A Jess Franco Blog.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Wicked Women

I was reading this month’s issue of Rue Morgue, and somewhere hidden inside I saw an advertisement for the new triple-DVD sets coming out from Shriek Show (Media Blasters) right around Christmastime. Now, if you’re a fan of cult/horror movies and you don’t know about Shriek Show’s recent foray into multi-packaging, then I suggest you do some cramming on the subject – they’re retailing these triple-packs for about one quarter of what the original (and individual) DVDs cost as separate purchases. I know this, because I saw that the MSRP for the “Wicked Women” set was about 19 bones, and I hauled out close to 68 bucks total for each of these suckers when they were released only around eighteen months ago. Anyway, this Wicked Women Triple-Pack features the Italian exploitation flick Werewolf Woman, a surprisingly sexy little flick disguised as a horror movie – but it’s a really well-shot slice of Euro-sleaze. The next one is the Shriek Show-produced Flesh for the Beast, which is also fairly erotic (but this time it really is also a horror movie), though it’s nothing more than a very entertaining spin on an old premise – a group of paranormal researchers spend a night in a haunted mansion. The last one in the set is Jess Franco’s Nightmares Come at Night, which includes the participation of the gorgeous Soledad Miranda – and despite the top-billing, it’s really more of a glorified cameo. Out of the three films, I actually remembered Franco’s film the least. I remembered that Miranda was not in it that much – I remembered the print looked pretty bad – and I remembered it was some kind of heist-thriller, though I couldn’t recall the particular details of the entire affair.
Throwing this over-expensive disc into the player for a little memory jog, this is what I’ve concluded – That Soledad Miranda is indeed as gorgeous as I’d thought, though she’s in the film far less than I’d remembered. The print itself is better than I’d thought. Actually, the Shriek Show film transfer is pretty good – it’s the camera lens that appears to be the actual culprit here. Not surprising for a Franco film shot back in the late 60’s, the cinematography is filled with soft lights and softer focus. In the dark scenes, the lens actually looks dirty and reflective and there’s a relentless L-shaped scratched on the left side of the frame – probably from having to continually wipe all the Vaseline off the lens. Anyway, I got a re-grip on the plot, which is basically a stripper named Anna (Diana Lorys) and her female lover/roommate (played by Colette Giacobine, something of an economy-style Brigitte Bardot) and Anna’s doctor, caring for her as they suspect Anna has something of a mental condition that needs to be treated – she awakes in the middle of the night from sexually hallucinogenic night terrors, imagining that she’s murdered one of her lovers. She then confronts the doctor about this, and the first hour of the film segues into a flash-back telling of the story up to the point of the murder, which is really just an excuse for several sexual encounters while Lorys performs the majority of the scenes (both sexual and expository) in the buff. The subsequent half hour (where we finally see a couple of nice scenes with actress Miranda) turns the whole thing into a straight-forward thriller with a murder/robbery plot, an impressive corkscrew twist and a somewhat shocking finale. All in all, not too shabby. I even liked the freeze-frame opening credits, which really sets the mood as an erotic thriller – and one of the most elemental Franco films I’ve had the pleasure of watching.
Upon further reflection, I recall that Shriek Show had announced the release of Franco’s “Sex Charade” back in the summer of ’04, and then it was suddenly dismissed from their slate only days before the release date. Merely a couple of months later, they released Nightmares Come at Night. I have suspicions that these two films are one in the same – though I can’t find any information online to support or denounce this theory. The only clue I had to go on was that I’d (years ago now) read an in-depth essay on the works of Franco and Soledad Miranda, where it was revealed the pair had produced a total of six completed feature films together: “She Killed in Ecstasy”, “Vampyros Lesbos”, “Eugenie de Sade”, “Count Dracula”, “Devil Came from Akasava” and “Sex Charade”. No mention whatsoever of Nightmares Come at Night, and in fact, I’d never even heard of this movie until Shriek Show released it... Two months after the aborted Sex Charade release... Both of which were originally produced in French in 1969 and started Soledad Miranda, both crediting her with the stage name Susan Korda. Hmm…
-V.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Jack Palance, RIP

