When Jesús “Jess” Franco won a prestigious Spanish Goya Award in 2009, it represented a victory from below, a truly grassroots push from fan communities. Never a major box-office presence with his microbudgeted, sex-drenched horror, women-in-prison, and porn films, Franco also spent the majority of his hyper-prolific career toiling in critical derision, often even among genre fans. It requires a particular sort of paracinematic consciousness to appreciate Franco’s barely-narrative erotic fever dreams and nightmares. Stephen Thrower’s monumental Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesús Franco fervently embodies that consciousness, serving as culmination of a quarter-century of impassioned proselytizing by fans once on the margin, until, at some point, the balance shifted toward unexpected respectability.
Jess Franco can retrain a viewer in spectatorial positioning just as well as any experimental filmmaker. Rarely do his films adhere to Aristotelian poetics or classical Hollywood narrative devices, instead drifting and floating through scopophilic fantasies, percussively punctuated by rapid zooms into naked crotches, passing insects, tree branches, or a blurry nothingness. As Thrower puts it, “the pleasures to be found are so near to abstract that we must put aside conventional expectations.” (p. 44) Watching Franco, you adjust to his languid, idiosyncratic temperament, and learn to appreciate a wildly recursive cinema in which characters, plot fragments, musical themes, visual motifs, all obsessively reappear over the course of decades, in a sprawling filmography extending from the late 1950s to the early 2010s. You learn to watch not for plot (unless you can speak three or more languages, you eventually reach the point of watching blurry, unsubtitled bootlegs in foreign languages), nor even for the standalone value of a single film, but rather for the densely intertextual, all-consuming constellation that his body of work forms. You suffer from, and eventually enjoy, Francomania.
Or perhaps you don’t. Most critics for the duration of his career proved immune. Widely scorned, Franco bounced around the lower rungs of Eurotrash film production during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, shooting non-stop films with money patched together from Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, anywhere that would support his habit. While his films pushed sexual boundaries, offered pointed critiques of religion and Spanish fascism, and constituted a miracle of underfunded accomplishment, few scholars took note, except Joan Hawkins, who recognised Franco’s avant-garde affinities in Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde (2000).
The push for recognition came almost wholly from below, from fanzines and grey-market sites, internet cult-movie communities and such blogs as Robert Monell’s long-running and obsessive I’m in a Jess Franco State of Mind.1 As such, Murderous Passions represents the successful ascension of a quarter-century of pro-Franco proselytising, begun in the U.S. by Tim Lucas and others in the pages of Fangoria and Video Watchdog and peaking here, in this mammoth, lavishly illustrated labour of love.
Yet Thrower, a major figure in the cult film world for his work on the UK zine Eyeball, a book on Italian horror director Lucio Fulci, and the masterful Nightmare USA, which recovered the production histories of dozens of regional U.S. oddities, never lets that love cloud his critical faculties.2 Murderous Passions firmly and persuasively argues for Franco’s importance as a sort of freewheeling gutter auteur, moving from a substantive (and exuberant) opening essay on “The Jess Franco Experience!” and into a series of reviews and short essays on each of Franco’s films through 1974 (a second volume is promised shortly). Even as Thrower thoughtfully limns his virtues as “a great photographer of morbid daylight” and purveyor of a “narcotically atemporal cinema,” he never hesitates to critique Franco’s occasional laziness, sexism, or churlishness (pp. 40, 369). Structurally, Murderous Passions amounts to a reference book, with prodigiously researched information on production dates and locations, cast and crew, alternate titles, running times, etc., accompanying each of the 69 entries for the features made (some incompletely) by Franco between 1958 and 1974. Substantively, however, it is closer to a series of short ruminations on the many faces of the manic filmmaker.
After a brief, warm opening note from frequent 1970s Franco performer Monica Swinn, Thrower lays out the basic facts: Jesús Franco Manera, born to a large Spanish family in 1930, studied theatre, loved both music and film, and after time in Paris worked his way up the ranks of the Spanish film industry, moving from various crew positions to directing some shorts on such matters as olive growing, before making his feature filmmaking debut with the loopy Tenemos 18 años (1959), about two young women on an increasingly surreal road trip.
Details about parts of Franco’s life remain elusive. He claimed to have pseudonymously written over a dozen pulp novels in his youth, none of which have yet surfaced. But this much is clear: once he began filming, he never stopped, logging 173 feature films before his death in 2013, by Thrower’s count. The films came so fast and furious that the precise number must stay approximate; a few films are lost, some have conflicting credible accounts as to whether they were ever completed. Like a grindhouse Jonas Mekas – who famously declared, “I live, therefore I make films. I make films, therefore I live” – Franco seemed more interested in shooting films than finishing, or even scripting, them. It’s that spirit of pure drive that animates his work, often at the expense of such expected qualities as coherence and character development.
