Monday, November 30, 2015

Doriana Gray (1976)

AKA Die Marquise von Sade (The 1000 Shades of Doriana Gray), Das Bildnis der Doriana Gray (The Portrait of Doriana Gray), Dirty Dracula and Ejaculations 

Given the oftentimes highly sexual nature of his films, Jess Franco was, and still is labeled a pornographer by detractors. While this is hardly surprising with low hanging fruit being the easiest to pick, what’s ironic is that the films which lead most people who don’t understand Franco’s work to refer to it as porn are hardly pornographic. Of course that’s not to say that Franco didn’t directed his share of hardcore adult features which indeed he did, mainly in the 80’s and for commercial purposes. Franco himself was the first to admit that he had little interest in shooting hardcore films and the work bored him. Its well known that Franco’s films often suffered at the hands of producers and distributors and many of his films exist in several versions due to the common practice of a hardcore version of a film to be released featuring pornographic inserts in order to sell the film in different markets. Some of the most famous examples being Female Vampire (1973), The Other Side of the Mirror (1973), Lorna the Exorcist (1974) and The Hot Nights of Linda (1975). What makes Doriana Gray unique is that not only is the hardcore version is the most widely seen and accepted and perhaps the right version to watch, the film also stands as one of Franco’s most genuinely haunting featuring what is quite possibly Lina Romay’s finest performance.

A journalist from a woman’s magazine (Monica Swinn) arrives at the estate of secluded millionaire Doriana Gray (Lina Romay) believing that Doriana’s story would interest her readers. Perpetually lonely, Doriana possesses eternal beauty at the cost of draining the life of her lovers. Doriana is also incapable of feeling sexual pleasure, the results of complications that arose after being separated at birth from a twin sister (also Romay) whom Doriana keeps locked away in an asylum, driven mad by lust from feeling all of the pleasure Doriana cannot. While recounting her tale to the journalist, Doriana comes to the realization that her starvation for physical satisfaction and her sisters nymphomania are drawing the sisters, and their eventual fates closer.

Franco was certainty no stranger when it came to drawing parallels between sex and death, perhaps most famously with Female Vampire, a film which Doriana Gray shares several similarities with, and would continue to do so for the rest of his career although in many ways Doriana Gray could be considered the final word on the subject as far as Franco is concerned as never before had he approached the topic in such a direct manner. Just like in Female Vampire, Franco recycles the idea of the morose woman longing for impossible companionship sucking the life force (albeit regretfully) from her lovers through sex, yet here Franco takes the idea much further with the addition of a twin sister making the film much more tragic and perverse. From a technical and narrative standpoint the film is quite minimal, driven by a seedy mood of uneasiness that is persistent throughout which contrasts nicely with the beauty of Doriana’s estate and the surrounding locations as well as the hypnotizing exotic, eastern flavored score. Franco operated the film himself making it much more personal, idolizing Lina like never before who delivers a truly astonishing performance, particularly in the role of the twin sister who’s outbursts of raw sexual mania are legitimately frightening. Despite featuring hardcore scenes, the film could hardly be considered “erotic” taking into considering the material and the air of melancholy the surrounds the film and Franco makes no attempt to eroticize the sex scenes either never forgetting the doom that follows Doriana everywhere.

Ascot Elite released the film as part of their Jess Franco Golden Goya Collection under the Die Marquise von Sade title which included the softcore edit of the film as a bonus and its ironic that the soft version suffers from the same problems that most hardcore edits of Franco’s films suffer from. The biggest issue being the jumpy editing making it glaringly obvious that something had been edited out but what’s also obvious is that there is footage which was clearly shot after the original film had been finished and added in at a later date. Interesting thing regarding the timing of the release of Doriana Gray, its was released the same year as In the Realm of the Senses (1976), of the most important “mainstream” films to feature hardcore scenes. Given that films featuring unsimulated sex have essentially become somewhat respectable, it’d be interesting to see how the film would fare if it were released today compared to a Catherine Breillat film or say Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2014). Doriana Gray holds an interesting spot within Franco’s filmography because of it being of the very few, possibly the only one of his films where the hardcore scenes actually work but the main selling point of the film is Lina’s jaw-dropping performance elevating Doriana Gray to an entirely new level. An adult horror masterpiece and one of Franco’s and Lina’s finest hours.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Helter Skelter (2000)