Sadly, Jack Palance passed away this last Friday. Being a kid of the late seventies and eighties, I remember first seeing this acclaimed actor as the host of the quirky Ripley’s… Believe it or not “reality” television series. As time went on, of course, I became more familiar with Jack Palance as I saw him as the bad guy in Tango & Cash and the mean cattle rustler in City Slickers. He always had a great screen presence and was able to make any character he played an absolutely memorable one – and in some cases, making his character the most appealing one in the entire film, as in both of the aforementioned movies. While this great actor had this kind of Hollywood schlock to deal with, I never thought I’d see him in the kind of schlock titled Deadly Sanctuary – a film I discovered in the foreign section many years ago when I was working at a Blockbuster Video store… Believe it or not. I still remember it was packaged in one of those over-sized cardboard VHS boxes. He shared star credit with Klaus Kinski, and I was immediately curious. Taking it home that night, I made it only part way through the murky pan & scan print of this censored hack job that had rendered a perfectly good exploitation film incomprehensible. Of course, it would be several years before I realized that this was indeed a perfectly good piece of exploitation filmmaking…
Reissued on DVD a couple of years back as Marquis de Sade’s Justine on Blue Underground’s gorgeous DVD, I was finally able to rediscover this Franco classic in all its glory. And Jack Palance does do a fine job, though it is admittedly somewhat unnerving to see him in this kind of film, where he plays a twistedly sadistic monk… However, since the release of Justine, I’d discovered that Jack Palance was no stranger to either European or American schlock (including Spaghetti Westerns), having witnessed performances in films like The Sensuous Nurse, an Italian sex comedy from the 60’s which also starred bond girl Ursula Andress, and the stunningly effective (and underrated) 80’s horror-slasher Alone in the Dark. Scores of his even lesser-known credits, according to the IMDb, include Without Warning, Gor, Cocaine Cowboys, Hawk the Slayer, Angels’ Brigade, Mr. Scarface, Welcome to Blood City, and A Bullet from God.
RIP, Jack. The only 87-yer-old who still looked like he’d kick your ass.
-V

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Diabolical Dr. Z and the sensuous Killer in Ecstasy

Jess Franco’s comic book stylized The Diabolical Dr. Z is a very weird, oblique essay in revenge, where mad scientist Dr. Z succumbs to a fatal heart attack after being lambasted by his peers for his unorthodox experiments in mind control through spinal surgery. With the fire of vengeance in her belly, his daughter, played by actress Mabel Karr (who could be a precursor to the Ilsa character later directed by Franco in The Wicked Warden chapter of the cult WIP* series) goes about exacting her revenge on her father’s scientific peers, and she makes no bones about going about it the long way, which entails her killing a female hitchhiker and burning the corpse in her car in order to fake her own death, becoming disfigured by the fire she’d set and then having to perform cosmetic surgery on herself (!) before kidnapping and performing the mind-controlling surgery on an innocent go-go dancer named “Miss Death” so that she may use the dancer to seduce men into her murderous trap – wherein Miss Death proceeds to slash the victims across the neck with her two-inch-long fingernails while intermittently slinking through the film in various see-through costumes – and despite the fact that Dr. Z’s daughter already has a housemaid and a serial killer under her cerebral control. Huh. This needlessly complex revenge scenario become a little ridiculous even for Franco, but the great thing is that the whole thing almost comes off looking like Russ Meyer got a hold of a Hitchcock script that had been re-worked by Wile E. Coyote somewhere along the way.
*Women in Prison
I should also mention that Miss Death’s spider-dance performance sequence (opposite a mannequin) seemed the obvious basis for a re-working into Soledad Miranda’s famous Vampyros Lesbos mannequin striptease dance five years later (1971). Within that same time period, actress Miranda would also star in Franco’s own remake of Dr. Z - 1970’s She Killed in Ecstasy
Conversely, in this much-pared-down remake, the adored Soledad Miranda stars not as the mad scientist’s daughter, but rather as his wife; who this time goes on her own vengeful rampage, essentially letting what sparse bloodletting there is splatter on her own hands (and don’t get too excited, I’m just being figurative - there’s not really any red to speak of in these films). She Killed in Ecstasy has two major points going for it; first of all, there’s a lot of nudity and eroticism from our leading lady, and secondly, the story is really a hell of a lot tighter and to-the-point with Miranda doing her own dirty deeds here. Gone are the endearing comic-book sensibilities of Dr. Z, and in is the overloading of full-color Euro kitsch, which this film boasts almost to the point of absurdity! This, in all honesty, is just another reason this particular Franco film is so endearing.
Unusually, there wasn’t any of that on-screen nudity in The Diabolical Dr. Z, even for the time it was produced (1966) Franco usually displayed a little female flesh in his cinematic forays. But Dr. Z from a technical standpoint looks far superior. Part of the accumulated kitsch that makes up She Killed in Ecstasy comes from Franco’s signature overuse of the zoom lens and utilization of long, sketchy camera movements in place of actual coverage and competent editing, which was pretty much his standard filmmaking technique in the early 70’s. Not to say She Killed in Ecstasy is a bad-bad movie (well, it is if you don’t like bad movies), in fact I find it a lot more charming than the earlier black & white Dr. Z version - though speaking of Dr. Z, the final showdown between Miss Death’s boyfriend and the daughter’s personal serial killer is pretty cool, and the conclusion is weirdly James Bond-esque. But what makes She Killed in Ecstasy special is the leading femme fatale in this one, though she’s considerably more sexy than menacing.

