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

No comments: