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Dr. Franco’s Digital Hell: An Overview of the Digital Films of Jess Franco (1999-2012)

Years after his 2013 passing, Jess Franco remains ever the cinematic iconoclast with a handful of specialty home video labels keeping Franco’s spirit alive for devotees both old and new, offering revelatory restorations of Franco titles, the merits of which will inevitably be debated amongst fan communities. Franco’s divisiveness should be familiar to even those with a cursory knowledge of the legendary Spanish maverick, who’s critics are often as loud in their derision as fans in their praise of Franco. Divisive filmmakers are hardly a novelty, but what makes Franco still such a fascinating filmmaker is his ability to split even his most devoted audience. Opinion might split any which way on any given Franco title, with a faction of fans perhaps even preferring an entirely different version of a certain film what with the multiple cuts that exist of many Franco films. Nevertheless, individual films aside, the late 60’s and on through the 70’s are generally considered to be Franco’s prime, classic period which produced some of Franco’s most iconic titles like Succubus (1968), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), She Killed in Ecstasy (1971), Female Vampire (1973), and Lorna the Exorcist (1974). Like so many filmmakers that struck gold in the 70s, and particularly directors that tended to work either in or on the fringes of genre, the later portion of Franco’s career isn’t exactly viewed with the most esteem with the harshest criticism reserved for after Franco began shooting on digital video in the late 90s. Dismissed by many and understood by few when Franco was making them, the final, digital films of Franco’s career remains the most neglected despite the films themselves being somewhat recent, yet it’s unquestionably a critical piece of the Franco puzzle and a period in Franco’s life and art that becomes more inspiring as the years go by given the filmmaking ecology of the time and the years following Franco’s death. 

Franco’s filmography has often been described as “labyrinthian” or like a hall of mirrors given the sheer size of his body of work, not to mention the aforementioned alternate cuts of many films. Franco’s habit of repetition, with themes, locations, character names, soundtracks and sometimes previously used plots being recycled for future purposes make Franco’s world an easy one to become completely immersed and lost in, willingly so, however sense can be made of it without losing any of the astonishment. Franco’s directorial career could be split up into a variety of chapters with a good portion of them having their own defining qualities. For instance the Harry Alan Towers productions of the 60s and early 70s are marked by having the highest budgets ever afforded to Franco and featured names like Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, and James Darren. As Franco’s films became more and more personal in the early-to-mid 70s, so too did his filmmaking techniques with his voyeuristic hand-held camerawork in the productions of Robert de Nesle like Plaisir à trois (1973), Countess Perverse (1973), and Lorna the Exorcist (1974). Opposite of the de Nesle films were the majority of films Franco made in partnership with Swiss Jack-of-all-trades Erwin C. Dietrich, most of which were shot by others  cinematographers due to Franco’s more loose, hand-held approach sending Dietrich into fits. The glossy sheen of the 1980s shines bright in films like Macumba Sexual (1981), Mil sexos tiene la noche (1984), and The Sexual Story of O (1984), setting Franco’s 80s Golden International Films period apart visually from other films he’d previously shot at the same localities. Likewise, the digital era has its distinct own look and feel and due to the digital medium and post-production, more often than not the main point of contention with many when it comes to later Franco, the visual difference is drastic. While the visual texture of this later crop of features may be a shock to the system to those only accustomed to Franco’s more classic years, they are unquestionably the products of the same filmmaker who simply decided to dive head first into new technologies. 

The early-to-mid 90s were a period of relative downtime for Franco. Having been working tirelessly for the previous three decades, usually delivering no less than two features a year since 1960, Franco’s workload slowed considerably as the 80s turned over. The 90s got off to a rocky start for Franco with Downtown Heat (1990) getting suck in a legal purgatory and shelved until 1994, a scenario which pitted Franco against longtime associate and producer, Eurocine head Marius Lesoeur, and Jungle of Fear (1993) never completing production, existing only as a work print. Killer Barbys (1996) however marked a turning point. With Killer Barbys, Franco made a comeback but also bid a farewell as the film reignited Franco’s directorial drive but was the last film Franco would shoot on 35mm. Killer Barbys’ mix of atmospheric gothic horror, ridiculous comedy and horror themed pop-punk continues to divide opinion, shock of shocks, but what can’t be contested about the film is that Franco was inspired again after the shoot which led to Franco’s partnership with American producer Kevin Collins and One Shot Productions. One Shot is the name most associated with Franco’s digital years however his transition to the digital camera was gradual. Franco’s first three films under the One Shot banner, Tender Flesh (1997), Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula (1998), which featured legendary American horror names Linnea Quigley and Michelle Bauer, and Lust for Frankenstein (1998), also featuring Bauer, were shot on 16mm, though there were clear signs of where Franco was headed. Lust for Frankenstein is really where Franco began to enter the computer age with heavy post-production video effects work by altering the image and audio.  