The Re-Issues…
While Image Entertainment has more recently re-issued She Killed in Ecstasy with a reportedly much finer print transfer (2004), and as much as I do love this film, I felt that my scratchy, efficiently bare-bones Synapse Films version (2000) was just fine for this movie. On the other hand, the Mondo Macabro release of The Diabolical Dr. Z showcased some amazing extras, including a kick-ass 15-minute Franco documentary and comprehensive and insightful biographies on the talent.

-V.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Virgin Among the Living Dead

Jess Franco’s low-budget zombie erotica is one of his most interesting works, as technically speaking, it sits oddly somewhere in the void between his stunningly competent (Eugenie) and his loveably trashy and inept (Vampyros Lesbos, Female Vampire)
And as if this wasn’t enough of an anomaly unto itself, Virgin Among the Living Dead goes further into the inexplicable as it’s from the very era that produced Franco’s most famous works and his most famous actresses/muses, such as Soledad Miranda, Maria Rohm and Lina Romay. However, Virgin stars none of these Franco favorites, instead, the leading lady is played by Christina von Blanc, who’s only other Franco credit (as far as I could find) was his sex flick The Virgin Report. Christina von Blanc does, however, make for a very appealing and sexual lead, playing it up with a refreshingly innocent girl-next-door flair. In fact, the actress manages to carry the entire film on her own shoulders, especially through the lackluster horror sequences that are interspersed between the far more alluring scenes of lesbian sex, vampiric fetishes and the female solo rolling-around-on-the-carpet nakedness.
The zombie and often laughable “horror” (or fetishistic) sequences actually aren’t all that terrible; often reminding me of another Spanish zombie flick called The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (a.k.a. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) – and I know that hardcore zombie fans of Manchester Morgue are probably going to want to kill me for even mentioning this film in the same essay as Jess Franco – but come on, Manchester Morgue was certainly no Night of the Living Dead, despite all of its bloody (and somewhat uninspiring) coattail-riding intentions. But that being said, Virgin was no Manchester, either, if you’re going to compare strictly on a zombies and grue basis.
But Franco’s film indeed has an interesting cultish-mystery spin as our heroine goes about trying to figure out if her bizarre hallucinations are really happening of if the mansion she’s just inherited is somehow haunted, which simply by its own plot construct also gives Franco the chance to exploit some of the visual sexual-psychedelics he’s so familiar with. The zombies act more like ghosts than traditional gut-munchers or brain-eaters, and really only appear near Virgin’s conclusion, where the far more entertaining nude Satanic sacrifice is also about to unfurl.
The charming Virgin Among the Living Dead eluded my Franco library for a while because I couldn’t find it around town for less than $35.79 for the single DVD release! Last year, Image Entertainment released the four-disc Jess Franco Collection box set, which includes the Virgin DVD, and I unexpectedly found it at the Future Shop for a mere thirty-four bucks brand new. Well recommended!
-V.


*Note: This retrospective pertains to the R1 preferred “Director's Cut" version, which does not included the "added" zombie sequences in the middle of the film.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Maria Rohm

