I’ve written elsewhere about the video boom of the early eighties, of the the brief period when independent rental stores ruled the High Street and entrepreneurs who might otherwise have set-up newsagents focused instead on the opportunity afforded by the new medium. The major studios – concerned the emerging market would impact box office takings – were slow to act, so the tapes that filled these stores were primarily sourced from similarly enterprising, independent labels. Moreover, many featured low budget films from around the world, films that – in many cases – would not have made it onto the nation’s cinema screens, let alone been made available for home viewing.
It’s worth remembering that Britain has always tended to be more censorious than its continental neighbours, but the state censor – the BBFC – had no jurisdiction over home video during this period, meaning the market was effectively unregulated. Of course, it didn’t take long before eyebrows were raised at the availability of films such as I Spit on your Grave (1978), Driller Killer (1979) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980), films with cover art as provocative as their titles and, in some cases, content to match. The tabloid press seized on – frankly, stoked up – concerns as to the effect these so-called ‘video nasties’ were having on the public, particularly on the school children who were allegedly consuming them. Pressure groups took up the cause, the matter was raised in parliament and, ultimately, resolved by the enactment of the Video Recordings Act of 1984. In the interim, the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 was invoked to prosecute distributors and retailers of some of the more notorious titles on the shelves, and thus the video nasties list was born. It seems odd in hindsight that Jess Franco – not a director who immediately comes to mind when one thinks of gore – had as many films on the final iteration of that list as his contemporaries Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato and Joe D’Amato.
Women Behind Bars (1975)
Shirley Fields (Lina Romay) shoots her lover Perry Mendoza (Ramon Ardid), before calmly calling the police and confessing to a crime of passion. There is a suspicion that the murder was financially motivated though, as Mendoza had just taken part in a diamond heist, shooting his accomplices thereafter and making-off with the booty himself. Sentenced to a spell in a disreputable women’s prison, Shirley thus finds herself the focus of unwanted attention from the prison’s commissioner, her fellow inmates and our narrator, a shady insurance investigator . . .
To be clear, Women Behind Bars (Des Diaments Pour L’Enfer) was not one of the 39 films cited by the Attorney General in 1984. It did appear on the ‘nasties list’ briefly towards the end of that year though, and was not officially released again in the UK until 2017, some 33 years later. It was shot in the South of France during the Autumn of 1975, placing it alongside the likes of Barbed Wire Dolls, Downtown and Das Bildnis der Doriana Grey in the director’s filmography. However, unlike those films, it was not produced by Erwin Dietrich, at least not knowingly. Instead, so the story goes, it was shot with the Swiss’ money before being sold to distributors in Italy, France and, ultimately, Germany.
“Life is shit and we’re in it up to our necks.”
I’m not sure how easy any of this is to prove, though we can date the film with some certainty due to the presence of the lovely Martine Stedil, who made five films with Franco in a flurry activity in ‘75 and was never seen again. There is also ample evidence that it was sold post-production, as opposed to being shot with funds secured in advance specifically for it. It’s certainly possible those funds came from Dietrich and were intended for the films he had commissioned, but as I say, not easy to prove. The smoking gun is a poster he saw in an office in Milan, in which a still taken during the shooting of Barbed Wire Dolls was used on a poster promoting Women Behind Bars.
Dietrich joked years later that ‘at least he gave me the good one’, though I’m not sure I agree. Barbed Wire Dolls is a relentlessly brutal film, more sadistic than anything in the director’s filmography to that date and arguably a little ‘one note’. It’s also rather poorly executed, to the point the Swiss was initially reluctant to even release it. Women Behind Bars could also be described as poorly executed – really, there’s no could about it – but it feels more like a Franco film to me, with its jazzy score, pulp sensibility and eccentric juxtaposition of genres. Much of its duration is spent behind prison walls, but the prisoners spend most of that time smoking, gossiping and staring into space. Distilled to paper the narrative actually leans more towards a crime caper than an exploitation film, or perhaps a pastiche of a crime caper, and the voiceover employed throughout also calls to mind crime, particularly film noir.
That’s not to deny the film’s exploitative credentials, just to differentiate it from the likes of Barbed Wire Dolls (1975), Greta the Mad Butcher (1976) and Women in Cellblock 9 (1977). There is violence herein, most notably when Shirley / Romay is tortured via electrodes attached to her vagina (yes, electrodes are attached to her vagina), but it’s pretty isolated and somewhat cartoonish. There’s also a fair amount of sleaze, as the inmates sleep naked and on their backs, affording Franco the opportunity to foreground their hairy nether regions. While it’s not as mean-spirited as the aforementioned films, it’s not exactly family-fare either.
