The Freudsteins barely had a chance to recover from Birdemic: Shock And Terror before those Severin boys had thrust another bunch of review discs into my hot little hand… though I won’t be screening these for the offspring, constituting as they do a random trawl through the cinematic crimes of the late Jesus Franco, sometimes cited as “the most boring director in the world.” I can’t say JF’s prodigious outpourings mean anything like as much to me as the films of Lucio Fulci, but he commands a similar level of devotion from his fans on account of similar wilfulness and waywardness in his life and work and the obsessiveness with which he stubborny pursued his skewed personal vision, via a distinctly oddball aesthetic.
As with Fulci (in fact far more frequently) this often obliged him to take on quicky, fly-by-night productions, the proceeds of which helped finance his more heartfelt projects. The latter category is represented here by Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed In Ecstasy (a 1971 brace which he effectively shot simultaneously on the same sets and locations and with an interchangeable cast, most importantly their extraordinary star, the beautiful and doomed Soledad Miranda), the latter by contemporary bandwagon jumpers Devil Hunter (a 1980 attempt to emulate recent Italian cannibal shockers) and Bloody Moon (a 1981 entry in the slasher stakes.)
Vampyros Lesbos is a predictable (at least in outline) sapphic variation on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (“Intercourse is more beautiful when it’s between two lesbian women” opines Franco in one of the disc’s bonus feature and one is disinclined to argue the point.) Gerry Halliwell lookalike Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stromberg) takes the Jonathan Harker role, travelling to Istanbul (the film was mostly shot in Germany but Franco freights it with travelogue shots of the Turkish capital) to facilitate Countess Nadine Carody (Miranda)’s inheritance from her benefactor Count Dracula, no less. The Countess doesn’t dwell in a musty castle – when Linda’s first sets eyes on her, she’s swanning around spectacularly in a skimpy white bikini and wastes no time persuading her to go skinny dipping.
“It’s fun to lie naked in the sand… especially with another person.”
No fear of daylight or running water for this vampire, then and her other unorthodoxies extend to performing in a cheesy girl-on-girl nightclub act seemingly based on the Pygmalion legend for the delectation of its bored looking bourgeois patrons. The seduction of Linda and her induction into the wild world of vampirism proceeds as a matter of course.
Dr Alwin Seward (Dennis Price) is a psychiatrist whose patients include former Countess Carody lover / victim Agra (Heidrun Kussin), though his interest in tracking down Nadine turns out to be rather less heroically motivated than it initially seems. Franco himself pops up as Agra’s estranged husband Mehmet, who gets over this romantic mishap by torturing and butchering women in his cellar… a plot point that never satisfactorily connects with the rest of the film’s fractured narrative and has been introduced, one suspects, solely to bump up the running time to feature length (and furnish Franco with a little fun.)
Sceptics might take all of this as confirmation of their hard wired Francophobia but I must confess that I enjoyed watching this edition of Vampyros Lesbos more than I can remember enjoying previous releases of the film, or indeed any Franco film. Severin have triumphed by sourcing the German (subtitled) version, which is not only claimed to be the favourite cut of Franco (a director whose filmography is proverbially complicated by the alternative edits in which his various films tended to be released) but it looks absolutely fantastic, a stark contrast to the nth generation video dubs via which many of us originally tried to get to grips with the Franco mystique and so much more conducive to an acceptance of Franco’s narrative, er, looseness.
As for the music, Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab serve up a sexadelic treat… think “Richard Alpert & The Marijuana Brass” with heavy Hammond and soaring sitar. Readers are strongly advised to get their hands on the Vampyros Lesbos Sexadelic Dance Party Soundtrack album if at all possible, comprising as it does groovy sounds from the Franco / Miranda films reviewed here and their subsequent collaboration The Devil Came From Akasava.
Among the bonus materials, Stephen Thrower (author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema Of Jesus Franco) is his usual erudite and eloquent self. He doesn’t say much about Soledad Miranda on this disc (but read on), that’s left to Amy Brown (the obsessive web mistress of soledadmiranda.com). Of course you get all the expected trailers and bits of business, including a clip which suggests that Franco was the inspiration for Yoda(!)
