02 April, 2016


Jess Franco (May 12, 1930-April 2, 2013) The prolific and irreplaceable Spanish filmmaker passed away 3 years ago today. His massive body of work, though, lives on through numerous new HD releases of his films and retrospectives both official and personal. What Jess Franco film are you watching tonight? For me it's a toss up between my all time favorite SUCCUBUS/NECRONOMICON and FEMALE VAMPIRE, two essential works and among his most personal projects, made in relative freedom but subject to much subsequent reedits by producers-distributors. There is a unique melancholy mood found in them.. They both have mysterious, deadly female lead characters, an erotic dancer (Janine Reynaud) in SUCCUBUS and a world weary vampire in the FEMALE VAMPIRE. Lina Romay plays the mute vampire in the latter and I find it her most moving performance, unpolished but real, a sad being lost in a fantasy bubble.

Of course, Jess was preceded by his wife/key collaborator/frequent lead actress/editor/director Lina Romay, who died much too young. It's difficult to think of him or his career without thinking of her. It's also difficult not to think of his other films and career arc as one watches any single one of his films. They all resonate within and across his filmography. They also are flooded with resonances of Bunuel, Lang, Godard (three of his masters mentioned by a character in NECRONOMICON). They are also infused with the poetry of Robert Siodmak (whom Franco himself frequently mentioned as a personal inspiration) and the B film maestros Erle C. Kenton and Reginald Le Borg. I first became aware of Jess Franco via an article about SUCCUBUS I read in 1969, the year of its US release, in an Adult magazine. It would take about another two decades before I could finally see the film, and even then it wasn't exactly in HD. I did see COUNT DRACULA (1970) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969) on local television in the early 1970s. I wasn't impressed. It took me another 20 or so years and the advent of VHS, then DVD and finally HD to become a serious student and collector of his work. His highly polished early 1960s films (GRITOS EN LA NOCHE, LA MUERTE SILBA DES BLUES, THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS, MISS MUERTE) are quite different in visual style and tone than his Pop Art colored work of the late 60s (ROTE LIPPEN/SADISTEROTICA, SUCCUBUS, LUCKY THE INSCRUTABLE, VENUS IN FURS) and his early 70s Z budgeted masterworks EUGENIE DE SADE and A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD. The obsessive use of the telezoom in his mid 1970s work (DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN, FEMALE VAMPIRE) is less apparent in his films for Erwin C. Dietrich. His 1980's Golden Films Internacional period is especially ripe for discovery with gems like GEMIDOS DE PLACER and THE SINISTER DR. ORLOFF (both 1982) awaiting HD release. He often remade is earlier films, with surprisingly fascinating results. For instance his BROKEN DOLLS is as interesting as it's 1982 model LAS CASA DE LAS MUJERES PERDIDAS, while being totally different in visual style, sound design and interpretation by the actors.

As a director who favored on-set improvisation, he was more interested in the process, preparing the film and shooting it, than the result. The final forms of his films were often determined by others, including the sound editor, Gerard Kikoine, who worked on many of his Robert De Nesle projects, adding sound, music, dialogue and coherence where there was none. Film is after all a collaborative medium, but Franco was the captain on set, even when the front office delivered orders, as in some of his Harry Alan Towers, the fur worn by Maria Towers in VENUS IN FURS was there because of studio commands and he couldn't cast an African American (Miles Davis?) involved in an affair with a Caucasian woman, he had to flip the races.

Many formerly rare films of his have appeared in good and HD releases over the years, last year's Blu-rays of THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN (1972) and VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), among others, were especially exciting. And more are on the way this year, including his last project, REVENGE OF THE ALLIGATOR LADIES, which has been completed his longtime friend and leading man, Antonio Mayans. The sad thing is that there will be no newly made Jess Franco films after that, but there are dozens of presumed treasures out there still awaiting HD releases. He had a long, productive career and did pretty much everything he wanted to do, if not quite on the budget and schedule he would have preferred.

There are as many ways to watch a single Jess Franco film as there are Jess Franco films. His oeuvre is rich and layered, each film is a beckoning hall of mirrors, awaiting our delighted entry. Jess Franco lives!

(C) Robert Monell  April 2, 2016