Monday, December 29, 2014

Paula-Paula (2010)

Jess Franco’s name may be synonymous with many things to both fans and detractors alike but of the most crucial and defining aspects regarding Franco’s career was his adamant belief in artistic freedom. Not just simply freedom from censorship although that was certainly critical, but the freedom to film any idea without compromise or pandering to any group. Franco knew the importance of having final cut probably better than any other director after having his films meddled with by producers and distributors over the years and having multiple versions of his films exist. Regardless of the fact that Franco’s later period digital films are some of if not the most unpopular films he ever made, the advent of digital video technology not only made the process of filmmaking easier but Franco was finally given the complete creative control he always strived for and despite the fact that there were still certain cases of a film getting two different versions released, the films from this digital period represent Franco at his most pure with no filters. Perhaps no film of Franco’s better represents this freedom better than 2010’s Paula-Paula. Shot almost entirely in Franco and Lina Romay’s own apartment, Paula-Paula is easily Franco’s most experimental, inaccessible and alienating film and its also a film that would eventually mark the end of an era as it sadly features the final screen appearance of Lina Romay.

Paula (Carmen Montes), an exotic nightclub performer is arrested after the murder of her lover and fellow nightclub performer who also happens to be named Paula (Paula Davis). After being questioned by detective Alma Pereira (Lina), Paula is left on her own and begins to recount in her head the events that led her to where she is now, although in her delirious mental state Paula’s memory quickly grows increasingly surreal and twisted with the line between truth and fantasy becoming more and more blurry.

There seems to be two schools of though when it comes to Paula-Paula, that the film is either a hallucinatory glimpse into a disturbed psyche or Franco simply messing around with a digital camera for about 67 minutes. In all actuality, its a bit of both. Paula-Paula represents Franco at his most abstract, setting aside narrative almost immediately in favor of letting the visual take over. Franco claimed the film was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which actually makes sense in context yet this is a film where narrative only begins to matter after the film has ended. Its really a fascinating way of telling a story, or rather not telling a story, at least during the course of the actual film. Again, Franco shot the majority of the film in his own apartment and in some ways the film could be considered a full length version of a psychedelic nightclub performance seen in so many of Franco’s films set to a brilliant jazz soundtrack. The film was scored using recordings by Friedrich Gulda who of course composed the music for Franco’s Succubus (1967). Franco was given a CD of recordings by Gulda’s estate and conceived  the film around the music. “Free jazz filmmaking” so to speak, a label which becomes even more accurate when considering the films excessive visuals with Franco constantly digitally altering and distorting the imagery which recalls the digital experimentation seen in films like Vampire Blues (1999) and Vampire Junction (2001).

Franco made clear his mentality behind the film during the three interview segments featured on Intervision’s DVD. The first segment is a simple introduction for the film but the second and third are where it really gets interesting. The second interview in particular as it features Franco giving his opinions at the time on contemporary filmmaking and its really inspiring to hear Franco praise the younger generation of enthusiastic filmmakers who are doing it for the love of cinema just as he did. The third segment is Franco discussing Paula-Paula and again, its inspiring just to listen to his excitement over the film. Franco praises the cast especially Carmen Montes and rightfully so as Montes was one of Franco’s greatest discoveries during his later period and proved herself more than worthy to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Lina and Soledad Miranda. Franco even goes so far as to claim that Paula-Paula is his strangest film! In a sense its hard to argue with the man. Paula-Paula isn’t the type of film that’s going to bring a Franco detractor over to the other side and it has the potential to drive away even those who defended Franco’s One Shot films. It really doesn't matter though as the spirit  in which it was made and the fact that it was Lina’s last film ultimately make Paula-Paula one of Franco’s most important films.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Vampire Junction (2001)

The weird west subgenre is one of the most fascinating in fantastic fiction. While the term “weird west” is a blanket term that can be used to describe works that blend westerns with various other fantastic genres, it’s the horror genre that makes the perfect tag-team partner for westerns. The mythology of the American old west with its ghost towns, mysterious nomadic drifters, things of that nature along with the consuming nature of the frontier landscapes are tailor made for horror, and one facet of the horror genre that works particularly well within a western environment is vampires. In film the most famous example would of course be Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant Near Dark (1987), a film which set a new standard for not just horror/western hybrids but for vampire films in general. John Carpenter also masterfully fused vampires and westerns together with Vampires (1998) and Carpenter has admitted that Vampires was his excuse to finally do a western. No stranger to westerns having directed one of his own, Jaguar (1963), Jess Franco made his entrance into the weird vampire west during his divisive days with One Shot Productions. The resulting film was 2001’s Vampire Junction, a film that is so utterly bewildering not only is it unlike any other vampire western to come before or after it but it also achieves something astonishing by being of the oddest films in Franco’s entire oeuvre.  

Upon arriving in a small southwestern town affectionately refereed to as “Shit City” attempting to interview a famous doctor, journalist Alice Brown (Lina Romay) is immediately taken aback by the fact that the town seems to be almost entirely abandoned. After finally meeting the doctor, she becomes even more perplexed by his odd behavior, as well as the odd behavior of the few locals she encounters. Not long after settling in, Alice begins to have strange dreams, the only constant being the appearance of two mysterious vampire women. Alice’s dreams soon cross over into realty as she discovers that the town has been overtaken by vampires who intend to add Alice to their ranks.

