Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Yellow Fever

In case you did not know, a new menace is surfacing in the depths of the brazilian jungle. A menace you might want to consider. Since you could very well be among those it will affect, should a man make his dreams come true. This man is not just any man, but he has the same dreams that you do, the simple dreams of the common folk : world domination.

Fu Manchu is a character from another age, as Tsai Chin puts it in Blue Underground's documentary "The Rise of Fu Manchu", featured among the extras of their BLOOD OF FU MANCHU DVD. Created by Sax Rohmer, a pulp writer not unlike Jean Bruce or Ian Fleming, who stuck to his character and made him go through multiple adventures, Fu Manchu is a powerful chinese criminal who constantly plots on taking over the world. His plans are often ruined by his numerous ennemies, and he always disappears while saying : "The world will hear from me again !". Which is, if we consider it, a little different from Coplan or Bob Morane, as the constant "hero" of Rohmer's stories is a villain.

Under the lens of Jess Franco and the pen of Harry Alan Towers, a new story arises, and a new narrative language erupts. With a seemingly respectable budget, Franco takes on the story with his usual style, using the jungle's motifs as hideouts from behind which he shoots the action. The Towers productions did not really allow him to linger on things and scenes and to implement his typically spanish sense of (slow) rythm, but you can still feel his experienced eye, as you see through it.

The theme of a female slave being used as a weapon was already present in MISS MUERTE and would be a current matter in many of the Franco films to come.

Cabaret numbers are here replaced by exotic dancing in the streets, a slow seduction that will prove deadly for the seductress. Sancho Lopez' gang are ruthless killers; shooting an intellectual just to steal his glasses, and attacking a small village to kill everybody in sigh after warning them that the bandits "mean no harm". As in many cases, and without evoking the Stockholm syndrome - because, frankly, who cares about psychological depth in such a production ? - the girls of the village are raped but end up enjoying the company of these wild outlaws, who don't look like they bathe or shave very often.

Christopher Lee was caught appearing in all the Towers-produced Fu Manchu adventures (five of them between 1965 and 1969) and Jesus Franco directed the last two entries, the subject of our discussion today and the infamous CASTLE OF FU MANCHU, which I have not yet seen.

The most surprising character here is perhaps Sancho Lopez, played by Ricardo Palacios. This grotesque and violent man, with his impossible hat and constant laugh, appears to be an almost overweight giant when put next to other characters, much like Christopher Lee is significantly taller than his "daughter" Tsai Chin. His physique allowed him to appear in a few of Leone's westerns, notably FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) and THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY (1966). Franco possibly met him while shooting ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS in '65, in which Palacios has a small role, and they worked together again during the mid-eighties, on various Spanish productions (SOLA ANTE EL TERROR, BLUES DE LA CALLE POP, etc). His final scene in THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU opens a world of possibilities. Was he supposed to eventually come back in some sort of sequel ?

You can say that the movie has a funny effect of making you want to see more Fu Manchu titles. Perhaps it is because of the success of Franco making his film "pulp-like" in a visual and rythmic aspect, thus achieving some sort of supremely entertaining freshness. Or perhaps it is the nostalgia of this long-lost era, where such movies could be shot with decent budgets and no real preoccupation to sell the movie worldwide.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Origin of Love

My first encounter with Jess Franco's cinema came at an early age. Those who know me have heard this non-story many times already; those of you who don't might be interested to read it anyway.

There clearly has been a "before" and "after" phase. BEFORE I knew that these intriguing little movies I was watching were directed by the man, and AFTER. The VHS years. Tracking down every title patiently, with the help of the Internet, and friends made through that medium. The DVD age making us reconsider everything. The uncertainty. Keep going. The methods of viewing.

Here's how my first contact occured.

My father and his girlfriend Guylaine - don't ask me why I remember her name - had rented porn during a week-end where my kid brother and I were visiting them. We were living at mom's in Laval at the time, and were visiting our father in Shawinigan every once in a while, traveling by bus. We met the delightful Yannie Richer (Guy's daughter) this way, but that's another story altogether.

