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January 28, 2004

DVD Journal: Jess Franco

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

You know how low-budget exploitation-movie fans sometimes claim that their faves deliver moments that are the equal of, say, the best of Bunuel or Cocteau? The idea being that, working on bum projects in a big hurry and with no money, some filmmakers rock and roll their way into images and passages as great as those achieved by conscious and deliberate craft -- the underlying idea being (more or less) that film is such a trash-based medium that you're as likely to encounter pearls if you dive into the muck as you are if you keep your nose in the higher altitudes. It's a view of trash movies as a kind of Outsider Art.

I was always happy to accept this claim on principle; I like it and I find it attractive, if a little adolescent. But in practice, and fond though I am of a lot of exploitation movies, no low-rent trash films ever hit me in that way. My failing: where trash ecstasies go, I'm more prone to be made wildly happy by sophisticated fare -- the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur "I Walked With a Zombie," for instance -- or by genre parodies that turn into something fresh and intense: "Dressed to Kill," say, or "Cemetary Man" or "Re-Animator." This probably makes me a terrible square in Film Threat terms, but if such is my fate, so be it. (Here's Film Threat's website.)

On the screen or in my head?

But I just had my first such trash-poetry experience. The Wife has been going through a cheapo horror-pix phase, dragging home movies directed by the likes of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. They're both talented, and I've been happy to fill in some of the gaps in my filmbuff resume, but neither of them do a heck of a lot for me. The other night, though, The Wife brought home Jess Franco's 1969 movie, Eugenie, The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (which is buyable here). And bingo.

I guess you could call its genre bourgeois-horror-decadence. It's set on a Mediterranean island; it's adapted from a Marquis de Sade story; it involves the degradation of an innocent/not-so-innocent young girl; and it plays like a cross between a Chabrol thriller, an "Emmanuelle" softcore porno, and a Fellini extravaganza, if you can imagine such a thing being shot in a week on a budget of $2.99.

In conventional terms, it's very primitive. But about 20 minutes in, I realized I was fascinated. The picture had cast a spell on me -- The Wife looked over and said, "This movie's actually doing something for you, isn't it?"

Maybe in Jess (born "Jesus") Franco, I've found my own trash poet. His movie threw me into a dazed and altered state. The harsh colors, the corny music, the awkward acting, the '60s lighting and hairstyles, the decor and settings and situations, the genuinely beautiful actresses ... I dunno: I just felt like I was watching something great. I knew I wasn't, but I felt like I was. Art experiences like these are what drive me to re-examine such Aesthetics 101 questions as: is the greatness that's happening something that's in the work, or is it only in my experience of the work?

Anyway, first came campy enjoyment. Sinister Euro decadence, islands and villas and boats, swimming pools and innnocent young things who out-evil their rapacious elders ... Well, it's a master recipe that never fails to please me; just typing words like "villa" makes me shiver with delight. Then, as one generally hopes, I passed through the campy-happy stage. It was what came next that I didn't expect. I emerged not into "appreciation" but into erotic bliss instead.

I'm having a hard time explaining and evoking the experience. I wonder if my earlier comparison to Outsider Art might help. Let's see ... You know how you sometimes look at a painting or sculpture -- perhaps an aluminium foil-wrapped altarpiece -- by someone insane or unschooled or provincial, and it seems to have that visionary, transporting quality that art is often said to have, and this "primitive" artifact seems to convey the spirit more directly than civilized (if you will) art does or can? That's how the Jess Franco movie hit me.

I spent the movie staring at the screen in a state of transport and thinking such videogeek, Film Threat-ish thoughts as: "Screw conscious craft! All that really counts is the zing, man!!" In saner moments, of course, I'm a big advocate of conscious craft, which can be sustaining, enriching and enabling. But somehow the Jess Franco movie bypassed the sane part of my brain and lodged directly in the erotico-aesthetico-delirium lobe instead.

I wish I had a lot of information to pass along about Jess Franco, but I'm still new to his work. I'm certainly going to treat myself to more of it, especially the wonderfully-titled "Vampyros Lesbos," though I fear I may have started at the top; in an interview on the DVD, Franco says that "Eugenie" is his best film, or rather that he hates it less than he hates his other movies. (He's very witty and smart.)

