In our last thrilling episode, I talked about Vampyres as being one of the pinnacles of European erotic horror. I felt that I couldn’t very leave the topic without saying a few words about the man whose lengthy career has largely been built around this form: Jesús (Jess) Franco. Cult movie connoisseurs will already be very familiar with him, and should feel free to stop reading now. For the rest of you, consider this a brief, guarded, introduction.
The word “prolific” hardly begins to describe Franco…s output. He’s directed over 150 films, most of which he also shot, wrote and scored. But are they any good? They are certainly very personal, and fine arguments for the auteur theory (but then, so are the films of Ed Wood and Doris Wishman). Lucas Balbo, Peter Blumenstock and Christian Kessler rightly titled their excellent book on Franco Obsession. Franco IS capable of putting together a well-crafted piece of cinema, though this tends to be the case earlier in his career. Kim Newman, writing about Russ Meyer, said that he “knows how to make good films, but refuses to do so,” and the same could very well be said of Franco. (Being utterly consumed with the erotic is something else the two directors have in common, but Franco has none of Meyer’s technical perfectionism). Though Franco’s films are very sloppy, are plagued by a horrendous overuse of the zoom lens, and have plots that can most charitably be described as “loose,” they are also very improvisational, much like the jazz Franco also loves (and plays), and can be rewarding in the most unexpected ways.
His work has been available on home video since the beginning, usually in badly mutilated forms, but now, thanks no doubt to the collector’s market, his films are increasingly showing up on DVD in their complete versions. One of the best places to start, to really get a feel of what this guy is all about, but do so while screening a film that is actually watchable, is Vampyros Lesbos. Synapse has put out a fine edition on this on disc. The DVD is currently out of print, but there are still some copies available through Amazon. The film is cheap but striking, meandering but compelling, features in Soledad Miranda perhaps the sexiest vampire ever, and has a killer soundtrack (which itself was recently re-released to great success on CD, and shows up on the soundtrack to Jackie Brown).
For a taste of Franco at his nastiest, look no further than Ilsa, the Wicked Warden. More about the Ilsa films at a later date, but this is, I think, the most appalling of the bunch, with our anti-heroine presiding over an asylum/political prison/torture chamber/snuff film factory. The sex is mean, the misogyny is apocalyptic, and the conclusion features a cannibalism scene that would give the Italian cannibal films of the 80’s a run for their money. This one is an Anchor Bay release, still in print, and has a commentary track with star Dyanne Thorne, but sadly not from Franco himself.
Just as Franco’s output is too huge to adequately encompass in a single column, the same is true of the DVDs now out there, and the different companies releasing them. If you’re into sleaze at all, sooner or later you’re going to bump up against Franco. And despite your better judgment, you just might find yourself becoming… well… obsessed.