Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Overlook: Jess Franco Double Feature!

by JB
The two films we discuss today are like opposite sides of the same coin. But it's a coin that has naked ladies on both sides.

The wonderful Severin video label recently released two of Spanish wunderkind/ annoying pornographic hack Jesus "Jess" Franco's most famous films on special edition Blu-rays. Both are packed with bonus features and transfers that are nothing short of stunning. Unfortunately, these are the only things the two discs have in common.

Vampyros Lesbos, Franco's 1971 signature film, is unwatchable: a pointless, leering, distaff retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which, coincidentally, Franco had just filmed in 1969 with Christopher Lee in the title role. She Killed in Ecstasy, Franco's follow-up film, features virtually the same cast and crew and its filming overlapped with that of Vampyros Lesbos. Yet She Killed in Ecstasy is very, very interesting: I love its utter weirdness, and I recommend it to my readers. The Blu-ray of She Killed In Ecstasy also contains a bonus CD containing the soundtrack music from both films—think Austin Powers being channeled by a band that only scores slasher films. Yeah, baby-- DIE.
Both films feature Soledad Miranda in the lead role, and these are the roles with which she is most associated. Miranda died in a tragic car accident directly following her sixth Franco film, The Devil Came From Akasava; she was only 27 and did not live long enough to see her final films released.

Look, I recognize that there is a bit of a James Dean thing going on here for her fans. She was beautiful and she died too young, so these films have become more than films; they are shrines of a sort, still-living totems to her memory. But that doesn't mean they're both good.

In the inaugural issue of Tim Lucas's Video Watchdog, he published a long essay entitled "How To Read A Franco Film," acknowledging that ol' Jess's films were not the types of movies to which most people were accustomed. From what I remember, Lucas made the case that Franco's films have zero interest in traditional narrative; they're more like dreams—which means, of course, that anyone can make one and they often turn into nightmares.

ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: Though I cannot easily access that issue of Video Watchdog—it's buried in an unlabelled banker's box somewhere in my office closet—rest assured that I still have it. I bought Issue #1 on one of my first forays out of the house after my son was born. I've been reading Lucas's terrific magazine ever since. Video Watchdog just published its 176th issue; my son just turned 25.
BACK TO OUR STORY ALREADY IN PROGRESS: I deliberately watched both Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy the same evening so that I could: 1) completely immerse myself in the Franco-verse, if you will; and 2) delight in the fact that now, after all my end-of-semester AP tests have been administered, I could spend an entire evening enjoying obscure foreign horror movies. King of the castle!

The First Plot in Brief: Vampyros Lesbos begins with Linda (Ewa Strömberg) witnessing a strange nightclub routine featuring a half-clothed Countess Carody (Soledad Miranda) making love to a mirror, a mannequin, and a blonde woman in a mirror pretending to be a mannequin. Try as she might, Linda cannot get the image of Countess Carody out of her head. She dreams that the Countess summons her to a mysterious island.
Though local hotel clerk Memmet (Jess Franco) warns her not to go to the island, Linda ignores this warning, goes skinny-dipping with the Countess, and quickly becomes her willing thrall. Morpho (José Martínez Blanco) seems to be the Countess's servant and does all of her dirty work for her, which most of the time seems to involve merely showing up places and looking menacing.

Can Dr. Seward (Dennis Price) and Linda's boyfriend Omar (Andrea Montchal) stop Countess Carody from turning Linda into the undead? Can they stop this film from turning into a low-budget, tedious, nude retread of Dracula?

The main reason Vampyros Lesbos is unwatchable is Jess Franco's filming style, which I would describe as TILT/PAN/ZOOM. He simply cannot leave the camera alone. Far from suggesting anything through camera and lens movement, this interminable fiddling gives the impression that we are dealing with an inexperienced director suffering from a pathological urge to reframe shots while they're happening. It resembles a harried 1970s father over-using the zoom lens while making on-the-fly Super 8mm home movies. The zoom thing in particular occurs in almost every shot. It became so annoying that halfway through the film, I began to shout, "Stop it!" and "Just leave it alone!" and "Don't touch that damn thing!" and "Keep your goddamned hands off the fucking camera!" It was that nauseating. Good thing I was alone, and all the windows were closed.

