Jess Franco was a remarkable man. In purely numeric terms, his contribution to world cinema has few precedents. Add to that, he wrote or co-wrote most of his films and appeared in many of them. He scored some of them, occasionally even operated the camera. Jess Franco was as close to a one-man production company as it was possible to be in the analogue era, yet most casual film fans will be totally unfamiliar with his name. Indeed, most cinephiles will be totally unfamiliar with his name.
For a man who directed in the region of 180 films – that’s not a typo – Franco remains a rather marginal figure. The pseudonyms probably don’t help – Jess Frank, Clifford Brown, David Khune and more – but neither do the films. While many of them achieved box office success in various parts of the world, they are not the sort of films likely to appear on a critic’s end of year list, and they are certainly not the sort of films to be short-listed for awards. Franco operated at the margins, shooting genre films quickly and cheaply, seemingly deliberately.
Even among fans of cult, genre or psychotronic cinema – arguably his ‘natural’ audience – Franco remains a divisive figure. His work is frequently derided as boring, careless and exploitative, and to varying degrees, it’s all of those things. Yet he has many ardent, very vocal admirers. He is the subject of numerous critical appreciations and even academic studies. In 2008 he was afforded a retrospective at Paris’ prestigious Cinematheque Francaise. It all begs the question, why?
For me, part of the explanation lays in the idiosyncrasy of the work, the sheer audacity of it. Franco’s cinema is the cinema of diabolical doctors and wicked wardens, of bloody judges and perverse countesses, of female vampires who fellate their victims to death. Good luck finding that at your local multiplex.
There is a danger of over-emphasising the sex and violence though. Actually Franco directed musicals, comedies and spy films, adventure movies, costume dramas and sci-fi . . . in addition to the zombies, the cannibals, the women in prison. The outre themes and shocking images are absolutely part of the appeal, but more as an expression of the director’s unique sensibility than anything else.
So what is that sensibility, where are the fingerprints to be found? I think the first point to make is that the writer / director was also a musician, and in particular an aficionado of jazz. His films are thus loaded with musical numbers, with characters who play in bands and listen to records, with scenes shot in nightclubs and bars. Many of them are also blessed with fantastic scores – try to imagine Venus in Furs, Vampyros Lesbos or Female Vampire without the music – which is not to suggest he wrote them but which reflects the importance he attributed to them.
Another key characteristic is the tendency to revisit and rework certain scenarios and themes, which is why we have so many Orloff films, so many women in prison films, so many films inspired by the writings of the Marquis De Sade. The same characters also appear again and again, or perhaps more accurately, the same names are used again and again. Even the same actors appear with striking regularity, suggesting a unity, a universe, rightly or wrongly.
Whether this was a matter of art or expediency is not entirely clear. Franco worked at a furious pace throughout much of his career, often shooting films back to back or even simultaneously. As such, working with templates and archetypes, with familiar faces in front of and behind the camera, makes a lot of sense. It may be the key to his incredible productivity.
These working methods may also explain another facet of his cinema – the legendary unevenness. Franco’s films tend to contain carefully choreographed, imaginative sequences alongside more pedestrian, even careless passages. The balance of these elements goes some way to differentiating the better from the lesser works and also bears some relation to the budgets in hand. The films of the seventies, for instance, tend to be more ‘up and down’ than those of the sixties.
One wonders if Franco’s temperament was also a factor though, particularly as time went on and budgets got tighter. One sometimes suspects he embarked on a project with certain key scenes in mind and expended the bulk of his energy in realising those. To use a musical analogy, it is as though he valued (or at least prioritised) the solos over the cohesion of the whole.
Perhaps there should even be a question mark over the director’s commitment to the results of his labour, given he frequently dismissed or downplayed its value in interviews. One imagines there was an element of modesty in this and there can be no questioning his commitment to cinema. There is a suspicion that he was as driven by the act of filmmaking as the art of it though.
In terms of style, Franco is notorious for his use of the zoom lens and more generally for an apparent disregard for little details like focus. It seems to me these owe more to economics than aesthetics though, and a more generous reading of the director’s style might make reference to his eye for and use of architecture, his fascination with the details of island locations and the choreography of the many striptease routines. His handling of sex scenes is also – or at least could also be – far more interesting than his detractors are minded to admit, with extreme, unfocused close-ups lending them a distinctly abstract air.
There is a theory that some viewers are inclined to value moments of inspiration and ‘revelation’ over other cinematic virtues, and I think this is helpful in explaining the enduring appeal of Jess Franco. It also, in a sense, brings us full circle. Franco cannot match the craft of other, better known filmmakers. His work does not compare well in terms of character development, narrative cohesion or production values, though one suspects he would not care in the least. He can give us moments that others cannot. He tells us stories others will not. His films have personality, and even the least among them have sequences that stimulate the senses and live long in the memory.
WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes.
The recurring characters / names / types include Doctor Orloff, Inspector Tanner, the private detective Al Pereira, the henchman Morpho and the ingenue Eugenie. The actors most frequently seen in Franco’s films include Howard Vernon, Jack Taylor, Paul Mueller and, of course, Lina Romay.
Its noticable that many of Franco’s films begin with very imaginative, often quite startling sequences which set standards they are frequently unable to maintain. For instance, for every Eugenie and Vampyros Lesbos (both 1970) there is a Tender and Perverse Emanuelle (1973) and Exorcism (1974).
The theory I refer to in the closing paragraph is Paul Willemen’s concept of cinephilia.
I did not read anything in preparation of this essay, though the following have influenced my thinking on Franco to varying degrees.
How to Read a Franco Film, by Tim Lucas (Video Watchdog, 1990)
Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill (Primitive Press, 1994)
Bizarre Sinema!, by Carlos Aguilar (Glittering Images, 1999)
The Films of Jess Franco, by Lazaro-Reboll, Olney et al. (Wayne State University Press, 2018)