Archive for the ‘Jess Franco’ Category

Part of the fun of exploring a filmmaker’s work in chronological order is the shock to the system that comes when watching a film that represents a radical departure from a director’s style that you’ve come to associate him/her with. I know audiences who’ve sometimes experienced that when they watch my films in order and how the gulf between the Lynchian surrealism of PANDORA’S PARADOX and the “artsploitation” sado-erotic horror of SHE WAS ASKING FOR IT was a wide one for them indeed. After coming off of watching the Universal/Hammer-esque THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, the Gothic Giallo THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS and the exquisitely shot, proto-female revenge masterpiece, THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, a film like VENUS IN FURS certainly qualifies as the aforementioned “shock to the system.”

Yet at the same time, we find ourselves entering familiar territory with this film. Familiar in the sense that when one thinks of Jess Franco, images of sex, nudity and surrealism set in an exotic locale with a jazz score immediately spring to mind. And in that respect, VENUS IN FURS is a film that embodies all of that and then some.

It’s important to note that your interest in seeing this film for the first time may have more to do with your hope that Franco has brought his unique sensibility to capturing kinky sex on film to this timeless sadomasochistic literary masterpiece. I know that’s what attracted me to VENUS IN FURS the first time I saw it. However, the title is the only thing that has any relation to the novel. Forced by producers to use a title that would draw audiences, Franco had to rename his film, which ironically had to turn people off in the end once they realized this “adaptation” was about as faithful as James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN or Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING.

If you can forgive the blatantly deceptive marketing ploy, you’re in for a real treat as VENUS IN FURS is one of Franco’s stronger films from his experimental period of the ’70s. Now that’s not to say the film is perfect or his masterpiece as some critics are wont to decree. The film has a rather sloppy look to it, particularly in comparison to the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of films like THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z as well as a disappointing twist ending that takes away from the otherwise engaging and original “supernatural rape-and-revenge” motif of the picture, but there’s also a lot of interesting aspects of the film that makes this worth investigating.

As previously mentioned, VENUS IN FURS can best be described as a “supernatural rape-and-revenge” film insofar as the plot centers on a young woman who is tortured and raped by a band of sophisticates and returns from the grave years later to get her revenge. This is done by aligning herself with a jazz musician who witnessed the crime and finds himself performing in clubs and parties that the sophisticates attend on a regular basis. The jazz musician is at first, naturally confused as to how she could be alive and well, but then realizing he’s in a Franco film where logic is about as welcome as a poor man in Mitt Romney’s home, thinks nothing of it and accepts her for what she is and even falls in love with her to boot.

What’s rather spectacular about this plot are the sequences in which the young woman actually gets her revenge. She first targets Dennis Price’s character by seducing him so successfully that he dies of a heart attack from “over-stimulation.” The music, editing and performances of the actors involved really sell this scene and make it rank among the very best that Franco has ever directed. She then moves on to the woman involved in her demise and seduces her. As they’re about to make love down by the fire, the young woman turns into the corpse that the sophisticates left behind in their wake causing the other woman to slit her wrists in a bathtub while delivering a rather poignant monologue. And finally, Klaus Kinski himself gets the best treatment for last. He plays a millionaire playboy who fantasizes about switching societal roles with a “peasant girl” and having her dominate him. Needless to say, the young woman is only too happy to oblige.

There’s also the presence of surrealism that makes this film truly stand apart from his work in the ’60s. While the films made in that period were very much rooted in the real world with straightforward plots driven by cause-and-effect, VENUS IN FURS operates on a more dreamlike basis where the lines between reality and fantasy are constantly being blurred. So much so that it doesn’t come off as strange that when the jazz musician talks about the night he met the young woman at a party that every one except the woman, himself and the sophisticates are moving and the other party attendees are frozen in place. It’s a very effective visual that’s quite chilling and powerful in its simplicity.

