Jack the Ripper ( Jess Franco,1976)

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When not busy treating the most destitute of London’s paupers, Dr. Dennis Orloff (Klaus Kinski) likes to slash a prostitute or two. He’s Jack the Ripper, you see. After the good doctor is done with them, his trusty lobotomized handmaid dumps the bloodied remains into the Thames. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Selby is on the case, aided by a blind beggar and his dancer ex-girlfriend (Josephine Chaplin – Downtown Heat) .

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This lavishly produced trash from producer Erwin C. Dietrich is Jess Franco’s auto-remake of his early classic Gritos en la La Noche/The Awful Dr. Orloff. With an international star in the lead, Jack the Ripper retains the classical, traditional essence of Jess Franco’s early B/W works while amping up the blood and sex factor. Such Franco themes as peeping, sexy dance routines, unusually wise and perspicacious blind characters, ineffectual policemen are all at hand in Jack the Ripper.

Often underused in Jess Franco films, Klaus Kinski is allowed sufficient screen time in Jack the Ripper this time around and does a good job portraying the mysterious Whitechapel maniac as a frigid, Victorian-era repressed gent with mommy issues.

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Impressive production values (including lavish period costumes and props) aside, Jack the Ripper remains a trash film at heart – but a stylish and entertaining one. Peter Baumgartner’s quality cinematography can be unsubtle, with often overlit exterior nighttime scenes (this is especially noticeable in the Bluray release). Some less-disciplined shots here and there suggest that Franco did get to handle a portion of the camerawork himself. A beautifully crafted flashback/hallucination scene of Kinski being taunted by the ghost of his prostitute mother foreshadows the dazzling visual abstractions Jess Franco would explore some forty years on with the likes of Paula-Paula.

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Klaus Kinski stalking a terrified Lina Romay through a nocturnal pine forest is a highlight. With no score, just some ambient sounds, the scene is a masterclass in subtle chills. Jess Franco spares no close-ups when capturing Lina Romay’s and Josephine Chaplin’s stunning natural beauty, in an out of authentic period costume. The English dubbing is, as per the norm, wretched. German-language track is somewhat more restrained and serious. Klaus Kinski doesn’t have his own voice in either language version, which is of course a sin.

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An improvement on The Awful Dr. Orloff in terms of pacing and consistency, Jack the Ripper packs a good deal of blood and strangeness into its shortish running time. You don’t have to be a Jess Franco fanatic to appreciate what Jack the Ripper has got to offer.

Dirty Game in Casablanca / Juego sucio en Casablanca ( Jess Franco,1985)

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A surprisingly linear (one could even say restrained) thriller from the notoriously erratic Jess Franco, Juego sucio en Casablanca stars William Berger as an alcoholic american novelist Dean Baker. His family life wrecked, himself toying with suicide, Baker starts an affair with Jill (Analia Ivars), a young girl he meets at a disco. The depressed scribe soon regains his lust for life as five strangers hunt him through the streets of Casablanca.

Dirty game in Casablanca (1985) English subs Jess FrancoDirty game in Casablanca (1985) English subs. William Berger

One could easily mistake Juego sucio en Casablanca for an 80’s TV movie. The cinematography is serviceable, without much experimentation. Jess Franco’s many unflattering closeups  (Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun, Day of the Cobra) show William Berger looking very run-down. There are some occasional visual flourishes which remind us we’re watching a Jess Franco film, such as the sequence at the harbour, with the setting sun shining right down the lens, creating that dreamy look Franco was so adept at capturing.

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Juego sucio en Casablanca is a conventional, somewhat melodramatic thriller, sticking closely to  the screenplay by Santiago Moncada (Hatchet for the Honeymoon), which was previously filmed by Tulio Demicheli (Dracula Versus Frankenstein / Monstruos del Terror) as Ace of Hearts/Juego sucio en Panamá (1975).

It’s very strange seeing Jess Franco attempt such a low-key Hitchcockian thriller during his busy softcore period. With not much in the way of originality, today Juego sucio en Casablanca is chiefly interesting  not for the elaborate yet implausible plot, but for how Jess Franco adapts his meagre resources to bring this pulpy story to life. The characters keep talking about big money and New York city while stuck in humble hotel rooms doing nothing much but smoking. Jess Franco generates the right ambience with generous helpings of stock footage, an ‘ethnic’ score and some suitably exotic Costa del Sol locations (familiar from Mil Sexos Tiene La Noche).

