A n00b’s Guide to Jess Franco
Spanish cult director Jesús “Jess” Franco died on the second of April, 2013. He was 82. His death will be mourned by cult film aficionados everywhere.
Franco – along with Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Tinto Brass – is one of the central figures in what is commonly and perhaps unfortunately known as “EuroShlock” cinema. With nearly 200 directorial credits to his name, Franco worked in many genres and with many actors (he made films with Jack Palance and Christopher Lee), but is most commonly associated with his prolific output of gorgeous (if nonsensical) horror movies, and a long, long, long string of liberating (and distinctly European) sex flicks. He made several films (very loosely) based on the works of the Marquis de Sade, so he even has experience mixing sex and death. He was a giant in the cult film world, and no underground film student or fan of European horror movies can call themselves complete until they have seen at least three of four of his movies.
With a career as vast and as long as his was (he started in the late 1950s, and continued until his death; he made three movies in 2012 alone), approaching the career of Mr. Franco can appear daunting and overpowering. When it comes to someone like Stanley Kubrick, the approach is relatively simple: Start at the beginning, and watch all 13 of his features. When you have 199 films to choose from though, that gamut is not so easily run. Some of you may know one or two of his movies, but it's hard to get a proper overview of his career when there are just so many to choose from. I imagine we'll have a similar problem when Takashi Miike dies someday. Well, worry not, film fans, for I am here to help. Using my basic knowledge of Franco's work and career, I offer the following introduction to the uninitiated, or for those who interested yet overwhelmed by the giant body of work lying bare before us. I will separate Franco's career into various periods (mostly punctuated by decades), and give you several recommendations along the way. If you want to get into Jess Franco (and I recommend that you do), here would be a great way to start.
The Horror Period (1957 – 1968)
Jess Franco's first decade of work was devoted largely to colorful horror films, mostly involving succubi, incubi, vampires, mad scientists, zombies, and other notable monsters. While not as junky as Fulci, or as bonkers as Bava, Franco's horror films still feel delightfully alien and inscrutable. They all feature a dream-like tone, and stories that are immensely difficult to follow. They are generally very vague, but in that distinctly European way that can actually be really appealing. Sometimes he would make outright giallos with serial killers, and sometimes he would make actual zombie films, but they all had a wonderfully sickening tone of inevitable death. Despite their shabbiness (and many of them are plenty shabby), Franco's horror films are definitely more mature than most American horror films, which tend to be about dead teenagers. His horror movement pretty much came to an end in 1968 with one of his best movies, Succubus, which seems like a monster film, but is more a sexual phantasmagoria that utilizes arch psychedelic imagery of strip clubs and sexual acts to create a fit of oddball dream logic that plays like a pornographic version of Buñuel.
Also Recommended: The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (1962)
The Sadist Erotica Period (1969 – 1983)
While Franco continued to make horror movies (Count Dracula with Christopher Lee came out in 1970, and Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein came out in 1972), the 1970s and early '80s were largely the realm of Franco's nudie films. It was during this period that he made what is perhaps his most famous movie Vampyros Lesbos, a touchstone in the '70s cult community. Franco's '70s output was a mixture of plain ol' hardcore sex, self-serious monster-themed sex, and dark Sadian visions of sex. Often considered the height of his career, this period saw wonderfully titled films like Wanda the Wicked Warden (later re-branded as Ilsa: The Wicked Warden), Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun and Swedish Nympho Slaves. Much of Franco's sex films from this era are fun, but the period is more notable for its streak of S&M cruelty. It would be tempting to accuse Franco of being cynical and mean-spirited about sexual matters, but that would be to misread his intent. He clearly had a joyous and enthusiastic view toward sex, and was merely mixing sex and violence in a classically old-fashioned grindhouse fashion. It was during this period that he was working with his largest budgets as well, and some of his early 1980s sex and horror films are the best of his career, as in Oasis of the Zombies. It was also during this period that he started his famed collaboration with actress Lina Romay (from Women Behind Bars and Barbed Wire Dolls), who named herself after an actress from the 1940s, and who would eventually marry Franco. They made over 100 movies together until her death in 2012.
The Joy of Porn (1984 – 1989)
While this period in Franco's career was just as prolific as any other, I can't say I'm as familiar with it as I am with his earlier work. Indeed, most people I've talked to about Franco can't really point to anything notable from this period. Indeed, only the most holistic video stores will even have movies from Franco's '80s period. I'm half-tempted to encourage you to skip this five-year period altogether, but that would be critically irresponsible. Instead, I'll simply ask that you watch any of the films form this period (and there are 13 from 1986 alone, ponder that fact). Many of them are outright pornography, so have at it.
The Joy of Comedy and Camp (1990 – 2012)
When Jess Franco discovered the phenomenon of shooting video, he quickly became hooked. According to some of my friends in the know, Franco was actually a huge proponent of video filming, as it allowed him to make films more quickly and for much cheaper. The films from this period are all very cheap-looking, of course, as they were made with much smaller budgets than before. The odd thing about Franco's more recent work: They skew from odd and criminal and pornographic and occasionally horrific to outright silly. Franco clearly developed an odd sense of humor. Movies like Vampire Killer Barbys (one of the better ones from this later period) and Erotikill and Lust for Frankenstein all have a bizarre comedy bent to them. It's as if Franco began to realize how silly a lot of his older films were, and just went for broke. All of a sudden, his movies were a combination of his old sensibilities, and the bonkers splatstick joy of Troma. Although I haven't seen it, Killer Barbys vs. Dracula is reportedly a musical. Talk about campy. He also didn't stop with his passion toward sexual matters, making a string of adult features during this time as well, largely featuring Italian Goth adult star Fata Morgana. Many of these later films also featured Franco himself in notable roles.
Franco's last feature film was called Al Pereira vs. The Alligator Ladies.
Jess Franco's Must-Sees:
Ilsa the Wicked Warden
Oasis of the Zombies
Vampire Killer Barbys
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.