Sunday, October 21, 2007

Jess Franco: the Petri Dish Jury's Still Out

Used to be you had to do some serious digging--hours in grindhouses and drive-ins, costly excavation in the deepest bowels of grey-market and bootleg mail-order services--to explore the careers of most horror and cult movie directors.

But DVD labels issue scores of even the most obscure product to satiate insatiable horror fans nowadays. And between the relative inexpense of many DVDs and services like Netflix, such exploitation cinema archaeology is a lot easier. Which is good: That way, I can give Jess Franco's work a few more chances before I write him off entirely as a hack.

There's plenty of material to sift through. Of all the European filmmakers to acquire a cult reputation, Spanish schlock auteur Franco has undeniably been the most prolific. The Internet Movie Database credits him with directing almost 200 pictures, writing over 150 of his and others', and acting in dozens as well. Despite an early association with Orson Welles, Franco mostly created movies that hit all of the hot-button exploitation genres: action flicks, sleazy women-in-prison pictures, spy thrillers, trashy erotica, and horror movies. Especially horror movies.

So this is the point at which I'd normally serve up a blanket bio of Jess Franco, defend the artistic method beneath the sex and violence that surface in his movies, and offer some recommendations. Just two minor details: One, I know bupkis about the man and his career; and two, most of the Jess Franco movies I've seen have been as unmemorable as the plotline to a Kate Hudson chick flick.

It's a phenomenon that I really can't attribute to any other horror movie director with a substantial following. I can find some merit--or at least some point of admiration or entertainment value--in damn near every cult director whose movies I've seen. But with one exception to be noted, not Jess Franco.

Note that this comes from someone who prides himself on a decent memory for horror flicks. But even with that dubious superpower in full swing, This is all I can cough up for reviews of the first four Franco films I saw in high school and college.

A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973): There's a scene with a blonde swimming naked in a lake, and two creepy old guys ogle her while muttering pretty hilarious dubbed dialogue. I fell asleep through the rest.

Erotikill (AKA The Female Vampire, 1973): Franco's real-life squeeze Lina Romay wears a cape and walks around naked. A lot. Except when she's taking a bath.

Night of the Blood Monster (AKA The Bloody Judge) 1970: There's a pretty sweet witch-burning-at-the-stake scene, and Christopher Lee wears a nifty foppish powdered wig.

Oasis of the Zombies (1981): Three European girls skinny-dip in the oasis. Then Nazi zombies rise. Very, very, very slowly.

The most outstanding feature of any of them? How boring they all were. Franco packed these movies with can't-miss elements--monsters, sex, and horror--but presented them with the dreary cynicism of an accountant rattling off figures. No joie de vivre, no discernable intentional humor, no atmospheric or distinctive visual style, and--most fatally--not the slightest whiff of pacing or rhythm. I couldn't figure out what inspired Franco's cult following for the life of me.

But I saw all of the above a long time ago, so I thought I'd give Franco another chance. The Orloff Collection (an Image DVD box set consisting of The Awful Dr. Orloff, Dr. Orloff's Monster, Orloff and the Invisible Man, and Revenge in the House of Usher) was on sale for dirt cheap, so I scooped up the box and watched them all in a week. They didn't do much to goose my lack of enthusiasm for Franco as an artistic (or even cheap entertainment) source.

The Awful Dr. Orloff (1961), Franco's first horror flick, looms high in Euro-horror fan circles, and it's a pretty decent little example of the Mad Surgeon Murdering Pretty Girls to Further his Experiments School of Horror Cinema, inspired in the wake of George Franju's genuine classic Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959). Its trump cards: Some elegant and spooky black and white photography, a creepy monster in the form of Orloff's disfigured automaton/zombie servant Morpho, and Howard Vernon (an underrated Swiss actor whose bug-eyed intensity suggests Peter Lorre) as Orloff. Its main liability: Occasionally sluggish pacing.

That liability comes to the fore in Dr. Orloff's Monster, released in 1964. This time, the nearly-departed Orloff's disciple Conrad Jekyll (Marcelo Arroita-Jauregui) builds a less-scary Morpho knock-off named Andros. It's shot with the same artful elegance as the first Orloff opus, but it moves like molasses rolling uphill.

The last two features on the set take a major nosedive in quality. 1971's Orloff and the Invisible Man brings Vernon back to the mix, this time in command of an invisible beast (OK, if you want to get technical, it's a transparent gorilla that carries candelabras and tears the clothes off of peasant girls). It manages the seemingly impossible by rendering its ludicrous premise as dull as a kitchen appliance instruction video. Pierre Chevalier receives directorial credit, but I wouldn't be surprised if that name was yet another pseudonym sported by the alias-happy Franco (any Franco-philes out there who can verify/dispute this?).

Revenge in the House of Usher, from 1982, superficially pillages the Poe story, as well as Franco's initial Orloff epic. In one bit of ingenuity, Franco incorporates old black-and-white clips--some previously unseen--from the original Awful Dr. Orloff as flashback footage, and Vernon gives world-weary authority to his performance as Roderic Usher. But it's shot with the uninspired literalism of a quickie historical re-enactment from the Discovery Channel, and it's a real chore to sit through without nodding off.

Nothing on the Orloff Set held me enough to keep it, so I did something I seldom do with even the lamest chillers in my collection: I sold it to the local bookstore, post-haste. I'm still gonna give Franco a few more tries (thanks, Netflix), and if any of you out there would care to lay some recommendations on me, I'm all ears. But to these weary eyes Jess Franco, Emperor of Euro-Sleaze, looks to be wearing even fewer clothes (metaphorically, if not physically) than most of his onscreen heroines.

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