Narratively, She killed In Ecstasy is a more straightforward affair, proceeding along the “revenge killing” plot-line that Franco would employ many times, both previously and subsequently. Miranda begins the film in memorable style. In a folly of a castle in Alicante, she models a metallic brassiere as she mooches around a collection of unnerving anatomical exhibits. Her husband, Dr Johnson (Fred Williams) enthuses about the medical advances he has achieved by breaking taboos against experimentation on human subjects. Is Franco fulminating here against the reactionary backwardness of his native Spain, with Miranda as the Sadean woman in the vanguard of revolt? Whatever, contemporary audiences wouldn’t need to have particularly long memories to find such subject matter questionable in a German co-production…
… and Dr Johnson’s superior’s feel pretty much the same way. One by one Howard Vernon, Paul Muller, Ewa Stromberg and Franco himself denounce Dr J’s hubris and conspire to strike him off. Nonplussed by this unexpected turn of events, our maverick medic goes into a steep decline and despite Miranda’s best efforts, ultimately succumbs to suicide. Whereupon his widow takes it upon herself to seek out and seduce his inquisitors, exposing the sexual kinks that lurk behind their facade of bourgeois respectability before killing them off in their turn. On the lam from the law she dies in a car crash, the amateurish staging of which is more than made up for, impact wise, by the reflection that this is exactly how Miranda would meet her actual demise, some months later.
What a loss…. in this film, a much more conventionally told story than Vampyros Lesbos, so much rests on Miranda’s ability to render the delirium raging within her character. She renders an extraordinary reverie just after she’s offed Muller, flashing back to love making with her husband accompanied by some of the most elegiac music I’ve heard from Bruno Nicolai, who shares scoring duties here with Hubler and Schwab.
Thrower has much more to say about Miranda in the supplementary material here, complimented by the reappearance of Amy Brown’s tribute to the late actress, which really gives you an idea of her capabilities over and above the dark eyed angel of death. Brown reveals her gifts for comedy, singing and dancing and a surprising (on the strength of her Franco collarborations) sunny sweetness which suggest she really would have had a career at least as successful as that of the similarly versatile Edwige Fenech, had she not perished in that car crash in 1970.
Another lovely BD transfer… kudos to the Severin boys.
Bloody Moon is an altogether more formulaic effort, following comprehensible, not to mention tediously predictable, giallo / slasher lines… and yes, all the killings are all prefaced by shots of the moon. Miguel’s sister having tuned down his incestuous advances at a ludicrous al fresco disco, he contents himself with stealing first some girl’s undies then a Mickey Mouse mask so that he can surreptitiously seduce their owner. At the height of her passion she rips the mask off to reveal Miguel’s scabby face and screams her displeasure, which he curtails by carving her up with a pair of scissors. All this is filmed P.O.V. style a-la Halloween, so it comes as no great surprise when the next thing we see is one of those “five years later” captions. Miguel is discharged from a booby hatch into the care of his sister, who’s admonished to “keep your eyes open and any reference to that unfortunate night … he might not be cured” (seems the procedure in Spain is not exactly super stringent in these cases.)
Erected on this nonsensical basic premise is a saga of intrigue over an inheritance at a mysterious language school on the coast, populated by, among others, a sinister shears-brandishing gardener, Antonio the tennis ace / super stud, the suspicious looking smoothie proprietor and a bunch of tedious girls who lust after Antonio’s body and spend their time in puerile discussions of their sexual experience. Meanwhile Miguel’s dumpy sister is exciting him to the point where he loses control, grovelling and slobbering over her chubby legs. “Can’t you see they won’t let us love each other?”, she chides him: “Everyone around us is judging us … if we could just get rid of everyone!” Cue polystyrene boulders, gratuitous animal maltreatment and the sawmill decapitation of a witless floozy who’s too busy enthusing about hot blooded Latin lovers and S/M to try and escape.
Meanwhile back at the language school the plot resolves itself, after a fashion, with some indecipherable revelations about who inherits from whom. Inevitably, the proprietor of the school is revealed as the killer. What’s more Miguel’s sister is revealed as his lover, and – best of all – she announces her total contempt for Miguel and his incestuous attentions, following up with some catty observations about his complexion. Unfortunately for her, Miguel has been eavesdropping on all this. Dusting off his trusty chainsaw, he reduces his tormentors to grungey gouts of gushing gristle.
Again, I’m pleasantly surprised at how good a Franco film can look when competently transferred to Blue-ray. For your money you also get a trailer and a mini-interview with Franco.