The result is a sprawling, unwieldy body of work, and Thrower deftly situates Franco’s best-known films within that larger oeuvre. His two most famous early films, Gritos en la noche (The Awful Dr. Orlof, 1962) and Miss Muerte (The Diabolical Dr. Z, 1966), established Franco as an expressive, if formally conventional, horror director most notable for chafing against the sexual strictures of the era. In fact, those films coexisted with musicals, a western, spy films, and more. Until the late 1960s, Franco was really a mainstream journeyman of the Spanish film industry, and it was only as he grew increasingly sexually bold that he came into conflict with the state censorship of the other Franco – the reactionary Generalissimo – ultimately driving Franco out of his homeland, to embark on a peripatetic career across Europe.
Thrower offers thoughtful, enthused glosses on Franco’s two signature early works, but his real contribution here comes in the attention to the overlooked other films that became curios after the fact but vied for centrality at the time; by 1962, Franco had directed as many musicals as he had horror films, though unlike the sexy, stylized Orlof and its companion piece La mano de un hombre muerto (The Sadistic Baron von Klaus, 1963), the singing and dancing of La reina del Tabarín (1960) and Vampiresas 1930 (1961) were “shot in a staid, bourgeois style” (56). The latter also descends into a lamentable blackface conclusion, and here one does wish Thrower might have better historicised the racial systems that would have made such representations funny to an early-1960s Spanish audience. The research he does offer is commendable, with breakdowns of production and release schedules, careful attention to locations and variations in content and length (of which there are many, as any casual Franco viewer knows).
What Thrower best captures in this early segment of Franco’s career is his craftsmanship as a “consummate professional” – perhaps a modest-sounding thesis, but important in light of the reputation he would later develop as an inept hack (p. 56). Indeed, even when the films fall flat, as with the musicals or his one dry foray into the Western, El Llanero (1964), Franco acquits himself well on the technical side of things, and frequently surprises with his vivid flourishes. Rififí en la ciudad (1964), in particular, shows Franco confidently dabbling in noir, while also delivering such a pointed, barely veiled, political critique of big-man rule that Thrower expresses wonder it was not banned. If any Franco film deserves rediscovery, it is this lost gem.
Thrower brushes aside such trifling spy escapades as Cartas boca arrinba (Attack of the Robots, 1966), also voicing a contrarian opinion on Lucky, el intrépido (Lucky the Inscrutable, 1967), well-regarded in the fan community but to him, “almost unwatchable, an excruciating Europudding of failed gags and strained irony.” (p. 121) Meanwhile, assistant/co-author Julian Grainger appears for periodic, well-researched, inserts pertaining largely to the changing industrial structures within which Franco worked – the first covering Franco’s relationship with Orson Welles, for whom he shot second unit on Chimes at Midnight (1965) and as assistant director on the unfinished Treasure Island. The precise origin of their connection can not be firmly established, but Grainger convincingly suggests Franco’s Spanish film network put him in Welles’ orbit, and he notes that at one point when the great auteur fell ill, Variety even announced Franco’s taking over as director on the doomed production of Treasure Island. Most interestingly, he also shows how Franco drew inspiration from Welles’ attempt to shoot two films back-to-back, a technique he would employ, unscrupulously at times, in the years to come.
For Murderous Passions, it was Necronomicon (Succubus, 1968) that ushered in Franco’s next phase, one of sexed-up surrealism verging just close enough to the arthouse profundities of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet to confound easy categorisation. In this transitional work, narrative gives way almost wholly to the logic of desire, bearing out Thrower’s claim that the “dominant structural hallmark of Franco’s cinema is his manipulation of time, in particular time as it’s experienced through desire.” (p. 41) In Necronomicon, Franco floats on a cloud of Eros as he traces a series of disjointed encounters between stars Janine Reynaud and Jack Taylor, as they drift through decadent parties, deliberately pretentious conversations, and S&M-oriented nightclub performances, culminating in what might be one, two, or zero deaths; the film withholds clear demarcation of dream from diegetic reality.
