Monday, August 5, 2013

New from Kino/Redemption: Three Films by Jess Franco

Jess Franco (1930-2013)

When Jess Franco died in April 2013 at the age of 82, cult cinema lost one of its most beloved icons, a legendarily prolific writer/director with over 200 films to his credit, but a comprehensive Franco filmography is all but impossible, given the number of unfinished films and the plethora of pseudonyms he used.  Franco bounced around from genre to genre for the length of his career, sometimes for money, sometimes for personal expression, but from 1959 until his death, he never stopped working, often making multiple films in any given year (11 in 1975 alone).  He's best known for his contributions to the horror genre, but he made comedies, dramas, spy thrillers, action films, erotica, and hardcore porn.  Over the last couple of decades, serious film scholars have reconsidered Franco's gargantuan output and many, most notably Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas, have called him a genuine auteur.  Indeed, many of Franco's self-financed films of the 1970s are some of the most aggressive examples of a filmmaker putting his obsessions front and center for everyone to see.  I've always had conflicted feelings about Franco.  When he had a budget, a competent crew, and real actors, he was completely capable of putting a thoroughly professional film together.  His association with British producer Harry Alan Towers in the late 1960s resulted in several box office hits with actors who rarely turned down a sizable paycheck (Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Klaus Kinski) to others who may have been in a career slump and took what they could get (Jack Palance, Mercedes McCambridge, George Sanders, Leo Genn).  But on his own, the low budgets and lack of quality control are sometimes too distracting to ignore.  Franco would later express feelings of discontent working in commercial cinema, which led to his more independent films of the 1970s and beyond, but many of those "commercial" films represent his best filmmaking (1969's VENUS IN FURS is probably my favorite Franco film).  Franco often had ambitions that lied beyond the capabilities of his budget (1970's COUNT DRACULA is a perfect example, finally allowing a frustrated Lee the chance to play Dracula as Bram Stoker intended, but hampered by cheap sets that appear ready to collapse around the actors at any moment).  By 1970, Franco had grown tired of working for other producers and trying to make his own films while dealing with Spain's strict censorship laws.  He needed a change, but had to leave Spain to do so.  Two of those films are out on Blu-ray from Kino/Redemption on August 20, along with Franco's 1962 breakthrough THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF.

(Spain/France - 1962)

Considered to be the first Spanish horror film, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF owes a lot to Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960) with its central plot element of Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon) and his deformed, blind sidekick Morpho (Ricardo Valle) murdering women in order to perform skin graft experiments to restore the disfigured face of Orlof's daughter.  The Franju film would be a major influence on Franco's career, with several subsequent Orloff (the extra 'f' was added by the US distributor in 1964 and it stuck) films, all the way up to 1988's FACELESS, where murderous surgeon Helmut Berger pulls an Orloff to try and salvage his sister's scarred face, even seeking counsel from Vernon's Orloff at one point.  THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF isn't very original and suffers from some clumsy exposition in spots, but it's an important film in the evolution of Spanish horror, Eurocult, and Franco himself, and looks terrific in this new Blu-ray edition.  The 1.66:1 transfer looks appropriately film-like and doesn't see fit to remove every flaw and scratch in the image, but the detail is superb.  Kino presents the film in its uncensored French version (with an English-dubbed option), which had two instances of nudity clumsily inserted by the French co-producers.  Lucas contributes an extremely informative, exhaustive commentary that's overflowing with trivia (American expat actor Frank Wolff, best known as Brett McBain in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, was one of the voice actors for the English-dubbed version), and comprehensively details Franco's influences for the film (Franju and THE LODGER/HANGOVER SQUARE director John Brahm being the major ones, but also classic Universal horror, Hammer, AIP's Edgar Allan Poe series, and the expanding Italian horror scene headed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava), the earliest examples of recurring Franco themes and archetypes (Orloff, the Morpho character, as well as incompetent police detective Tanner, played here by Conrado San Martin, would reappear in various forms in many subsequent Franco works), and the differences in the various versions of the film (the bombastic jazz score that opens the French print is significantly toned-down in the Spanish version).  Despite its many derivative elements, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF is one of Franco's most accessible and satisfying horror films, progressive in its themes and presentation but very deeply-rooted in classical and traditional horror.   It was his first success and fittingly, the perfect starting point for anyone interested in exploring the director's work.  The Blu-ray also features an interview with a frail-looking Franco, where he addresses his battles with the Spanish censors and his love-hate relationship with the horror genre in general, saying he wanted to be an Antonioni-style filmmaker but ended up doing other kinds of films.  But, as he finally admits with a smile, "I like horror films."  (Unrated, 86 mins)

