Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Monday, November 23, 2009

The 2009 Jess Franco Marathon, Part 6 of 8:

“Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun” **1/2

...Well, I guess it can’t be all Jess Franco all of the time. It was a longer delay between Franco installments than expected, though I’d tried to give “Love Letters” a spin earlier last week, but alas, was interrupted by other cinematic going-ons. I did manage to get the gist of the plot-thrust, nevertheless… A young man and young woman are frolicking innocently through the woods when a mean old Catholic priest from St. Vincent's happens to take offense at witnessing such frolicking. He takes the girl back to her mother and basically manipulates the mother into giving consent for her daughter to be taken to the St. Vincent's nunnery, and then he proceeds to try to extort a “dowry” for the church’s inconveniencing. When it’s clear the mother is too poor to pay, he then threatens her with action from the Inquisition. He gets his way and the girl is off to become a nun, where she’s immediately subjected to a highly suspect examination of her virginity. It’s there, all right… but for how long…?

Things inevitably go from bad to worse as the young virgin discovers that St. Vincent's Catholic Church is actually just a cover for wholly Satanic goings-on and copious amounts of nudity and Earthly masochism. While this all might sound like a truckload of fun in its Euro-Nunsploitation context, and the inclusion of some off-kilter humour not withstanding, the whole thing nosedives into completely predictable melodramatic boredom with half an hour of the running time left to go, and it's at about this point the sex and nudity tapers off, too, leaving nothing much to keep the doldrums from setting in. Too bad, because this was the first Franco film I'd experienced where I thought he'd really have something socially subversive to say; Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun initially looked like it was one of those infamous films that caused the Catholic Church to declare Franco one of “the most dangerous filmmakers” to Catholicism. It's undeniably blasphemous, almost more so than the demon from The Exorcist, but perhaps the church should've watched this one all the way to the end.

Till next time...


Monday, November 09, 2009

The 2009 Jess Franco Marathon, Part 5 of 8:

“Love Camp” **

This exploitation quickie opens up with two working girls who must've stolen their boots from the Blue Rita set; they're minding their own beeswax when they're suddenly taken captive. This scene is immediately followed by the kidnapping of another half-naked girl, right out of her own bed, and quickly thereafter a fourth victim, a bride on her wedding night, is stolen right out of her hotel room from in front of her husband! After the re-digitized opening credits we see a team of soldiers towing a line of tied-up gals through the jungle terrain, where one of the women asks, “Where are we going?” and the soldier retorts, “You'll find out soon enough!” I suppose we will...

The female prisoners are led into a room where the “Number 1” soldier is waiting to greet them and to explain the reason behind their abduction, presumably for both the girls' and the audience's benefit. It appears they're there to volunteer their services to the soldiers of the revolutionary army. “Well, we should soon see an improvement in our men's morale!” Number 1 exclaims. And the plot thickens... “They need the the kind of relaxation only a woman can provide!” Well, there's nothing like a straight-forward storyline.

Unfortunately, the voice-over actor handling the dubbing duties on Number 1 sounds like he's reading the pages on the fly. Thankfully, though, this introductory/exposition scene is promptly followed by the obligatory group female shower scene.

Post-shower scene, we have yet another introductory scene, this time it's the lioness blond Directress of the “Camp” spewing a 'Welcome to the Revolution' speech to the new girls. Mid-speech, one of the girls tries to make a break for it, the Directress springs into action and the girl is swiftly decapitated (below the bottom of the frame – I guess the production was unable to spring for a severed head or two). At this point in the film, I think it's fairly safe to assume the new girls now know exactly what they're in for.

As a side-note, the actress who played the Nazi-loving warden in Barbed Wire Dolls is on the other end of the stick in this film, playing one of the prisoners. She actually does quite a good job here as one of the more (loosely) complex sympathetic characters, quite the antithesis to her campy domineering warden character from the first movie. Now that the new girls are all safely locked up in their cell, it's time for Number 1 to make his re-entrance in search of his nightly “entertainment”, swaggering into the prison cell looking like a jungle version of Zap Brannigan and checking out the girl in the bed closest to the cell door: “There's nothing entertaining about that skinning kid! I need a real woman!” ...And believe me, there's way more awesomeness where that came from.

