Beginning with a montage of paintings which demonstrate that sex and death have been a part of European culture for hundreds of years, Succubus (1968) was a pivotal film for Franco in a several respects. For a start, it was the first he shot entirely outside of Spain, without any Spanish funding and, more importantly, any interference from the Spanish censors. It was, to paraphrase the director, the first time he had been free to make the film he wanted. It’s also significant in being the film that brought him to the attention of British producer Harry Alan Towers, who would subsequently furnish him with some of the biggest budgets and most marketable stars of his career.
Ostensibly the story of a nightclub performer who may be suffering from amnesia, who may be killing people in a dream-state and may be under the influence of malevolent forces, a plot summary does the film a disservice by being wholly unable to convey the experience of actually watching it. Succubus – or Necronomicon, to give it it’s German title – defies easily classification and challenges our comprehension with its ambiguities, elliptical structure and beautiful, extended dream sequences. Indeed, it’s a film Franco himself has claimed not to understand, though I suspect that is more tease than truth.
“The serpent is venomous to us all.”
The action begins with Lorna Green (Janine Reynaud) dressed all in black, brandishing a knife and menacing two bound figures. She undoes her blouse and presses herself against the male, only to deliver the death blow moments later. Or so it seems. In fact, the lights come up to reveal that we have been watching a stage show, along with Bill Mulligan (Jack Taylor), ‘Hermann’ (co-producer and ‘writer’ Pier Caminnecci) and assorted others. The majority of the film from this point on is comprised of Bill’s account of the time he spent with Lorna in Lisbon, albeit with some ‘poetic’ licence. He could not know the content of her dreams, for example, which are crucial to the film, both aesthetically and narratively.
In a lengthy sequence which stands as one of the most memorable in Franco’s entire oeuvre, Lorna makes her way from Bill’s apartment through the deserted streets of Lisbon in a striking, red Karl Lagerfeld dress. Her consciousness, such as it is, is a cacophony of voices – a fractured narrative of a princess approaching a castle, a man’s voice repeating lines we heard at the outset, ‘I have done well, she is perfect, a disciple who mirrors my own image.’ She makes her way from the Belem Tower to a rendezvous with the Admiral (Howard Vernon), an older man with whom she plays a word-association game, with whom she dances and ultimately stabs through the eye.
Waking, she and Bill make their way out into the streets, where they encounter a group of mourners. They are encouraged to pay their respects and duly approach the open casket, only to find the Admiral laid to rest, seemingly the result of a fatal wound to the eye. The preceding sequence was clearly marked out as a dream – or at least, it was clearly differentiated from the surrounding footage – so for the second time in its opening thirty minutes, the film calls us to question the realiability of what we are seeing.
One of the challenges in writing about such an esoteric film – an esoteric film shot by a maverick director and which exists in multiple versions – is trying to distinguish intentional ambiguity from errors in the production and misunderstandings on the part of the viewer.
The mysteries surrounding Lorna – her apparent amnesia and murderous fantasies – would seem to be deliberate. During a party sequence, one of the guests (Adrian Hoven, another of the film’s producers) reads aloud from a book which describes a female devil who must ‘swallow the living in pursuit of her earthbound desires’. The camera settles on Lorna’s face, complete with thousand-yard stare and make-up that suddenly, subtly appears demonic. That said, there are indications from the beginning that she is being controlled by an external force and might in some sense be the victim of the piece.
By contrast, the relationship between Bill and the aforementioned external force – apparently ‘Pierce’ (Michel Lemoine), though I don’t recall him being referred to by that name – is never made clear and this feels like an omission. The first time we see them speak they appear to be in the latter stages of implementing a plan we never see hatched, and one is given to wonder if an entire scene has been left on the cutting room floor, if it was somehow overlooked during production or if holes in the narrative (there are a number) were just accepted in the broader context.
In terms of that broader context, it’s worth noting that production began with a synopsis rather than a full shooting script, the latter being written once filming was underway. Both Franco and Taylor have been clear about this – and also about who was doing the writing (Franco) – so it’s strange to see Pier Caminnecci credited as screenwriter. According to Immoral Tales, Caminnecci was a friend of Adrian Hoven and was invited to the set some time after shooting had begun, when one of the film’s German backers withdrew. The plan to elicit his support worked and Caminnecci bankrolled the remainder of the production – and it’s obviously possible he had some input into the writing thereafter – but the evidence suggests that Franco is the principle author here.
“Films are outmoded, don’t you agree?”
Succubus was my first exposure to Franco’s cinema, when Redemption released the film on VHS back in 1993. I remember being slightly bewildered at the time, even disappointed, perhaps because the film didn’t deliver the carnal pleasures promised by its box art. How naive I was. Twenty-five years later I consider it to be one of the director’s very best, neither horror nor erotica but quintessential euro-cult. It’s a visual treat from start to finish, particularly the dream sequences, which have the grainy, contrasty look of film that has been pushed during processing (though I would guess it was achieved with filters). In the first, during the word association game, the Admiral holds a magnifying glass to his mouth, as if drawing attention to the dialogue, to the catalogue of cultural references (DeSade, Kafka, Charlie Mingus). In the second, Lorna gives life to a room full of costumed mannequins who pursue her prey, cornering her, so that the fatal blow may be administered.
The film’s jazzy score – composed by Friedrich Gulda and conducted by Jerry Van Rooyan – is also worthy of note as it contributes significantly to the intoxicating air. It’s cleverly used too, diegetically used. Indeed, there is a suggestion towards the end that music may play a part in triggering Lorna’s violence, though this is another instance in which one wonders whether an idea was not fully implemented or consciously left to hang in the air.
With regards to its legendary incomprehensibility, it’s certainly not the sort of film that goes out of its way to explain things, to make things easy. It’s probably also fair to say that it rewards repeat viewings, that it’s difficult to decipher the first time around. For instance, I’m not sure I initially understood that Lorna is under the control of Pierce, though all the information is there. We see him at the very outset, during the stage show, intoning that she is perfect, a disciple in his own image, and these lines are heard a number of times thereafter. Furthermore, the first time we see the two interact, when he is asked to announce himself, he responds simply “I am in command”.
As to the nature of his command, there is evidence to suggest it’s supernatural in origin. There are several occasions in which we see Lorna undergoing some sort of analysis, and though these are incorporated into the dream sequences, they may in fact be memories. During one she is asked to express her feelings towards cinematic monsters, who we see one at the time – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Phantom (of the Opera). The last to appear, this time in the flesh rather than as a figurine, is Pierce. The final lines of the film would seem to support this reading, as the two are them return to her ‘castle’ so that she may rest, and she is referred to ‘Faustina’, suggesting that rather than being a devil, she has sold her soul to one.
WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes. In writing this review I referred to:
Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombes and Cathol Tohil (1994)
Bizarre Sinema! Jess Franco, by Carlos Aguilar (1999)
The interviews with Franco and Jack Taylor which accompany the US releases of the film by Blue Underground.
I also read Sam Deighan’s essay ‘Legacies of Sade’ from Diabolique magazine (2018)