(France/Liechtenstein - 1970)

NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT was considered a lost film for over 30 years.  Given a theatrical release only in Belgium in 1970, the film vanished from view and only when a print was discovered in the early 2000s, followed by a DVD release from Media Blasters in 2004, were Franco fans able to see it and place it in its proper context.  According to Lucas' commentary on the new Blu-ray, Franco shot NIGHTMARES during some down time between two 1970 Harry Alan Towers productions--THE BLOODY JUDGE (released in the US in 1972 as NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER) and COUNT DRACULA.  Franco had more personal projects in mind and by the time THE BLOODY JUDGE came around, grew tired of working in these multi-country co-productions and trying to appease the various producers involved.  NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT serves a sign of things to come from Franco throughout the rest of his career--the more auteur side of him as a filmmaker that would explode once he met his muse and life partner Lina Romay in the next few years.  NIGHTMARES stars Diana Lorys (who co-starred in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF) as Anna, a former stripper at "a second-rate nightclub in Zagreb."  She fears she's being driven insane and confides in Dr. Lucas (Paul Muller).  Living with Cynthia (Collette Jack), she's haunted by vivid dreams in which she commits murder.  Meanwhile, a mystery couple (Andre Montchall and Soledad Miranda, billed as "Susan Korda") watch the proceedings from a neighboring house.

If NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT feels disjointed and patched together, that's because it was.  The scenes with Montchall and tragic Franco muse Miranda (who was killed in a car accident in Portugal the same year) came from an unfinished Franco project shot around the same time.  Franco worked the footage into the film by creating a jewel heist subplot where Cynthia was in cahoots with these two and their plan is to drive Anna insane and pin the crime on her while they get away.  Lucas doesn't go into this in any great detail, but there is a supplemental feature where Kino Blu-ray producer Bret Wood demonstrates how the film came from two different sources:  the Lorys/Muller/Jack scenes are shot in 1.33:1 and the Montchall/Miranda scenes are shot in 1.66:1.  Kino reformatted the entire film to 1.66:1 for the sake of continuity, while also pointing out that the final scene between Muller and Jack is shot in 1.66:1, indicating that Franco shot it after the fact in an attempt to bring both plots together.  Of these three new Blu-rays, NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT probably fares the worst, though it's not really any fault of Kino's.  The flaws in the visual presentation are inherent in the film itself, culled from a test print since wide-release prints were never struck and the negative is lost.  By design, the dream sequences are grainy, but here, they're so grainy that it's impossible to tell what's going on.  The Blu-ray offers the option of French with English subtitles or an English-dubbed track.  The English-dubbed track is one of the worst I've ever witnessed, so French is clearly the way to go here.

