Like many horror and exploitation fans, I was saddened to hear of the death of the legendary Jesús “Jess” Franco last week. While I’ve haven’t enjoyed everything the man made, his unbelievable output of almost two-hundred films has always impressed me. Among that incredible stack of films, there’s many gems – far more than most filmmakers could boast – and even a few masterpieces. In tribute to his unique career, this week is Franco Week at Mondo Exploito, with articles only about Franco’s work. I’m not going to write about Franco’s life and history as a filmmaker, as I’m no authority. To read a truly excellent account of Franco’s career, I highly recommend reading this article by Troy Howarth of AV Maniacs. Howarth is a brilliant writer who I’ve enjoyed for many years and his tribute is excellent.
I’ve always avoided including Franco as part of this regular article, Starter Pack for the Overwhelmed – an article where we choose our five favourite or five most important films by a director or in a particular genre. I prefer to have seen all of a director’s work before I pick my five favourites. With Franco, I feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface of his career. For this article, I will pick not his most important nor his best films to start with, as I often do with these articles, instead I’ll simply pick my personal favourites.
THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF (1962)
Original title: Gritos en la noche
It would be hard to create a list like this for Franco without including The Awful Dr. Orloff. It is said to be the earliest Spanish horror film, it stars the great Howard Vernon who would go on to feature in many more Franco films and it features themes and characters that would reoccur in Franco films to come. Most importantly, it’s a solid horror film. It’s far more conventional than a lot of the film’s Franco would go on to make, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Orloff is extremely entertaining with a tight pace and well-written story – two elements often not found even in Franco’s best films. Franco makes the mad Orloff both frightening and somewhat sympathetic character even as he murders beautiful women to repair the damaged face of his daughter. As an added bonus, Ricardo Valle is spectacularly unsettling as Orloff’s demented assistant Morpho. The Awful Dr. Orloff marks the beginning of Jess Franco as we know him today.
VAMPYROS LESBOS (1971)
This German co-production was my introduction to Jess Franco. And as an impressionable teen, Vampyros Lesbos was a powerful introduction indeed. Not only did it contain lot of nudity, it also seemed to be shot by a madman and had one of the most out of control music scores I’d ever heard. (I probably listen to the film’s score more than any other soundtrack in my collection. The score was even poached by Quentin Tarantino for his film Jackie Brown.) When I think of a film that defines Franco’s style, I still think of Vampyros Lesbos. While it won’t please everyone, I don’t think anyone can deny that it could only come from the mind of Jess Franco. Even if you don’t appreciate Franco’s insane camerawork and the funky score, horror and exploitation fans will enjoy the occasional violence and lesbian vampirism. And it’s hard to ignore the intense presence of Franco’s lead Soledad Miranda, who sadly died far too young.
A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD (1973)
Original title: La nuit des étoiles filantes
A Virgin Among the Living Dead is my favourite film by Jess Franco, but I’d struggle to tell you why. I remember my first viewing of it – I hated it. I found the film extremely grating, the lack of action dreary and Jess Franco’s own performance (he has a lot of screen time in this one) infuriating. However, only hours after viewing it, I felt like watching it again. It plagued my thoughts for days, until I finally watched it again, probably only a week after my first viewing. And I loved it. I’ve watched it a few times since then, and it remains my favourite work of Franco, despite my initial furious reaction. There is not much to the story: a girl visits a castle for the reading of her father’s will and becomes trapped in a land of the dead. But the lack of narrative serves Franco well, pushing plot aside, he treats the film as a dream. The elements I initially found irritating – even Franco’s wild performance – all work in creating the strange world of A Virgin Among the Living Dead. The awful trailer below attempts to make A Virgin Among the Living Dead look like a zombie film and features mostly footage of additional living dead scenes shot by Jean Rollin – avoid this version of the film that includes these scenes at all costs!
FEMALE VAMPIRE (1973)
Original title: Les avaleuses
There’s probably Franco films that aren’t on this list that are better than Female Vampire. But this is a special film. This is the start of Franco’s relationship with his future life partner, wife and most important collaborator, Lina Romay, who stars as Countess Irina von Karlstein. Romay is brilliant in the lead, exuding sexuality in a way that no other Franco lead has. It is not hard to see why Franco wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. (They were only married in 2008, but were partners for decades prior.) Not that Romay is all Female Vampire has going for it. It’s an interesting take on vampire lore – a vampire that sucks the sexual fluids out of her victims rather than blood through deathly oral sex. Franco is also on the ball behind the camera. Female Vampire recently received a blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, which includes two versions of the film – “the horror version” and “the erotic version”. I’ve only seen the former, so I’ll be picking this up as soon as I can afford it.
Original title: Les prédateurs de la nuit
Faceless, I suppose, is sort of the odd one out in this list. While the previous four entries are generally well loved films by Franco fans, Faceless is a divider. Some love it, some consider it worthless garbage. It is undoubtedly trash – one of the sleaziest in Franco’s back catalogue – but it is enormous fun. Faceless could well be the most flat out entertaining film by Jess Franco. With a story that is a borderline remake of The Awful Dr. Orloff, Faceless lathers on the gore and sexual perversity to delirious heights. Franco assembles a jaw-dropping cast, which includes not only regulars like Howard Vernon and Lina Romay, but also Helmut Berger, Brigitte Lahaie, Caroline Munro and Anton Diffring. Even the great Telly Savalas shows up for this blood bath. While it’s not particularly recognisable as a Franco film (it could have been directed by any Euro horror director floating around in the late 80s), Franco has to get credit for creating one of the nastiest and trashiest Euro horror films of the era.
While it is terribly sad that Franco has passed, he has, in a way, achieved immortality. With so many films left behind and such a strong following that I’m sure will only grow, Franco will never be forgotten and his work will live on. Franco has left behind a legacy that would take years, even decades, to sift through. Say what you will about the quality of his work, there will never and has never been another Jess Franco.