[Stuff magazine, UK edition, 1998]
THERE'S no doubt that the man is a visionary. One glance at any of his films will tell you that. Which doesn't mean he makes good movies. He makes terrible movies. But terrible, visionary movies, all the same.
If he hadn't taken a letter out of his name, horror maestro Jess Franco would be known to the twilight world of trash as Jesús; and to some aficionados he is indeed the messiah of grisly sex. Unless you count straightforward porno directors, Franco is probably the most prolific film-maker on the planet. He is credited, if that's the right word, with over 160 of them. Once you add in the alternative softcore/hardcore cuts of his seventies and eighties output, and the flicks cobbled together Frankenstein-style from leftover scraps of footage, the figure is closer to 300. Although that estimate dates from two years ago, so Christ knows how many he's made since then.
If he's generating hardcore, why not call him a straightforward porno director? Make no mistake, Jess Franco is an out-and-out filth merchant, but there is nothing straightforward about him. His movies have a demented quality that even the most rabidly gynaecological creators of Euromuck could never hope to approach. But then, unlike the porn men, Franco was never in it for the money. He is a true, if twisted cinephile; as the curious story of how he became Jess Franco will bear out.
Franco is no Ed Wood, no hapless, talentless, innocent enthusiast. He was born in 1930 to a family of Spanish intellectuals, who hoped the teenage Jesús would go on to become a diplomat. They couldn't have realised how very, very wrong they were. Jesús was besotted by music, comics and above all, movies. He jacked in his studies in law and philosophy to go to film school, where he supported himself by writing pulp fiction under assumed names and tooting the trumpet in Latin jazz combos. Remarkably skilled in most aspects of production, he quickly became a favoured aide to many of Spain's up-and-coming directors. But that country's ultra-conservative film industry seemed to hold no place for his omnivorous, eclectic personality to stand out on its own. His earliest films looked set to establish him as an all-too-familiar kind of director; the type who eventually settles for turning out tastefully risqué arthouse guff for the spiritually goateed to stroke their chins at.
In 1961, he made a movie which blew the chances of that ever happening into tiny bloodstained pieces. The Awful Dr Orloff was pure schlocky smut, dirtier and more lurid than Hammer Horror would dare to be even a decade later. It was all downhill from there. The films got weirder and scummier, the budgets smaller, the ideas more extreme. The pre-video blue movie boom of the 60s and 70s would soon sweep Franco along with it, as he packed more and more sex into pictures with fantastic names like Kiss Me Monster, Castle Of The Doomed, Prostitutes In Prison, In The Grip Of The Maniac and Eugenie. . . The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion.
His most famous effort, Necronomicon, a tale of supernatural sado-masochism also known as Succubus, became a world-wide hit in 1967. At that moment he was arguably Europe's premier underground film maker - and underground was where he seemed to get most of his ideas from. While he dabbled in sex-infested thrillers, musicals and westerns, most of his movies were populated by ghouls, vampires, witches, monsters, the usual creatures of the night, all of them bent on screwing and murdering one another, many of them just plain bent. What set Franco apart from other exploitation directors was firstly his lunatic exuberance and secondly his eye for a set piece. A typical Jess Franco film hangs together like a margarine chandelier, and will bore you rigid unless you fast forward to the particularly depraved bits. Yet some of those bits, on their own, are marvels of the imagination, the kind of eye-popping, brain-mangling bullshit that only the best manga comes close to.
Seeking continuity or even plot in Franco's work is both pointless and exhausting. The sole exception may be his faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's Count Dracula, which featured Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski. That's as near as he's ever got to the mainstream, aside from the time Orson Welles sought him out as a kindred spirit and collaborator in the 60s. Franco, wisely, doesn't give a brass-dipped chicken gizzard about the mainstream. He's too busy enjoying himself, traipsing around the world with a few cameras and some willing goth slappers. After visiting the best restaurant in town, he'll daub every breast in a ten yard radius with fake blood and bring on the one-eyed hunchbacks. For him, a cameo appearance means joining in on one of his all-action, balls-out orgy shoots. Bet Alfred Hitchcock never had that much fun.
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