This is the conundrum of watching Jess Franco films.  Few filmmakers are given such wide leeway for sloppiness as Franco, whose status as an iconic movie maverick is often confused with his extraordinarily prolific output.  Quantity is often mistaken for quality, and NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT may be given a bit of a pass since it was a "lost" film and fans were eager to discover it.  It's really not very good at all.  On his commentary, Lucas makes some credible and thoughtful arguments for Franco's recurring metaphors for Spain's fascistic government, but elsewhere, his defenses of the shoddy cinematography, mismatched footage, and haphazard construction seem like real reaches:  the backdrop of Anna's dance routine is a wrinkled curtain; Lucas says that's by design but I'm going with "Franco was in too much of a hurry to give a shit about having it ironed."  Devoted Franco fans insist that the amateurish filmmaking, the continuity errors, shots out of focus, the camera pointed in the wrong direction, etc are all part of some grand, subversive, Luis Bunuel master plan to mock the rules of conventional cinema.  I just don't buy it.  He was capable of solid filmmaking and occasionally stunning images, but he was also a guy who liked to make movies with a lot of hot, naked women (Lorys is nude for about 90% of the movie and she's spectacular).  This became very apparent once Romay entered his life:  it's around this time (1973's FEMALE VAMPIRE and on) that the quantity of the films becomes inversely proportional to the quality.  And yet, this period is one of his most revered and Franco's personal favorite.  But it's during this phase that the sloppiness becomes epidemic and he seems to be going for as many lingering crotch-zooms as possible, almost as if low-budget, pervy, DIY Franco was holding the camera with one hand and fondling himself with the other.   Franco loved to make movies--all kinds of movies--and, especially in his later years, became a beloved cult figure and captivating raconteur in interviews for the many DVD releases of his films.  Franco's interviews are frequently more interesting than his films.  Look, I love Franco. How can you not?  I could watch interviews with him all day long, but some of these films are indefensible and there seems to be a calculated movement to put him on the same iconoclastic pedestal as Orson Welles, frequently cited as "Franco's mentor," even though Franco only assisted him on two films (the unfinished-in-Welles'-lifetime DON QUIXOTE and 1966's CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT).  I agree that there is something there with Franco.  His more disciplined films (and something like CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM--more on that shortly) prove it.  But sometimes--to use but two examples, as shown in CANNIBALS and DEVIL HUNTER, Franco's two dismal 1980 contributions to the Italian cannibal craze that show jungle natives who look like they were rounded up from the nearest disco, right down to the perms, sideburns, and in one case, a visible wristwatch--shitty filmmaking is just shitty filmmaking.  That said, the completists and apologists will get far more out of NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT than the casual viewer.  (Unrated, 85 mins)

with CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM (France/Liechtenstein - 1973)

The biggest surprise in this latest batch of Kino/Redemption Franco titles has an even more complicated backstory than NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT.  Shot in 1971 as NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS but unreleased until 1973 under a handful of various titles, the film most popularly known as A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD is quite a revelation in this new Blu-ray edition.  If you've only seen this in its mid-1980s big-box Wizard Video incarnation as A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, then it's worth a reconsideration.  Presented in a full-frame, washed-out, terribly-dubbed print, the old VHS edition was ejected fairly quickly when I gave it a look back in the day, not even bothering to fast-forward to the inevitable nude scenes and zombie attacks.  As fans learned later on, that version was reworked from what Franco had originally intended.  That version contained zombie footage directed by French cult auteur Jean Rollin (FASCINATION) in 1981, presented as dream sequences with an unconvincing double for lead actress Christina Von Blanc, as well as some softcore sex footage directed by Pierre Queret that utilized equally dubious-looking doubles for the main actors.  French distributor Eurocine wanted to hop on the post-DAWN OF THE DEAD/ZOMBIE bandwagon and figured adding some nonsensically inserted zombies into an existing film would be the cheapest way to do it.  Franco disowned this VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD cut of the film, but confusion is inevitable since Eurocine also used that title on Franco's original 1973 cut, which has come to be known as CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM, a misleading title that seems more fitting for a softcore porn romp than the somber, meditative art film that Franco made.