“Would you like a cigarette?”
Aesthetically speaking, the film is entirely, unmistakably Franco, with the camera panning around coastal locations, capturing lesbian love-making up-close and put to work in actual hotel rooms. On the subject of locations, the film’s prison setting in entirely unconvincing, with everyday chain link fences separating our supposed inmates from the residential world just a stones throw away.
As to the cast, Romay, Stedil, Darton (the investigator) and Weiss (the commissioner) are perfectly adequate in their roles, accepting we’re talking about a micro-budget film shot on the run. Franco himself appears as a gun-toting heavy, but it’s the affectless extras who really caught my eye, the inmates whose faces Franco seems fascinated by, whose casting reminds me of Pasolini’s penchant for putting amateurs on screen.
Devil Hunter (1981)
While there’s nothing to indicate that Women Behind Bars was a personal or particularly significant project for Franco, it would not and could not have existed without him. The same cannot be said for Devil Hunter (El Cannibal), a Spanish / German / French coproduction to which a number of directors were attached before he was handed the reigns.
A blond actress (Ursula Buchfellner) is kidnapped and spirited away to a remote island, which it transpires is home to a primitive tribe and their goggle-eyed, ‘cannibal’ God. A former military man (Zombie Flesh Eaters’ Al Cliver) is despatched to pay the ransom, with the caveat that he gets to keep 10% if he brings it and her back safely . . .
Presumably inspired by the success of films like Cannibal Holocaust, this doesn’t seem like natural material for Franco, whose taste in monsters tends towards the classics – vampires, mad doctors and the like. There’s ample evidence of him steering the ship though, from the abundant nudity to the idiosyncratic pacing, which is particularly evident in the final third. There’s also evidence of him not taking the project altogether seriously.
The appearance of the monster / Devil / God is one obvious problem, given he / it is simply a naked man with protruding, bloodied eyes; a naked man who continually appears in blurry, handheld shots intended to represent his own point of view. The action scenes are also astonishingly inept, none more so than the climatic battle between said monster and our hero Cliver, the Devil and his hunter.
In fairness, the cinematography is not too bad, with some lush views of the natural world and even the odd tracking shot. It’s often undermined by ropey effects though, by blood that looks like household paint and framing that seems . . . odd even by the director’s standards. For instance, there are a number of shots of our blond goddess framed by the legs of an onlooking, native man, and at the top of frame, up around the loin cloth, his scrotum is clearly visible. I assume this to be a mistake but I suppose one never knows.
With regards to those in front of the camera, I suppose they’re game enough, although their performances are hindered by some atrocious dubbing and dialogue. Their characters have no real backstories – I’m not even sure they’re all given names – so there’s not a lot for them to work with. Who are the kidnappers, who is it that hires Peter . . . I have no idea.
“I really wasn’t expecting any of this.”
Is it possible there’s more to this than meets the eye, that there’s a deeper meaning I’m missing? I suspect not. The jungle adventures of this (and other) period(s) have been criticised for their portrayal of native people, and Devil Hunter is not exempt in that regard. The natives live in huts, wear loin cloths (or less) and rely on human sacrifices to pacify their God.
One might also question exactly what is being juxtaposed in the first ten minutes or so, when we cut back and fourth between a naked black woman being pursued through the jungle and a white woman being pursued by paparazzi. Is this an attempt at drawing some sort of equivalence, as both ultimately end up in the hands of the Devil / God, or are we seeing the contrast between first and third world, between privilege and primitive?
“Wait a minute. Let me take a pill.”
Devil Hunter was one of the 39 films to appear on the final DPP list, so one assumes it was successfully prosecuted for obscenity in a court of law. Generally speaking, the moral panic around video nasties was around violence, and while there is some violence here – including some entrail pulling that may well have been inserted from another picture – but it’s all quite mild and utterly unconvincing.
The film does share some characteristics with the notorious Italian cannibal films of the period – it would almost certainly not have been made without them – but is seems a stretch say this was a case of guilt by association. There are far nastier, more obvious cannibal films which were not prosecuted, for example Eaten Alive (1980) and Last Cannibal World (1977). One wonders if the abundant nudity was a problem, particularly the male nudity, which is front and centre throughout much of the film’s final act. We should also acknowledge that the menacing of bound, naked women – however ham-fisted – would have been frowned upon then as it is now.
