In choosing not to renew his contract with Towers, Franco seems to have made a conscious decision to forego budgets and bankable stars in favour of pursuing more personal projects, in the first instance, Sex Charade, Nightmares Come at Night and Eugenie (all 1970). The latter, in addition to being the most widely seen of the three, is particularly interesting as a marker of change, given it’s another Sade adaptation and thematically very similar to the earlier Eugenie, the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1969). In both films we see a young woman’s blossoming sexuality turn towards sadism, though they are poles apart in terms of tone and execution.
Albert Radeck (Paul Muller), a writer and intellectual with a particular interest in the erotic, lives a life of relative seclusion with his step-daughter Eugenie (Soledad Miranda). While her age is never made clear, she appears to be on the brink of womanhood, of discovering her sexuality, and takes an increasing interest in the books she finds around the house. This interest is not lost on her father, who gives her one describing an incestuous relationship between father and daughter. When she responds positively, he shares his worldview with her: the pursuit of pleasure is man’s ultimate purpose, and that pleasure must always come at the expense of others. If she will become his accomplice, they will dedicate themselves to this philosophy, they will embark on a campaign of ‘wounds and blood and death.’
“I had a premonition that life would be full of passions.”
Watching these films again chronologically, it’s obvious that Eugenie marks a new chapter in Franco’s filmography and lays down the template for much of what was to follow, both aesthetically and thematically. It’s clearly a smaller production than those dating from the late sixties, with a limited cast of characters, darker tone and increased emphasis on the morbid eroticism that had appeared intermittently since The Awful Dr Orlof in 1962. If we compare it directly to the Eugenie of the Towers era, we see that sun and sea has been replaced by snow and ice, and the glamorous, blond Maria Rohm by the dark, waif-like Soledad Miranda. There’s also far less softening of the source material here – no dreamlike framing device and certainly none of the redemption that marred the end of Justine (1969). This Eugenie, which I believe was shot without a recognised producer and picked up for distribution later, seems to have greater conviction in telling its story of two unrepentant libertines who kill purely for the pleasure of it.
With regards to the aforementioned sadism, the depiction of sexual violence here is noticeably stronger than it had been to this point, as is the nudity. The latter is never particularly appealing though, largely due to the context in which it occurs. Indeed, there’s nothing particularly appealing here in visual terms, due in part to the dark interiors, the wintry exteriors and over-abundance of zooms. In fairness to Franco and cinematographer ‘Mann Merin’ – Manuel Merino, who shot most of the Towers set – the (two) former could be argued to be tonally appropriate. I suspect the latter is simply an effect of the budget though. Either way, there’s nothing here to rival the dream sequences of Succubus (1968), the flashbacks of 99 Women or the choreographed murders of Venus in Furs (both 1969).
Franco was never really a visual stylist though, not in the way that Bava, Borowczyk and, later, Argento were visual stylists. He could conjure haunting images, had an eye for architecture and locations, but that’s not the same thing. We should remember that for Franco cinema is about telling stories, and it may be that stripping back the scale of the productions enabled – or seemed more likely to enable – him to tell the stories he wanted to tell. It’s certainly hard to imagine anyone else tackling transgressive subject matter like this with such apparent seriousness. It’s worth noting in this context, that Franco wrote the screenplay for Eugenie, whereas Towers wrote the previous Sade adaptations.
The fingerprints of the author can also be seen in the ubiquitous nightclub footage and, more importantly, the sleight of hand of the opening sequence. The film begins with two young women undressing and caressing one another, intercut with shots of a smoking, bearded man – Franco himself – watching what we come to realise is projected film. We might be forgiven for thinking he is in a theatre watching porn – the dreamy Bruno Nicolai score suggests as much – but as the footage rolls on things acquire a darker complexion. A middle-aged man enters the scene and one of the girls begins to acknowledge the presence of the camera, signalling that he / we are not watching commercially produced porn but something more sinister, something homemade. As he wraps a cord around her neck, we realise we are watching footage of a murder.