The second reason the film is frustrating is its snail's pace. This is one of the slowest films I have seen in a long time. The pace seems deliberate, as if designed to convey Something Very Important, but that never happens. The sluggish pace merely makes the film feel vaguely pretentious.
Maybe one problem is that, in his heart of hearts, Jess Franco really just wants to make porno, but is prevented from doing so by the mores of the time and the marketplace. Vampyros Lesbos features oodles of nudity for nudity's sake (n'oodlety?) but the nudity is mere padding—it adds nothing to the narrative, and so the audience is simply invited to leer, for what often seems like interminable lengths of time, at naked breasts and naked asses. Perhaps fourteen year-old boys find this compelling. The opening nightclub act seems to occupy a full twenty minutes of screen time. The Countess's later seduction of Linda, with its sub-Cinemax titillation and intrigue, seems to occupy another twenty. That adds up to forty minutes in a film that's only 82 minutes long.
The Second Plot in Brief: She Killed in Ecstasy tells the story of Mrs. Johnson (Soledad Miranda), who loves her new husband Dr. Johnson (Fred Williams). They are as happy as happy can be. Dr. Johnson's research focuses on longevity and using fetal tissue to prolong the lives of the elderly; a medical committee (Howard Vernon, Jess Franco, and Ewa Strömberg) disapproves of this and has him disbarred. Dr. Johnson's despair leads to his suicide. Mrs. Johnson plots to seduce and then kill the members of the committee in colorful, imaginative ways.
Not only is She Killed in Ecstasy better paced than Vampyros Lesbos, but there is also more of a proper narrative. Vampyros Lesbos seems to be a turgid but perfunctory skin-flick version of Dracudyke; but She Killed in Ecstasy is chockfull of strange and interesting things. At its best, it resembles a somewhat brighter and happier David Lynch film. When is the last time any of us can remember an opening titles sequence featuring full-formed fetuses floating in glass jars? What was the last film to feature "death by beach ball?" How many revenge films feature the protagonist and her lover together in bed... AFTER he's dead? Okay, Franco, NOW you've got my attention!

The nudity here is also intrinsic to the plot, both to show the young couple's passionate, happy marriage and later to be the vehicle by which our murderous protagonist gains her victims' trust. In seducing her victims, Mrs. Johnson also learns personal and damning things about them. One of her victims is played by the film's director, so the film can provide us with a heaping helping of twentieth century post-modernism: "Oh, look, she's killing the director—she said that he just couldn't keep his hands off the zoom."
My recommendation is to purchase She Killed in Ecstasy. (Remember, you also get the cool CD of crazy late 1960s psychedelic lounge/murder music.) Do not buy Vampyros Lesbos under any circumstances. Instead, send that money to us.

#monetizethesite #dontbecheapbabies


  1. I was listening to The Movie Crypt yesterday, and the topic of movie criticism came up, and they brought up a point that I think I agree with a lot. Saying a movie is "dreamlike" seems almost always like one of two things, and I might be wrong, but to me and the folks on The Movie Crypt it means either the movie was made poorly or the critic doesn't know what to say and uses that as a cop out. And I've been in enough film studies classes, I've heard the term used by people whose opinion I respect, but I really don't see how that is a valid criticism. In reality it seems more like an excuse to wash away all the mistakes of the filmmaker.

    I watched JACOB'S LADDER the other day and (spoilers for JACOB'S LADDER I guess?) the movie made no goddam sense and I was so confused and frustrated that I had no idea what was actually going on. And at the end of the movie, it is revealed that the whole movie prior had been Jacob's wierd death bed dream. And I could so easily envision someone saying "oh no that movie's great cuz it's all a dream man" and I want to punch that person in their face. Just, right in their face (sorry if you like JACOB'S LADDER, I promise if we ever meet I won't punch you). To me, dream sequences aren't interesting. Their dissorienting and frustrating and only if they are incredibly compelling are they any good. 95% of the time, they are neither. Anyway, sorry F'Heads I've gone on two rants here in two days, which is much more than my usual output of rant. Thanks for indulging me though.

    1. I really like Jacob's Ladder, not because it's all a dream man, but because - and I think there's room for some ambiguity in the film so I'm not saying this with absolute certainty - it's an interesting movie about a death-bed dream, man. Movies are about all aspects of the human condition - why wouldn't we make movies about dreams or dreaming or - even more interesting - what those fleeting moments separating life and death might be like for a person. Seems like fair game to me. That being said, if you don't like Jacob's Ladder you certainly aren't wrong but something about it works for me!

