If you’ve never heard of Jess Franco (a.k.a. Jesús Franco Manera, 1930–2013), take it as a sign that you lead a healthy life. Franco was a sleazemeister without equal in the annals of Euro-cinema, the master of sexploitation, “horrorotica,” whatever you want to call it. Among other achievements, he’s credited with being a pioneer of “nunsploitation,” which I take to be a very different kind of movie than Beyond the Hills.
The tirelessly productive Franco directed no fewer than 160 films, though when he died last month numerous online obits placed the number at 180, 200, or even higher; they may have mistakenly treated different cuts or retitled versions of the same film as multiple entries in the Franco canon. (The Wikipedia page for Franco is comically pedantic on this point, calling its list of “around” 160 films “100% accurate.”)
Franco started out making relatively straightforward ‘chillers’ that were commercially successful and even drew some critical admiration. No less an eminence than Fritz Lang praised 1968’s Necronomicon, a.k.a. Succubus (which screened earlier this month at L.A.’s New Beverly Cinema, thanks to Quentin Tarantino loaning out his 35mm print of the film).
But even in his first success, 1962’s The Awful Dr. Orloff, Franco tried to push the boundaries of how much sadism and sexuality he could get past the censors — no laughing matter, given that he started out working in the Spain of the other Franco, i.e., General Francisco. As censorship laws loosened throughout Europe in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the floodgates opened, and Franco’s pictures helped usher an unprecedented luridness into B movies.
His movies were generally kinkier and artier than the average Times Square or drive-in fare. At times they were also infamously slapdash and barely coherent. Franco’s career exemplifies a subterranean side of film history — the seamy, disreputable counter-canon of grindhouse fare and straight-to-video schlock, of the sort that rarely receives official commemoration.
A list of titles from the Franco oeuvre says plenty about what kinds of movies he made — it’s possible that no other director has a more colorful IMDB page. This is just a sliver of Franco’s work:
The Awful Dr. Orloff (a.k.a. Gritos en la Noche) (1962)
The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966)
Necronomicon (a.k.a. Succubus) (1969)
99 Women (a.k.a. Love in the Women’s Prison) (1969)
Sadist Erotica (1969)
(If any one title sums up the Franco oeuvre, it’s this one.)
Kiss me, Monster (1969)
(This title is great in any language: it was also released as Besame Monstruo and Küss mich, Monster.)
Venus in Furs (1969)
Eugenie…the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (a.k.a. Philosophy and the Boudoir) (1969)
(If you were a film distributor, which title would you opt for?)
Nightmares Come at Night (1970)
Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
Cult favorite Vampyros was never released theatrically in the U.S.; in 1996 a reissue of the irresistibly groovy soundtrack acquired a certain hipster cachet, considerably boosting interest in the movie, which came out on DVD in 2000.
The film marks the pinnacle, if that’s the word, of the psychedelic sleaze that was Franco’s specialty in the late ’60s and early ’70s; you can see for yourself in the trailer available on YouTube. (I’d embed the trailer here, but we have to keep things clean at The Same Cinema Every Night.) You’ll swear you were watching a missing preview from Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse.
She Killed in Ecstasy (1971)
A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971)
Diary of a Nymphomaniac (1972)
Demons (a.k.a. The Sex Demons) (1972)
The Rites of Frankenstein (1972)
(This was released in France as Les expériences érotiques de Frankenstein, which suggests a very unusual Bildungsroman to me.)
Female Vampire (a.k.a. Erotikill, a.k.a. The Swallowers) (1973)
The Lustful Amazons (1974)
Lovers of Devil’s Island (1974)
(This movie was also released as Erotic Violence in a Women’s Prison; it’s rare that a title sums up a movie so succinctly, and probably served as the pitch, too.)
Barbed Wire Dolls (1976)
Swedish Nympho Slaves (1977)
Wanda the Wicked Warden (a.k.a. Greta’s House Without Men) (1977)
Women Without Innocence (1978)
Justine and the Whip (1979)
White Cannibal Queen (1980)
El Sexo Esta Loco (1980)
Oasis of the Zombies (a.k.a. Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies) (1981)
Hellhole Women (1981)
(Can any movie live up to this title?)
Sangre en Mis Zapatos (1983)
Historia Sexual de O (1984)
Killer Barbies (1996)
Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Women (2013)