Monday, August 19, 2013

Possessed By the Demon of Torture and Death

When Spanish horror director Jess Franco died this past April at the age of 83, I have to confess that I was a bit surprised by the emotional outpouring that greeted this news. Traveling in the circles I do, the goodwill directed Franco's way was generated by his films, and for many years, fueled by very little actual experience of his work, it had been my impression that Franco was essentially a sleaze merchant. So I thought "Well now, come on." I knew the extent of my own ignorance quite well, yet for a brief period I was intent on clinging to my early impressions. That faded pretty quickly, though, and soon I acknowledged that some kind of study of Franco's massive filmography was in order. Over the past weekend, I took my first steps in this direction.

Whether you care to know or not, I'm going to tell you anyway (tell you again, in some cases) that European horror of a certain vintage is a field I regard with some ambivalence. It's not necessary to go through the rolodex of filmmakers and films I'm thinking about, but, suffice it, maybe, to say that I can't help but look at the Dario Argento with something of a doubtful eye (I really like Suspiria, though, you guys). Most days, I'd rather not look at Lucio Fulci at all. Plus directors from countries other than Italy, and so forth. And it never seemed to me that Franco was the guy to turn me around on this, although it's turned out in the past year I didn't need Franco for any such thing as Jean Rollin had already accomplished it, or had already begun the process. I've written quite a bit about Rollin in that time, covering the highs (Fascination) and lows (Schoolgirl Hitchhikers) of my experiences with his work, the upshot of it all being that Rollin made the kind of horror film I always thought I'd be getting from, say, Mario Bava, a filmmaker I admire but who nevertheless has yet to knock me cold the way Rollin at his best has done. In the course of all this, I realized that I've created a roadblock for myself. Rollin makes the films I've been chasing after, and so my brain tells me that, as I finally turn toward Franco, maybe Franco will be like Rollin, only Spanish. This isn't fair to Franco, or any other filmmaker from this very general swath I might apply it to, not least because Franco was not Rollin, and so therefore wouldn't have made Jean Rollin films. This is the kind of thing I see critics do a whole bunch, and I hate it, so it's not something I want to do myself. Even if Rollin is my standard, that standard must be thrown out when I'm watching a film by Jess Franco. The standard for a Jess Franco film must be the best that Franco was capable of.

So. And by the way, from none of this should you infer that my goal is to force myself to like the films of Jess Franco. Indeed, if that's the idea, I still, even after this weekend, have my work cut out for me. The goal is just to look at him squarely. Anyway, as I was saying, the catalyst for all this was the announcement by Kino Lorber that they would be releasing on Blu-ray three Franco films -- Nightmares Come at Night, A Virgin Among the Living Dead (or more specifically, Christina, Princess of Eroticism, about all of which more in a minute), and The Awful Dr. Orlof -- on August 20. That's tomorrow, just so's you know. And so I figured here's my chance, and I have the films here, and so off we go.
Nightmares Come at Night - This 1970 film stars Diana Lorys as Anna, a stripper whose life just at the moment is inexorably bound up in the lives of two other people: Cynthia (Colette Giacobine), a shapely blonde woman who Anna met at her club, after Cynthia gave her a pretty serious once over; Anna now lives, and has sex, with Cynthia; and Paul Lucas (Paul Muller), a psychiatrist apparently hired to help Anna get past a series of violent dreams she's been having, in which she murders a man over and over, and which have rather nastily bled over into her real life. Maybe. There's also missing jewels, and jewel thieves.