Of course, the folks waited until we were in bed to pop the tape in their VCR and watch it at a very discreet volume. My brother snuck out of bed and went to spy on them - or rather, on the screen. I was too much of a coward to go with him, so he came back and summarized what he had seen : "There was a girl peeing in a toilet ! And a guy broke in and started watching her ! He said he liked to watch girls pee ! They then got out of there and started to make out, and then have sex ! Then another girl, a big-breasted blonde, joined them out of the blue !"

I was fascinated. The following day, while nobody was watching, I opened the black plastic box in which the VHS was lying and took a peek at the title : "Je Brûle de Partout". The big-breasted blonde girl was, of course, Brigitte Lahaie. And this is a movie I would not come across again for more than 10 years. The tape was returned to the video rental store, and the memory buried.

Some years after that, when I was finishing high school and beginning college in litterature, in Shawinigan, I suddenly started being interested by horror films on VHS. The sleeves had this mysterious appeal, most of them being reproductions of old posters, drawings, and photos that had the strongest impact possible; after all, nobody really knew what these movies were about and their only shot at marketing was the image they conveyed. And the retitlings.

I was then living with my father, and paid frequent visits to my mother in Laval. The dynamic had changed. Whenever I would be in Montreal, I'd go book hunting at the Collisée du Livre, a gigantic used bookstore located in the basement of the now disappeared Palais des Congrès, on Berri Street. Just to give you an idea of how much time has passed, it was demolished and became a vacant lot for years before anything was built there. Now, the Grande Bibliothèque stands on these grounds.

It was convenient : I would arrive downtown in a Voyageur bus, whose terminal is located just in front of the GBQ - a terminal that has also been partially demolished since then, to make place for the "Ilot Voyageur", a new UQAM project. I would then put my luggage in a locked case, cross the street and go crazy.

There was a whole underworld of "used" culture in there. First the Collisée, and then the "Marché du Livre". And, snatched in between, the legendary "Foire du Vidéo". Which can be translated to "The Video Fair". Some clever vandal had erased the "O" on the indoor sign, turning it into "La Foire du Vide" - litterally the emptiness fair. The store was stacked from floor to ceiling with VHS tapes, and it was the golden age. Their porn section was reputed to hold some "forbiden" Traci Lords titles. They had a cult section, and some baskets where you could get "bargains".

It is during one of my first visits, the first of many, that I bought one of the first VHS tapes of a collection that would grow & grow until it almost choked me in my sleep : A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD. I didn't really like it at the time - in fact I don't even think I watched it to the end. It was around 1995, when the Franco mania was quietly preparing for take off.

During my first year in college, I had a radio show, and the studio was located in the student's lounge, where every could get coffee and food, play pool and watch TV. During one of the shows I brought A VIRGIN... and played it. I made the mistake of leaving the tape there when I left. During the following week, every time I would go into the lounge to get a coffee or talk to a friend, I looked up the TV and saw Howard Vernon or Britt Nichols prancing around or playing the piano. They litterally played the movie ad nauseam, until I reclaimed the tape !

No mistake - I had no idea who Jess Franco was at the time, and would only connect the dots in 1997.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The First Brick of a Complex Wall

I saw VAMPYROS LESBOS with new, clean eyes. Some years ago, I had tracked an old VHS of the movie, a worn out copy with washed out colors and a full screen frame. That was my first introduction. Shaking hands with the devil.

About a year later, the movie aired on Showcase, and not too long after that Synapse put out their DVD, and of course I bought it. I realised that the print was the same, with a german sound track, and a french title sequence... I don't think I watched it, but it went around, and whenever someone curious about Franco would start asking suspicious questions, I'd hand him the DVD, urging him to watch it. I could have given out any DVD, but I was sure that this one in particular wouldn't leave anybody indifferent.

It was time, then, I guess, at the beginning of 2006, to see the movie again. We do know for a fact that the "Franco rediscovery fever" spread like an epidemy after Crippled Dick Hot Wax released the soundtrack for VAMPYROS LESBOS, around 1995.

The phenomenon has since then always been constant, and a Franco title - whatever it is - is almost a sure shot for any DVD company. Many proofs can be found floating around - why are some important titles neglected and some rather weak entries already available ? It is probably a question of prints - what's resurfacing, which ones are easy to find, who's willing to sell... - and rights. We do know that some Robert de Nesle productions might never be released, and that's a shame.

