Jess Franco, that anarchic, cantankerous B (if you’re feeling generous) movie poet divides cult movie fans like few other directors rummaging around the psychotronic scrap yard.
He manages to avoid cliché by tearing them up into tiny little piece and then putting them back together like a haphazardly assembled jigsaw. The end result, in many ways, less important than the process of filmmaking and the freedom it offers to play, experiment and create. The results themselves vary wildly, from the sublime to suicidally ridiculous exercises in tedium via some of the most mind-boggling and wilful examples of psyche-cinema you may ever lay your eyes upon.
Franco, at his best, was able to capture an oneiric, hazy deliria filled with poignancy and perversity in equal measure. An ethereal romantic longing slinks its way round gaudy 60s/70s decor. At other times his free-form freak-outs eschewed form and convention, skronking and crash zooming their way through his intensely personal and preposterous universe. Vulgarity intermingling with sensuous flashes of profound beauty.
The Awful Dr. Orloff’s (1961) garage rock cover of Eyes Without A Face revels in its gutter gothic b-movie poetry. Howard Vernon’s malevolent smarm only adds to the charm. The underrated semi-remake/semi-sequel Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (1962) reprising the theme with brash panache. It wasn’t long before Franco an early peak with The Diabolical Dr Z (1965), another riff on Eyes Without A Face and loose sequel to Dr. Orloff. This darkly surreal and beautifully photographed slice of comic book pulp was co-written with Bunuel’s writer of choice, Jean Claude Carriere.
His first colour masterpiece, Succubus (1967), is a trippy satire, an international art-film send up much admired by the legendary Fritz Lang. Succubus is a free-associational rap starring the luminescent elegance of Janine Reynaud. A defiantly nonsensical pop pourri of pop-psychology, pop-culture and pop art striding along to a sumptuous classical jazz. Fantasies, flashbacks and reality collide in a shallow yet stylishly surreal melange.
Soon Franco hooked up with the disreputable producer Harry Alan Towers to make some of his most reputable films. 99 Women (1968), Justine (1968) and The Bloody Judge (1969) are enjoyably glossy potboilers featuring an array of cinematic has-beens including Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Mercedes McCambridge and Jack Palance. Franco’s collaboration with Towers birthed two of your VTTS correspondent’s personal favourites, Venus In Furs (1968) and Eugenie, The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion (1969). Eugenie is lightweight soft-erotica with just enough hypnotic purpose to beguile and entrance. The equally soft-focus Venus In Furs is a psychedelic bad trip. A mordant, Sadean jazz thriller that explores the twin perils of sex and death in hedonistic high society.
The next Franco period was a return to the lower-budget cheap skate outings that had made his name. It was also an escape from the constrictions that had previously shackled him, a chance to embrace a creative freedom that would see him mine the same themes again and again. It would also see a series of hauntingly melancholic films inspired by and dedicated to his muse, the imperiously beautiful Soledad Miranda. The languorous groove of Eugenie De Sade (1970) a particular highlight, a murderous, incestuous romantic tragedy overseen by a beautiful Bruno Nicolai score. Love and lust rarely make ideal bedfellows in a Franco film. Vampyros Lesbos (1970) is, possibly, Franco’s best-known work. Best known, but not necessarily most widely seen. The soundtrack was briefly in vogue during the lounge music boom of the 90s. And a florid riot of sexadelic sounds it is too.
Whilst it may lack the divine presence of Miranda, A Virgin Among The Living Dead (1971) is a gloriously elegiac fever dream. Sincere lyricism battles with exploitational necessities in a bizarre yet affecting little gem. Diary Of A Nymphomaniac (1972), on the other hand, is an all out avant-gonzo-improvisational mutation.
This is where I depart. The jewels lurking beneath the shit become harder to find leaving me feeling like the baker with dirty hands. And yet I will still watch and (at least attempt to) savour every Franco film I come across because as Mondo Macabro’s Pete Tombs put it, “Franco is someone who always went his own way. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s usually something memorable, in even the smallest of his films. Sometimes just a scene, sometimes just the mood or atmosphere.”