But the trouble really starts when Number 1 and the pep-talking Directress both fall for the same female prisoner. And when the counter-revolutionary doctor tries to smuggle a communique into the camp via the female prisoner's vaginal “examination”, he too becomes the subject of yet another off-screen decapitation!

And just like that, the first sixty-five minutes of Love Camp has flown by in a blur of female nudity and lesbian sex with the occasional disciplinary whipping, with a scant ten minutes left to introduce new plot turns and wrap the whole thing up in a pretty amusing finale. Fun? Yes. Funny? You bet. Worth the seventy-five minutes? If you can appreciate non-stop female nudity, then absolutely! A good movie? Well... I guess that would really be a matter of taste, or turn-ons, or some kind of non-cinematic consideration... A good movie compared to say, The Godfather? No, not really. Compared to Barbed Wire Dolls, or She Killed in Ecstasy? Well, close, but truthfully, no cigar here, either. Love camp was fun for what it was – Camp, plain and simple. I'd still recommend it even if you're mildly curious. Hell, it's a Jess Franco film! As Texan film critic Joe Bob Briggs would say, Check it out!

Till later this week...


P.S. Yes, the documentary on this DVD was again a repeat of the earlier ones. I'm going to just go ahead and assume that the rest of the DVD documentaries are likewise, and will now cease to comment on them unless something different is otherwise discovered.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The 2009 Jess Franco Marathon, Part 4 of 8:

“Jack the Ripper” ***

Jack the Ripper is the fourth DVD in this Edwin C. Dietrich-produced Jess Franco Collection, and the fourth – and last one – that Franco's both written and directed.

In the documentary on the “Blue Rita” DVD, Dietrich surmised that Jack the Ripper was one of Franco's lengthier cinematic obsessions, he believed that Franco had wanted to bring this story to the screen for some time before he'd approached Dietrich with the concept. This would make this something of a more personal obsession for the Spanish filmmaker. Dietrich also mentioned that most of Franco's fans find Jack the Ripper atypical of his body of work, but I'd counter that these fans might not have had the chance to appreciate the likes of Ilsa, Blue Rita, Venus in Furs, or The Blood of Fu Manchu.

But on the atypical point of view, Jack the Ripper opens with a very Argento-esque murder scene. A prostitute leaving a popular pub exchanges a few words with a blind street person before winding through the labyrinth of foggy back-alley streets (it's actually Zurich dubbing for London, but it looks quite good), and ultimately falling victim to the Ripper, and witnesses by the blind man who was hiding back in the shadows. Surprisingly, the following scene has Jack bringing his kill to Frieda, the female janitor of the botanical gardens, who asks Jack, “Is this my doll?”. Without a doubt, this is going to be Franco's own twisted vision of the ripper legend.

And in that vain, a lot of this film was populated with female characters to be seen as symbols of the ripper's mindset. In this, Franco's Freudian character study of the famous serial killer, we have Frieda, playing the ignored companion, The Lovely Whore, The Overbearing and Degrading Mother, and even Lina Romay's cliché Female Victim, which may provide more emotional subtext that one might see at first glance. (At the very least her death is the most spectacular).

While the whole of Jack the Ripper is competently shot and directed, there's a lot that was presented without much flare, and the film ultimately is not what it could have been. But there were still more than just a few impressive moments, and those at least appeared consistently throughout half the film. As examples, there's a memorably humorous scene where a fisherman visits the leading Inspector of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad with his catch of the day – and earlier in the film, we have an inspired kaleidoscopic dream sequence featuring the image of Jack's prostitute mother, taunting him in his dreams and memories. This nightmare actually prompts Jack to go out into the night for a little more stalking and slashing, when he's suddenly caught and subverted by his chatty (female) medical assistant who also happens to have a crush on him – and so here's another example of the pivotal roles the female characters are plying in this film, underlying the mind of the killer/leading man. When Jack finally manages to get away from his assistant and her unappreciated advances, his next victim is the aforementioned Lovely Whore.