Maria Rohm is the unsung heroine of Jess Franco, appearing (and often starring) in several of his countless productions throughout the sixties and seventies. Baring a slight resemblance to the blonde German actress Ewa Stroemberg, who co-starred along side the infamous Solidad Miranda in She Killed in Ecstasy and Vampyros Lesbos, Maria Rohm actually starred in more Franco films than either of her more famous colleagues. Regardless, the quality of the Rohm/Franco catalogue showcases director Franco at his most stylistic, mature, and despite the accomplished eroticism, his least salacious (with the exception of the X-rated version of 99 Women). Maria Rohm as an actress commands both a kind of screen discipline and undeniable attractiveness - making the often erotic ventures even more pleasing to the viewer. Some of their best and most highly regarded (or at least highly sought-after) collaborations have thankfully been made available on DVD (in North America) in the last couple of years - most often thanks to DVD mavericks Blue Underground. Of these selected films, Venus in Furs is possibly the best; it's certainly got the most to show-off. Here, Maria Rohm has the lead role as mysterious beauty Wanda Reed, and she gets a chance to play off a talented cast in conjunction with a slightly bizarre, psychedelic, but yet surprisingly tight script disguised as a supernatural thriller (of sorts). Aside from this leading role, however, most of Maria Rohm's contributions to Franco's cinematic world has been as part of an ensemble cast or in a co-starring slot. Nevertheless, even as she portrays these characters, her screen presence often arises over even the top-billed leading ladies (as in 99 Women, and to some extent, Euginie). Blue Underground has released Venus in Furs, 99 Women (in two versions), Euginie: The Story of her Journey into Perversion, and Justine (a.k.a. "Marquis de Sade's Justine"), all boasting nearly astounding film transfers - or, astounding compared to the old VHS copies previously available - if you were lucky enough to find them at all - and all of these films definitely focus heavily on themes of eroticism, yet with entirely different backdrops. Euginie and Justine were both based on the works of De Sade, the somewhat kinky Venus in Furs was loosely based on the book by Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, and 99 Women is a women-in-prison genre offering. Aside from the sex, all four films are about as diverse as you'll find in Franco's vast filmography, and all were produced within a relative short time span (Justine was 1968 while the other three films were all produced in 1969 - with 99 Women being produced on location during one of Franco's "Fu Manchu" shoots, I believe – consequently, Maria Rohm also co-starred in Franco’s The Blood of Fu Manchu). As much as I love them all, I honestly can't say which of these is my favorite. As a showcase for Maria – Venus wins, hands down.
As a side-note, all of the Blue Undergroud DVDs include in-depth and entertaining interviews with director Franco, Venus also includes and audio interview with Rohm.
-V.

Succubus


I received the new Franco release from Blue Underground (via Amazon) about ten days ago - his 1969 psychedelic romp entitled Succubus. I've seen that this one has been getting some pretty good reviews on the internet - my first experience with this movie (as is the case with many fans) was Anchor Bay's original 2000 full-frame DVD release (the new Blue Underground version presents an enhanced 1.66:1 transfer). Back at the time the AB DVD was released, I not only purchased this one, but also Anchor Bay's Two Undercover Angels and Kiss Me Monster (all purchased from a local DVD retailer) as well as ordering Female Vampire and She Killed in Ecstasy - and back in those days, I was a manager for Blockbuster, so I had access to special orders from our Canadian distributors, as well as receiving employee discounts on all purchases. Well, six years ago, my Franco fanaticism was just being birthed, and I had not yet acquired the full-bodied palate required to fully appreciate these masterpieces of pure kitsch genius (as accidental as that genius may or may not have been). After viewing this slew of titles over roughly more than one week, I promptly returned Female Vampire, She Killed in Ecstasy and yes, even Succubus to my place of employment, where I re-wrapped them, returned them (at a slightly inflated refund, you know, for my troubles), and then shipped all of them back to the Canadian video distributor. (I retained my copies of Two Undercover Angels and Kiss Me Monster - but we'll talk about those movies down the road). Needless to say, over the last two years or so, I've been trying to recoup my losses, so to speak. Sure, I made a bit of a profit with my video store exploits and managerial shenanigans, but at what cost...? Succubus was soon to go out of print, with She Killed in Ecstasy dangerously close to falling into those footsteps of cinematic oblivion once again, and our local Virgin Megastore was now selling Female Vampire for over 40 dollars! (I quit working for Blockbuster in 2002, so I would've had to go full-price again). Luckily, I managed to track down one of those titles at a used DVD shop downtown for under 10 bucks, while a good friend of mine insisted I take his copy of Female Vampire off his hands for free! (I guess he's in the same boat I was a few years ago). That left Succubus...

When I saw that Blue Underground was set to release it, I couldn't wait. I was like a kid waiting around for Christmas! I pre-ordered it - and getting home from work to find it crammed into my apartment mailbox by a perfunctorial postal employee - I was ecstatic! And as if to thwart the face of any disappointment head-on, I found that was not only Succubus well worth the wait, not only was it so much more enjoyable now that I'd allowed a few years from my palate to acquire the taste of Cinema Franco, not only was it just as kitschy, entertaining, ludicrous and absolutely sexy as any of Franco's best works - I re-discovered that this, Succubus, could indeed be his best work - arguable, okay - but it's certainly now in high consideration for my favorite Franco of all time. No small order, that one.

-V.

P.S.
I'm going to try to do a new post every Saturday - we'll see how that goes for a while.
v.