Monday, September 23, 2013

Snakewoman (2005)

As polarizing as the films of Jess Franco tend to be, perhaps no series of films he made have been as dividing as the films he made later in his career with One Shot Productions, with even the most defiant Francophiles having a hard time defending some of them for a variety of reasons. Jess teamed up with One Shot in the late 90’s and in keeping with the times even made the switch over to shooting with digital video. This was also an obvious economic decision as well seeing as the budgets for these films were even lower than what Franco was used to working with, which was something that had a tendency to become very apparent when considering the digital look of the films. These films were also considerably looser and even more free form from a narrative standpoint even by Franco standards (“indulgent” is a common criticism thrown their way). Despite the fact that Franco began to work at a slightly slower pace as the 80’s drew to a close, he never once took an extended break from filmmaking so it wouldn’t be fair to call 2005’s Snakewoman, a One Shot film a “comeback”, although a return to “classic” form would be more than fitting seeing as Snakewoman turned out to be not only the best of his later digital films but also one of his best films in general.

Carla, a publicists’ agent is sent by her boss to the estate of Oriana Balasz, a notorious actress who’s 1920’s heyday was quite scandalous in an attempt to purchase the rights to her life story. Upon arriving Cara discovers the inhabitants of the estate living an uninhibited, hedonistic lifestyle and is taken aback when encountering a woman claiming to be Oriana Balasz (Carmen Montes) who should be in her eighties yet has the appearance of a women in her 20’s complete with a massive snake tattoo wrapped around her entire body. Despite her best efforts, Carla’s financial offers are turned down and she is asked the leave, although she quickly finds herself drawn to this mysterious world and becomes unable to shake the allure of Oriana.

Yet another in the long line of Franco’s variation on a theme types of films, Snakewoman found Jess revisiting various motifs he first began exploring in Vampryos Lesbos (1971) and continued returning to in subsequent films such as Female Vampire (1973), Lorna the Exorcist (1974) and Macumba Sexual (1981) and indeed the character of Oriana Balasz seems to be made up of traits previously seen in Soledad Miranda’s Countess Nadine Carody, Lina Romay’s Countess Irina Karlstein (Lina also has a small role in this film), Pamela Stanford’s Lorna Green and Ajita Wilson’s Princess Tara Obongo. In the role of the titular Snakewoman Carmen Montes possesses a magnetic aura of mystery ala Soledad as well as the uninhibitedness of Lina making her a perfect muse for Franco. Watching this film, its clear he was grooming her to follow in those ladies footsteps and her presence in Snakewoman proves that she was more than capable. Even with all the similarities to Franco’s past work Snakewoman still occupies its own unique place within Franco’s body of work and never once does it feel like Franco was spinning his wheels. Much like the previously mentioned films it doesn’t take long for Franco to turn the proceedings into a hypnotic fever dream of psychosexual delirium and while narrative does tend to get set aside numerous times the film isn’t at all incoherent coming full circle nicely in the end and in a fairly surprising way when compared to Franco’s films of a similar nature that came before it.

Even with the confines of the digital video medium Franco managed to make Snakewoman quite the spellbinding affair, and although celluloid purists are bound to disagree vehemently, the digital look has a certain charm to it and in the case of Snakewoman, actually aids the films otherworldly quality in several instances. The first being a segment featuring the character of Agra, a woman driven mad under the lustful spell of Oriana (Franco regular Antonio Mayans plays her caregiver) in the tradition of Vampyros Lesbos’ Alpha and the “mad women” of Lorna the Exorcist, wandering aimlessly through a field of large sunflowers. The digital look often works hand in hand with the lighting, something which detractors of the film often signal out as being weak but Franco made excellent use of natural lighting in the film especially in many of the daytime interiors when the light just beams through the windows which again give the film an ethereal feel. There’s quite a bit of red in the film too which is boon for some of the darker scenes. One of Franco’s favorite visual devices, the use of mirrors is featured prominently in the film as well providing some very nifty looking shots, perhaps most memorably during an unforgettable encounter with Oriana and Agra. Franco also does something really interesting with black and white footage near the end of the film with the way he deliriously transitions from one scene to the next, a moment that coupled with the soundtrack is pure Franco in execution.

The original DVD release of Snakewoman from Sub Rosa Studios which came with a second film, Dr. Wong's Virtual Hell (1999) as a bonus is now out of print and commands a ridiculously high price tag these days. Thankfully however, Sub Rosa, the distributor for all of Franco’s One Shot films re-released the film twice, first as a double feature under the banner “Erotic Rites of a Virgin” along with Franco’s Red Silk (1999) and again in a multi-film set labeled “Stripped Dead” with three other later period Franco films,  Incubus (2002), Vampire Blues (1999) and Broken Dolls (1999). Both sets are fairly easy to find and are reasonably priced so its really just a matter of preference as well as a certain tolerance for shot on digital video Franco. Regardless, Snakewoman is an essential film that should be in any Franco fanatic’s collection and would be the best place to start for fans who’ve yet to delve into his later work and are curious as its one of Franco’s finest meditations on his favorite obsessions and is more than worthy of standing alongside the films from Franco’s past that influenced it but it also features possibly the most memorable performance of Carmen Montes in the titular role. Easily the best of Franco’s One Shot films and proof that even at the age of 75 Jess had plenty left in the tank.

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