The film really does pick up its rhythm after the first half hour, and by the time we get into the third act, the style of Franco's film is heading back into Hitchcockian/Argento territory again, with another Aregento-esque plot turn that has the Scotland Yard Inspector's dancer-girlfriend taking it upon herself to go undercover as a prostitute in London's underbelly in order to help the Inspector catch his killer, especially as the Inspector has been receiving public criticism for not having been able to snare the ripper yet.

As he did with “Ilsa the Wicked Warded”, Jess Franco has provided another solid script with which to base his direction from, and Jack the Ripper is indeed revered by a lot of his fans as some of his best work. But as solid as this film, Ilsa, and Blue Rita all were, I find myself yearning, just a little bit, for the wild imperfections of “Barbed Wire Dolls”; it was films like that that really exuded a cinematic charm that only Jess Franco had, but only in the midst of the competent filmmaking can we see the joy and entertainment in those (so many) imperfect films of Jess Franco.

I'm very curious to see what the next four films in the collection have to offer, “Love Camp” will be the first one Franco collaborates his directorial efforts with another script writer, Manfred Gregor (who is credited with writing the last four films in the set).

Like the earlier DVDs, Jack the Ripper's boasted documentaries are actually repeats of the ones displayed on Barbed Wire Dolls and Blue Rita. A shame, but I have hopes for the next couple of films, regardless. I'm such an optimist.

Till next time...


Friday, November 06, 2009

The 2009 Jess Franco Marathon, Part 3 of 8:

“Ilsa the Wicked Warden” ***1/2
Pre-Viewing Note: Although there are three or four entries in this Nazi-female-exploitation series of films, this will be the first one I've seen. In North America, Anchor Bay Entertainment released an “Ilsa” box set a few years ago. I saw the box set at a slashed price in a Virgin Megastore in San Francisco, and I was afraid that the severely reduced price was indicative of the titles going on moratorium. My concerns were soon proven to be correct, only a couple of weeks later the titles were no longer available to purchase. As the titles have all gone out of print in Canada and the US, I have since found them released not-quite-legally online, and I did download copies of them (for my personal and educational use, of course), but I never did wind up watching them, fearful only of the reduced quality in which I'd be watching them. So far, the DVD transfers in the Anchor Bay UK Collection of Franco's films appear to be pretty tip-top, so I'm happily going into this viewing with some positive anticipation. I guess we'll see what's in store.

(Eighty-seven minutes later...)

Post-Viewing: Well, this was it, the original bona fide cult classic starring Dyanne Thorne, Lina Romay and Jess Franco himself. What year was this baby shot, anyway? The opening-scene jailbreak and subsequent hunt through the jungle totally reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark! Then again, maybe it was the three beers I'd have for lunch... At any rate, the jungle scene leads us into the house of Dr. Arcos, a political humanitarian, played by Jess Franco and overdubbed by some French-accented voice actor, which leads into some entertaining off-screen narration. This then logically leads into the plot proper, concerning a young woman (Tina Busselier) who gets Dr. Arcos to fraudulently sign her into the prison so that she might undo the Wicked Warden (Dyanne Thorne) and uncover the truth about her sister, who went missing from the prison. Turns out the young lady was ill-prepared for the corruption, torture and degradation behind the prison walls. There's time enough near the beginning of the story for a couple of choice Franco one-liners, like just before the young lady is hosed down upon her entrance into the prison, “I'd rather remover my blouse myself,” to which the stocky female guard retorts, “I'd rather you kept your mouth shut!” And then post-hosing-down: “I'd like to have some panties,” and again, the stocky guard: “Not here, you don't! Go bare-assed!”. Sweet.

