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

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