With nearly 200 films to his credit, the late genre auteur Jess Franco has, under this and many various other names, become one the most prolific filmmakers of all time. However, while with a number of swings that high may lead to an inevitable home run or two (it’s truly just the law of averages when it comes to creating 200 pictures), Franco (even after his truly tragic passing) has become best known as very little more than a erotic-thriller auteur, ostensibly the more psychedelic Jean Rollin.
But as three films newly released on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber subsidiary Redemption Films prove, the director is, when at the height of his powers, one of the most thrillingly singular voices in all of genre film, crafting stunning films that seem equally interested on the bodies of his various beautiful core actress as they do setting a brooding atmosphere or enthralling the viewer in an unsettling Gothic-inspired world.
One of the best of these three films is his 1973 thriller, Christina, Princess Of Eroticism. Also known by such names as The Erotic Dreams Of Christine, the film tells the tale of a young woman who lands at a castle of sorts, to read the will of her recently passed father. How did he die? Well, we discover that he committed suicide, and that this narrative is ostensibly a battle for this woman’s soul in payment of her father’s sins, with those opposing her being the spirits of a handful of vengeful relatives. A meditation on
A deeply surreal picture that feels closer to Bunuel than even the most over the top of Franco’s films, Virgin is a stunningly black comedic surrealist picture that is both engaging in an off putting and icy cold way, but also beautifully made in all of its Gothic-infused glory. Think Cat And The Canary but through a surrealist lens and with many, many more breasts.
While he may, in many of his film’s cases, be his greatest enemy, Jess Franco is at the very top of his A-game with this picture. Again, very much a surrealist thriller, the film features breathtaking photography from Jose Climent (credited as J. Climent), and plays perfectly into Franco’s appreciation for erotically charged, often extremely paranoid thrillers. The film is heightened in almost every way aesthetically ranging from the color palette to the oddly entrancing fish-eye style shots seemingly shot from the outside of a passing car. There is a superbly brooding score from Bruno Nicolai that perfectly sets the mood as well as setting character themes and the like.
The film is also shockingly dense. Think of an early sequence, the first real set piece involving all the principle members of the film’s cast, for example. While ostensibly the singing of a hymn in honor of a recently passed woman, the film props the corpse on a chair, gives the piano player a cigarette and turns the sequence into something so bleakly comedic that it is both disturbing and yet utterly hilarious. Our lead is painting her nails ever so seductively, with another man speaking gibberish and others doing not much more. It’s a thrillingly dark sequence that is just a hint at the mood this film sets. There are also various inserts shot of our lead abruptly waking up from a deep sleep due to nightmares we never see (or do we), turning the film’s pacing into something in between that of an actual film and simply a photographed fever dream completely and utterly fueled by one’s id.
It’s also, and this is hinted at in an audio commentary I’ll talk more about soon, a rather intriguing look at depression that is more than just a surface level skim of the concept. Our lead character is revealed to be a patient in a mental hospital who is haunted by her father’s suicide. It’s a plaintive film that takes its time in setting mood, albeit a surreal blackly comical one, that turns into a haunting look at depression come the film’s all to abrupt final act. With a final shot that is as singularly thrilling as anything Franco ever helmed, it’s truly a superb conclusion to a shockingly good thriller.
While a reveal at the very end of the film makes the picture into something far more mind altering, the film itself stands as one of Franco’s more entrancing pictures. Still campy for the untrained eye, Franco takes out much of his pointless experimentation and dull nudity instead breeding a much more vital and more intriguing surreal drama. With a final act that turns the film on its head this is a gorgeous drama that deserves to be re-watched by those who may scoff at it as nothing more than ’70s exploitation genre fare.
Also, Kino’s new Blu-ray really helps evolve one’s view on Franco and particularly this picture. The transfer here is gorgeous, holding in it many of the nicks and scratches found within the source material, while really breathing new life into the contrast-heavy photography and rich color palette. A commentary from Tim Lucas is found here and gives a shocking level of context to both this film and its place within Franco’s canon, and especially the actual making of this really solid thriller. There is a secondary cut of the film, A Virgin Among The Living Dead, which includes zombie insert footage shot by none other than Jean Rollin. It’s ultimately a less interesting cut, with Rollin’s footage feeling as tacked on as they truly are, seemingly less interested in furthering Franco’s Gothic aesthetic than simply cashing in on a zombie craze hitting its absolute peak. Finally, there are a handful of documentaries and interviews with cast members that look at the making of the film, Franco’s career and also the various different versions of the actual picture.
Overall, while still very much rough around the edges, the film will leave genre hounds holding their breath. With enough id-centric surrealism to build a building out of disturbingly large black phalluses (you’ll know what I’m talking about when it pops up, pun not intended) the film is a Gothic horror tale somewhere between Belle de Jour and Nosferatu. It’s truly something special.