And then of course there’s the soundtrack. Whether you’re a fan of Jess Franco or not, one thing everyone usually admits is how fantastic the music is. While the score to VAMPYROS LESBOS is usually referred to as Franco’s greatest, I actually prefer the one here in VENUS IN FURS. It’s beautiful when it needs to be for scenes of sensuality and it’s also foreboding for scenes in which the young woman is seducing a man to death in one of the revenge sequences. Then there’s the VENUS IN FURS title track which always plays after she has successfully claimed another victim. It may sound a little jarring at first, but you’ll find yourself singing, “Venus in Furs will be smiling” long after the film is done.

My main complaint about the film is the twist ending. Now on one hand you can argue that it works and that what we’ve just seen was one big dream sequence by an individual in a state of limbo contemplating the recent events of their life. On the other hand, it’s a deliberate and misguided attempt to add a level of “deeper meaning” to the film that only angers an audience who’ve spent 90 minutes of their lives emotionally invested in what they were watching. I suppose I fall into the latter category as until that moment, VENUS IN FURS really hooked me and I was well on my way to ranking it high up there with Franco’s best work. Unfortunately I’m forced to acknowledge the greatness of a few key moments but also to point out that the journey you’re taken on isn’t one that pays off in a satisfactory way in the end.

VENUS IN FURS may be smiling, but I sure wasn’t after watching this.


If there was ever a film in Jess Franco’s body of work you could use to justify ranking the man among the very best Euro-Horror has to offer, it would be THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z. Granted, you could always mention the film that is generally regarded to be his masterpiece, VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), but for my money, that was a film with a lot of great ideas but not a particularly engaging film from a narrative standpoint. THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z on the other hand truly has it all. A great revenge plot that’ll hook even the most jaded of horror fans, some of the most gorgeous women to ever grace the silver screen, an absolutely exquisite look to the film that evokes the film noir cinematography of THE THIRD MAN, the surreal night-club scene portrayed in countless David Lynch films and a sublime mix of the Gothic and the sensual. This may very well be my favorite Jess Franco film and certainly his masterpiece at least in the domain of his coherent narratives.

The plot centers on Dr. Zimmer who has created a mind control device that can enhance or eliminate one’s tendency for good or evil. When he reveals his work to his academic peers he is rejected and declared mad. This rejection causes him to suffer a fatal heart attack on the spot. His daughter vows to continue his work and does so in the grand tradition of revenge films – by making a list of the doctors who spurned her father and knocking them off one by one using his mind control device to brainwash a sexy go-go dancer to do the deed for her.

When I first saw THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, I was absolutely floored. The visual aesthetics of the film captivated me like no other horror film ever did. I was particularly enthralled by the famous night-club scene in which our go-go dancer turned deadly killing machine performs a surreal and sexy artistic number by crawling around on a spider-web pinned to the floor, making her way to a man seated on a chair. I was so inspired by this scene, that I paid homage to it in one of my films, DARK LOTUS (2009).

Watching this film again, I was also struck by how once again Jess Franco was ahead of his time and a true innovator of horror. This film was made almost a decade before the rape-and-revenge craze of the ’70s, and while there’s no rape in this film per se, the concept of the “hell hath no fury as a woman scorned” revenge theme is certainly present and was a revolutionary one at that. So for those keeping track not only did Jess Franco direct the first giallo with THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS, he may very well have directed the first female revenge film with THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z.

THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z represents Jess Franco at the height of his career. The ’70s would see Franco move away from his Gothic/Film Noir hybrid horror pictures to a more experimental approach to filmmaking. It would be this departure from traditional narrative moviemaking that would spark the debate over whether Franco was an auteur experimenting with genre or simply a deviant masquerading as an artist in order to indulge his sexual thrills in the name of “making art.”