Again, I'll have to put the kidding aside, because this is actually one of the best Franco films I've seen so far. Indeed, Ilsa lived up to my anticipation and expectations. Deceivingly, Ilsa almost doesn't seem as explicit as Franco's “Barbed Wire Dolls”, but I believe that's because Ilsa is more in the style of Johnathan Demme's own exploitation classic “Caged Heat”. I think, also, that this is probably one of Franco's most professionally presented and confidently shot films. Even the writing is good, with extremely well-drawn characters played by Thorne, Romay, Franco, and Busselier. Yes, without a doubt, this is by far one of the best films (if not the best) in Franco's impressive repertoire.

This classic example of seventies exploitation, more than deserving of its own cult status (and then some), leads up to a third act that is surprisingly inspired by the likes of the old EC comics and comes to a pretty show-stopping finale. I'm definitely going to be giving this disc a second spin in the near future.

There's a documentary included on this disc as well, but disappointingly, it's a repeat of the film restoration doc on the Barbed Wire Dolls DVD! I guess the documentaries were designed for the single-disc releases, not the inclusive box set. Too bad.

Till the next one...


Thursday, November 05, 2009

The 2009 Jess Franco Marathon, Part 2 of 8:

“Blue Rita” ***

I was knocked right back in the first few seconds with the funky, porno-chic opening of Blue Rita, a film which also boasts some of the best music in a Jess Franco soundtrack since Vampyros Lesbos.

Paris exteriors not withstanding, Blue Rita is without a doubt one of Franco's most visually striking and cinematographically appealing films, despite a lot of it being shot in mid-to-close-ups (which in fact works well with the movie and its off-the-wall color scheme... and yes, there's a color scheme). Blue Rita also has just the right amount of weirdness (a lot) to go with its kidnapping and extortion/revenge plot – not to mention the global spy-network James Bond-esque subplot and its sci-fi overtones.

Alright, I know, enough about the damned plot and the cinematography, what about the sleaze factor? (Or, pardon me, the erotic factor). Once again, amidst classic dialog like “I told you the green magic potion would make him hornier than ever before!” there are a number of erotic scenes that do work on various levels: art, erotica, sleaze, set dec (and speaking of set-dec, this one's as kitschy as ever!), this could very well be Franco's “Barbarella”.

The film is dazzled with science-fiction art dec and costuming, but the plot is not exactly all-out sci-fi (except for the magic green sex potion, of course). The plot concerns Blue Rita, obviously the title character, who is running a brothel/strip-joint/nightclub and is simultaneously entertaining her notions of vengeance against the intelligence organization who had sent out a couple of thugs to mutilate her womanhood with a “hot iron”. (I don't know, her pussy looked perfectly fine to me). Ironically, the new girl Blue Rita has just hired happens to be an undercover Interpol agent, and she turns out to be a real fly in the ointment concerning Blue Rita's plans for revenge. Counterpointing the plot thrusts are the signature Franco girl-writhing-on-floor performance art, which in this case is more explicit than either of the dance numbers from “Diabolical Dr. Z” or, more famously, “Vampyros Lesbos”. The man definitely has a fetish for naked women squirming about themselves on the floor, as much as he does with transparent inflatable furniture, it seems... But getting back to the cinematography, this 16x9 anamorphic transfer actually look a little tight at the top – I think maybe this film would've been happier with a 1.66:1 transfer instead.

Watch to the end to hear who the undercover Interpol agent is sent off to meet next. After the movie, there's another great documentary included on this disc; I though it was going to be another film restoration piece, but instead we have producer Edwin C. Dietrich paying tribute to Franco and the fifteen films Franco shot for Dietrich's production company throughout the seventies and early eighties. Dietrich is really an engaging and genuine-sounding speaker, making the half-hour segments a breeze to watch (he also had a lot of input in the Barbed Wire Dolls restoration documentary). And the film Blue Rita only goes to prove one of his more hilarious points regarding Jess Franco: “Each film is different, not all of them are blurred... In some, he even used a tripod!” Awesome.

