Monday, 9 December 2013

We Need to Talk About Jess Franco

Hello, Mr. Franco

In real terms, anyone attempting to sum up the life and career of Spanish film-maker Jess Franco (born Jesús Franco Manera, 1930-2013) in anything shorter than a multi-volume biography is doomed to failure.
It's not just the overwhelming size of his body of work that makes him so difficult to categorize--199 films as director--but the eccentricity of his methods and the idiosyncratic nature of the man himself. His extremely personal films either absorb the viewer into a completely unique world, or alienate them forever. But love him or hate him, you can't mistake a Jess Franco film for anyone else's.

On the surface, Franco's films appear to be little more than grindhouse trash, repeating the same elements; sexy nightclub acts, beautiful and often naked women (like Soledad Miranda, and, following her untimely death in a car accident, rampant exhibitionist Lina Romay), mad scientists, Howard Vernon, secret agents, BDSM, the supernatural, dreamlike narratives, furious pacing, more Howard Vernon, and endless zooms. Oh, the zooms! If you've never seen a Jess Franco film, you need to be forewarned; producer Harry Alan Towers (with whom Franco made 9 films) called him, "a jazz musician who discovered the zoom lens". Franco did use to be a jazz musician, and often mistook the zoom lever for the slid on a cornet.

Franco's favourite actor, Howard Vernon at
Franco's favourite location, Xanadu,  in Countess Perverse.

Yet, despite the ostensibly throw-away nature of his films (many completed in under a month), Franco's death back in April, just over a year after his muse and partner Romay succumbed to lung cancer aged just 57, is, genuinely, a great loss to cinema.

Lina Romay, in here most iconic role, in Franco's
Female Vampire.
Serious, I had a really had time finding a picture of her wearing even this much.

Half the people reading this will likely scoff at that last statement, but cult film and horror aficionados will probably nod in agreement. One thing is undeniable; we will not see his like again. And while Takashi Miike might meet his output, and Quentin Tarantino occasionally imitates him as a means of affectionate homage, no one will ever equal him.

It is his uniqueness that makes his work important, and as such, his films are in need of re-evaluating.
Thinking about Franco's films as the cinematic equivalent of jazz is, perhaps, the best way to approach them. Take, for example, She Killed in Ecstasy (completed 1970, released 1971), Franco's first production for German producer Artur Brauner--the screenplay (which explores themes way ahead of its time, such as the morals of embryonic research) was just 8 pages long; Brauner and Franco sketched the budget out on a napkin over lunch; Franco had already made so many films that year, he had to use one of his numerous pseudonyms (Frank Hollmann) to avoid the wrath of the unions; Manfred Hubler and Sigi Schwab contributed to the groovy score--is it any wonder the whole thing feels less like a film than an acid trip? The same team's follow up, and one of Franco's more well-known films, Vampyros Lesbos (1971), was produced in much the same way, this time utilising stunning Istanbul locations. In both, Soledad Miranda, plays a mysterious angel of death; in the case of She Killed in Ecstasy, using her sexuality to lure those she holds responsible for her husband's suicide to their deaths; in Vampyros Lesbos, she may represent sexuality itself, in that the entire film can be read as taking place in the head of a young estate agent, Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stromberg) struggling to come to terms with her own Sapphic desires, awakened whilst observing an erotic nightclub act; though the films is basically a lesbian retelling of Dracula, with Westinghouse replacing Jonathan Harker. It's also interesting to note that the actress cast in the female Renfield roll, Agra, a woman eternally lost in her obsession with the vampire countess, is played by Heidrun Kussin, who bears a striking resemblance to Stromberg and may even represent another facet of Westinghouse's personality; the uncontrollable, sexual id, imprisoned and oppressed by conservative males. The male characters, are all either untrustworthy (in the case of Dennis Price's Dr. Seward, who acts like a vampire hunter but really wants the secret of immortality for himself), or useless and weak (in the case of Westinghouse's male lover, played by the terminally blank Andrés Monales), and the film's ending is left open; the vampire is killed by Westinghouse using a phallic shard of wood to the eye, but Westinghouse's mental condition still lies in a state of confusion over her own feelings, an ambiguity underlined by the fact she is lead away by her dull boyfriend (who represents hetronormative values) and her therapist, Dr. Steiner (Paul Muller), who had previously advised her, after listening to her recount one of her sexual fantasies to "find a lover... a better lover."