Necronomicon falls far short of greatness, cluttered and clunky as it often is; much stronger is Venus in Furs (1969), which shortly thereafter harnessed its approach to much greater effect, filtering a dream logic through a softcore sex lens. But it served to push Franco to the forefront of erotic experimentation at the precise moment when censorship barriers were falling – though not yet in repressive Spain, where it resulted in his effective exile. Thrower parses its allusive dialogue, with references to Stockhausen, Godard, Fritz Lang, Mingus, etc., precisely right, as something of a feint. “Franco was a sensualist, not an intellectual,” he writes, but without disparagement; “he has nothing of weight and complexity to say about ‘alienation,’ ‘modern life,’ social change, the eruption of simulacra into reality, or the marginalisation of non-capitalistic models.” Rather, Necronomicon solidified a style of almost pure surface, “a surface of great beauty, seductive and strange and voluptuous, and something we ought intimately to value, if we weren’t so busy trying to dig beneath it.” (p. 129)
Not every subsequent film remained on this wavelength, and Thrower dutifully chronicles the leaden Fu Manchu films with Christopher Lee, and the then-pioneering women-in-prison film 99 Women (1969), a hit in the U.S. and a harbinger of later quick-cash Franco excursions. Some Marquis de Sade adaptations (varying in quality), the sadly lost Sex Charade (1969) with doomed star Soledad Miranda, soon to die in a tragic automobile accident, and some listless sex comedies, among other entries, round out the ledger.
For Franco, 1970 marked the final point of departure into the cinematic margins. It was that year he came closest to entering the world of the solid B-movie, with The Bloody Judge and Count Dracula, both again with Christopher Lee, more or less falling into lockstep with contemporaneous Hammer films. For me and many other Franco devotees, these films, with their comparatively lavish budgets thanks to producer Harry Alan Towers, came out stiff, with Franco stilted by the need to follow convention. Thrower does not wholly disagree, though he offers gentle pushback in his highlighting of redeeming values such as scores, and he finds in Dracula something of a David James-style allegory of its own production, since much of the budget was spent wining and dining the expensive star, such that the scenes without Lee descended into “shambolic, zoom-happy camerawork” that he partly reads as an expression of Franco’s own frustration trying to finish the film (p. 220).
The other films of that year charted his new course. Les Cauchemars naissant la nuit (Nightmares Come at Night) and Eugenie (known on DVD as Eugenie de Sade), micro-budget sex-and-death reveries, picked up where Venus in Furs had left off, “a lonely song on the shoreline of pure cinema, told in the visual language of dreams.” (p. 191) Franco’s defining canon stayed in tune: Vampyros Lesbos (1970), A Virgin among the Living Dead (1971), La Comtesse perverse (Countess Perverse, 1973), Al otro lado del espejo (Obscene Mirror, 1973), La Comtesse noire (Female Vampire, 1973), Les nuits brûlantes de Linda (Hot Nights of Linda, 1974), Exorcisme (Exorcism,1974), and Lorna… l’exorciste (Lorna…the Exorcist, 1974). While space here does not permit a full recounting of the hypnotic rhythms and remarkable stylistic innovation of these mesmerising films, Maximilian Le Cain has written for Senses of Cinema of their “paroxysmal non-narrative cinema,” in an essay that highlights Franco’s unique powers.3
Many of these films led the charge in the critical recovery of Franco that took place in the early 2000s, as they appeared on DVD and replaced such VHS-era staples as the producer-recut Oasis of the Zombies (1983) or lethargic Faceless (1988) in standing as Franco’s defining works. Certainly for this reviewer, growing up as a video-store nerd in rural Alaska and perusing lurid clamshell cases with prurient wonder, that unjust representation left Franco very much excluded from my own grindhouse canon, ranked below lesser such filmmakers as Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato. Not until a rare 35mm double-feature screening of Dr. Orlof and Venus in Furs at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood around 2007 did I reconsider, and then dive in (to my embarrassment or pride, depending on circumstance, I’ve seen 115 Franco films; such is the way fans heedlessly plunge into his work, it seems).
