Farewell to Jess Franco
May 1930 -April 2013
Because he was a man who –no matter what else you want to say about him– made films just the way that he wanted to, I feel a quick mention is in order regarding the cult Spanish film director, cinematographer and writer Jess Franco. I’ve been, as they say, otherwise involved for the past few days so I was late in hearing that he had gone to that Great Lesbian Vampire Party in the Sky on April the second this week. Following on from horror writer James Herbert and the brilliant film critic Roger Ebert, there seems to have been too many deaths lately.
If you want to read an in-depth obituary on Franco I’d advise you to look elsewhere. Given his popularity with certain enthusiasts (and they tend to be of the die-hard variety) I doubt that there will be any shortage. For myself, I was rarely able to sit through an entire showing of one of his films. No judgements here because some are quite beautiful, they’re just not my cup of blood.
Born Jesus Franco Manera in 1930 of Cuban-Mexican lineage this apparently tireless man is credited with making 199 films, although writer and critic Kim Newman reckons that the figure is considerably higher.
I first came across him due quite simply to the title of his 1967 movie Necronomicon. Well, as an H. P. Lovecraft aficionado how could I resist that? What can I say? That whirring sound that you hear is Lovecraft still revolving at high speed up in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence. The great Fritz Lang, however, described it as “the first erotic film I’ve seen all the way through because it’s a beautiful piece of cinema”.
Franco loved images of the…well, exotic variety and his films were always full of beautiful people of both sexes. Well, that and lots of sadomasochism. And actors like Klaus Kinski. Actually, when I put it like that I feel like watching one now. Needless to say, he did a fair few adaptations of work from the Marquis de Sade.
But look at some of those titles alone: Dracula vs. Frankenstein, The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein and who could forget Oasis of the Zombies, perhaps better known under the delightful alternate moniker Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies, all made around the same early ‘seventies period. As a matter of fact I seem to recall coming across his A Virgin Amongst the Living Dead around the same time that I was reading a charming literary work called Dracula and the Virgins of the Undead. It must have been a ‘seventies thing. In fact if the historical Dracula—Vlad Tsepes—were still around he would undoubtedly be suing the ass off some people for painting him in an unflattering light.
Due to his disconcerting habit of occasionally injecting hard-core into his movies Franco was frequently trying to find financing in odd places. According to Stephen Thrower (author of exploitation independents history Nightmare USA) he at one time became involved with Harry Alan Towers, “a dynamic British producer with a shady reputation (he was arrested in New York in 1961 for running a call girl racket with connections to President Kennedy and the Profumo affair).”
There’s no answer to that.
Interestingly, I didn’t know that Franco did second unit direction on the brilliant Orson Welles-directed 1965 film Chimes at Midnight. This is a forgotten classic which, if you love anything Shakespearian, is well worth digging out. It also has Welles as an unforgettable Falstaff, which at that point in his life he was just perfect to play.
Jess Franco, working up until the end at the age of 82, last year made Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies, which I just had to put in because…yes, you guessed it, what a title!
He may perhaps be best remembered (by me, anyway) for the famous Vampyros Lesbos (1971) which starred the gorgeous Soledad Miranda, who he had been instrumental in bringing to the screen. Sadly, this true beauty was on the verge of hitting the mainstream when she died in a car accident. You can see her in the clip below. The soundtrack was hugely popular at many parties I went to back in the eighties, although in my defence I was much younger and considerably more athletic.
By an odd coincidence I had only recently watched Franco’s 1970 film Count Dracula. Although Christopher Lee plays the Count, be warned that this is not part of the Hammer film series. However, rough and ready as it is, I was a little surprised to find that it’s not an unfaithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel. The divine Miranda is in this as well.
Fare thee well, Jess Franco. You were that rare thing in life: a true original.