Bloody Moon (1981)
While the specifics of the authorities’ problems with Devil Hunter might be up for debate, the case against Bloody Moon was probably easier to make, as scissors, knives, a circular saw and even a hedge trimmer are used to despatch the wafer-thin characters.
Miguel (Alexander Waechter) is discharged from a psychiatric hospital five years after murdering a young woman. Disfigured and socially awkward, he is released into the care of his sister Manuela (Nadja Gerganoff), for whom he harbours incestuous desires. Together they return to the family home, which is adjacent to a language school full of nubile students who soon attract his attention . . .
Shot in Alicante with German money, Bloody Moon (Die Sage Des Todes) is a response to the American slasher films so popular in the early eighties, with even gorier murders, more nudity and dumber characters. Indeed, the murders are so elaborately staged, it has been likened to a giallo. There’s no amateur sleuthing to be found here though, just hysteria and a mounting body count.
Again, Franco was hired to direct a project conceived by others and does a creditable job in that regard. Indeed, Bloody Moon would likely surprise people only familiar with his seventies output, people who might assume him to be reliant on crash zooms, incapable of staging dramatic scenes or maintaining any level of consistency in his work. The truth is, of course, that he did not forget how to craft a film as the sixties gave way to the seventies, he simply took a different path, shooting fast and loose, following his muse.
That’s not to say the film is a masterpiece of cinematic technique, but it’s failings – of which there are many – cannot really be laid at the director’s door. The script, for example – apparently the work of the Production Manager, Erich Tomek – is terrible, and the characters, as we’ve said, are dumb even by slasher standards. Inga (Jasmin Losensky), allows herself to be tied to a huge stone by a man wearing a mask, a man whose face she has never seen. Angela (Olivia Pascal), our final girl, later finds her severed head – Inga’s severed head – in her bed and attempts to converse with it, initially not recognising that her friend is dead. I could go on.
How much any of this matters will depend largely on the expectations and frame of mind (sobriety) of the audience. The film is a competently-made slasher with an attractive cast and a number of gory sets-pieces. It delivers the goods and was duly prosecuted for it. Its biggest problem is arguably the score, and particularly the incessant use of a soft-rock guitar riff which I fear could induce seizures in sensitive viewers. Apparently Franco was told Pink Floyd were to score the film, which seems unlikely given the budget – quite generous by the standards he was used to – would surely not have stretched to the demands of an A-list band.
“I’ll cut you in two . . . like a piece of wood.”
I should qualify this talk of technical competence, because while Bloody Moon gives lie to the idea that Franco couldn’t deliver a professional-looking film, it’s a fairly anonymous piece that reveals little of the director as an auteur. I can’t immediately think of an American slasher which overtly references incest, but this is not a transgressive film, at least not when compared to the masterpieces of the early seventies. Really, it’s more a film for fans of the genre than fans of the director.
WordPress does to lend itself to formal footnotes:
Franco’s films continued to upset the censorious in the UK well into the nineties, with several of Redemption’s releases being cut and two – Demoniac (Exorcism) (1974) and Sadomania (1981) – being banned outright.
Dietrich’s account of how he came to be aware of Women Behind Bars can be found in Obsession (Balbo et. al). Flowers of Perversion (Thrower) contains extensive research on how the film was funded and distributed.
In keeping with a number of Franco films from this period, smoking is given great prominence in Women Behind Bars.
My commentary on the Women in Prison films Franco directed for Dietrich can be found here.
The Spanish ‘El Cannibal’ strikes me as problematic, on the basis the monster / Devil / God is presumably not intended to be human . . . despite appearances to the contrary. As such, eating the heart of his victims would not constitute cannibalism.
In addition to all the effects, a snake is killed onscreen in Bloody Moon. I can’t imagine why this deemed to be necessary, but it – animal cruelty – is a characteristic of a number of the official and unofficial nasties.
Obsession – the Films of Jess Franco, Balbo, Blumenstock and Kessler (Haufen & Trebbin, 1993)
Flowers of Perversion, Stephen Thrower (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)
The Art of the Nasty, Nigel Wingrove and Marc Morris (Salvation Films, 1998)