“The world of tomorrow belongs to us.”
Considerable credit must go to the principals for convincing in what would have been difficult roles. Paul Muller is every inch the amoral, intellectual, Sadean anti-hero, and Soledad Miranda, here credited as ‘Susan Korday’, dominates every scene she’s in as his adoring, all too willing daughter. We should not underestimate Eugenie’s complicity here, indeed one could argue she provides the catalyst for their descent into depravity when she leaves the door between her bedroom and her father’s study open, when she removes her underwear and writhes around in his line of sight.
In terms of the supporting cast, the third important role is taken by Franco himself, who acquits himself well as Attila Tanner, the writer to whom Eugenie tells her tale. The role is actually illustrative of the the film as a whole, because in other hands Tanner would have been the voice of conventional morality but there’s just no place for that here. He seems to know of Radeck’s crimes quite early on, and seems intrigued rather than appalled, his interest academic. He seems more inclined to taunt our protagonists than talk to the authorities, to observe rather than intervene.
Miranda had worked with Franco prior to Eugenie, in supporting rather than starring roles, but it’s really the films from 1970 for which she is known today. The next of that ‘set’ is Vampyros Lesbos (1970), which has become one of his most beloved films and elevated her to the status of cult icon, despite being difficult to see for many years.
Like Succubus, Exorcism and others, it begins with a nightclub sequence, here featuring Miranda, a mirror and a ‘mannequin’. The show is watched by, among others Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stromberg) and her boyfriend Omar (Andrea Montchal), who retire to bed thereafter. At this point we see a montage of images which will recur throughout the film – a scorpion, a moth, a flying kite and trail of blood on a window pane – before we return to Linda in a psychiatrist’s chair, telling Dr Steiner (Paul Muller) that the dancer she had seen the night before is known to her from her dreams. Before long she becomes directly acquainted with the mysterious brunette, as she travels to Anatolia to inform the beautiful Countess Carody (Soledad Miranda, here billed as ‘Susann Korda’) that she has inherited the wealth of one Count Dracula.
“My friend is the Queen of the Night.”
Vampyros Lesbos is, as the title would suggest, a film which portrays the undead, a film in which the central character craves and forcibly takes human blood in order to survive. I’d struggle to describe it as a horror film though, due in part to the radical revisions Franco – who also wrote the screenplay – makes to the vampire mythos. Here the ubiquitous castle is replaced by a modern beach house, the coffin by a swimming pool and the count by a countess – a beautiful one at that. Daylight poses no threat to Franco’s female vampire either, indeed Linda first encounters her lounging in the sun, and strips-down shortly thereafter to join her in the sea. Far from the scorpion stalking its prey, the moth drawn to the flame, the pair run through the sand with the excitement of children. This could of course be seen as absurd, laughable, but we should remember that Franco had proved himself more than capable of generating a menacing atmosphere over the preceding years, so that was presumably not the intention here. Rather than adhere to an established template, he chose to take elements that had rarely been made explicit to that point – the eroticism of the biting, the essential loneliness of the vampire – and place them in a contemporary setting. In so doing he created something entirely his own.
Another deviation from convention can be found in the prominence given to the female characters, albeit that was nothing new for Franco, who had given women centre stage as far back as The Diabolical Dr Z (1966). They had tended to share screen time more or less equally with their male counterparts to this point though, and that’s not the case here. The active players in Vampyros Lesbos are Linda and Nadine (Carody, the Countess), with everyone else looking on from the sidelines.
On the subject of the leads, and referring back to the film’s title, the Countess’ sexuality is not as typical of the period as it might at first appear. Lesbian sex scenes were a staple of exploitation cinema from the late sixties and there are plenty of examples in Franco’s cinema to this point and thereafter. This was presumably in part to give male viewers twice the flesh to ogle, but also owed something to the peculiarities of censorship around this time, with on-screen male nudity remaining problematic into the seventies. The characters engaging in these scenes tended to be portrayed as ‘gender agnostic’ though – I hesitate to use the term bisexual, as the films rarely bothered to apply the label – such as Lorna in Succubus and Wanda in Venus in Furs. The Countess is quite clear about her hatred of men though, albeit this begs the question of how she made the Count’s ‘life with living’.
