spectators. But what are we doing at this venue? Of course, that question is implied rather than asked. Alain Petit is very droll as the Marxist jazz singer, Nicholas. Billed as "Charlie Christian" (cf JUSTINE, the 1979-80 Joe D'Amato composite where he is likewise billed as his footage here is rolled over with scenes from SHINING SEX into a unique reedit) he performs his infamous "La Vie est une Merde", also heard in a blues rendition during Franco's 1982 EMMANUELLE EXPOSED and in Petit's documentary THE MAKING OF TENDER FLESH (1997). The Spanish language version which was screened for this review (subtitled in English) is very much in keeping with the joker/trickster impulses which frequently bubble to the surface of Franco's work. The finale, a shootout with the cops (a minimalist debacle) followed by shots of birds flying in the distance as our couple floats away on a pleasure craft, is post-ironic in the sense that it delivers on expectations which Franco obviously considers bogus while gleefully curving past the generic demands of representational, grade B sexploitation production methodology. In other words: don't worry, be happy, it's only a movie. *The longest version of this film is the 90 English language cut, which is around 15 minutes longer than the Spanish language LADY PORNO. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (C) ROBERT MONELL (Updated 1/17/24)

16 December, 2023

BEST OF 2023: Jess Franco releases.

The Best, and most revelatory, Jess Franco related release of 2023 was Severin Films' comprehensive 4 disc, 4K UHD-Blu-ray set of Jess Franco's 1970 COUNT DRACULA, directed for Harry Alan Towers in November 1969. The world UHD premiere and the Blu-ray have spectacular video and sound quality, scanned in 4K from recently discovered, uncut camera negatives. The elements are virtually pristine. There's over 5 hours of bonus features, a highly informative commentary track by horror historian David Del Valle and Franco actress Maria Rohm, and much more.
I have to admit that I've never been a big fan of this film, either as a Dracula film or a Jess Franco film. It seemed cheap, rushed, deeply flawed and not as true to the Bram Stoker novel as it claimed to be. I had been c onditioned by the two previous Dracula features Hammer had already made with Christopher Lee in the title role, HORROR OF DRACULA and DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKENESS (1965), both more than capably directed by Terence Fisher. Of course there were the commanding presence of Lee and the magesterial musical score by Bruno Nicolai to savor. But that was not enough in my view when I first saw the film on local television broacast in the early 1970s. Something was missing, I felt. What was missing were the carefully lit compositions of exteriors and general lighting design, both restored now in 4K. The interiors, at least, look gorgeous, bathed in color gel lighting and arranged with care. Franco did his job, but it didn't turn out to be a passion project. As Maria Rohm points out in her commentary, both Franco and Towers knew the game was over and that this would be their last collaboration.

My introduction to the film was via a local television broadcast in the mid 1970s. I was a confirmed fan of the Hammer Dracula's, especially HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965), which also featured Lee as a much more athletic Count than he is in Franco's film. I had already heard of Jess Franco by reading a men's magazine article in the late 1960s about his notorious X rated (in America) SUCCUBUS [NECRONOMICON] (1969). But it would be at least another decade before I would see that on a poor VHS dupe. After viewing COUNT DRACULA I wasn't anxious to see another Jess Franco film any time soon. It started with those damn German Shepherds standing in for wolves of Transylvania, first seen during the coach ride where Dracula drives Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams) to his castle. That everything was painfully out of focus didn't help. It seemed a poorly photographed, rushed, cheap production, carelessly planned and, at best, routinely directed. And it didn't follow the promise of the title card that the story would be told exactly as Stoker did. Sometimes exact faithfulness is not the way to go. NOSFERATU (1922), the classic silent version directed by F.W. Murnau, is most interesting in the way it departs from the novel. Max Schreck as Count Orlok looks nothing like the king vampire described in Stoker's prose. Orlok resembles a rodent which has someone taken on human shape. That look is continued with the appearance of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's 1979 remake, although the actor adds considerable pathos to the character. The full title of the Murnau film, NOSFERATU: A SYMPHONY OF HORROR correctly states its tone, pacing and texture. It's a  piece of melancholy music suffused with dread, illustrated by Expressionist compositions. Tod Browning's 1931 DRACULA, based on the hit stage play, is as static as an over rehearsed theater piece, but Bela Lugosi is hypnotic in the lead, even though the second half trails off into soporific dialogue scenes. It too has a musical quality, struck in the opening strains from Tchaikovsky's SWAN LAKE. Browning may have had a more suggestive, subtle cinematic work in mind if one considers some of his later statements, and Universal recut the picture, shortening it. Jess Franco, working with Lee in the title role, worked with producer Towers, to stay with the novel's description of the Count, and he's a rather sad antique, albeit a deadly one, who talks nostalgically of the history of his family and homeland. His white hair and moustache in the early scenes conform closely to Stoker's original description and as the film proceeds the hair turns black as he gorges on a series of victims. The blood is the life and reverses the aging process. But he's never as menacing as
Schrek, Lugosi or the swashbuckling Dracula in the Hammer films starring Lee. Severin's HD presentation gives the film greater sharpness and more enriched color than all previous home video releases. The high definition detail is extraordinary and focuses attention on the very artificial looking cobwebs seen throughout the castle, the overhead wire mechanism which drives the bats and makes the suddenly revived stuffed animals which the heroes encounter at one point seem less menacing than ever.

