THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CINEMA OF JESUS pt. 2

Welcome back to part 2 of the incredibly strange cinema of Jesus.

That’s Jesus Franco, of course.

– Click here – for an interesting article comparing Val Lewton (the great 40s director of CAT PEOPLE and LEOPARD MAN and SHE WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE to name a few) and Jess Franco.

An interesting read though I personally think that comparison is more than a bit of a stretch. First it’s never lost on me the fact that Lewton, the producer, is considered far more the shaper of his films than the various directors. And it’s a well deserved acclaim, Lewton was very much the creative driving force for his productions,

Jess’ pedigree was decidedly different.

While Jess’ work in the beginning of his career showed promise and style and a certain craft and mood, subtlety and restraint were never his strong suit. And subtlety and restraint and leaving much to the viewers imagination, less is more, is at the very heart of the Lewton style, and why (even though Lewton’s body of work is brief, less than a dozen films, and his life, unfortunately, also brief) his films 70 years later are regarded as masterpieces, whereas even the best films of Franco are barely footnotes in cinema, are to most curiosities at best.

This may sound like I’m unduly disparaging Franco, or have an axe to grind against him, and that’s not the case. I haven’t seen as many Franco movies as some, clearly ( I mean the guy has made a 187 films, and most of these are films Franco himself has probably not even sat through, nor would he want to) but I reckon I’ve seen more than most people. I’ve seen the generally regarded highlights, and tonal shifts in his style. And it’s clear that his early films are of a different level of quality than his later films.

Unlike many, I’ll be the first to say that Franco’s early films, are not just curiosities… they are accomplished if flawed works. And his DIABOLICAL DR. Z, an out an out masterpiece, which has been liberally borrowed from by a generation of filmmakers since… to include Dario Argento.

The deep focus photography in this film is just gorgeous to look at! Go here for a pretty impressive and detailed review on the movie by the good folks at ECCENTRIC CINEMA.

Unabashedly a brilliant film, especially taken in context of when it was filmed. As the last and the best of Franco’s Universal inspired, but fresh and innovative in their own right, Gothic thrillers.

The four films in Franco’s gothic quartet are:
THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS (1962)

THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF

THE HORRIBLE MONSTER

And last but not least, Franco’s best film…

THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z!!!

Sinister Eyes Of Dr. Orloff, The

The Orloff Collection (The Awful Dr. Orloff / Dr. Orloff’s Monster / Revenge in the House of Usher / Orloff and the Invisible Man)

The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus

The Diabolical Doctor Z

There’s a wonderful review of DR.ORLOFF (which till recently was the most accessible film from this period of Franco’s career) by Scott Ashlin of 1000 MISSPENT HOURS that I urge you to read in its entirety here, but for the moment I want to present you a snippet of it, because I think Mr. Ashlin perfectly captures the dichotomy between Franco’s early work, and the bulk of his career:

“It’s hard to believe the same man could have directed both The Awful Dr. Orlof and Oasis of the Zombies. Here in his first outing as a horror director, Franco displays a visual flair and a concern for narrative cohesion that would vanish from his work almost completely by the beginning of the next decade. Hell, he’s even got his infamous zoom lens fetish under control. It’s also obvious that Franco took far more care with The Awful Dr. Orlof than he would with his vast 70’s and 80’s output. The film is derivative, to be sure, but it is derivative of so many distinctly different things, and the pilfered elements are reassembled in such a thoughtful manner that it manages to find a personality all its own. Most of the subject matter is stolen from Eyes Without a Face, of course, but there are also echoes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and a whole slew of Edgar Wallace mysteries (most notably The Dead Eyes of London) to throw the story into a completely new equilibrium. Meanwhile, Franco aims for a very different overall feel from his primary model. The Awful Dr. Orlof’s production design has more of a Universal look to it, and there’s a dash of sleazy sex that makes for one of the very few signposts this movie offers pointing the way for the rest of Franco’s career. With all that going for it, I suppose it’s only natural that Franco would return to the character of Dr. Orlof— and to actor Howard Vernon as well— again and again over the ensuing years. By most accounts, none of The Awful Dr. Orlof’s many sequels match the balance and poise of the original, but you can hardly blame Franco for hoping to recapture his apparently freakish early success.”

While the above quote is incorrect in regards to ORLOFF being Franco’s first foray into horror, or the sequels not being as good or better than the original, he’s on the money in the bulk of his statement. There’s an almost palpable sense of confusion and frustration when reviewers contrast early Franco, with 1970s and later Franco.

It’s a sense of loss almost, the realization that Franco is (was?)an actually talented filmmaker, who for reasons known only to himself decides to forsake that talent, and for the last thirty years of his career make largely flashy, incomprehensible, pornography.

But even in DR. Z you began to see the lack of restraint that would mar all his later films, and set Franco on his path of soft porn schlock. It is not talent that is the great dividing line between having a film career like Lewton and having a film repertoire like Franco. No, not talent. Talent isn’t the difference between THE LEOPARD MAN and VENUS IN FURS, or better still… talent isn’t the difference between DR.Z and VENUS IN FURS. There’s talent in evidence in all three films, however what VENUS IN FURS lacks is restraint.

It lacks the restraint to have a script, to tell a story, to be true to that story, to have actors who can be true to that story, it lacks the restraint to be anything more than pieces of an idea, moments of inspiration, instant gratification.

That is the difference between a great film, and a mediocre mess, more than talent, people forget now, but going into the 1960s, there was no more acclaimed young director than Jess Franco. So the difference lies not in talent, but in restraint.

More than anything a director, has to know what is a story, when he has a story, and what serves that story and what does not. It takes restraint to make and film and shape a movie. Somewhere along the way restraint became a virtue or perhaps a vice, too heavy for Franco to be bothered with. And his films since have shown that.

And I realize many of Franco’s soft-core films are end products of changing moral and economic times, but not really.

There’s a prurient nature in Franco (and I say that without judgment, there’s a prurient nature to most of us ), even in DR. Z.

Franco almost loses the thru-line of his story, you can sense this nearly gravitational pull, the director’s desire to get lost in the act of watching female flesh jiggle.

Believe me, that’s a huge past-time of my own, so I can sympathize. 🙂 .

However if Franco had given into that obsession (as he would after DR. Z) … had failed to show restraint, given into his desire for moments over meaning, DR. Z would have been just a forgettable soft-core porn film, rather than what it is… the lynchpin movie between the American Universal Monster movies of the 30’s and 40s and the Euro-Gothic Horror Films/Giallos of the 60s and 70s.

But for Franco’s restraint early in his career, or his being restrained, cinema would have lost a film, a quartet of films, that I believe we are all the better for the having.

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