Analia Ivars looks great as Berger’s love interest, while  Antonio Mayans and Ricardo Palacios are not given enough screen time. Lina Romay can be spotted in a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo as one of Dean Baker’s fans. 70s bit-part baddie Luis Barboo plays of the gamblers, but his character turns up dead too soon.

With nothing much to make it stand out among the more daring and playful films of the period, Juego sucio en Casablanca remains an oddly tame entry in the Jess Franco canon.

Killer Barbys vs. Dracula ( Jess Franco, 2002 )

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version under review is the English-dubbed cut

When a coffin containing the corpse of Count Dracula is brought to Spain, the vampire is woken up by a Killer Barbys song and goes about murdering various colourful characters in a vast amusement park.

With some hilarious dialogues, energetic pacing and a healthy pisstake spirit, Killer Barbys vs. Dracula is Jess Franco’s funniest film and may actually be superior to the slightly more upmarket original Killer Barbys.

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Several generations of Jess Franco actors cross paths in Killer Barbys vs. Dracula: Katja Bienert from Lilian and Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, Fata Morgana and Carmen Montes who would come to be the faces of Franco’s final ‘abstract erotic video art’ phase, with Paul Lapidus of One Shot Productions and Franco muse Lina Romay also at hand. Spanish genre cinema icon Also Sambrell and Italian cult actor Pietro Martellanza aka Peter Martell round out the busy cast. Silvia Superstar does what she does best: looking absolutely gorgeous and singing with the Killer Barbys.

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Dan Van Husen (Der Todesrächer von Soho) turns in a great comic performance as Dr. Seward, a talkative blind man accompanied everywhere by his trusted assistant wielding and enormous wooden stake. He’s like a cross between Dr. Orloff from Female Vampire and blind beggar helping the police in Jack the Ripper. Lina Romay dons a Soviet-style outfit as Comrade Irina, a Romanian communist responsible for bringing Dracula to Spain. Cult italian actor Peter Martell (French Sex Murders) appears as the impostor Dracula, convinced he’s the real deal until the original count doesn’t prove the opposite. Sadly, Lina Romay is dubbed by someone else in the English language version.

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Jess Franco’s direction is focused and energetic with a lot of attention to detail. Cinematography (by Emilio Schargorodsky who went on to direct the excellent Dracula 0.9) is surprisingly well-executed and is handled with more inventiveness than one might have expected.

A wonderful episode shows Dracula stalking his descendant Bela Balasz through a sun-drenched cemetery. It’s blatantly midday yet we see fog roll among the tombstones, which, coupled with Dutch angles, adds to the film’s strange ambience. Aldo Sambrell’s picturesque residence in Killer Barbys vs. Dracula was previously used by Jess Franco as one of the locations of his surreal low-key gem Mil Sexos Tiene la Noche.

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The scene of Dracula seeing his old castle again while on the run from the cops – appropriately scored with the magnificent organ theme from El Sadico de Notre Dame is absolutely amazing. The legendary monster sobs at the sight of his old dwelling, and cries himself to slip in his coffin. Killer Barbys vs. Dracula peakes during this episode, and it might as well have been the final one for nothing that follows can match its combination of camp and genuine melancholy.

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Possibly the last fully fledged ensemble cast film before Franco moved on to making small-scale films for Kevin Collins, Killer Barbys vs. Dracula is a lot of fun for Jess Franco and trash cinema fans. Why the Killer Barbys films weren’t received with more enthusiasm is beyond me, as Jess was giving the fans plenty of action, laughs, gorgeous scenery, in-jokes and allusions. Scored with tracks from German cult band Die Ärzte, Killer Barbys vs. Dracula is inspired cinematic hooliganism from Tio Jess, brimming with inventiveness and belying the sometimes shoddy production values.

Paula-Paula (Jess Franco, 2010)

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One of the very few Jess Franco titles not to have any alternative versions or titles, Paula-Paula is another decisive step away from traditional cinema, towards non-narrative forms of audiso-visual self-expression.