There's a lot of Franco to explore in any case; under a variety of names, he has made or taken part in making around 170 movies. His official biography, here, says of Franco that he's known "for shooting more than one project at the same time, to the point that sometimes even his regular lead actors lost sight of which film they were shooting at that moment."

Here's a Film Threat interview with Franco, who turns out to have worked as a second-unit director for Orson Welles on "Chimes at Midnight." Here's a helpful Amazon Listmania list by a Jess Franco fan.

Hmm, I wonder if it was mainly Franco's odd and intense pacing, and his choice of angles ... In any case, his work seemed tuned into some wicked-yet-transporting, evil-aesthetic wavelength, and -- however this happened -- it was able to mainline this wavelength directly into my brain. My head is buzzing still.

Have any trash movies hit you in a similar way?



posted by Michael at January 28, 2004


Have you ever seen the original Gone In 60 Seconds? You could make a claim for that as a real piece of Outsider work. Director H.B. Halicki operated a junk business (which is credited as the production company) and had no prior film-making experience; you occasionally get the feeling he hadn't much film-watching experience either. It's like he simply had no idea what he "should" be doing, as if he didn't know you're supposed to be able to see characters speaking on screen and not just listen to long stretches of looped dialogue over other shots, or he didn't know films don't normally have forty-minute car chases and certainly don't end with them, or he didn't know that if you have an accident during the chase you shouldn't include it in the film, etc. I don't know if I could make a case for it as a good film per se, but I find something almost heroic about the bloody-mindedness of the enterprise; the fact that Halicki apparently had little idea of what he was doing obviously wasn't going to stop him doing it.

Argento does nothing much for me either, apart from Suspiria and Inferno. Anchor Bay have a handsome DVD of the former. I've always been a bit frightened by the prospect of Fulci's films, and have never felt any particular urge to see them. I've not been particularly excited by the few other Francos I've seen (sometimes trash cinema is, despite the enthusiasm of its advocates, merely irredeemable shit), although Eugenie sounds like it could be fun; I'm always up for a good journey into perversion...

Posted by: James Russell on January 29, 2004 1:41 AM

Since I work in disability studies, I experience a frisson of forbidden pleasure whenever I settle in for a viewing of Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” (heh. I’d lose tenure track status if my colleagues discovered this particular perversion of mine.)

And I own the entire Ed Wood oeuvre. I’m particularly fond of the sublimely surreal (or surreally sublime?) “Glen or Glenda?” Now there’s transcendent trash for you: Cross-dressing! Satin undies! Sexual torment! All in a day’s work for the great Ed Wood.

Posted by: Maureen on January 29, 2004 8:59 AM

"The Female Vampire", or "The Bare Breasted Countess" ( to give it its more eye-catching title ) was once shown on UK television. It was horribly dubbed and it was horribly awful.

Posted by: Peter Briffa on January 29, 2004 2:26 PM

Did you know that Jess Franco worked with director Orson Welles? Check out the credits for Chimes at Midnight -- and there's Jess Franco. Probably the best film he ever worked on.

Franco also cobbled together the longest extant version of Welles's unfinished Don Quixote. The film is pretty unwatchable -- basically like watching someone's grainy home movies. (Of course, since that's exactly what Quixote was in the first place, I suppose that's not much of a complaint; after all, Welles didn't want people to see it, and once I saw it I concurred with his judgement.)

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 29, 2004 4:18 PM

The soundrack to Vampyros Lesbos is very groovy -- definately encapsulates a particular late 60's / early 70's psychedelic lounge rat vibe. It was released to popular hipster acclaim in the late 90's.

I heard that Franco would shoot movies with different ratings in mind -- the full length movie would include pretty much hardcore sex scenes; he would cut a little out to rate it for soft porn, then a little more for R type ratings, a little more for t.v., etcetera -- so some version of the same film could be as much as an hour shorter than others!!