"Hello. I'm your better lover. Obviously."

Female sexuality may be one of foundations of exploitation cinema--after all, boobs put bums on seats--but Franco's films, despite still being exploitative, do at least posit that women possess their own sexuality, rather than an artifice imposed upon them by hetronormative (i.e. male-orientated) social "norms". His unconscious narrative style has even produced films comparable to those of David Lynch; Venus in Furs (1969) is not, as the title might suggest an adaptation of Von Sacher Masoch's novella (the film was re-titled by the distributor) but a non-linear tale of a jazz musician (James Daren) haunted by the mysterious Wanda (Maria Rohm), a woman he saw die in a brutal S&M session. Is she really dead? Is he going mad with guilt? Who is killing off her killers? These are not questions the film answers conventionally.

And the moral of the story is, Never Get Kinky With Kinski!

Even the trashiest films produced during Franco's most hyperactive periods hold one or two effective moments. Who can forget the breathtakingly beautiful opening to Female Vampire (1973), in which Lina Romay, naked apart from pvc boots, belt and cape emerges from the mist-shrouded forests of Madeira?
And you can't help but admire a man who managed to trick Christopher Lee into doing an erotic thriller not once, but twice (they filmed the dirty stuff for both The Bloody Judge and Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey into Perversion, both 1970, behind his back). Not only that, but Franco was so charming, Lee was perfectly willing to work with him again, maintaining, "he's a lot better a director than he's given credit for."

"The BBFC shall hear of this!"

Lee's admiration for Franco might have had something to do with the fact that Lee was disappointed with the direction in which Hammer Films had taken their Dracula sequels, and Franco had given him the opportunity to play the Count as Stoker had described him in Count Dracula (1970), a film that, despite its low budget, wins out over many of Hammer's entries by eschewing studio-bound interiors for real locations, and staying closer to the spirit (though not the letter) of the novel.

Franco had shown himself capable of out-Hammering Hammer before, with his first foray into horror, The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962), a torture porn variant on Eyes Without a Face (1960). The film had been directly inspired by Hammer's own Brides of Dracula (1960), which Franco had taken a couple of producers to see in order to prove to them that horror and quality were not incompatible. Orloff stars another Franco regular, Howard Vernon and displays more medical gore than Hammer ever dared to show in the '60s. He later remade Orloff as the big budget Faceless (1988).

See. I told it was called Faceless.

Unfortunately, his obsession with female sexuality led him to surround himself with performers willing to do almost anything on camera and thus unrestrained, his films of the mid 1970s and 1980s too often stray into porn. His over-active imagination and impatience with the production process meant that many of his films were rushed through with almost superhuman speed in order to get on to the next one; and his refusal to work within the mainstream (and, on the rare occasions he did, to play by the rules) meant that he had to work with tiny budgets provided by B-movie producers who catered to the lowest rung of the exploitation ladder. Nevertheless, Franco was content with this arrangement, but often stated that he did not like his own films. It is true that not all of his films are even passable; Dracula contra Frankenstein (1972) was made as an homage to James Whale but is closer to Ed Wood; Cannibals (1980) is an attempt to cash in on the Italian cannibal cycle of the early '80s and stars what appears to be a bunch of pasty British tourists on a package holiday to Spain in heavy make-up as the South American man-eating tribe in question; many of his women-in-prison flicks are vile, and his porn films from the late '70s and early '80s are more tedious than erotic. Still, he did enough good work to finally be awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Goya's.

Franco receiving his Goya. Lina Romay is  behind him.

Still, out of 199 credits, a dozen might actually be classics in their own right. That's quite an achievement. Indeed, Orson Wells--who Franco had assisted on Chimes at Midnight (1965)--and Fritz Lang were both fans. It is time, then, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and give Jess Franco the place in history he so richly deserves.

Goodbye, Mr. Franco

Friday, 23 August 2013

Ben Affleck as Batman???

