Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Early Impressions of Jesús Franco

Beloved by some, hated by many, Jesús Franco has become one of my cinematic heroes. This is an appreciation of his work I wrote a few years ago, when I was still relatively new to it:

Back in the mid-'80s, my uncle gave me Phil Hardy's "Encyclopedia of Horror Movies" as a Christmas gift. The book was the first--and, so far as I know, only--attempt at a comprehensive worldwide survey of "horror movies" (Hardy's definition was often rather rubbery), from the birth of cinema in the 1890s to the then-present. It was a remarkably ambitious work, filled with interesting descriptions of little-known and long-forgotten cinematic gems. I had already been an enthusiast of cinematic ecclectica, but the book, by giving me a glimpse of how truly vast a landscape there was to explore, opened a whole new world for me.

In its pages, I first discovered Spanish madman Jesus "Jess" Franco, one of the most prolific filmmakers the medium has ever seen. Hardy's descriptions (even when disapproving) made his work sound utterly fascinating, but both Franco and his films were virtually unknown in the U.S. at the time. A few years later, Tim Lucas wrote a groundbreaking survey of Franco's films in "Fangoria." A few more years go by and Franco was the subject of a chapter of "Immoral Tales," an excellent book on European sex-and-horror films authored by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs (the latter later a founder of the most excellent Mondo Macabro DVD label). Still, it wasn't until the advent of DVD that his films began to circulate like mad in the U.S. and I began to get my first look at it.

I took the plunge with TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS, which turned out not to be the best film in which to plunge! It isn't bad, I suppose; just mostly a silly diversion. From what I'd absorbed from the literature, Franco is noted for intense, claustrophobic sagas of sex and seediness, told through free-form dreamlike narratives, recorded with crazily experimental camera work. ANGELS was basically a light comedy. It had a pulp aesthetic I could appreciate but it wasn't the full-strength Franco treatment for which I was looking.

I carried on.

My next outing was VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), and if I'd had any doubts, this one turned out to be a film that safely guaranteed there would be a third, fourth, and 50th Franco film in my future. It's very rare to come across something so utterly bizarre and unorthodox in every particular but to "get" it instantly. That's what VAMPYROS LESBOS was like for me. I'd read about Franco for years but nothing I'd read did justice to the reality. Bela Lugosi's DRACULA has been sequelized, remade, rehashed and referenced more times than can be easily counted but as far as I know, this is the only time anyone set out to produce a "remake" that consciously reversed everything in the movie. Franco's film is like a negative image of the original. Night becomes day, cold Carpathian environs fall to warm Mediterranea, hetero Count becomes lesbian Countess, Puritanical vampire hunter becomes a degenerate obsessed with becoming a vampire himself. The perversity of it all--particularly that last touch--is just delightful. Soledad Miranda, as the vampire Countess Carody, dominates the film with her remarkable presence. Bela never drank... wine, but when Franco zoomed into Soledad's exquisite face as she tells us "I love this wine," well, I may not have literally danced a jig in joy but the impulse were certainly there.

Next came SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY (1970), a positively hypnotic film, also starring Miranda. In this one, a naively idealistic scientist engaged in fetal research he hopes will offer tremendous benefits for mankind instead finds himself scandalized, his work condemned as ethically abominable. How's that for a timely premise? Distraught, he eventually kills himself and his horrified lover (Miranda), psychologically broken by it all, sets out for revenge against his persecutors--one by one, she hunts them down, seduces them and kills them.

The film's most astonishing sequence features beautiful Soledad consumed by grief to the point of insanity. As she confronts the horror of it all, Franco zooms into her face and seems to zoom into her soul. We see her thoughts and memories of her previously happy life and their violent collision with the realization of what's become of it. She struggles to maintain some grasp on her sanity. She's lost to it. We witness the point at which the madness finally consumes her--we almost experience it ourselves. A remarkable sequence that leaves the viewer gasping for breath. And that's far from the film's only moment of brilliance.

Like all Francos, the movie is, unfortunately, plagued by obvious budgetary shortcomings--the final suicidal plunge, in a car, off a cliff was reduced to a rough drive down a moderately steep embankment. In such cases, the viewer just has to let his imagination more properly fill in the details. Fortunately, the merits of the film so outweigh these sorts of problems that the viewer is more than willing to do so.

Both VAMPYROS LESBOS and ...ECSTASY feature another Franco hallmark, an inventive, jazzy score. The work of composers Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab, the music is an often bizarre melding of jazz, progressive and pop--the combination is unlike anything I'd heard and sets the perfect tone for the films, while further solidifying them as utterly unique works.

It's impressive work, indeed, that can successfully live up to--and, in most cases, surpass--two decades of anticipation, and how sweet it is for the seasoned film connoisseur when it happens. That's how it was for me with Franco. Apparently, I'm not alone. DVD has made him a full-fledged cult legend.

I've seen something less than two dozen of his films, so far. Maybe a little more. Nearly all of them are plagued by a lack of money--Franco has maintained his creative freedom over the years by working with microscopic budgets. He films on the fly and the finished products often have a careless look, are crudely assembled and, as overall films, they're often as bad as Franco's critics claim. Very few of them, however, are without some redeeming merit, some flash of the remarkable genius that hooked me on his work in the first place. It is difficult to describe exactly what it is he has that makes his films so special. Perhaps that's why so little that is written about his work does it justice. It has to be experienced to be appreciated. Media often don't translate well into one another. With Franco, cinema is his language; anything that's written about it is just an adaptation.


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