The Mondo Esoterica Guide to:

Jess Franco

  About Jess Franco:

Although famously refered to as the most dangerous film-maker alive by the Catholic Church, to his fans Franco is less dangerous than enigmatically frustrating - his body of work ranging from some of euro-cult-cinema's most outstanding entries, to some films that are nothing but a waste of celluloid. Like many directors of his period, Franco's work can be sorted into several distinct periods, usually related directly to his producer at the time.

Born Jesús Franco Manera in Spain in 1930, he rapidly took an interest in music and American cinema. Finding Spain's strict censorship, under General Franco, to be limiting his cinematic education, he enrolled in a Parisian film school. During this time he also founded a life-long love affair with jazz, working as a trumpeter and pianist in Paris nightclubs. Returning to Madrid in 1953 he found work in the cinema industry as a writer and musician under a variety of directors, including Leon Klimovsky. His first directoral role came on the self-penned surreal comedy Tenemos 18 años (1959) and he followed this up with two musical films. It wasn't until 1962 that Franco started shooting films that we would recognise today and began his inexorable turn towards cult cinema. Taking his producers to see Hammer's Brides of Dracula (1960), he convinced them that there was money in horror films, and was given the budget to shoot The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962). As well as being his first horror picture, Franco's script contained a number of elements that would follow him throughout his career - including the characters Dr. Orlof, Inspector Tanner and his assistant Morpho; the recurrent theme of involuntary surgical proceedures and the frequent appearances of Swiss actor Howard Vernon and Franco himself onscreen. The Awful Dr. Orlof was Spain's first true horror film, and its sucess allowed Franco to produce more, similar films including sequels The Secret of Dr. Orloff (1964) and Le Diabolique Docteur Z (1966). Moving away from his Universal Horror inspired Black and White films, Franco directed a spy spoof and his applauded S&M surrealist erotic picture, Succubus (1968) that was nominated for the Berlin film festival.

With his films finally being acknowledged on the world stage, Franco came to the attention of British producer Harry Alan Towers. Although he at first put Franco in the chair for a distinctly unimpressive Fu Manchu picture The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), a fellow fan of erotic and pulp literature, Towers was to provide Franco with not only directoral freedom, but his biggest budgets and biggest stars to date - including Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski. Alongside commerical entries such as Count Dracula (1970) and Marquis de Sade: Justine (1969), Franco was able to experiment with "adult fantasies", fusing jazz and erotica in his impressive Venus in Furs (1969), and updated Sadian erotic themes in Eugiene: Philosophy in the Boudoir (1970). After leaving Towers, Franco united with actress Soledad Miranda to produce five of his most personal and sensual films, including Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Eugenie de Sade (1970) before the actress' tragic death in a Madrid car crash in August 1970. Returning to France, Franco returned to his pulp movies, directing the well received Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), as well as Universal/Hammer Horror twists Dracula; Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972) and The Curse of Frankenstein (1972). During this time, Franco discovered a young actress whom he named Lina Romay and who would appear in Franco's work continually until the present day.

In 1975, Franco approached Swiss exploitation director Erwin C. Dietrich looking for funding for Barbed Wire Dolls (1975). Togethey they shot a further 14 films, including
Doriana Grey (1976), Jack the Ripper (1976), Ilsa, the Wicked Warden (1977) and Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1977). Like Towers, Dietrich was able to provide Franco with enough budget to secure big names, including Klaus Kinski and William Berger, and for impressive modern and period sets and location shoots, he also allowed Franco a lot of freedom, including casting Lina Romay in leading roles in most of his productions. With the collapse of the fascist government in Spain, Franco was finally able to return to his home-nation and produce the films he wanted. Producing, editing and even scoring his own films, Franco was afforded complete freedom. Highlights from this period include a third adaptation of De Sade's Eugenie and the returns of his Red Lips detective characters and Howard Vernon as Dr. Orlof; however these films often did not sell well and the downside of the era includes a number of cheap commercial films he was forced to shoot for the money. In 1984 he shot Spain's first hardcore porn film, Lillian, the Perverted Virgin.