I hearby give notice that Ben Affleck shall, from henceforth, be known as Batffleck. That is all.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Lost Worlds and Rubber Monsters Part 2: You Cannot Mesmerise Me - I'm British!

One of the daftest pulp writers of the early 20th Century was Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan - a grown man in a loin cloth who thinks he's a monkey, the basic message being that high-society girls all desire an unwashed, crazy homeless dude who'd probably shit in his own hand and throw it at you if you looked at him funny.

Since Arthur Conan Doyle had initiated the 'Lost World' sub-genre with the publication of his 1912 novel entitled... uh... The Lost World, Burroughs also wrote a number of dinosaur epics in a similar vein, most famously his 'Caspak Trilogy' and even a series set inside the Earth, the Vernesque 'Pellucidar Series'.

Burroughs, like all early pulp writers, is terrifically entertaining. Since his work was written so quickly (pulp writers were paid by the word), it has the same, nonsensical, hallucinatory feel to it as the likes of Fantomas, Dr. Fu-Manchu, or Sexton Blake. Between the 1900s and the 1960s, Pulp magazines and cheap paperbacks generally offered up quality surrealist literature that was only accidentally surrealist. Often written at a furious place, they lack reason or logic but are steeped in daftness to an almost lyrical extent.

So, what with the film industry being huge admirers of daftness (how else would you explain Prometheus?), it was only a matter of time before they would come knocking at his door. Tarzan films were being made as far back as the silent era. And Burroughs even contributed to the screenplay of King Kong (1933) but it is a series adaptations by the producer/director team of John Dark and Kevin Connor that are of interest to us.

These adaptations, incidentally, starred hefty monkey-man, Doug McClure. And despite him being a busy and very hard working actor, I'll bet if that you know his name, two things come to mind; Troy McClure from The Simpsons and vague memories of rubber dinosaur movies you saw on a rainy, Sunday afternoon as a kid.

They were produced by British company Amicus, who always seem to have the words, 'Hammer's main rival' after them whenever they are mentioned in articles. They are most famous for their portmanteau horror films, but in the 70s, as Hammer declined to the point where they were making atrocities like Holiday on the Buses (1973), Amicus  recognised that the horror business had radically changed, movies of TV sitcoms were crap and it was time to attempt a blockbuster. Amicus was run out of a shed located 'round the back of Shepperton Studios by two Americans, Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky.

The first of these productions was The Land that Time Forgot (1975), which has one of those titles that makes you assume that it's not a real film.

With a screenplay a writer no less illustrious than the great Michael Moorcock, the film tells the story of a lost U-boat crew whose submarine has been hijacked by British and American survivors of the passenger ship they torpedo at the beginning of the film. After lots of buggering about in the South Atlantic, they come across the lost continent of Caprona (named after a fictional 18th Century explorer, Caproni, who first described it). Since they have a submarine, our heroes are able to do what Caproni couldn't; follow a stream of warm water to locate an underwater tunnel and pass under the vast, rock cliffs that guard the mysterious island.

I'll give you three guesses as to what they find there.

Why can't a T-rex and a Triceratops 
just learn to get on?

No men in monster suits this time; this time the hot, dino-on-dino action is portrayed by rod puppets created by Roger Dicken.

Weirdly, the whole thing actually works as a good (not great, but good) movie and staple of Sunday afternoon family entertainment. It helps that the cast take their roles absolutely seriously, though John McEnery (as the U-boat captain) was entirely re-voiced by Anton Differing, so God knows what his performance was originally like. How hart ist it to do der German akzent, Ja?

The dinosaur effects are pretty clumsy; the puppets are clearly puppets and the pterodactyls look like static models hung from a crane (which is particularly funny when one carries off a caveman) but it's all just part of the charm. The U-boat effects are more successful, despite the problems of scaling up water. They're about on par with the model work in Das Boot (1981). The film ends on a surprisingly downbeat tone, with just about everyone getting boiled alive as the submarine is overcome by an erupting volcano; only Bowen Tyler (McClure) and his love interest, Lisa (Susan Penhaligon) survive, allowing for a framing device whereby the entire film is told in flashback via a message found in a watertight container.

Naturally, this also allowed for a sequel.