Released on DVD by Image Entertainment several years ago, the CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM cut looks quite nice on Blu-ray.  Flaws inherent in the print itself remain in the 1.66:1 transfer, but it looks fine.  The previous DVD edition included the Rollin-added scenes as an extra, but this new Blu-ray set offers two cuts of the film:  Franco's preferred CHRISTINA cut, running 79 minutes, and the 1981 Eurocine revamp A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, with the Rollin/Queret scenes, running 90 minutes.  It's amazing what a mere 11 minutes of padding can do to throw off the rhythm of an entire film.  Despite my utmost respect for film scholars like Lucas and the many Franco fans and apologists, I've often dismissed the notion that Franco is some misunderstood genius, but watching CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM, regardless of its ridiculous title, goes a long way in almost validating many of those claims.  Self-financed and shot on the fly with a skeleton crew, the film is often technically inept (less than three minutes in, shooting some location footage along the coast of Portugal, a local man looks directly into the camera and quickly looks away), but has numerous moments of undeniable, poetic beauty that you'd never figure seeing given either of the film's grindhouse-ready titles.  Von Blanc stars as Christina, who travels from London to Portugal upon the death of her estranged father (Paul Muller), a man she never really knew and hadn't seen since she was a small child.  At her father's estate, she encounters other members of the "family," including her uncle Howard (Howard Vernon), seductive mystery woman Carmence (the stunning Britt Nichols), and grunting, dimwit handyman Basilio (Franco, billed as "Jesus Manera").  The film becomes a surreal fever dream as Christina is plagued by nightmares and nothing seems real, encounters the ghost of her father (in a great shot where they both seem to be floating through the air), leading to a terrific plot twist in the finale and culminating in a final sequence that's one of the most heartbreaking, haunting scenes in Franco's entire filmography.

Conceived as a mournful eulogy for the late Soledad Miranda (Lucas points out in his typically thorough and info-packed commentary that the footage shot along the coastal road seen in the opening credits was the same route Miranda was taking before she was killed in the car accident), CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM is one of Franco's best films, even with its many gaffes and Franco self-indulgences.  Sure, there's the requisite day/night continuity errors, an actress playing a corpse is seen blinking, and there's one incredibly annoying scene where Franco's Basilio laughs and giggles and makes assorted noises while Nichols' drunk Carmence rolls around on the floor in front of him for about four solid minutes of screen time, but the images captured by Franco and cinematographer Jose Climent are often breathtakingly beautiful.  Watching this in its intended form, you get the impression that this is the kind of film Franco always wanted to make.  This is the kind of film his devout fans are talking about when they praise him as an unheralded cinematic genius.  1970s Franco is often compared to Rollin (who also dabbled in hardcore porn when his financial situation demanded it), and for my money, Rollin was the more consistent and visionary filmmaker (his FASCINATION is a brilliant work that feels a lot like what Jess Franco might've accomplished with time, budget, a full crew, discipline, and a little self-control), but CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM comes very close to that Rollin level of dream-like surrealism.  It's incredibly atmospheric, at times feeling a lot like Mario Bava's LISA AND THE DEVIL (which was actually made a year later, before anyone would've had a chance to see Franco's film) with its gathering of cursed souls at an eternally damned house.  I noticed this before listening to Lucas' commentary (over the CHRISTINA cut), and while he touches upon the similarities--including von Blanc's Christina having the surname "Reiner," also the last name of Elke Sommer's Lisa--he doesn't delve into them as much as I thought he would, considering his status as the world's foremost Mario Bava scholar, having written a comprehensive, 1128-page doorstop of a biography of the legendary father of Italian horror.  Also contributing greatly to the hazy, dream-like aura of CHRISTINA is the score by Bruno Nicolai, which prominently features everything from the mournful vocals of Edda Dell'Orso, a frequent Ennio Morricone associate, to an all-out prog-rock freakout near the end.  The schizophrenic score is as unpredictable as the film itself.  CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM is one of Franco's most ambitious films.  If all the other alleged "classics" had the hints of greatness that this film demonstrates, I'd be onboard with the whole "Franco is a genius maverick of cinema" movement.  Kino's Blu-ray presents the film with two audio options:  French with English subtitles and in English.  The English dub isn't quite as bad as the one on NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT, but it's close.  Among the bonus features: an interview with Franco; a short piece detailing the various versions of the film, and five minutes of "alternate erotic footage" with Alice Arno that was shot for an unrealized third variant of the film.