When you watch what I like to call his “Gothic Trilogy” of THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS and THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, I don’t know how any critic can claim with a straight face, that Jess Franco was a no-talent hack. These three films, with the last one in particular are beautifully shot, incredibly well made and above all else, unbelievably innovative in their approach to genre filmmaking. The one thing that has always categorized Franco for me was that all his best films were the ones that played with the conventions of genre and the audience’s expectations of it. While it can be argued that some of his work in the ’70s may have gone a little too far in its experimentation to the point where cinematic semantics and plot incoherence alienated audiences expecting films living up to the promise of lurid titles like VAMPYROS LESBOS, A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD and FEMALE VAMPIRE, the fact that Franco was consciously trying new things and not just churning out another cheap exploitation flick to make a buck (given the meager budgets he would soon be working with, I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t make any money at all) would certainly indicate the temperament of an artist.

At any rate, THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z comes highly recommended and is a must-see in order to properly place Jess Franco’s work in context. It’s important to see where Franco came from before delving into the seedy underbelly of his sexually and experimentally provocative work of the ’70s and understand that Franco was more than capable of creating strong narratives with gorgeous, eye-popping visuals to match. Much like it’s important to see films like ERASERHEAD, BLUE VELVET, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DR. before you see David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE. If your introduction to a filmmaker’s work is through his most obtuse picture, you’re bound to write the rest off as equally inaccessible and that’s not fair or right.

If there’s one issue that’s more contentious among Euro-Horror fans than the criteria a film must meet in order to be called a “giallo,” it’s who directed the first one. Many would concede that the answer to that question is Mario Bava with his 1963 psychosexual thriller THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. And for the most part, they would be right. After all, the “giallo” is an Italian sub-genre of horror that gathers much of its inspiration from the lurid yellow-covered novels that became a staple of Italian literature when the first one was published back in 1929 by the Mondadori publishing house. So suffice it to say, it would take an Italian filmmaker to pull one off as it’s a type of genre that is native to his homeland of Italy. Much like how the Japanese “kaiju” films were an innovation that could only come out of Japan due to a combination of lack of financial resources to pull off the stop-motion animation of KING KONG (1933) and the inspiration drawn from the post-W.W.II trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, when we talk about the “giallo” as a cinematic sub-genre of horror, there are certain motifs that immediately spring to mind. The “whodunnit” factor, the black leather gloved killer, copious amount of sex and violence often set to off-kilter music, flamboyant cinematography that calls attention to itself and red herrings galore. If these are the elements that define the “giallo” as a film genre, then with all due to respect to Mr. Bava, I’m afraid that THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH owes a major debt to Jess Franco and his 1962 Gothic thriller, THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS.

Made in France, a year before the release of THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Franco’s film is an eye-opening revelation as far as discovering where the origin of this much-loved genre comes from. Everything we have come to associate with the “giallo” is there. The sense of mystery and fun that comes with trying to figure out the identity of the killer. The series of grotesque (albeit fairly tame in comparison to what would come out of the work of Dario Argento and Sergio Martino in the ’70s) sex crimes perpetrated to hordes of innocent women. The black leather gloved killer. And even the motif that is commonly credited to Dario Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), the layman “detective” who befriends the chief of police and attempts to help solve the crime but is sent away and warned not to get involved only to get involved anyway via some personal, under-the-radar sleuthing. THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS is quite remarkable in that regard.

It is also quite interesting to see how this film represents not only a turn in Franco’s own career, but that of horror as a cinematic genre altogether. On one hand, the supernatural element of the story being that the ghost of the original Baron Von Klaus has placed a curse on the town owes much to the Universal/Hammer style that was defining horror at the time. While on the other hand, you have a very contemporary story being told here in that while there’s mention of a ghost, the actual murders are being perpetrated by a deranged human being who is committing acts that could very well happen in real life. You have to remember that back in 1962, this was cutting-edge stuff and that properly scared the pants off of audiences. It’s one thing to watch DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and THE WOLF MAN and know full well that the “horrors” being portrayed on screen could never actually happen in real and thus take assurance in this fact. But when you see a scene in THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS where the killer breaks into a woman’s apartment and brutally stabs her to death, you would find yourself feeling absolutely terrified knowing full well that that could very well happen tonight when you get home from the theater. So not only is THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS the first “giallo,” but it may very well be one of the first, if not, the first, contemporary horror film.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Jess Franco was truly one of the most revolutionary and fascinating filmmakers of his time and he proves it once again with this masterpiece of a film.