[We also suspect Eurociné of pulling a fast one on Shriek Show. A couple of years ago, Shriek Show announced on their website that, coming back from the Cannes films market, they had a shitload of new titles under their belt, among which LES CAUCHEMARS NAISSENT LA NUIT and SEX CHARADE, two Franco titles that we previously thought were lost forever. LES CAUCHEMARS... had a brief run in North America when it was launched in 1970, and even screened in Montreal. But SEX CHARADE was only briefly distributed in Europe, as far as I know. Shriek Show released LES CAUCHEMARS... on DVD but we kept waiting for SEX CHARADE to pop up. And when Daniel Lesoeur phoned me, desperately looking for a SEX CHARADE print, I understood that he probably had sold the rights and the movie without actually possessing the reel. Those of you who are familiar with the Lesoeur's "ways" will no doubt smile, as they haven't changed a bit over the years.]

So it was this title, VAMPYROS LESBOS, that "started it all".

Franco's take on the Dracula myth - not his first, nor his last - with a lesbian twist is somewhat of a landmark in his enormous filmography. Shot alongside SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY and THE DEVIL CAME FROM AKASAWA, who share the same cast & soundtrack, for German producer Artur Brauner, in 1971, the movie takes huge liberties with Bram Stoker's creation but keeps the essential. The form is twisted, but not so much as we don't recognise some elements. Some kind of familiarity is then present, but through Franco's lens we slowly start losing ground, and falling...

The fall is neither brutal or sudden. It is slow and steady, smooth & seductive, as if slowed down by clouds. Images are guiding us through a land where we can only trust our instinct, and not our eyes. The camera is always watching from the most unlikely spot, creating a narrative language that is certainly not taught in the books. We all know the effect an unusual camera angle or viewpoint can have, but have you ever stomached a whole movie or this divine weirdness ? You finally can.

Opening with a cabaret number - what else ? - that we'll get to fully understand later in the film, things are looking banal, yet they are everything but. The number's not "arousing" or entertaining, and yet, it captivates. This hypnotizing number excites Ewa Stromberg very much, and when the night comes, nightmares come as well; she has a highly colored dream, where some elements of her subsequent hell will be revealed. Still, the attraction is stronger than the numerous visual & vocal warnings; when she is sent by her firm to Countess Carody's island, she eagerly throws herself in the dark seductress' arms.

And what a seductress she is ! Soledad Miranda, immortal vampire, immortal movie star. Soledad, the master piece of this trilogy, who would shortly afterwards meet her end in a tragic car accident.

Franco himself appears as twisted ladykiller Hemmet - a ladykiller he is, but only in the most cruel sense there is. He likes his victims to scream for mercy as he slashes them, a position some may link to his film making career, suggesting that his movies are so bad we can't help but to keep watching. But this is not a position I support.

So Vampyros Lesbos is a refreshing and ecstatic experience, a much talked about affair, but I can assure you that this is not the last word you'll read about it.

Friday, February 24, 2006

My Father Jess Franco.

I have a very special relationship with the old man, and lately I have been neglecting him. And like in any good family, this temporary broken link does not affect all the love I have for him. We may be separated by the Atlantic Ocean and years of misunderstanding, by my anti-smoking militantism and his chain smoking bad habits, and by him jumping the bones of someone else than my mother - who is certainly not Lina Romay - but we share something, we share blood, we share a certain taste - hunger, even - for life.

This blog is intended to explore the fascination that this man, and his movies, is exercing on me. It will adopt many different angles, many tones, and reveal many facets of my reflections. But the subject will be consistent : Jesus Franco Manera.

Man with many faces, director, actor, script writer, music lover, supreme appreciator of life at large, with a fine taste in food & women, Jess could have lead many lives.

He is the personification of what everybody aspires to be : a guy who does ONLY what he wants to do. His twisted lens record life's movements, shakin' hips and pubic hair. His achievement is impressive : more than 150 feature films, and still counting. Of course, not all of them are masterpieces, but what's surprising is that most of them ALMOST are.

There is always a moment of sheer genius in a Franco film, and it is my understanding that we will, from now on, explore this together, hand in hand.

Like father & son.