When Paula-Paula was announced back in 2010, fans had a reason to rejoice – Jess Franco was back in action after a long silence. Maverick filmmaker’s previous work, A Bad Day at the Cemetery/La Cripta de las Mujeres Malditas (2008) remained unreleased, making Paula-Paula Jess Franco’s newest available feature film since Snakewoman (2005), a vampire film hailed by many as a return to form after some very uneven films for Kevin Collins’ One Shot Productions.

Paula Paula Jess Franco online

Presented as an adaptation of R.L.Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Paula-Paula is a one-hour long piece of video art focused on eroticism and split personality, both themes very dear to Jess Franco .

What makes Paula-Paula interesting to more open-minded Franco viewers and of zero value to those who like their cinema easily classifiable and with high production values, is its stripped-down, homemade look. Franco sets to work equipped with little more than a consumer digital video camera (equipped with a zoom lens, naturally) and a couple of lights on tripods. The idea to dress the director’s living-room/set (perhaps intended to represent a nightclub) with large sheets of billowing tin foil is a touch of genius, giving Paula-Paula a visual identity, with the morphing, shifting silvery background as one of the key images. Carmen Montes, muse of Franco´s digital period, stars as Paula, a stripper whose mind is plagued by a vision of her partner, Paula (Paula Davis) dancing leisurely to Friedrich Gulda´s impossibly beautiful score. The legendary Lina Romay co-stars as Alma Perira in what would be her last film appearance.

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Unsurprisingly, Paula-Paula didn’t sell well when released on DVD in the US through Intervision with the viewers understandably sticking to more accessible and ‘action-packed’ vintage titles from the filmmaker’s vast back catalogue.

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It would be interesting to know just how much input Jess Franco had into the editing process of his video films. Was it his idea to employ various dense video effects and overlays which mark so much of his video work, from Tender Flesh (1997) onwards? Paula-Paula and especially Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies are very interesting for the dedicated Franco fan as they show Franco in the context of modern digital filmmaking. In the video interviews from the period the filmmaker talks about making a score of new films, taking advantage of the affordable new technology. While many fans would prefer to consecrate him as a ’60s/early ’70s filmmaker, disregarding his recent output as non-filmmaking, Jess Franco has remained very open to latest cinema and TV, and professes his admiration for US films in a video interview on the Paula-Paula DVD.

I was not impressed with Paula-Paula upon the first viewing. The film seemed to fall apart after a promising opening, with the B-movie crime film clichés giving way to a series of kaleidoscopic images, devoid of any narrative context and culminating rather predictably in a lengthy lesbo scene. Like many frustrated fans, I wanted Jess to make an effort and make a less sex-obsessed film, something more structured and connected with esoteric matters some of his more renowned works (Necronomicon, A Virgin Among the Living Dead) touch upon. However, something made me revisit Paula-Paula a number of times and my opinion of the film has since changed. For all its frustrating banality, Paula-Paula has a stubborn kind or originality (at least formal) , totally absent from practically all new films coming out these days. Paula-Paula is inspirational for self-made filmmakers, as it maintains that filmmaking is more than just production values and linear stories.

Las orgías inconfesables de Emmanuelle / The Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle ( Jess Franco, 1982)

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One of the very first ‘Golden Films Internacional’ titles directed by Jess Franco,  Las orgías inconfesables de Emmanuelle hasn’t got enough personality to distinguish itself from the slew of ‘Emmanuelle’ cash-ins that filled the screens at the time or from other small-scale erotic films Jess of the period, such as Historia Sexual de O.

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What follows the very colourful, abstract credits sequence showing close-ups of some paintings set to a melancholy keyboard score is a generic budget sex film aimed at nobody at particular. Similar to other erotic films Jess Franco made for Golden Films, Las orgías inconfesables de Emmanuelle takes its time telling a thin, unoriginal story of a nymphomaniac woman frustrating her husband with her sexual escapades.

Its pointless attempting objectivity when talking of as complex and multifaceted a filmmaker as Jess Franco. A director who chose to leave his homeland to escape the censorship and made scores of genre films halfway between his personal vision and exploitation market demands, Jess Franco didn’t receive any critical recognition during his most active period, (with only some French film reviewers who saw the art in Franco’s raw filmmaking ways), a fact that didn’t stop him from making ever more films, the more recent ones being densely self-referential and very hard to sit through for the uninitiated viewer. With no Franco regulars in the cast save for the dependable Antonio Mayans, Las orgías inconfesables de Emmanuelle gravitates more toward dull/frustrating end of the Jess Franco spectrum.