Nightmares Come at Night did not strike me as particularly successful, and in fact came close to doubling down on the kind of things that drive me up the wall about so many of these films. At one point, Anna is telling Lucas about the day she met Cynthia. She's narrating a flashback, basically, and she talks about seeing Cynthia in the strip club while she, Anna, was performing, and her act was designed to be very, very slow, so as to ramp up the seduction, and her striptease is, in fact, very, very slow, and we see just about every second of it. It very quickly becomes both boring and absurd, and never achieves the hypnotic effect that cinematic slowness sometimes can. Diana Lorys is gorgeous and everything, but by this point in the film this has been well established. The whole film plays like this, even when pacing isn't the specific thing being toyed with. It's not the worst I've seen from Franco (if there's worse than what little I've seen of Snakewoman, I don't think I want to know about it), but the dreaminess being aimed for translates into a kind of monotonous hum.
The Awful Dr. Orlof - Probably the most purely enjoyable of these three film is this one, from 1962. Because this is also the most straightforward of this group, it's probably worth mentioning that The Awful Dr. Orlof reveals a certain significant weakness, at least at this time and as it pertains to this kind of film, in Franco the writer. For example, there's a scene shortly after the villainous Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon) has been introduced, where he and Arle (Perla Cristal) basically run through their history together and with Orlof's deformed, mute henchman Morpho (Ricardo Vale), not for their own benefit, obviously, but for ours. It's exposition as comedy sketch, almost, if only that had been its purpose. But Franco's interests lay elsewhere, evidently, and while that may be cold comfort to the viewer at that particular moment, films by people like Franco or Bava (also not a man possessed of the keenest ear for human speech) are often a curious jumble of what they were good at and what they were bad at, often in equal measure. Watching these films, I've found, is a constant process of wading through it all. As a for instance, there's a shot from inside a carriage, which is rattling along the street at night, in the rain, of the stormswept carriage driver -- it's both striking an almost complete throwaway. It almost feels like a waste, but why should that be? It fits the film, it looks great, and however insignificant it may be, it therefore cannot be insignificant. That's about as clear as I can make it.

And then of course, interestingly, the story of The Awful Dr. Orlof, while not being strikingly original, necessarily, is still engaging in its perverse Gothic twistedness. The gist is, Orlof has been kidnapping beautiful young women and killing them in his lab, with the hope of mining them for skin grafts to repair his horribly scarred daughter Melissa (Diana Lorys, who plays a dual role her, though "Melissa" doesn't require much effort, and having Lorys play her comes close to being a plot requirement). There's a policeman (Conrado San Martin) on his trail, and actually the procedural element, which is not without its pleasures, often dominates. This fed into what interested me most about the whole thing, which is the vague nods toward Jack the Ripper lore. The action takes place in 1912, rather than 1888, and Orlof's motivations are quite different from what we can assume drove Jack the Ripper, but the historical era, despite any upheavals and such that had taken place in that twenty-four-year gap, is visually not hugely different, and Orlof dresses in the classically mythical way of the Ripper. He's a doctor, which fits that same myth, has an assistant, whisks his victims away via carriage, and so forth. It's an engaging setting and approach, compelling almost by definition, but only until you see some version of it that doesn't work. Nothing in storytelling is fool-proof, and Franco was no fool.
Christina, Princess of Eroticism - The Kino disc for this 1973 film comes titled as A Virgin Among the Living Dead, this being the title it's better known by, but as Franco expert Tim Lucas says in his commentary, the cut of the film that carries that title is not exactly the film Franco set out to make. Much closer to this pure state is Christina, Princess of Eroticism, another cut, shorter by ten minutes, also included on the Kino disc. And first thing's first, Lucas points out, much to my relief, that purer cut or no, Franco hated that title, as well he should, since it's both terrible and inaccurate. In truth, A Virgin Among the Living Dead is somewhat closer to the truth of the film, so perhaps some adjustments could have been made in that regard, but anyway, here we are. The film stars Christina von Blanc as Christina, a young woman who travels to her family's remote and forboding castle. Her father has recently committed suicide, and his will is going to be read. At the castle, we meet several strange people, many of them family, some not, but all sinister. Ultimately, the film is oblique, cryptic, and surreal in the way that much of Rollin's work is, not to drag him into this again, though it can seem merely incoherent if you're not engaged as you should be. It's good to have Lucas around, at least it was good for me, because in his commentary he assures first time viewers that the film doesn't really take on a life of its own until you've seen it a second time. This might sound like he's making excuses, but having seen the film, I could see what he was talking about. Certain key moments in a film like this, something that is not only as fleeting but as portentous as Christina's attitude towards a woman seated at a desk as she, Christina, passes through a room, could be forgotten, or just missed, as Franco piles on the strangeness and, of course, the almost endless nudity (no point in being coy, I guess, although this alone isn't enough to make Christina the Princess of Eroticism).