Franco's famous crash zooms seem to be utilized for mere convenience, to avoid the time it would take to do additional set-ups, rather than the space-collapsing devices which give such films as DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN a compellingly abstract, almost post-modern quality.The jarring telezooms into coffins, landscapes and objects seem to announce a personal stylistic choice in that film rather than a cost and time saving measure, although they probably were also used for that reason. Hammer's Dracula films always looked lush and more well resourced than they actually were, EL CONDE DRACULA looks rather tattered in comparison. The obviously fake boulders thrown onto the gypsy caravan and the burning of Dracula in his coffin throw us out of the movie at a crucial moment. The film ends in a flurry of more shaky telezooms.

The brooding, symphonic, urgent Bruno Nicolai score creates most of the atmosphere throughout and makes up for the visual awkwardness of many key scenes. The living dead girl manner of Soledad Miranda is electrifying in the scenes she shares with Lee and provide memorable frissons. Franco himself seems rather dispirited in his appearance as the clinic employee. Perhaps that's because the director himself was becoming deeply disillusioned with his work for Towers, the film's co-writer and co-producer. Franco was obviously becoming frustrated and bored as an employee of the Towers film factory. Just compare his energized presence as the inquisitive writer in EUGENIE DE SADE (1970), made just after this film and without Towers overseeing the production as writer-producer. It comes as no surprise that COUNT DRACULA would be Franco's final directing job for Towers.

The factory process of commercial filmmaking in Spain during the horror boom would become an even more interesting subtext in Portabella's intriguing experimental documentary on the making of EL CONDE DRACULA.

Franco struggled to make a personal film while remaining true to the source material, but Portabella's unique film deconstructs both the final product and workaday production of it. Franco did bring considerable artistry to the final product but CUADECUC-VAMPIR, opens up the actual shoot, infuses it with an eerie, abstract poetry and provides another subtext, that of making a commercial horror film on an iconic subject in late 1960s Spain still ruled by the dictator Francisco Franco. Spain welcomed international film productions in the 1960s as a way of increasing cultural exchange, boosting an uncertain economy and bringing foreign investment in the national coffers. Parts of DR. ZHIVAGO and Sergio Leone's wildly successful Spaghetti Westerns used Spain's desert and mountain regions as a ready made exotic backdrop. Costs were low there and the locals were grateful to get steady work on US, Italian and other co-productions. Portabella, who had produced Bunuel's notoriously banned (in Spain) VIRIDIANA (1961) had already rattled the authorities there, and he was much more subversive in every regard than EL CONDE DRACULA's director at the that time, although when Franco later cut himself loose he would evolve into a master of subversive genre cinema from the 1970s onward.
Portabella shot his film in high contrast black and white, sometimes the image goes into negative, creating a further sense of unreality, projecting the footage of the shoot into an alternate dimension. It chronicles the shoot in roughly sequential order but selects key scenes and then shoots them simultaneously to the actual production from different camera angles, sometimes revealing the cast and crew (including Jess Franco) as they go about their work. Soledad Miranda looks directly into Portabella's camera and flashes a demure, somewhat chilling smile. Christopher Lee mugs for the camera and seems to be having a good time on the set as he reaches out toward Portabella's camera as if to grab it while a jarring sound is heard on the soundtrack. Most importantly, Portabella, like Murnau, understood that the story of Dracula was best told without words, the stumbling block in the Lugosi version. The best moments in the Hammer Dracula's were the wordless moments of menace just before and during the appearances of Lee's Count. It should be noted that Franco's DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN contains no dialogue during its opening scenes and most of of its runtime. What dialogue there is is functional, delivered with dispatch and minimized by the director and actors. Of course, the big difference there is that Franco cast longtime collaborator Howard Vernon as a very unique, fumetti style Count Dracula.
The use of sound is quite unusual and distinctive. Most of the footage is either silent or appears with music, loud crashing sounds, creating a soundscape which operates in counterpoint to the images. Footsteps are heard but they don't quite synch up with the footfalls in the scene, a train is heard but it doesn't seem to be the modern one seen suddenly cutting across the screen. The arrival of Harker by coach in Transylvania is here scored with disturbing crashing sounds while the arrival a 1960a black American sedan, delivering Maria Rohm on set clad in a stylish floppy hat, leopard skin coat and movie star sunglasses is accompanied by dreamy jazz.
The black and white images have a very grainy texture, enhanced by the 1080 HD resolution. A very different version of the novel unfolds in Portabella's footage, one which somehow is much closer to the tone of the original prose than Jess Franco's finished version. Capturing a sense of dread between the shots of the actors in informal groupings or preparing for an imminent shot. The final scene bursts into synchronized sound as Lee reads the final lines of the novel, in which the destruction of Dracula is described. Set in the actor's dressing room, he addresses the audience directly, speaking of the economy of the prose and notes some of the descriptive details. The destruction of Dracula in the is, of course, quite different, replacing it with the burning of the Count in his coffin after which the body is dumped over the castle walls. The staging, shooting and editing of the scene leave much to be desired and one is struck by how simple and superior the actual ending is as Lee reads them in his resonant voice. He then closes the book and stares into camera for an unnervingly long time before Portabella is heard calling, "cut!". Those few lines are really all that is needed to make an effective closing scene.  Lee and Portabella obviously had a much better sense of the what made the novel so haunting and memorable than did the writer and director of EL CONDE DRACULA. That's why these new HD release of both films is so essential for those interested in the novel, the history of Dracula films, Spanish horror, experimental cinema and the career of Jess Franco.
This fully loaded package also has two discs of Special Features, some ported over from the previous Severin Blu-ray. Probably the most interesting of the new features is a 90 minute 2017 Documentary on the making of both COUNT DRACULA and CUADECUC-VAMPIR, with Dr. Alex Mendibil. The inclusion of the full Bruno Nicolai's magesterial score should please both fans of the composer and European cult movie scores. It adds tremendously to what impact the finished product has both as a horror film and a Jess Franco film. (C) Robert Monell, 2023****