Its often been said that a true film adaptation of one of the Marquis de Sade’s writings would be virtually impossible for a variety of reasons so there’s always bound to be debates among de Sade aficionados as it relates to filmed versions of de Sade’s work and just how much of the original text is represented on screen. Beginning with Justine (1968) and going all the way to his digital era with Flores de perversion (2005), an entire book could be written on the influence de Sade had on Jess Franco. Franco probably understood de Sade better than any filmmaker to approach his writings. Even when Franco greatly deviated from the source material the spirit of de Sade’s original story always remained as evidenced by his many adaptations of Philosophy in the Bedroom like Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969), Plaisir à trois (1973) and Sinfonía erótica (1980) as well as a film like Eugenie de Sade (1970), Franco’s unique take on Eugenie de Franval. Even films Countess Perverse (1973) and The Sexual Story of O (1984), which weren’t intended as de Sade adaptations are nonetheless distinctly Sadean in nature. Despite its title, Helter Skelter might not have anything to do with Charles Manson, however it has everything to do with the spirit of de Sade with Franco channeling the divine Marquis for one of his most experimental pieces.

“Plotless” is a word often attributed to Franco’s films however in the case of Helter Skelter the term is applicable. There literally is no plot. While not based on any specific de Sade text, the film instead consists of random scenarios inspired by de Sade’s writings. Aside from a very brief instance late in the film, there is no dialogue, however several voice-over narrations reading de Sade quotes are heard throughout the film. One quote in particular,“I abhor nature” makes multiple appearances, with the first quote heard in the film being “…I abhor Nature and I detest her because I know her well. Aware of her frightful secrets, I have fallen back upon myself and I have felt… I have experienced a kind of pleasure in coping her foul deeds.” as spoken by Almani the chemist in de Sade’s Justine. Another Almani quote is heard later in the film “ …disgust with life becomes so strong in the soul that there is not a single man who would want to live again, even if such an offer were made on the day of his death.”,which in the book is actually said right before the first quote. Clearly the first quote has significance. If Franco intended the film to be about anything, it would appear that the films vignettes all depict individuals attempting to corrupt Nature, a quintessential Sadean theme with Nature dictating the libertines principles so is there any act more rebellious or libertine than attempting to offend that which governs?

Setting aside the de Sade influence for a moment, the film could also be read as Franco simply filming his own fantasies and as an actual viewing experience the film can be quite hypnotic, taking place in its own perverse netherworld consisting of sadomasochism, revenge and murder. The film takes a turn for the surreal right away during the first segment, a lesbian liaison between Lina Romay and frequent Franco actress during the One Shot Productions era, Mavi Tienda, thanks to Franco’s bizarre little touches such as Tienda wearing a bright pink fright wig, seen often in Franco’s films of this era and the puzzling use of a green glass head as a prop. The same random and bizarre mood is a constant throughout the entire film, aided greatly by the laid back jazz score along with the lethargic blues guitar cues lifted from the Vampire Blues (1999) soundtrack. Franco also does something interesting in that he utilizes spliced-in footage from other films made around the same time, the biggest chunks taken from Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell (1999) but there are bits and pieces from Vampire Blues sprinkled in as well. Despite the footage being recycled, it never really comes across as pastiche, particularly the lengthy whipping scene from Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell as it perfectly fits in with the films de Sade theme and the brief bits from the virtual reality segments taken from the same film and re-used here also take on a different context, that being one of Sadean excess.  

It would appear that Franco had intended Helter Skelter to be the first part in a series of sorts as the opening credits read “Helter Skelter Part One: Pleasure and Pain”. The “Pleasure and Pain” subtitle could also be somewhat of a clue as to what Franco might have been going for thematically. Another interesting thing is that in North America the film has only been made available on DVD as a bonus feature or as part of a double feature set, debuting on disc as a bonus on the original DVD release of Franco’s Broken Dolls (1999) although the more economic choice would be the “Cravings of the Depraved” set along with Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell. Helter Skelter may be of limited appeal being one of Franco’s digital efforts however de Sade enthusiasts should find the film of interest. The final de Sade quote heard in the film, the last parts of which are read by Franco himself, “Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change.” couldn’t have wrapped the film up more perfectly as not only does it sum up de Sade, but portions of it also pertain to Franco’s approach to filmmaking.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Dr. Wong's Virtual Hell (1999)