This is where it all began. While Jess Franco had directed a couple of films here and there prior to the release of THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, this was the film that launched his career and with good reason. It’s a very effective thriller that evokes the creepy, atmospheric feel of the old Universal horror films of the ’30s and the cinematography and lightning of the German Expressionistic films of the ’20s. It also laid the foundation for a mythology that Franco would go back to time and again throughout his future films. Characters like Inspector Tanner, Dr. Orlof and Morpho have all appeared in his work be it direct sequels to THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF or simply as a clever nod to the film that kickstarted his career. There’s also the commanding presence of Howard Vernon, who was to Franco what Johnny Depp is to Tim Burton. This artistic partnership would blossom over the years but never was Vernon ever as powerful and compelling as a lead as he was in this film.

The film in question tells the story of Dr. Orlof (played with real gusto by Vernon) who is desperately trying to restore the beauty of his disfigured sister, Melissa. Rather than take her to a plastic surgeon, he opts for kidnapping a series a beautiful music hall entertainers in a vain attempt to use their “fresh and beautiful skin” to revitalize his poor sister. Not one to get his hands dirty, Dr. Orlof enlists the services of Morpho, a dangerous convicted criminal whom Dr. Orlof shared a cell with and helped arrange a false death certificate so that Morpho could roam free while officials believed him to be dead. When Dr. Orlof was eventually released, the two reunited and organized this campaign of terror.

Meanwhile, Inspector Tanner is hired to investigate these disappearances and with the help of his fiancée, the two quickly discover that these heinous acts are being perpetrated by two different men and once obtaining sketch outlines of their faces based on eye-witnesses’ accounts, they discover the identities to be that of Dr. Orlof and Morpho. Inspector Tanner’s fiancée disguises herself as a debutante who frequents the music hall where Dr. Orlof selects his victims and after wooing the good doctor and getting herself invited to his castle, Inspector Tanner follows in tow leading to a big climactic showdown where good triumphs over evil.

THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF is probably your best bet if you’re looking to get into Jess Franco’s work. It’s not as experimental as his ’70s stuff is and is fairly straightforward as far as narrative goes. This makes for a very welcoming combination that isn’t likely to scare you off from exploring his work further.

As mentioned earlier, it’s a very well-made thriller that continues to surprise me every time I watch it, especially seeing as I associate Franco with sloppy zooms, hand-held cinematography and an equally slippery approach to storytelling. It’s also fairly constrained when it comes to its portrayal of sexuality. While there is the obligatory close-up of our heroine’s impressive rack, the film is otherwise vanilla, often bordering on celibacy in its depiction (or lack thereof) of sex. The film also has a very FRANKENSTEIN vibe to it, with Dr. Orlof in the role of Dr. Frankenstein and Morpho as the Monster, even going so far as to create a sense of sympathy for Morpho at the end when he discovers Dr. Orlof had killed a woman he loved who had served as a mother figure to him.

That being said, the film often hits a series of lulls, particularly when it gets bogged down with scene after scene of police procedural. Perhaps a few scenes of how Dr. Orlof and Morpho met in prison via flashback could have spiced things up. Not to mention some more scenes between Inspector Tanner and his fiancée who seemed to have some nice chemistry together.

But all in all, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF is a fine film and a worthy introduction to a man who would go to break many boundaries and shatter many expectations.

To say that the work of Jess Franco is an acquired taste is an understatement of unfathomable proportions.