Thrower writes with confidence, his commentary full of witty, finely tuned observation on matters of directorial style, performance, score, and more. As criticism, Murderous Passions is fully alive, a pleasure to read. Analytically, though, Thrower is not always able to get the same purchase on Franco that his years in the video-store trenches and immaculate research yielded him in Nightmare USA. Partly this results from the sheer newness of his subjects there; who before had ever given substantive attention to James Bryan, Norman Thaddeus Vane, or Death Bed: The Bed That Eats? With Franco, there is a densely-woven interpretive web that can be hard to escape; Tim Lucas set the template a quarter-century ago in his pioneering Video Watchdog essay “How to Watch a Jess Franco Film,” and his claim there that “you can’t see one Franco film until you’ve seen them all” remains the hermeneutic entry-point for all subsequent work.4 Thrower acknowledges this, and echoes Lucas in arguing that Franco’s œuvre is “best seen as a borderless continuum rippling with recurring themes,” the whole larger than the parts (p. 15). The language of jazz, a musical form Franco loved, also plays a central role in many efforts to make sense of his films, which often work better as syncopated erotic rhythms riffing on recurring motifs than standard narrative; on a 2000+-post DVDManiacs (now AVManiacs, and like many discussion boards from its era, something of an internet ghost town in the wake of Facebook’s impact) thread running from 2004 to 2011, numerous variations of this theme were worked out by a robust fan community that sometimes included Thrower (as well as myself).5 Again Thrower invokes this (productive) lens, but does not move beyond the arguments already voiced by Robert Monell, Francesco Cesari, and others. Additionally, Tatjana Pavlović’s inspired analysis of Jess Franco as “the inverted, ironic figure of his namesake,” the dictator, in her book Despotic Bodies and Transgressive Bodies: Spanish Culture from Francisco Franco to Jesús Franco, would help flesh out the historical context of his Spanish period.6
Still, Thrower offers a wealth of knowledge and insight. His research took him from the Filmoteca Española in Spain to see a print of Franco’s long-lost second feature, Labios Rojos (1960) – released on DVD in Spain only after this book was published, and a pivotal film that set in motion several of his recurring tropes – to the British Board of Film Classification archives, where he extracted all available information about the censorship of Franco’s films (helpfully included as an appendix). Thrower also interviewed Franco and Lina Romay in 2010, and while the abundance of Franco commentary on the various DVD releases of his work makes his testimony less than rare, he never fails to entertain. Here, he tells Thrower of Joseph Losey crying backstage after the failed 1962 Paris premiere of Eva (a film not as removed from Franco as their respective cultural positions might suggest), and explains his late-1970s porn films bluntly as “all shit” (p. 418). Now and then we are left to wonder why The Demons, say, premiered in the U.S. in Madison, Wisconsin, or Lorna in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but for the most part Thrower and Grainger both have undertaken tremendous feats of research, and presented it effectively. Thrower’s argument that Franco never even completed a final cut of Venus in Furs is particularly provocative, and based on a careful contrast of the American version to a rare Italian variant with wholly different editing.
And as a spirited defence of Franco, who could fail to appreciate Thrower’s describing of the director’s notorious penchant for whooshing zooms as “an aesthetic fingerprint of considerable eccentric charm” (p. 14), and an erotic extension of the cinematic apparatus itself, at that? Murderous Passions concludes its overview with Les Grandes Emmerdeuses (1974), a comedic lark in which Lina Romay and Pamela Stanford laze about naked, steal some diamonds hidden in a dildo, abscond with them hidden in their vaginas, occasionally dress like cats, and generally amble through something just short of a plot. Yet Thrower marvels at how “Franco and crew simply daydream a movie into existence, on the most threadbare of budgets, with a minimum of preparation,” and he rightly appreciates the film’s celebration of women enjoying their own bodies, with men relegated to the margins of the film’s sexuality. “He’s telling a story here almost involuntarily,” Thrower writes, “just riffing on the sheer physical pleasure of cinema.” (p. 406)
By this point, four hundred large pages in, anyone still reading probably agrees, and probably a few initially unconvinced will have converted along the way. To cover Franco’s entire career, Thrower surely had to break it into multiple volumes, but the major cost of doing so comes at the expense of the most richly fascinating through-line of his work, the director/star relationship with Lina Romay, which not only evolved into a fully collaborative one, but was also sustained unlike any in the history of cinema. If Franco’s crotch-zooming early interrogations of Romay’s body fell within a familiar objectifying male gaze, what had it evolved into by the 21st century? As Romay aged, her body and appearance changed the way most do with time, removing her from the limited normative view of women’s beauty that still presides. Yet Franco shot her nude and in sexually explicit scenes in the 1980s, the 1990s, and beyond, often affronting male fans interested in younger, thinner bodies with his unwavering erotic commitment to Romay. By the time of her final role, in the experimental Paula-Paula (2010), it was the equivalent of Sternberg having continued shooting Dietrich through to 1970! This is rich, untapped terrain for analysis of erotic representation, and one hopes Thrower pursues it in the second volume. I trust he will. Until then, Murderous Passions offers enough delight to keep all but the most obsessive Francophile satiated until its arrival.
Stephen Thrower Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco (London: Strange Attractor Press, 2015).
- http://robertmonell.blogspot.com/ ↩
- Stephen Thrower, Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (Guildford: FAB Press, 1999); Thrower, Nightmare USA: The Untold History of the Exploitation Independents (Godalming: FAB Press, 2007) ↩
- Maximilian Le Cain, “The Frontiers of Genre and Trance: Five Films by Jess Franco,” Senses of Cinema, July 2003, http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/jess_franco/ ↩
- Tim Lucas, “How to Read a Franco Film”, Video Watchdog 1 (1990), p. 19. ↩
- “The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Jess Franco (some nudity),” http://www.avmaniacs.com/forums/showthread.php?t=9828 ↩
- Tatjana Pavlović, Despotic Bodies and Transgressive Bodies: Spanish Culture from Francisco Franco to Jesús Franco (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), p. 120. ↩