An endless source of fascination concerning the labyrinth filmograpgy of Jess Franco is the “mapping out”, for lack of a better term, of Franco’s cinematic universe. Franco’s body of work is a maze of reoccurring motifs and its always interesting noticing little references in his films made to his other films and piecing together the puzzle of how one film relates to another. Common character names are another reoccurrence in Franco’s films with names like Dr. Orloff, Morpho and Lorna just to name a few constantly making appearances. As Franco’s career progressed, the more self-reflexive his work became, with his later digital features for One Shot Productions like Vampire Blues (1999) and Snakewoman (2005) being loaded with nods to his past films. While working for producer Harry Alan Towers, Franco directed two films in the Fu Manchu series based on the writings of Sax Rohmer starting Christopher Lee, The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969) and portions of the Fu Manchu universe would pop up again over the years, even in Franco’s final film Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies (2013). While not an “official” Fu Manchu film, 1999’s Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell certainly finds Franco channeling Rohmer’s super villain with Franco himself playing the lead role as the titular Dr. Wong in one of his most unique and ambitious films from the One Shot Productions era.

Dr. James Wong (Franco), a once powerful alchemist who terrorized the occidental population of the orient is now a shell of his former self after having been defeated by the wizard Cagliostro (Howard Vernon in archival footage from The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1973)). About to commit hari-kari, Wong’s daughter Tsai Ming (Lina Romay) proposes a plan to restore Wong to his former glory by using virtual reality to kidnap the daughter of a rich businessman and demand a ransom. Wong agrees and the scheme is put into motion, although detectives Nelly Smith (Romay in her “Candice Coaster” alter-ego) and her partner Doc Petry are put on the case. Aided by Nelly’s visions of Cagliostro from beyond the grave, Nelly and Doc set out to defeat Dr. Wong for good.

Even though at this point calling a Franco film strange and claiming that it defies genre pigeonholing is beyond redundant, the fact remains that Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell is a bizarre, genre hopping curiosity. Usually the concept of virtual reality is put to use in science fiction scenarios but here Franco puts it use in an odd horror, fantasy and crime film hybrid with a bit of comedy thrown in as well. As for the Fu Manchu connections, the biggest one would obviously be the character of Dr. Wong but also the detectives Nelly Smith and Doc Petry who are clearly recalling Fu Manchu’s pursuers Nayland Smith and Doctor Petrie. Franco as Wong gleefully hams it up in the role adding greatly to the films comedic tendencies as does Romay when her bubbly alter-ego “Candy Coaster” takes over for the role of Nelly Smith. Visually, the film is one of Franco’s most interesting as it sees Franco taking his digital experimentation to the next level by altering the image so much that at times the film appears to be animated. Going even further, there are instances where dialogue is replaced by text bubbles turning the film into a literal comic book movie. This is put to great use during the virtual reality sequences which are given an extra boost by the stunning presence of Analía Ivars as Loba, Tsai Ming’s henchwoman in one of her most striking roles, easily on par with her role in Vampire Blues and at times even rivaling it.

Interesting thing regarding the film, despite getting a solo Spanish DVD release, Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell has never gotten its own DVD release in North America. The film first hit disc as a bonus feature on Sub Rosa Studio's release of Franco’s Snakewoman, easily the best of Franco’s One Shot Films. The disc is now out of print and for the longest time commanded some outrageous prices even for used copies although as of late copies have been popping up for more reasonable prices. Of course, being a One Shot film means that the film was re-released by Sub Rosa on a set entitled “Cravings of the Depraved” as a double feature with Franco’s experimental Marquis de Sade inspired piece Helter Skelter (2000), a film which despite its title has absolutely nothing to do with Charles Manson. The decision to pair the two films for the set was apt as Helter Skelter features spliced in footage from the former film, namely an extended sequence of Analía Ivars whipping co-star Rachel Sheppard as well as snippets from the virtual reality scenes re-edited in various ways so the two make for an interesting double feature. As for Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell on its own, like all of Franco’s later films its incredibly divisive but its unique visual design and genre blending make it worth the time of those willing to take a chance on it.