I've seen a few Franco films (a couple of which included some pretty explicit sex). One thing I noticed is that he's got a strange affixation on birds. They seem to symbolize -- well, something significant & sinister!!

Posted by: Twn on January 30, 2004 12:28 AM

Didn't see the Welles reference at the end of your post, Michael. Apologies for the redundancy.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 30, 2004 2:51 AM

Jess Franco is a new name to me. I have never seen such an ouvre of titalating shameless trash in all of my life. Please tell me where to send my order.

I was particularly impressed that of the 10 film descriptions on his site, 8 of them seemed to be exactly the same movie. A mark of genius or just a if it ain't broke don't fix it mentality?

As for me, my favourite it's so good because it's so bad film was John Carpenter's They Live. A lot of his movies end with apocalypse. This film has the audacity to begin with it, only see, the characters don't know it's happened, that's the catch. I remember walking through the halls of my high school the day after seeing it and muttering back in forth with my friends "ARRGh! It's so bad! But, it's so good!"

Fortunately, for me Carpenter, like Franco, also makes pretty much the same movie again and again.


Posted by: Robert Holzbach on January 30, 2004 10:09 AM

The difference is that Carpenter knows how to edit for crispness and clarity. He's a solid craftsman. Of course, some of his films might be more enjoyable if he weren't ...

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 30, 2004 11:27 AM

A fine movie, Chimes at Midnight. Welles' best.

Posted by: jaz on January 30, 2004 12:29 PM

Hey, I enjoyed "They Live" too. Good gimmick, properly scaled, done with some B-movie conviction ... One of Carpenter's best, IMHO.

But y'all are pointing up a slight flaw or confusion in my terms here. Ed Wood, the original "Gone in 60 Seconds" (not a big surprise that James Russell turns out to be into edgy exploitation cinema) -- that's real outsider art (clueless, provincial, but lots of conviction), much more so than Jess Franco, who's a pretty sophisticated guy. I get the impression that Franco worked the nutty way he did because he liked to (and who knows, maybe it was the only way he could make a living), not because he didn't know better. In "Eugenie," wonderfully tacky though it is, he does some pretty oddball, "aesthetic," film-technique and film-history-savvy things -- they aren't sensationally well executed (though I think he has talent), but they add to the wicked and to my mind heady mix. He's a little like Carpenter in that way -- he likes working trashy, though he certainly outdoes Carpenter in raw trashiness and carelessness (which may be the result of a conscoius choice on his part -- maybe he found that, working this way, he could outrun his self-consciousness or artiness, who knows?) In self-defence here, I'd still say that "Eugenie," despite all that, is best enjoyed as outsider art -- semi-inadvertently wonderful, and in a camp-but-also-beyond-camp kind of way.

But I'll stop tying myself up in knots now...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 30, 2004 12:34 PM

Jaz -- I think so too. I like it lots better than "Kane."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 30, 2004 12:44 PM

Ahhh ... more like early Larry Cohen, then? By the way, there's a great profile of him by Amy Wallace in this week's The New Yorker.

"Larry Cohen could have been a Brian DePalma. He's not, but he works more."

Posted by: Maureen on January 30, 2004 2:19 PM

I saw a Spanish DVD of Chimes at Midnight not too long ago. (The extras may have included either a commentary or an interview with Franco.)

The first time I saw it, it was on the crummiest work print imaginable. The film works a lot better when you can understand the dialogue and see the images. One question, though: The DVD I saw was in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but I was taught years ago that Welles only worked in 1.33:1. I didn't notice any image cropping, so I wonder what gives here?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 30, 2004 3:14 PM

Interesting hobby, not really for me. With all of the books out there that I could or should read that are of top shelf caliber I don't understand why u would want to waste time with Barberella type movies. I understand there is no argueing with taste but how do you get the patients dealing with movies that make you want your two hours of life back.

closed minded, sorry.

Posted by: ShipShape on January 30, 2004 3:42 PM

if you like Franco, then Jose Mojica Marins & his "Joe Coffin" series will change your life.

these movies look like they were made by a ten-year-old of GENIUS.

Posted by: graywyvern on January 30, 2004 4:37 PM

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