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Las orgías inconfesables de Emmanuelle makes for a good case for critics who see the ’80s as a period of creative stagnation for Jess Franco. Allegedly given free reign with the small budgets Golden Films provided, Franco could have pushed the envelope in so many ways, not necessarily amping up the sex angle. Yet he used the freedom and resources to shoot a huge number of placid and unoriginal softcore sex films, which don´t really offer any groundbreaking developments when compared to, say, the Erwin C. Dietrich films from the previous decade. So, arguing Franco´s case as an auteur is never going to be easy when it´s plainly evident that his ambition was primarily to make and sell as many tiny films as possible without taking any especially daring creative steps in the process.

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Quality cinematography and nice locations aside, Las orgías inconfesables de Emmanuelle is a lifeless, generic piece of erotica that won’t win Jess Franco any new fans. Las orgías inconfesables de Emmanuelle  doesn’t live up to its hyperbolic title, with some very tame simulated sex and predictable situations (Franco’s 1974 erotic horror film for Eurociné, Exorcism, has a bit more to offer in the orgy department). Who is Las orgías inconfesables de Emmanuelle made for? The 1980s raincoat crowd? The sex film market? Why watch the film today? Not among Franco’s more ambitious works, Las orgías inconfesables de Emmanuelle is strictly for completists and obstinate scholars. There are much better Jess Franco Golden Films productions out there.

La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes/Mansion of the Living Dead (Jess Franco, 1986)

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Easily one of the best-looking films to come out of Jess Franco’s creatively wealthy ‘Golden Films Internacional’ period, La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes is an odd cocktail of adult comic book imagery, gorgeous seaside panoramas, mild horror and crude sex comedy, all wrapped in dense supernatural atmosphere.

Four waitresses/strippers arrive in a seaside hotel on a mission to get laid. Ignoring the tell-tale signs of being unwelcome (such as someone throwing a meat cleaver at them from a balcony) they continue on their search for orgasms, which leads them straight into the clutches of zombie monks who inhabit a nearby monastery.

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When finally given an English-friendly DVD release (courtesy of Severin), La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes was presumably easier to market than many other Golden Films titles due to some minor parallels it has with Amando de Ossorio’s celebrated “Blind Dead” films. Yet it would be too easy to label La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes an unofficial sequel to or a ripoff of the Blind Dead saga. While indeed outwardly somewhat akin to de Ossorio’s dead horsemen, Jess Franco’s horny, satan-worshiping living dead seem fashioned after resurrected monks rather than knights. Still, this formal similarity to the Blind Dead films has prompted a good few genre fans who normally stir clear from Franco to watch and comment on La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes, making it one of his more-celebrated ’80s titles. There are many reviews of La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes online, comparing the film unfavourably to the Blind Dead films.  What the critics may not realise is that by mid-1980s the Spanish Blind Dead films have long run their course, with the fourth and final installment dated 1975. It’s therefore somewhat unlikely that Jess Franco would see commercial potential exploiting De Ossorio´s zombie Templar mythos with then-trending cannibal and slasher films offering riper opportunities for cashing in.

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Antonio Mayans gives one of his very best performances for Jess Franco as Carlo(s) Savonarola, the hotel’s twisted  psychopathic manager, who happens to be a reincarnation of a 18th century inquisitor. The final scene between Lina Romay and Antonio Mayans is at once confusing and touching in the best Franco tradition. Feature-length running time is achieved thanks to some extended softcore lesbian encounters. This fixation with filming simulated sex would become all-encompassing in Franco’s later digital works.

Apt at making his locations appear secluded, Jess Franco frames the hotel and the nearby monastery in such a fashion as to suggest complete isolation. Some tourists do wander into frame now and again, though. La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes boasts some enjoyably atmospheric sequences, which clash with the deliberately cheesy and broadly exaggerated scenes of the semi-nude waitresses exploring the eerily deserted hotel corridors longing for a shag.