And I myself may jest, but I truthfully jest with genuine affection. Till the weekend...


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The 2009 Jess Franco Marathon, Part 1 of 8:

“Barbed Wire Dolls”
(aka Frauengefangnis) **1/2

I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce the German title of this Franco film, let alone know what it means by translation...

It's Night One of The Cracking of the UK Franco Collection, and held within the shrink-wrapping we have eight of Franco's German-shot productions. Since the DVDs in this Anchor Bay UK Collection are packaged in alphabetical order, that's exactly how I'll proceed...

Barbed Wire Dolls starts off like any old 1970's drive-in WIP-flick, so right off the bat you know you're going to be in for some kind of exploitation extravaganza. As per the norm, this one stars Lina Romay, Franco's muse (who came along after the upsetting death of Soledad Miranda circa 1970). Shot in the German language and absolutely hilariously dubbed into English, we North Americans are now privy to such smacking dialog as, “Sign here... for your shock treatment!” and “Your clothes... Remove them!” This, only moments after the Nazi-ish female warden of the prison camp enters the front office to greet the new arrival (Romay) wearing her appropriately German-esque monocle and her crack-pinching super-short-shorts. Of course, this is how female prison wardens would likely dress, so our suspension of disbelief hasn't quite been strained to the breaking point, and we can sit back and enjoy the ride.

Much like the “Female Vampire” R1 DVD, “Barbed Wire Dolls” looks to be a specifically non-X-rated version of a possibly longer (pornographic) cut of the film. My suspicions on this are based solely on one strange cut that occurs near the beginning of the story, in which a sex scene looks conspicuously about to head into explicitly X-rated territory before cutting to a mirror, then abruptly to an already-out-of-focus shot. Of course, this is a Franco film, so strange cuts can by no means be considered hard evidence of anything. But all rumors aside, this monikered “Director's Edition” still has plenty enough skin and raunchiness on display, and some of it stylishly so (though a lot of the stylish flare is confined mostly to the scenes of Lina Romay's shock treatment). None of the female cast members wear any pants at any point in this film, and again, much like “Female Vampire”, there are plenty of zooming muff shots to go around. Before I even got past the ten-minute mark of this puppy, I couldn't imagine, even in the slightest, that Jess Franco was making this movie with any kind of serious consideration. It was all just too looney tunes! Of course, my theory completely juxtaposes the seemingly intentional tone of doom and torture and serious political dialog. (Or would that mean that my theory would ironically compliment the tone...? Ach, my head hurts. That's what you get for tying to dissect a German grindhouse flick from the 70's).

Truthfully, it took about 25 minutes (or one-third of the actual running time) before I found myself completely involved with the shenanigans, which was about at the point where the warden was kicking back in her high heels, immersing herself in a paperback of which I can only assume would be translated as The Power of the Third Reich. There's a jaw-dropping dream sequence soon after, which tells the backstory of why Lina Romay is in prison in the first place – and the whole sequence is ACTED in slow motion! ACTED in SLOW MOTION! It was too ludicrous to accurately describe the giddy confusion I was feeling at watching the sequence play out – I guess Franco's DOP didn't mention that they could have just SHOT the scene in slow-mo by speeding up the film. And there's really so much more... rubber rats, cheesy plot twists, the constant re-usage of the exterior footage (same shot!) of the prison guards, which I guess was to make them look busy and extremely focused.

But crazy filmmaking aside, each of these Anchor Bay discs includes a pretty lengthy documentary on the restoration of these particular Jess Franco films, and I have to say I was stunned. It looks like the movies went through a Star Wars-like cleanup & restoration process, and it appears that Jess Fracno's films are far more revered in Europe now.

Till tomorrow...