“Madness and death rule the island.”
In terms of the film’s enduring appeal, it’s much more upbeat than either its predecessor or successor, which might be a factor. The exotic locations and visual contrast between the leads also contributes to a whole which is as aesthetically striking as any from the Towers set. Indeed Vampyros Lesbos abounds in memorable imagery, none more so than when Linda finds Nadine floating unconscious in a pool, arms outstretched like a crucifix, red scarf flowing from her neck like blood. The nightclub scenes are also difficult to forget, as the countess removes her scarves and underwear, uses them to clothe the ‘mannequin’ and in doing so gives her life. The soundtrack by Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab is another huge asset, mixing psychedelia, jazz and eastern sounds with apparent abandon, much as Franco was mixing disparate elements onscreen. Taken together this results in a deeply intoxicating sensory experience, which seems as strange now as it is likely to have done in the early seventies.
Artur Brauner, the producer of Vampyros Lesbos and the three that came immediately thereafter, was apparently so impressed with what he saw he gave Franco the go ahead to make another feature, the only stipulation being that Soledad Miranda must again play the lead. The resultant film, She Killed in Ecstasy, is apparently based on a play by French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, though its premise of a woman taking revenge on those who have wronged her (husband) may be more familiar to Franco fans due to its echoes of the aforementioned Diabolical Dr. Z. In this case, the avenging angel – Miranda, who we only ever know as ‘Mrs Johnson’ – is driven to seek out four members of the medical establishment whose condemnation of her husband’s research drives him firstly to despair and ultimately suicide.
Significantly less successful than its predecessor, She Killed in Ecstasy bears the signs of being made quickly and cheaply, most obviously in the reliance on panning and zooming which we saw to a lesser degree in Eugenie. I think the over use of the zoom here and elsewhere is symptomatic of the pace at which Franco worked more than anything, which is why it’s more noticeable in the films of the seventies than the sixties. It’s irritating to the viewer either way though, and once it enters your conscious awareness it’s hard to ignore.
“Are you an artist?”
The trade off for the technical shortcomings one often finds in Franco’s films – overuse of the zoom is not the only one – is the scenarios, scenes, even specific images you simply won’t find elsewhere. She Killed in Ecstasy should be a case in point, given the beautiful locations, four obvious set pieces and accompanying sexual sadism. It never quite delivers as one might have hoped though, again most likely due to pressures of time and money. There are memorable images here – the film is punctuated by shots of Miranda on the coast near Alicante, striking Bofill architecture behind her, crashing waves in front – and some of the scenes are pure Franco. The inevitable sapphic interaction between Miranda and Stromberg – tastefully shot, seemingly with ambient light – culminates with the latter being suffocated with an inflatable pillow, the bombastic score cutting in time with the air to her lungs. Most famously, the final revenge is enacted on the director himself, who we see tied to a chair while his muse, nearly naked, runs a knife along his chest. Other elements seem rushed though, particularly the film’s conclusion, which is something we’ll come back to. There is also a moment in which it seems Franco has a point to make – specifically, when Dr Walker (Howard Vernon), who we have previously seen preaching morality, picks up (what he believes to be) a prostitute, prays and then insists she degrade him. This is never followed through though, and one is left to wonder whether the writer / director had any intent beyond making a star vehicle.
The other problem I think many viewers will have with the film is the despairing tone that pervades throughout. To be clear, many defining Franco films have an air of melancholy, morbidity and / or perversion which might be at odds with the desires of the target audience, whatever and whoever they may be. However, the likes of Female Vampire (1973), A Virgin Among The Living Dead (1973) and Lorna the Exorcist (1974) have an authenticity and coherence that She Killed does not, and I think part of the problem lies with the soundtrack. The energetic, eccentric work of Hubler and Schwab which fit the preceding film so perfectly seems somewhat incongruent here, with the occasional, orchestral contributions of Bruno Nicolai much more aligned with the action onscreen.