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The waitresses are presented as decidedly two-dimensional over-sexed dolls who chatter on and on about how horny they are. Portrayal of men as rapists and oppressors and women as giggly sex machines seems to be the norm in Franco’s adult comic book universe. The hotel manager (Mayans) keeps his crazy wife chained up naked in one of the rooms, starving her half to death. Perversely, when discovered by Lina Romay, the wife doesn’t wish to be freed, wistfully reminiscing of being treated like a dog and occasionally as a sex doll by her psycho husband instead, citing violent sex as her only pleasure. With all characters as caricatures and a general ‘anything goes’ tone, La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes has a lot in common with the chaotic Al Pereira VS the Alligator Ladies, down to some similar absurdist scenes at the hotel reception.

Scarce on zombie attacks but full of stunning imagery and moments of unexpected serene beauty, La Mansión de los Muertos Vivientes has a lot to offer to less bloodthirsty viewers.

Mil sexos tiene la noche / Night of 1,000 Sexes (Jess Franco, 1984)

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Pointless mild erotica to some, a delicate, precious invocation of a dream state to others, Mil sexos tiene la noche is a thing in itself. Sharing the cast with Historia sexual de O and unfolding in the familiar environs of hotel rooms and balconies, Mil sexos tiene la noche is one of Jess Franco’s more inspired attempts at blending minimalism, sex and hysteria while catering to erotic cinema market. This broadly outlined tale of possession and murder begins with Daniel Katz and Lina Romay performing a magic number in what must be a hotel lounge. It is established that the two have a psychic link. Soon the passionate, vulnerable Lina falls victim to her own craving for affection before delving into the world of sexy hallucinations and ultimately becoming a living instrument of murder.

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Lina Romay is the absolute, unquestionable star of Mil sexos tiene la noche, her hypnotic presence forever burned into the celluloid. Jess Franco spares no film capturing his muse in and out of colourful dresses. The Fulci-style extreme closeups of Lina’s eyes are some of the most gorgeous sights Franco’s insatiable lens has ever caught.

Lina’s partner, Daniel Katz is given the distinct voice of Antonio Mayans, which classifies Mil sexos tiene la noche as another one of the ‘Candy Coster y Robert Foster’ series of films. With his physical presence limited to just two brief (but very important) scenes, Jess Franco reigns supreme on the voice track – apart from dubbing some peripheral characters, the exploitation film prodigy has contributed to the ecstatic, distorted moans and chants which accompany the film’s lengthy dream sequences.

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Mil sexos tiene la noche has got a surpisingly elaborate soundscape. With the extremely stylized, ritualistic mise en scene, the sound is your guide to the Kaleidoscope of colours. Daniel White’s Female Vampire score , re-used in numerous films,  truly belongs in this context and helps bring out new shades of the typically Franco thematic obsessions.

When judged against the early ’70s capers The Devil Come from Akasava or Der Todesrächer von Soho , Mil sexos tiene la noche is slow, but compared to Flores de Pasión or Paula-Paula it moves at positively breakneck speed (what good are these comparisons, anyway?).

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Jess Franco doesn’t create a believable character you’re meant to identify with.  He amuses himself with creating an elaborate environment, a  certain atmosphere – and invites you to take a dip in it.  Mil sexos tiene la noche is unmistakably Jess Franco territory, where characters can be found lounging in bed leafing through a paperback edition of Necronomicon while puffing on a cigarette as the azure waves lap the sun-drenched sandy shores beyond the panoramic windows. With Jess Franco you’re not following a story – you’re inside the film, exposed to patterns and shapes, at the mercy of morphing splotches of saturated colours and blurry lights. Shots of a helicopter flying through the sky seem to function here in the same way images of a billowing kite did in the more celebrated Vampyros Lesbos.

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The above text is meant as a review of Mil sexos tiene la noche  but it’s likewise a fairly valid description of a good number of Jess Franco’s more personal features. Best Jess Franco films are veritable fountains of creative inspiration. Describing a Franco film is like trying to describe smoke rising from a cigarette, a rolling wave, or a dream you’d had: an exercise in futility. It’s infinitely preferable to watch even just fifteen minutes of any Jess Franco film then to read a review, no matter how well-reserached. Seemingly made in a single breath, Mil sexos tiene la noche is there for anyone attuned enough to pick up its otherworldly frequency. Continue reading “Mil sexos tiene la noche / Night of 1,000 Sexes (Jess Franco, 1984)”