The People that Time Forgot (1977) was produced by the same team but was less successful. The main attraction this time being not the dinosaurs but a young Dana Gillespie as a sweaty, big-boobed cave girl.

If cave girls perspired baby oil and
had perfectly styled hair.

Although, to be frank, the sequel is perfectly watchable. McClure is absent for most of the running time, since the plot focuses more on attempts to rescue him and some of the dinosaur set pieces, whilst looking even more fake than the first film, are entertaining enough; a mid-air dogfight between a biplane and a pterodactyl is particularly well done. Well, I say well done; I mean entertaining in its cheesiness. 

This is one of those trailers that tell you
all you need to know. There, you don't
have to bother watching the film now.

Trouble is, the two movies were seriously lacking in the one thing that automatically makes a movie great. That one element that, when added to a film, not matter how dreadful, automatically makes it a masterpiece.

"I'm Peter Fucking Cushing,

Fortunately, this was remedied by Amicus's in between project, At the Earth's Core (1976). And it's glorious.

It's basically the tale of Dr. Abner Perry and David Innes (Cushing and McClure, naturally), two intrepid but slightly incompetent Victorian explorers drilling down to the Earth's Core in their mechanical digging machine, The Iron Mole. By accident.

Alright, maybe a bit more than slightly incompetent.

On the plus side, the Earth's Core does contain Dia in the shapely form of Caroline Munroe.

An exceptionally interesting
geological feature.

Naturally, just about every bloke from every tribe is after Dia, so it's up to David to defend her honour. This causes him to get accidentally engaged to her. Fortunately, this causes him to get accidentally engaged to her!

Cushing, though, is the real star here. He clearly realises the level of nonsense that he is in and does his very worst Dr. Who impersonation, and by that, I'm not referring to The Doctor from the BBC's Doctor Who, I'm referring to those god-awful 1960s Dalek movies in which Cushing played a human scientist actually called "Dr. Who". Despite the fact that he appears to be playing a doddery old git with an eating disorder, Cushing is something of a badass here, even at one point, dispatching a giant, fire breathing toad with a homemade bow and arrow in a scene that has to be seen to be believed...

Do not mess with The Cushing otherwise
The Cushing will make you fucking explode.

We also have him put up a fight against psyching pterodactyls... oh wait, no, sorry; got to get my species right; giant, man-sized "rhamphorhynchus of the middle-Jurassic period" that look nothing like rhamphorhynchus (rhamphorhynchus's? rhamphorhynchuses? rhamphorhynchi?) by spouting this line...

If this happened in real life, the rhamphor... rhampa... ramihampadink...
that big bird's head would explode.

But as much as we all love the Gentleman of Horror, you came here for dinosaurs. Rubber ones. So does At the Earth's Core deliver? Oh yes. Yes it does.

It was a legal obligation in the '70s for rubber dinosaurs to
pick up a doll with its teeth so that you'd get a shot of two little
legs kicking in its mouth.

But the real star of the show is The Iron Mole, a huge, Steampunk contraption, resembling The Mole from Thunderbirds. More Verne that Burroughs, it's a beautiful example of production design; the sort you don't see these days. Now, films tend to go completely over the top when wheeling out some Fantabulous Victorian Contrabulation. In the '50s, '60s and '70s, these things always seemed more credible--total products of science fiction, and yet, seemingly within the realms of possibility, had those wacky Victorians actually attempted to build them.

The John Dark/Kevin Conner/Doug McClure team returned for one more outing, this time backed by EMI and a much higher budget. Warlords of Atlantis (1978) was the result. Shot on location in Malta, the film boasts a much glossier look that their Amicus efforts and tells the story of a Victorian dive team happening upon the Lost Continent of Atlantis in their diving bell. Some of the monster effects, including a giant octopus, are actually pretty awesome, and the cast, including Peter Gilmore, Shane Rimmer and a pre-Cheers John Ratzenberger is more upmarket than Amicus could have afforded. Even Cyd Charisse and her legs turn up at one point, as one of the Martian rulers of Atlantis (it makes sense in context... no wait, sorry, it doesn't).

I will leave you with it's fishy and rather rubbery trailer...