Vampire Junction is a perfect example of the idea of Franco’s films existing within their own universe. The concepts of time and space are completely alien to a film like Vampire Junction. In fact the entire film seems to be taking place outside of time in an alternate dimension in that “Shit City” seems to be stuck in the old west, yet modern technology such as cell phones and lap tops are featured prominently throughout the film along with characters dressed in old west attire driving modern cars. Its an interesting clash of visual styles and neither one cancels out the other, in fact it only adds to the feeling of “Shit City” being some kind of netherworld of sorts trapped in between time periods. The pink punk rock wig, a mainstay of Franco’s One Shot days, worn by one of the two vampire women is also quite the sight when seen in an old west styled town. While nowhere near as visually excessive as Vampire Blues (1999), Vampire Junction does at times see Franco continue to experiment with filters and image distortions and the digital look of the film has a certain charm to it and actually works in the films favor by piling on to the surreality especially whenever the vampire women are on screen. It also has to be pointed out that this film does yet again feature Spanish actors speaking heavily accented English although its never completely unintelligible, Lina does especially well and turns in a good performance as well.

For some reason Vampire Junction was first released in the States by Sub Rosa in an edited 84 minute version on VHS. It wasn’t until 2004 when they finally released the 97 minute uncut version on DVD which featured a memorable and entertaining segment featuring Linnea Quigley giving a sneak peak at DVD’s for Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula (1998) and Blind Target (2000). Actually that DVD can still be found for decent prices which is amazing in itself considering how much some of the original DVD’s of Franco’s other One Shot films tend to go for ever since going out of print. Naturally Sub Rosa also released the film as part of the “Vampire Lovers” double feature along with Vampire Blues and again in the “Deviant Lust” multi-film set along with Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula, Red Silk (1999) and Blind Target. To say Vampire Junction is one of Franco’s most unpopular films would be a massive understatement. While Franco’s One Shot films tend to get thrown under the bus most of the time, reactions to this one have been particularly harsh with most being unable to look past the miniscule budget and limitations associated with such things, some even naming it Franco‘s worst film. Of course there are exceptions and the select few that can appreciate this period of Franco’s might want to take a chance on braving this junction’s waters.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Broken Dolls (1999)

As the 80’s drew to a close Jess Franco’s directorial output had slowed down considerably. Prior to 1988 Franco was known for producing multiple films per year however from 1988 to 1997 Franco only directed 8 films. Despite all the harsh criticism that has been directed towards the series of films Jess Franco helmed for One Shot Productions between 1997 and 2005 and the cries of “quality over quantity”, the fact remains that One Shot, along with the digital video medium allowed Franco to become prolific again at what he loved the most. Not only did One Shot allow Franco the ability to make films at a faster pace again but they also gave him complete artistic control which led to some of his oddest and most polarizing films. 1999 was a particularly productive year with Franco directing 4 films that year, Vampire Blues, Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell, Red Silk and Broken Dolls. Now obviously 4 films might seem like nothing compared to the 12 that Franco was able to complete in 1973 or the even more astounding number of 14 in 1983 but 4 films in one year is still quite the achievement especially considering how long it takes certain directors in between projects. While all the films Franco made in 1999 are unique in their own way, Broken Dolls is perhaps the most, representing Franco at his most serious and somber.

Ex-vaudeville actor Don Martin (Paul Lapidus) lives on an island along with his wife Tona (Lina Romay) and daughter Beatriz (Mavi Tienda) and Gina (Christie Levin), a woman whom he’d taken in and began an affair with. Originally brought to the island with the promise of a buried treasure, the island’s appeal has long been lost on the family and the relationships between all have become bitter and resentful with all but Don Martin, who has slowly begun to lose his grip on reality still believing the island to be the ultimate paradise, desperate to escape the island before Don Martin loses his sanity completely.

At first glance Broken Dolls might seem atypical for a Franco film on account of it being a serious drama but the idea of the destruction of an odd family unit living in isolation was nothing new to Franco having previously explored the idea in The Hot Nights of Linda (1975) and again with La casa de las mujeres perdidas (1983), the later of which Broken Dolls shares many similarities. Although Franco does throw in some instances of humor to lighten the mood just as he did in The Hot Nights of Linda, Broken Dolls is easily the most grim of the three films. While the impending ruin of the family itself is obviously a major component in the films morose tone, perhaps more striking is the defeated mindset of the family, who had long lost all sense of “normalcy” long before the film begins, perhaps best evidenced by Tona’s nonchalant attitude to Don Martin’s flaunting of his affair with Gina. Its suggested that Tona and to a lesser extent Beatriz are almost welcoming to their undoing, seeing it as their only way out of the false paradise of the island with the original promise of hidden treasure being a mere afterthought. Even with the economical digital video medium Franco brilliantly juxtaposes the natural beauty of the island and its ocean surroundings with the downbeat nature of Don Martin and the families fate which leads to an quintessentially Franco climax that recalls both Countess Perverse (1973) and The Sexual Story of O (1984).

Interesting tidbit regarding Broken Dolls, Lina was known to have said her performance in the film was her favorite out of all her performances. While she is indeed very good in the film it’d be a stretch to call it her best work. The entire cast is good as well, Lapidus especially in the role of Don Martin is a major reason why the film works as well as it does. Like the majority of Franco’s One Shot films though, Broken Dolls does feature the all Spanish cast speaking English (they did they’re own dubbing) with very thick accents which can be a bit distracting at times although it never becomes completely unintelligible. Also like most of Franco’s One Shot films the original DVD release from Sub Rosa which also featured as a bonus the de Sade inspired experimental piece Helter Skelter (2000) is long out of print, though it should come as no surprise that Sub Rose re-released the film twice, first as part of a double feature with Blind Target (2000) billed as “Naked and Dead Dolls” and again in a multi-film set, “Stripped Dead” along with Vampire Blues, Incubus (2002) and Snakewoman (2005). Ultimately Broken Dolls is an oddly upsetting and at times perverse film that will probably only appeal to a select group of hardcore Franco fanatics, but it is one of Franco’s most interesting films regardless of era.