The biggest bonus feature is the complete, 90-minute 1981 cut of A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD that was on the old Wizard Video VHS issued in 1985.  Queret shot some sexually explicit footage with doubles for Vernon and Nichols--including a shot of "Vernon"'s character with an erection and turned the climactic accosting of Christina into a rape (with Vernon getting a thrusting-butt double), while Rollin shot several minutes worth of quickie zombie attack scenes that represent Christina's nightmares.  These scenes were shot at the same time as Rollin's Eurocine hackjob ZOMBIE LAKE (also 1981), and feature a double for von Blanc, clearly indicated by the fact that her hair always seems to be covering her face.  These inserted scenes are hastily-shot and hilariously awful (ZOMBIE LAKE was purely a money gig for Rollin, who stepped in when Franco abandoned the project over disagreements with the producers), and show that it's very easy for zombies to bust through a door when production assistants have already clearly removed the hinges.  The 1981 revamp of A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD is barely entertaining on a bad-movie level (though with enough proper medication, I suppose it could be fun), but it's an outright travesty after seeing CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM.  (Unrated, 79 mins/90 mins)


  1. As happens frequently when reading your reviews, I agree with every single word you've written, especially your heated rebuttal to the "Franco is a genius" rhetoric. A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD is probably my very favorite Franco film, slightly edging out EUGENIE...THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION.

  2. Having only seen some of the old Wizard Video version years ago, VIRGIN was a revelation. Still too many crude and clumsy bits to be an all-out masterpiece for me, but there's some undeniably great stuff there. Unlike Franco, I actually like his more commercial films the best. Not just VENUS IN FURS, but even his more ambitious, serious films like THE BLOODY JUDGE and COUNT DRACULA. They hold up nicely despite their serious budgetary issues. I watched FEMALE VAMPIRE on Netflix streaming a few months ago and it was just an endurance test. Five minutes devoted to Jack Taylor shaving and trimming his moustache. COME ON!

  3. And I still rank Franco's TENDER FLESH as the single worst film I've ever seen.

  4. I think one of the reasons Franco doesn't care as much for his commercial films is because Towers seems to have been a demanding producer, forcing his wife into the films (though Maria Rohm is pretty marvelous in all of them) and dictating production more than Franco cared for. But he doesn't seem to realize that kind of made the films work, for the most part...

    You're onto something when you say things changed after Lina Romay came into his life. His films from there are far less interesting to me. FEMALE VAMPIRE has some nice moments in it but is nowhere near as interesting or poetic as many claim. My favorite post-Lina Franco's are the ones without her in the cast. BLUE RITA, SADOMANIA, LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN, WOMEN IN CELL BLOCK 9, BLOODY MOON for pure cheese factor.

  5. Thank you for these detailed reviews.

    "Devoted Franco fans insist that the amateurish filmmaking, the continuity errors, shots out of focus, the camera pointed in the wrong direction, etc are all part of some grand, subversive, Luis Bunuel master plan to mock the rules of conventional cinema."

    For me this is the area where evaluations become difficult. What was intended and what was accidental?

    The jump cuts in Godard's Breathless were supposedly there by accident, then became part of his style.

    Everything I've seen or read about Franco indicates that he had a wide knowledge of cinema and of many other things. But he does not get given the benefit of the doubt in the way that a Godard was.

    I think Franco maybe just needed to do a bit more namedropping: No, the acting isn't bad, it's deliberately bad in order to draw attention to the distinction between the actor and the role in a distantiating, Brechtian way. Or something like that...

    My own favourite Franco is Lucky the Inscrutable, followed by the likes of Doriana Grey, Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun, Venus in Furs, and Lorna the Exorcist (whose pubic crabs seem very Bunuelian).