      I get what you're saying in terms of it being used critically to whitewash bad filmmaking - as (I think) JB alludes to above, using dream logic is easy to do because well, there really are no conventions to adhere to so anyone can throw together a bunch of crap and call it "dreamlike" when really it's just a bunch of crap, but I think it can be done well, especially in the service of a movie (or part thereof) ABOUT dreaming, so I wouldn't want to dismiss it entirely.

    2. You're not wrong, and I don;t want to just dismiss it off hand, but unless it is a very specific type of movie I don't think "dream like" has much space in the critical world. And it's for the exact reason you talked about. There is no real way to define what "dream like" is outside of confusion and unreal images, and I don;t even know how accurate THAT is, and that already was about as vague as it gets.

      And not to make this a JACOB'S LADDER comment section, but I think my main problem with that movie is that it goes through 3 or 4 different progressions of a movie. It starts at a weird religious conspiracy, moves to a weird government conspiracy movie, than moves to a cover up movie, with all it tied together with a nice romantic drama bow? Maybe I haven;t sat with it long enough, and I've only watched it once, but it seems like it is 3 or 4 different movies every 25 minutes or so, and when it changes gears it completely leaves behind what came before it, so it just constantly seems to negate itself. Which frustrated the hell out of me.

      To bring it back to column again, yeah dream sequence movies CAN be interesting, and no I don't think that filmmakers or movie audiences should outright avoid or ignore the subject, but I do think that it is an incredibly difficult thing to do WELL. And if memory serves, I've seen one Jess Franco movie, and to be honest I don;t even remember anything about it (to be completely fair it was shown in a semi-late night film class I was taking a year or two ago, so I might have slept through parts of it), which probably doesn't say great things about it. I'd be willing to give another one of his movies a shot, and I'm all for filmmakers doing something different, I just don't know if Jess Franco was the right guy to do this sort of thing.

  2. What do you mean, PERHAPS 14-year olds find nudity compelling? They do. Back in my pre-internet palm-piloting days nudity in movies was very important, JB. Though I guess that has been rendered quaint in a world where boobs are just a "Google - show me boobs" away.

    I meant to ask you about "Video Watchdog" when it came up in a previous podcast - it's not a publication I'm familiar - to what does it owe your fervent stamp of approval? Can't a person get all of the insightful film criticism they need from F This Movie?

    1. I have been a subscriber for almost twenty-five years. Though it can sometimes get a little obscure and esoteric, it's the best film magazine I currently read. Try the new issue-- lots of Shining and Strangelove-- and see what you think.

    2. Two of my favourite things - sold!

  3. They recently digitized the entire "Video Watchdog" catalogue! I love n'oodlety...

  4. Yes, and you can download single issues a la carte; I would love to buy the all-access pass, but it is pricey.

  5. I'll defend Franco a little bit. I'm a fan of some of his movies because, as far as "dreamlike" logic goes, he consistently uses it in ALL his movies and doesn't fall back on it as an excuse to explain one or two movies that were perceived badly and he wants them to stand out. He truly owns this style, and has been lucky to find producers/financiers that don't force him to direct in a different way in order to get his films made. From 1973's "The Iron Rose" (my personal favorite, and chaste by his latter standards) to 1997's "Two Orphan Vampires," you can tell it's the same person directing both because the "dreamlike" vibe of both (and every flick in-between) is authentically, truly Franco's.

    Sometimes that yields precious little entertainment (one of his most acclaimed works, "Fascination," is actually one of the most boring ones of his lot), but consistently I'm drawn to Franco for the same reason many others gravitate toward Michael Bay or Woody Allen: I know exactly the kind of movie I'm going to get, and if I get a craving for that particular brand of cinema (low-budget artsy/surreal grindhouse entertainment featuring good-looking European chicks naked) I know Jess Franco cinema will deliver the goods. Because, let's face it, some days life is too hard and a couple of vampire lesbian chicks making out is just what the doctor (Dr. Riske?) ordered. ;-)

  6. But are there not low-budget, artsy/surreal grind house entertainments featuring hot naked European chicks that are actually GOOD MOVIES.

    Just saying... I did like She Killed In Ecstasy because of how over the top it was...