Franco is a master director, and in my opinion his mastery is best demonstrated by the films he made in the 1980s for Golden International Pictures. A few of the great films he made during this period are available in pristine DVD editions courtesy of Severin Films: 1982’s Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle, 1983’s Macumba Sexual, 1984’s Sexual Story of O, and 1985’s Mansion of the Living Dead.
Jess Franco is, admittedly, a difficult director to really “get into.” With his 40+ (and still continuing!) years of directing, the number of flicks he’s made outnumbers that of most revered Euro-Horror directors combined. Aside from an overwhelming volume of films, another roadblock sits in the fact that not all of Franco’s work was created equally. Some of his films are crap. Some of his films are half crap, half genius. Some of his films are genius. Some of them are genre films, some of them are experimental films, some of them–the most interesting–are a combination. Which brings me more to the point.
While many fans insist that Franco’s films produced by Harry Alan Towers (Venus in Furs, Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion), Robert de Nesle (La Comptesse Perverse, Lorna the Exorcist), and other flicks from the 70s are his best, I would like to suggest a disparate opinion: Franco’s early-80s films, particularly those produced by Golden Films International, are his best. As a whole, they combine several key elements of Franco’s latter oeuvre that add up to very unique experiences. While I haven’t seen all 19 films that he made for Golden Films (some are impossible to track down, most are available without any sort of English options), based on those that I’ve seen it’s possible to identify several motifs that thematically pull the period together.
The first element that Franco’s Golden Productions share is a fascination with architecture and landscape. In both Sexual Story of O and Macumba Sexual there is a dedicated gaze cast at the sea: the camera’s wide lens revels in all of its glory, the sun’s reflection sparkling on the screen. Franco’s films of this period also share a consistent fascination with hotels, mountains, and bedrooms. In fact, most of the films in this period are set in these locations.
Because of his budget, most of the films Franco made for Golden Films International feature very small, closed off casts. Gemidos de Placer features only 5 characters throughout the entire film, Mansion of the Living Dead little more than that, with a large, luxurious hotel and beach populated only by the key players. Crowd scenes are surprisingly sparse: night-clubs are under-populated, and the tourists that would normally haunt certain films’ locations are nowhere to be found. The lack of a full crowd anywhere serves to enhance two key elements of the films: first off, the level of the film’s artificiality is increased, which prepares the viewer to divorce his or her self from any idea that what he or she is watching is a “realistic” film. Secondly, the lack of people contributes to the tight atmosphere that permeates the films of the period: a delicate isolation heightens the emotionality of each character and serves to help isolate couples into a private sexual fantasia.
While Franco’s films are occasionally inaccurately characterized by “bad acting” and “poor dialogue,” the Golden Productions (and many of Franco’s better films from his entire oeuvre) feature only minimal dialogue. In most of his films from this time period, Franco seems to be more concerned with the movement of bodies and how the poetry of light and location contribute to each films’ overall mood. In many of the films (particularly Sexual Story of O, Macumba Sexual, and Mil Sexos tiene la noche) characters move on the screen as if they’re in a trance. Of course, in some cases they actually are in a trance, hypnotized by a mystical princess (Macumba Sexual) or the sexuality of a couple or desired other (Sexual Story of O).
With such a fascination with the movement of bodies on screen, Franco draws attention to the voyeuristic impulse that has decorated his entire body of work. His camera truly lingers, placing the camera in the position of a first person ogler. The lens follows the body as couples roll, nude, over one another, screaming in ecstasy and agony. The viewer finds his or her self the dirty pervert who’s hiding in the dark, watching private actions unfold before hidden eyes. Because of this approach, most of the films remain highly subjective in their depiction of events. While the camera still will cut from room to room to reveal simultaneous happenings, what we see presented is not all-knowing, it is what we could see hiding in an empty hotel closet, hiding from the people in a bedroom.
A possible solution as to why Franco’s films of this period feature minimal dialogue and small casts is the fact that much of each film’s run-time is dedicated to sex. With General Franco no longer ruling in Spain, filmmakers were able to attack the movie theater with uninhabited sexuality, and this freedom is exactly what Franco had been looking for throughout most of his career. But don’t let the fact that many of the films from this period consist primarily of sex scenes deter you from reading the films as art: the sex scenes inhabit a very particular poetic realm; languor and ennui haunt each scene with a sense of desperate eroticism. While the scenes are erotic and often borderline-pornographic in content, they exist more as a permeation of atmosphere than anything you would jerk off to.