A turn around in Franco's popularity came in the late 1980s with the dawn of home video and a re-evaluation of many of Franco's earlier works. Big budgets and big stars returned with
Faceless (1988) - a new riff on Franco's favourite involuntary surgery themes, starring Telly Savalas and Anton Diffring with Howard Vernon appearing as Dr. Orloff. However, this boom in interest was short lived, and Franco ended up directing generic war films Dark Mission: Evil Flowers (1988) and Fall of the Eagles (1989). Spending the next few years retired from film making, Franco was surprisingly returned to the director's chair by fan Kevin Collins who established a straight-to-video firm One Shot Productions. With a heavy softcore pornographic slant, Franco shot several films in America for the company, including Lust for Frankenstein (1998) and Dr. Wong's Virtual Hell (1999) before returning to Spain where he has continued to shoot films, including Snakewoman (2005).

Jess Franco's continuing career represents one of the most diverse in cinema history and one that can be experienced in a variety of ways. Fans of his Towers and Dietrich periods will see a completely different side of Franco to those who know his recent straight-to-video work, or his low budget 1980s Spanish films. A true exploration of the world of Jess Franco will need to sample films from every one of his periods.

   DVD Reviews: Films directed by Jess Franco

Blood of Fu Manchu (1968)
Kinowelt Germany Region 2 DVD
Simply a bad movie, this fourth entry to the Fu Manchu series boasts a completely inane plot and terrible pacing.
Not recommended.
Bloody Moon (1981)
Severin USA Region 0 DVD
Franco takes on the slasher movie in this rather unoriginal but solid production.
Of interest to fans.
Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)
Kinowelt Germany Region 2 DVD
One of the worst films ever made, it suffered from bored acting, dull direction and a pointless storyline.
Not recommended.
Devil Hunter (1981)
Severin USA Region 0 DVD
One of Franco's two cannibal films, this is a solid but uninspired work.
Of interest to fans.
Diabolical Dr. Z (1966)
USA Mondo Macabro Region 0 DVD
The highlight of Franco's Black and White era with some great camerawork and a decent script.
Recommended to fans or newcomers.
Eugenie (1970)
USA Blue Underground Region 0 DVD
A clever updating of a work by De Sade with impressive direction and a good cast.
Highly recommended for fans but not great for newcomers.
Faceless (1988)
USA Media Blasters Region 1 DVD
A good cast but rather average script and direction make this a rather generic entry to Franco's oeuvre.
One for the Franco fans but not for newcomers.
Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle (1981)
USA Severin Films Region 0 DVD
A slow paced and rather tiresome film with no real plot.
Nothing to recommend it.
Jack the Ripper (1976)            
Anchor Bay UK Region 2 DVD
A rather dull film with lots of missed opportunities and unimpressive direction.
Only for Franco completists.
Macumba Sexual (1981)
USA Severin Films Region 0 DVD
Given complete commercial freedom Franco creates a wonderfully surreal and twistingly sexual film.
Highly recommended to Franco fans, and fans of euro-cult.
Mansion of the Living Dead (1982)
USA Severin Films Region 0 DVD
From Franco's Golden Films era, very well directed, but with a rather mixed up and often dragging plot.
Of interest to Franco fans.
Nightmares Come at Night (1970)
Screen Entertainment UK R0 DVD
Poorly paced and with a uninvolving plot this is one of Franco's weaker works despite a good cast.
Only for Franco completists.
The Sexual Story of O (1984)
USA Severin Films Region 0 DVD
Although short on plot, this film is well made and boasts some effective storyline with a must-see climax.
Certainly for fans of Franco's 1980s works.
Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
Second Sight UK Region 2 DVD
Jess Franco at his creative peak here with Soledad Miranda on top form. Undoubtedly one of his best films.
Highly recommended to Franco fans, and fans of euro-cult.
Venus in Furs (1969)
Blue Underground USA Region 0 DVD
Franco's impressive camerawork in on display here, but commercial pressures reduce his original vision.
Highly recommended to fans and a great starting place.


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All text in this site written by Timothy Young - June/October 2006.
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