Even for a first-timer, though, there's strangeness enough to latch on to, such as the quite disturbing scene involving the two nude women and a pair of scissors (what's most disturbing about this scene, to me anyway, is maybe not what you think), or, more interestingly, the eventual appearance of Christina's father. The man is dead, there is no question of that, but when he appears, still hanging from the noose by which he strung himself up, he's neither a ghost nor a zombie. He's dead, and he speaks. There's no attempt by Franco, because he's not interested in doing so, to slot the horror of Christina, Princess of Eroticism (such an awful title...) into an ancient tradition, or a subgenre. In fact, it's my understanding that A Virgin Among the Living Dead is padded out with zombie scenes filmed by Rollin (so I guess I can drag him into this, which is a relief), which, it seems to me, achieves the exact opposite effect that Franco was, consciously or unconsciously, going for. Since I've broken that seal, I'll note that this is not at all unlike Rollin's best films, many of which, while filled ostensibly with vampires, have very little to do with vampires, if you get me. Watch Two Orphan Vampires and tell me that's a vampire movie. Well I'm interested in that sort of thing, anyway. What I'm getting at is that while there's a certain clumsiness here, or maybe "inelegance" is a better word, always assuming there's a difference, there's also an approach to horror that is both thoughtful and skewed. This leaves me optimistic.


John said...

Your harsh words for Fulci gave me pause, I must admit. Indeed, I briefly considered quitting this blog for good, never to return. Fortunately for all, I shall persist for the time being, despite my misgivings, and read on...

Interesting. Awful Dr. Orlof sounds a lot like Eyes Without a Face with some extra torture and murder of naked women thrown in for good measure. SOLD. Christina sounds okay, too, if a bit muddled (in classic Eurohorror style).

Regarding your comments in the last paragraph, I think the idea of a zombie "subgenre" only came about recently. Before George Romero's movies and their particular take on the zombie hit it big and became massive global nerd fodder, I don't think there was much of a solid distinction between ghosts and zombies in movies or literature. "Ghost" in classic ghost stories and so on really just refers broadly to any phenomenon involving manifestations of the supernatural or inexplicable forces, and I guess that would include the traditional picture of the voodoo zombie, along with whatever else.

bill r. said...

"' "Ghost" in classic ghost stories and so on really just refers broadly to any phenomenon involving manifestations of the supernatural or inexplicable forces..."

That's true. But how often do you see that kind of horror depicted in films? Even in the classic era, the horror was of a very specific type: ghosts, as in spirits of the deceased, demons, werewolves, vampires too maybe I can't remember, and so on. The kind of non-specific supernatural malevolence, or otherwise, is extremely rare, particularly in American movies.

Sorry about Fulci. I acknowledge the man was not without talent, but I just...well, I'd like you to keep reading, so never mind.

John said...

That's true. But how often do you see that kind of horror depicted in films?

The Haunting is probably the most obvious example I can think of. Legend of Hell House, Dead of Night, Jacob's Ladder, Tourist Trap, Long Weekend, Picnic at Hanging Rock, maybe, are a few more that come to mind.

But even movies where the horror takes a seemingly familiar, specific form can avoid reducing it to a generic type. I Walked with a Zombie makes the zombie a figure as sinister and incomprehensible in its own way as the ghosts or demons of the above movies. Some of the movies you've described here by Jean Rollin (which I haven't seen) seem to do something similar with the vampire concept.

I think that was initially one of the strengths of Romero's zombie movies, too. And the fact that nobody could pinpoint how or why this terrible thing was happening, much less figure out a way to stop it, added much to the horror of the situation. I don't think Night of the Living Dead has lost any of its power over the years, no matter how generic a creature the "Romero zombie" has lately become.

My point, I guess, is that perhaps too much emphasis is given to the mere names of things today, as if by simply putting a name to something frightening we can make our fears more understandable, more rational, and gain complete control over them.

And, well, I was (kinda) joking about Fulci. Much as I enjoy his movies, I can't claim it's because they're very good or necessarily worth your time in any way. Most of the rare moments that actually DO work in them seem more like happy accidents than the result of careful planning or good writing. And the rest of their appeal mostly comes down to their (what I can only assume to be) unintentional hilarity, combined with his sheer nasty-mindedness.

So no hard feelings. And like it or not, I ain't going anywhere.