It is this atmosphere that drives the Golden Productions: plot and character are cast aside, it is the way a film feels that is important in this period of Franco’s body of work (and, arguably, throughout his entire filmography). Characters are never “fully developed” in a realistic fashion (they are mostly devoid of any sort of psychology) because it is not the characters that are important: all that matters is the feeling of the film and the images. Franco, by making films this way, is asking the spectator to enter a different mode of viewing than the average Eurotrash film, and it’s not a mode of viewing that the casual film viewer is after, or accustomed to: there is no chance to passively escape into the plot of the film as you can do in ‘normal’ popular movies. Franco is asking you to engage with the aesthetics, to feel something on your own instead of feeling something through a character on the screen. And it is for this reason that logic is almost completely eschewed: if everything made sense it would be too easy to buy into a central conflict and engage the film in a normalized condition. Franco would rather lull you into the film with rhythm and images than with plot and escapism.
Another key element that separates Franco’s Golden Productions from the rest of his body of work are the many cinematic techniques that find strong comparison with techniques found in Experimental and Avant-Garde films of the same period. As I note in my review, Gemidos de Placer takes a structural approach in forming the film. 20 segments of 4 minute shots provide the film with a steady permanence, a lingering sense of the voyeur. Other indications of experimental motifs can be found in the overlapping diegetic sound (the dream world and the ‘real’ world of Macumba Sexual, the hypnosis of all in Mil sexos tiene la noche) and an acute eye for permeating colors (particularly found lurking at the end of long hallways in Mansion of the Living Dead and, once again, Mil sexos tiene la noche).
As noted before, Franco, in his Golden Productions, seems particularly fascinated by the movement of bodies within the space of a landscape, the space of a bedroom. This calls to mind the more poetic strain of the avant-garde, such as films from directors Gregory Markopolous and Maya Deren, and, in his exploration of physical structures, even Ernie Gehr. Part of the reason that Franco was able to suddenly create such personalized films seems related to the financial situation Franco found himself in. He was given a minuscule budget and absolute freedom, and the tools that made his films work were his imagination and his collaborators.
Two actors, Franco veterans, are very important to this period: Lina Romay (often credited as “Candy Coster”) and Antonio Mayans (generally credited as Robert Foster). While I’ve noticed a number of viewers lodging complaint against Romay losing the shapely figure that characterized her appeal in Franco’s films of the 70s (Doriana Grey, Brutal Nights of Linda, Female Vampire), Romay knows exactly how Franco films work, and her acting plays into the themes of the films perfectly. At times hammy and campy, at times catatonic or serious, Romay is always aware of the tone Franco desires in a scene. Foster is also a strong leading man–playing either a hero, a husband, a lover, or an enigma–and he never attempts to compensate for the fact that Franco’s films are always about the women that populate them.
In addition to the hyper-presence of Mayans & Romay, Franco found a great cameraman (and occasional actor!) in Juan Soler, who shot almost all of Franco’s Golden Productions. Soler’s wide angle lenses capture an incredible depth and add an expert visual quality that keeps the films from looking as cheap as they actual were. Music in the films was done by regular collaborator Daniel White and occasionally by Franco himself (and don’t worry– the only thing that eclipses Franco’s love of film-making is Franco’s love of music: he’s good).
M. Kitchell is the creator of Esotika Erotica Psychotica and an editor/publisher of the experimental literature journal LIES/ISLE.
Franco’s Golden Films International Filmography:
01 – Las orgías inconfesables de Emmanuelle (1982) aka The Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle
02 – Voces de muerte (1983)
03 – En busca del dragón dorado (1983)
04 – Botas negras, látigo de cuero (1983)
05 – La noche de los sexos abiertos (1983)
06 – La casa de las mujeres perdidas (1983)
07 – Gemidos de placer (1983) aka Cries of Pleasure
08 – El hotel de los ligues (1983) aka The Hotel of Love Affairs
09 – Macumba sexual (1983)
10 – Historia sexual de O (1984) aka Sexual Story of O
11 – Mil sexos tiene la noche (1984) aka Night of 1,000 Sexes
12 – El siniestro doctor Orloff (1984) aka Sinister Dr Orloff
13 – Lilian (la virgen pervertida) (1984) aka Lillian, the Perverted Virgin
14 – La sombra del judoka contra el doctor Wong (1985)
15 – Bangkok, cita con la muerte (1985)
16 – La mansión de los muertos vivientes (1985) aka Mansion of the Living Dead
17 – Sida, la peste del siglo XX (1986)
18 – Las tribulaciones de un Buda Bizco (1986)
19 – El abuelo, la condesa y Escarlata la traviesa (1992)
(some co-directed by Romay)