To the “critical eye” who intellectually masturbates to the works of Godard, Truffaut and Tarkovsky, Franco’s films come across as Z-grade porn with failed pretensions to artistic grandeur. However, to the more adventurous moviegoer, Franco’s work (while admittedly very uneven with some sequences managing to defy the law of “artistic physics” in their uncanny ability of being brilliant and boring at the same time) offers a window into the world of outsider art where the stodgy and rigid rules of filmmaking do not apply. Things like three-act story arcs, plots driven by cause-and-effect or even simple things like proper framing are tossed aside in lieu of a more free-for-all approach to moviemaking that isn’t so much concerned with telling stories in the traditional sense inasmuch as it’s interested in conveying emotions and evoking them from the audience.

Now, that is not to suggest that Franco pulls an INLAND EMPIRE and just films a bunch of random imagery with no rhyme or reason and expects people to eat it up and call it art. The bulk of Franco’s work does in its odd way have a sort of structure to it, with his best films even managing to subvert the standards of narrative and expectations we have of genre. For example, in what many consider to be his masterpiece, VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), Franco does a brilliant job of taking the classic archetypical imagery we have come to associate with Bram Stoker’s DRACULA and completely flips it on its head. Countess Nadine (the titular lesbian vampire) lives in a house by the beach, sunbathes in the bright of day, frolics in the ocean and on that of all that, is a woman, all of which are polar opposites of what we think of when we think of Dracula. There’s also more subtle subversions to be found throughout the film. For example, when Linda (Franco’s take on Jonathan Harker) first pays Nadine a visit, instead of using bats, wolves and other “creatures of the night,” to create an ominous mood we’re treated to a montage of seagulls, scorpions and sunshine, which may confuse us at first given that we went into this expecting a horror film but in hindsight will be viewed as the first step in a very elaborate transgression of the vampire sub-genre.

Artistic pretensions aside, another fascinating aspect to his work is Franco’s revolutionary mashing up of genres, namely that of eroticism and horror. Anyone who’s familiar with my own films (AMY’S IN THE ATTIC, DARK LOTUS and SHE WAS ASKING FOR IT, to name a few) will know that my claim to fame is combining elements of sado-eroticism (which is to say, the erotic representation of sadomasochistic imagery) with that of the fantastic. And while there have been some who have been kind enough to credit me for having created this sub-genre, I’ve always been quick to point out that Uncle Jess was way ahead of me. He understood that sex has many underlying facets of undeniable horror be it the fears and anxieties that come with living up to the standards of your partner and failing to do so, the traumas of sexual abuse and the contraction of STDs to name but the tip of the iceberg. And while Franco doesn’t necessarily address these issues head-on, by showcasing sexuality in the same context as vampires, cannibals, zombies and knife-welding maniacs, he along with the many filmmakers that would follow in his footsteps, perhaps unknowingly acknowledged that such a relationship between sex and horror does exist and laid the groundwork for future filmmakers to expand on. I know he’s been a major influence on my own work.

Jess Franco is undoubtedly the most prolific filmmaker of any genre with at least 160 films to his name. But with proliferation comes inconsistency. For every VAMPRYOS LESBOS, there’s an OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES, which makes watching Terry Gilliam’s dreadful adaptation of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS almost bearable. This can sometimes cause a sense of trepidation on the part of anyone wishing to dip their toes into the world of his eclectic filmography. After all, you never know what Jess Franco you’ll be getting. That is why I took it upon myself to create this retrospective of sorts entitled, “The 12 Days of Franco: A Retrospective on Uncle Jess.” For the next 12 days, I will be writing one review a day based on the 12 Franco films I own on DVD. This is by no means, a complete retrospective; such a thing may not be physically possible, truth be told. However, many of the films I’ll be covering are his notable ones and are as good a place as any to pop your Franco cherry. I will also be covering these in chronological order, which I’ve always felt was the best way to explore a filmmaker’s work as you can follow his/her progression or as is sometimes sadly the case, their regression.

Here is a list of what I’ll be reviewing over the next 12 days.

4. VENUS IN FURS (1969)

I look forward to re-watching a lot of these and in some cases, watching these for the first time. And if you feel there are some titles that I should go out of my way to order on DVD, please don’t be a stranger and pipe in with some comments!