The Devil Hunter (1980… aka The Man Hunter / Mandingo Man Hunter / Sexo-Canibale) was originally to have been directed by Amando de Ossorio (he of the atmospheric “Blind Dead” series) but when he dropped out the property devolved into the careless hands of Franco, here employing his trusty “Clifford Brown” alias. Utilizing the sets, locations, general tone and certain cast members from his 1979 film Cannibals / White Cannibal Queen, Franco mounts an objectionable, albeit entertaining (if you’re in an undemanding mood) sexist, racist fantasy in which starlet Laura Crawford (Ursulla Fellner) is abducted and spirited away to an unspecified Third World locale where the natives live in fear of the eponymous Devil, offering him frenzied tribal dances and chained maidens in supplication.
The Devil, when he finally turns up, is a major disappointment, being nothing more than a tall black guy with ping pong eyeballs. But boy, can he eat pussy … no, really, he actually eats it!! Meanwhile Fellner, in chains (a major Franco fetish), is being raped by one of the kidnappers, while gang-leader Gisela Hahn (from Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination) enjoys the spectacle from her hammock. Back in civilization, Al Cliver (Pier Luigi Conti), in low-rent Indiana Jones threads, is picking up a hefty fee to liberate this damsel in distress. He’s flown out to that unspecified Third World jungle in a helicopter, then, true to Franco form, he spends an eternity wandering around in the undergrowth not actually doing anything much. Eventually he arranges with the ’nappers to swap the girl for a suitcase stuffed with money. They keep the girl and try to shoot Cliver, but anticipating this turn of events, he has stuffed the suitcase with worthless paper (unfilmed Franco scripts, perhaps… if such a thing exists).
Now the bad guys start getting picked off by The Devil (Hahn’s head is beaten in with a rock) and the natives prepare Fullner for consumption … none of this being anything like as interesting as it might sound. Cliver scales the cliff on top of which the sacrifice is to take place and incredibly, his cliff-scaling exploits are rendered by that staple expedient of the old Batman TV series, i.e. Franco’s camera is laid on its side and Cliver is filmed crawling across the floor! It’s for the individual viewer to decide whether this is more or less ridiculous than the spectacle of Al with his arm… supposedly amputated by natives… conspicuously tied behind his back in Franco’s Cannibals. Whatever, Cliver makes it to the cliff-top and, after a perfunctory wrestling match, hurls The Devil to his death, saves the gal and pockets the money. The natives are so chagrined at the death of their idol that they trash his totem pole. Thankfully, the world was spared a sequel in which they turned their worshipful attentions to Indiana Al. Extras include the expected Franco mini interview and another with thesp Bertrand Altmann.
If Devil Hunter looks surprisingly good on Blu-ray, its co-headliner on this disc, Cannibal Terror (1981) probably looks better than it ever deserved to look. This is the “video nasty” that notorious Producer Marius Lasoeur arranged to have shot, guerrilla-style on the set of Franco’s Cannibal. As cobbled together in post-production, its plot follows a similar kidnapping / jungle rescue theme to Devil Hunter. There are endless ugly scenes of “natives” scarfing down offal, a rape scene which plays out without the perpetrator even unzippping his trousers and plenty of shots of people hanging around, gazing goonishly into the mid distance. The following exchange may stand as representative of the dialogue herein.
“Can’t you open the fucking door?”
“Shit… oh shit.”
“Shit… what are you doing?”
“Shit… oh shit.”
“Fuck… oh fuck it! No fucking idiot could get that door open… made me look a fucking fool!”
By the time the kidnap victim’s parents -acting on a hot tip-off -arrive in the jungle to confront the kidnappers, the latter have already been eaten by the cannibals. “Those gangsters got all the punishment they deserved”, a handy-dandy tour guide assures them, indicating what is supposed to be the severed head of the chief baddy: “He got all the pain and suffering that was coming to him.” So did anyone who managed to sit through this piece of garbage, a shoe-in for the accolade of very worst film among all those that exercised the attention of the DPP in the 1980s.
Nominal director “Allan W. Steeve” was long long believed to be a certain Julio Perez Tabernero but a bonus interview here with one Alain Deruelle (“Video nasty? Weird lot, the Brits”) seems to suggest that he might be the guilty party, though not clearing the matter up beyond reasonable doubt… well, would YOU admit to directing this clinker? Franco animatedly disavows any involvement in it (or another, comparably putrid Lassoer atrocity, Zombies Lake) in an easter egg interviewette. The balance of the extras comprise the theatrical trailer (astonishing to contemplate that this actually played theatres) and a hysterical “spicy deleted scene” which they really should have left it. It’s absolutely dreadful but quite a hoot, as opposed to the soporific shit you have to endure in the final cut… conclusive proof, if nothing else, that Jesus Franco wasn’t “the most boring director in the world.”