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.
1. THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF (1961)
2. THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS (1962)
3. THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (1965)
4. VENUS IN FURS (1969)
5. COUNT DRACULA (1969)
6. VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970)
7. DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN (1971)
8. A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD (1971)
9. FEMALE VAMPIRE (1973)
10. OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES (1981)
11. THE SEXUAL STORY OF O (1982)
12. THE INCONFESSABLE ORGIES OF EMANUELLE (1982)
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!