“You’re delicate like porcelain and lively like a waltz.”
Ultimately this is good rather than great Franco, essential viewing despite not being as provocative as Eugenie or as audacious as Vampyros Lesbos. The real draw is again Soledad Miranda, who looks absolutely stunning throughout (well, when she’s not wearing a blond wig) and manages to convey the disintegration of Mrs Johnson primarily through her eyes and facial expressions. Sadly Fred Williams – who had previously appeared in Franco’s Count Dracula – is not as compelling a screen presence, leading the director to lament years later that the film would have been far better with Klaus Kinski in the role of the doomed Dr Johnson.
The last film we’re going to discuss is The Devil Came from Akasava, a mix of krimi (crime) staples and spy shenanigans also shot in the summer of 1970. The starting point this time around is the discovery of a rare stone which can turn metal into gold. Unfortunately it also radiates energy which is toxic to humans, bringing about either death or a zombie-like state in those exposed to it. The last man known to have seen the stone – mineralogist Professor Forrester (Angel Menendez) – goes missing amid a hail of bullets, as does the stone itself. Meanwhile, back in London, the body of a dead man is found in the Institute for Tropical Research, prompting separate arms of the U.K. security services to despatch Rex Forrester (Fred Williams) and Jane Morgan (Soledad Miranda) to investigate
Unmistakably Franco in terms of execution but something of an outlier in terms of content, this has the look and feel of a commercial endeavour about it, of a conscious attempt to capitalise on the popularity of the Edgar Wallace-inspired crime films which were popular in Germany throughout the sixties. One imagines the impetus came from Brauner rather than Franco – I have not been able to find any meaningful information one way or the other – because it is so different to the films that immediately preceded it. To be clear, Franco made several excursions into the world of espionage in the sixties and would continue to do so thereafter. The films we have discussed here feel like part of a set though, and The Devil Came From Akasava really does not – it doesn’t share the same trajectory at all.
Worse still, it borders on incomprehensible, is by turns illogical and inept. For example, a generic ‘baddie’ attacks the British Consul and is shot through the head by Jane: I have no idea who he is. The mineralogist who was shot in Africa – we know Akasava is in Africa because we hear monkeys and elephants on the soundtrack – turns up charred and crazed in London: I have no idea how he got there. Howard Vernon – who doesn’t say a word in the entire film – flees an English Manor House and makes his escape via a plane which appears to be waiting in an entirely different time zone. I could go on.
“It is simply not believable that so many people are killed because of such a ludicrous stone.”
The significance of all this silliness will depend very much on the sensibilities of the viewer. The Devil Came From Akasava is not a good film by any meaningful measure but I can understand people having a good time with it. It moves along at a cracking pace, is full of familiar faces (in addition to those already mentioned, Stromberg, Muller and Franco all return) and certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously. Soledad Miranda also vogues her way through two nightclub routines, which may be worth the price of admission alone. This is not a fitting epitaph to her though, being her last screen role.
At the end of She Killed in Ecstasy, Mrs Johnson – her acts of vengeance complete – straps the body of her dead husband into a car and proceeds to drive it off a cliff, killing herself in the process. The scene is not particularly well-executed and thus not as dramatic as it probably should have been. It does have a sense of tragic foreshadowing to it though, as Soledad Miranda and her husband were involved in an automobile accident just a couple of months after it was shot, on the 20th of August 1970, while travelling from Estoril to Lisbon. The injuries she sustained proved fatal. She was 27 years old.
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 Films of Jess Franco, by Antonio Lazaro-Reboll, Ian Olney et al (2018)
The interviews with Franco and Stephen Thrower which accompany the US releases Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy by Severin.