Jess Franco

Franco

A friend of mine wanted to know which films of his to watch.  Now maybe that seems like an easy answer, but with Franco’s movies the best advice I was given was to watch as many as you can.  Only by watching as many Franco films as you could did you realized how innovative and interesting Franco was as a filmmaker.   Franco’s style is eclectic at best, but it is a style non the less.  Franco had been plagued with budgetary problems as well as distributor problems.  Like every filmmaker he endured, and created some interesting films throughout his career, yet it has become difficult to try and form an opinion on his style since many of the films were re-cut or put into other films and re-titled.  I only began to know Franco’s style after watching several of his films.  What drew me to him is his repertoire of films, and his style.  Even with the problems he suffered during production and post-production he still had a style that I’d admired.  His catalog of films are over 360 and to achieve that in a lifetime is something that should be commended and saluted.  When I met the man along with Lina Romay his companion and a fellow filmmaker/actress herself he gave me the time to listen to me, which I wasn’t accustom to since many in the profession can be off putting, and a bit standoffish.   Franco liked that I knew many of his films and that I seen many in grind-house’s back in New York City, and on video cassette at home during  the early to late 80’s.

I have a soft spot for Franco.  On interviews Franco has given in the past he was very honest and you can hear his frustration with producers and distributors. Yet he always prevailed in some way, and managed to produce a film, which is a feat unto itself.  To do this over 360 times is something of a remarkable feat.  Their are themes and story lines that Franco has done more then once.  He treats nudity as a very matter of fact.  He knew about the film hitting some exploitative marks, but he did it with style, and never degrade the actors or actresses.  He fought censorship in his own country of Spain under the Fascist Francisco Franco, and still managed to produce & direct many films.  It is Franco’s determination, and his skill as a filmmaker that make me admire him.  So I am going to try and list 5 of his films that are must sees.  Of course that said one really needs to view as many of Franco’s films as possible.  It’s getting easier to see them since Franco has become a bit of a cult director, and more and more is recognized as a fringe filmmaker or a European director & producer.  More and more distributors are uncovering his lost films and are actually conforming his movies to their original cut.  No matter how you feel about Franco you have to admire his tenacity and his intellect in creating films that stood out from the rest.  With that said I give you my 5 best Franco films.  I feel though I may have to come back and list other films someday to do Jess Franco any justice.  Till then enjoy these five:

Venus of Furs is one of Franco’s best and it is a film that shows how unique his film-making was.  James Darren plays a jazz musician who becomes obsessed to the point of madness with the mysterious fur-clad Wanda, only to find her dead body washed up on the beach.  After awhile he see’s Wanda (Venus) enter the club, and is amazed at her resemblance to the dead Wanda.  Franco’s use of continuity and camera is strong here.  The film also has an interesting score, but I think it’s Franco’s best.  If you can get a good copy of the film I highly suggest seeing it.  Franco liked calling it “Black Angel”, but the title was changed by A.I.P the distributor to cash in on the success of a similar title Massimo Dallamano film.  The film was released n 1968.

 

Count Dracula was a film that Franco wanted to do, and tried to make it faithful to Bram Stoker’s famous 1897 novel.  The movie is bolstered by Christopher Lee in the part of Count Dracula, but unlike his Hammer films this production suffers from a low budget.  There are many elements that look decidedly cheap like fake bats, and plastic spiders spiders.   There are also some inconsistencies in the script such as characters who are wheelchair bound suddenly get up as if nothing has happened.  But it is Christopher Lee who shines, and as always he makes the movie watchable.  The beginning of the film is pretty accurate to the novel, but it veers off after that.  The film is very watchable, and I am told that the Blue Ray has some great extras also.  I personally like it because of Lee.  Apparently he was not happy doing his Dracula series for Hammer Studios, and Franco lewd him into playing Dracula for his film convincing Lee that he would follow Stoker’s novel.  Dracula would have a mustache as he does in the novel.  Lee had some nice things to say about Franco, and the two became good friends.  Lee admitted that Franco was a great filmmaker who never got the budget that he needed to make the film properly.  Franco used Lee again for a movie entitled “The Bloody Judge”.  It was released in the US as “Night of the Blood Monster”.  Lee said in interviews that the footage of torture and executions were put in later, and he never saw the film.  One more example of how distributors and producers perverted Franco’s films.

 

Vampyros Lespos is one Franco’s most successful films.  In this film American Lucy Westinghouse become fixated on a young brunette.  She meets the princess Nadine Korody while dealing with the princess’ inheritance for her law firm.  The princess is played by Soledad Miranda an actress who Franco had a relationship with.  Soledad is in many early films by Franco, and her look is quite unique.  As Tim Lucas say’s in his book “Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco” : “Soledad Miranda is absolutely gorgeous and gives one of her most rewarding performances ever.  Her aura of melancholy and enigmatic eroticism inspired Franco…”  It was tragic that she died in a car accident, but throughout Franco’s films you can see his obsession with her.  In Vampyros Lesbos we see that in plain fashion.  The use of Istanbul’s architecture is shown predominately in the film.  The soundtrack is unusual and it is said that the film Vampyros Lespos started a new era in Franco’s filming. “More rushed and improvised, but all having a unique and fascinating determination to deliver something unusual within their commercial boundaries.”  I myself have a difficult time with the film because of its unusual pacing, and it’s glaring yet strange soundtrack.   Franco does not use any of the usual vampire traits, and stays away from the traditional vampire folklore.  The film is loosely based on Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest”.  I truly believe as Tim Lucas says in his book that ” Vampyros Lesbos is as surreal as it is trivial, as artistically ambitious as it is sexploitative, and as poetic as it is comic-bookish, all combined in a completely over the top melange that is unique, and alienating…”   This film confirms to me that Franco is very much the avant-garde auteur, and that his films are original.

 

She Killed in Ecstasy is a revenge film where Soledad Miranda presence carries the film.  Franco combines deserted landscapes, and avant garde decor into the film, and though it is a film about revenge it feels like a strange and erotic pulp novel.  The photography and again the unusual soundtrack give the film a very alienating yet exotic tone.  The music is by Manfred Hubler and Sigfried Schwab.  Again Franco paints the film in a very avant-garde feel.  I consider the film a strange mash-up of exploitative elements that have am unusual feel to them.  It’s not your ordinary revenge film, and I feel Franco gives it some style.  Again with his limited budget Franco pulls off a film that is memorable, and a bit unforgettable.  It’s what makes Franco such a fascinating filmmaker.

 

A Virgin Among the Living Dead is what I like to call Franco’s very surreal type films, yet Franco creates an unusual atmosphere throughout the film. I like it for it’s stylish use of surrealism.  What is real and what’s not is how Franco keeps you interested.  It’s really a journey into madness, but Franco gives it some style.

The synopsis of the film is simple:

A beautiful young woman named Christina arrives in Europe to visit her estranged relatives in a small castle for the reading of her dead father’s will. She eventually discovers that they are all un-dead, and they fear that when she inherits her father’s mansion, she will ask them all to leave. But Christina is lonely and tells her Uncle Howard that she wants them all to remain there and live with her. She learns that a spirit called the Queen of the Night has claimed her father’s eternal soul because he committed suicide by hanging himself. Christina winds up becoming one of the living dead herself, and at the end of the film, she and the rest of the family all solemnly march off into a swamp on the grounds of the estate, accompanied by the Queen of the Night

The film is a European erotic horror film directed by Jesús Franco. Franco shot the film in 1971,  but it was only released in 1973 after some additional erotic footage was added to the film without Franco’s involvement. It was later re-cut with some extra zombie footage and redistributed to theaters again in 1981 as a zombie film.   It has since been restored on DVD to Franco’s original director’s cut which was called “Christina, Princess of Eroticism”.

It is one of the most distributed film of Franco’s.  It is also one of the most worked-over of his films.  Several years after it’s release it was released with soft core inserts for the X market.  The new footage badly distorted Franco’s original concept.  Later on the director Jean Rollin shot several zombie scenes to replace the soft core footage, so it’s one of those films where you have to watch out for.  I saw it originally with the additional footage shot by Jean Rollin, and it seemed a mess.  Once it was restored it was a lot easier to understand.  Franco adds erotic imagery throughout the film, but it is his style.  He never shy’s away from it and I like that of Franco. Tim Lucas said it best in his book about Franco: “Franco once again demonstrates his passion for cinema as he turns this horror comedy into a Godard-like mock surrealist film”.

Virgin Among the Dead3

* I’d like to give credit where credit is due.  Tim Lucas the publisher of the magazine “Video Watchdog” has been a BIG influence on me when it comes to Franco.  His book “Obsession: the films of Jess Franco” is my bible of all things Franco.  It was Lucas who guided me through the Franco’s filmography, and I haven’t look back since.    Franco may not be for everyone, but I recognized a skilled artist, and Franco was that and more.  Thank you Mr. Lucas for your devotion, and your writing ability in bringing Franco to the rest of us cine-files.

** I also would be remiss to not also name Lina RomayMs Romay was Franco’s co-conspirator, and his companion for many years.  She starred in many of Franco’s films, and became a producer in her own right.