Franco’s digital story truly begins with the bizarre, genre bending curiosity that is Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell (1999), which found Franco once more turning to his own well for inspiration while simultaneously forging ahead. “Dr. Wong” first appeared, played by Franco himself, in Franco’s 1985 kung-fu vehicle La sombra del judoka contra el Doctor Wong, very much a Franco deep cut. Aside from the name “Dr. Wong” and Franco playing the titular character in both films, it shares nothing in common with Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell. However Franco’s 90s version of Dr. Wong does have a lot in common with Fu Manchu, the infamous supervillian created by writer Sax Rohmer whom Franco was very familiar with, having directed two Christopher Lee-led Fu Manchu films, The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969) during his tenure with Harry Alan Towers. Franco not only channels the Fu Manchu series with Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell but also ties it in with his own Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1973), with the wizard Cagliostro (Howard Vernon in archival footage) having defeated the evil Dr. James Wong, a once powerful alchemist who terrorized the occidental population of the orient and now a shell of his former self 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 80’s “Candice Coster” alter-ego) and her partner Doc Petry, plays on Fu Manchu’s nemeses Naylad Smith and Doctor Petrie, 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.

Jumping straight into the deep end of the digital pool as opposed to taking baby steps, along with being the first of Franco’s digital One Shot productions, Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell is also one of the most ambitious. Franco had been used to working around the limitations of low budgets from the start of his career and by the time the digital era came around the funds were even lower than what Franco had grown accustomed to, something which no amount of digital tinkering can mask in a lot of cases. Nevertheless, Franco’s digital experimentation in Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell is some of his most imaginative. While the “virtual reality” employed by Dr. Wong as a form of mass hypnosis consists of a lengthy erotic interlude between Tsai Ming and Loba (Analía Ivars), her torturous right hand woman, put through various post-production filters, in the spirit of the films absurd comic book adventurousness, there are several instances throughout the film where Franco digitally alters the image so much that it appears animated, even going so far as to incorporate text bubbles, turning the film into a literal comic book movie. The text bubbles provide some great laughs, particularly during the virtual reality segments where the thoughts of certain patrons of Dr. Wong’s virtual reality show include “They call it art but it’s just porn” and simply “…Zzzzzzz…”, perhaps a none-too-thinly veiled shot by Franco at the critics of his erotic scenes which would only increase as the digital era moved forward, Romay and Ivars’ showcase taking up a sizable chunk of the films runtime. Even the architectural dragons get their own speech bubbles, confirming the wickedness of Tsai Ming, Romay relishing in her cartoonishly evil role while being as bubbly as ever in her “Candice Coster” persona, though it’s Franco who steals his own show as the dastardly yet senile Wong, a plentiful source of the films ridiculous humor. The visual design of Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell alone makes it one of the most unique among Franco’s digital features, however Franco wasted little time moving into even more colorful and abstract directions. 

Even more inaccessible than Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell, Vampire Blues (1999) finds Franco becoming even more self-reflexive, giving Nadine of Vampyros Lesbos and Irina of Female Vampire (1973), two of Franco’s most important films and arguably the most iconic roles for Soledad Miranda and Lina Romay, a psychedelic digital makeover while also recalling Pamela Stanford in Lorna the Exorcist and Ajita Wilson’s Princess Tara Obongo in Macumba Sexual. Franco rightfully entrusted Analía Ivars for this latest incarnation of Irina, the brilliantly named Irina von Murnau, a vampire once again calling a solitary traveler, Rachel (early digital fixture Raquel Cabra as “Rachel Sheppard”) vacationing in Spain who begins seeing visions of Irina wherever she goes, even finding her image on a T-shirt  sold to her by Franco himself. Also feeling the call of Irina is Marga (Romay), a gypsy fortune teller who senses the danger Rachel is in and sets out to aid Rachel in protecting her from Irina’s siren charms.

With Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell, the virtual reality concept provided a context for all the post-production effects, however with Vampire Blue Franco offers no such luxury, with any given scene filtered with effects that at times can somewhat resemble thermal imagery, distorting the image or manipulating the color, at times coming across like a computerized take on the kaleidoscopic effects seen during the the climax of The Sexual Story of O. Franco also drains the screen of all color at times save for the pink of Ivars’s scarf, a direct nod to the red scarf worn by Soledad Miranda in Vampyros Lesbos. Franco’s films have been described as “dreamlike” to the point of redundancy, however Vampire Blues is considerably somnambulant, beginning like so many Franco as if in the middle of a daydream, the lazy, Cramps-esque theme courtesy of the Ubangas repeated throughout the film dragging along with the films strung-out, breezy pace, particularly during the tangents involving Ivars dancing reflected through a glass. Franco may be indulging in the new tech at his disposal for the sake of it, but the effects seem almost natural to the unusual realm it inhabits, emitting that mesmeric effect, so wonderfully christened by Stephen Thrower in his essential two volume study The Delirious Cinema of Jesús Franco, Murderous Passions and Flowers of Perversion respectively, “The Franco Magic” that being Franco’s astounding ability to suspend all sense of time and location. Vampire Blues was at the time Franco’s most radical reinvention of his own vampire mythos which had been disregarding traditional vampire lore since the 70s, though Franco would soon outdo himself on the digital vampire frontier. 

Franco brought vampires into the new millennium with Vampire Junction (2001), the most bewildering and as a result one of the most memorable of the One Shot era, while at the same time venturing into the weird west, a fictional Southwestern American town beautifully coined “Shit City” (a much different Shit City was first seen in 1983’s Los blues de la calle Pop), where journalist Alice (Romay) is sent to interview a renowned Dr. Spencer. Upon arriving, Alice is stuck by the odd behavior of the few residents she does encounter and like any other lonely traveler in a Franco film, she is soon beset with dreams of two vampire women. These dreams cross over into reality as the call of Father Flanagan, a powerful vampire who has overtaken Shit City with his two vampire henchwomen, becomes stronger as they attempt to lure Alice into their netherworld. Or rather dreams that cross over into what semblance of reality can be gathered at any point during Vampire Junction. Calling a Franco film unusual would be more redundant than dreamlike, however Vampire Junction manages to carve out its own niche even among other Franco oddities. No small feat for a Franco film, however Franco goes a step further than simply conjuring atmosphere that seemingly suspends time, with Vampire Junction Franco creates a film that disrupts the time-space-continuum, with Shit City seemingly being parallel dimension of sorts, a old western theme park clashing with modern times. Franco openly embraces the artificiality of the setting, having Shit City’s few inhabitants act and dress like the old west, one even drunkenly “riding” a broken down mechanical animal. Alice meanwhile is a completely contemporary character in dress and demeanor, driving a car and using a cellphone and a laptop. Franco further confuses any sort of timeframe by the return of the bright pink, punk-esque fright wig, a mainstay of the One Shot days from the early 16mm films, worn by one of the vampire women, their unusual look contributing to Vampire Junction containing some of Franco’s most striking digital imagery, Franco once again experimenting with color and contrast, lathering the screen with various filters. The most surreal of the One Shot features, Vampire Junction is also perhaps the film that  personifies why this particular era of Franco’s filmmaking is so peculiar, not simply in comparison to Franco’s previous output but in terms of where filmmaking was as the dawn of the new millennium. 

Not only was Franco shooting on consumer grade digital video, he was embracing the format a good few years before fellow likeminded directors David Lynch and Ken Russell would do the same, which was still a fairly new concept in and of itself. The post-production effects Franco became so fond of during this time were also quite embryonic and given the rapid advancement in such fields, the effects in these later Franco’s very quickly began to resemble demos or prototypes. Thus, the obvious criticism of being “dated” has plagued Franco’s One Shot features since not long after a lot of them first hit DVD. True, films like Vampires Blues and Vampire Junction are “of their time” but only in their surface level look. Considering said time, these digital Franco curiosities couldn’t feel more alien. Franco may have been shooting and editing on what were the newest technologies of the day, however the finished products were obviously worlds removed from the CGI-dependent studio fare, which had already more-or-less swallowed the industry whole by the early 2000s, but also the bountiful crop of independent DV-lensed horror fare that hit whatever video store shelves were left. Niche as classic Franco may be today, the genres Franco became associated with, chief among them horror and erotica, always had commercial viability in the wild independent Euro film market which allowed Franco and the likes of Jean Rollin, Walerian Borowczyk, and José Bénazéraf to flourish for a time. Given the drastically different film landscape of the late 90s, Franco’s One Shot films feel by contrast aggressively uncommercial and even more defiantly personal than before, existing outside both the “mainstream” and “underground.” By this time Franco had also already amassed a fan following and was aware of it, yet with all the experimentation these later features seem to have zero target audience in mind, despite a common criticism of this era being Franco somehow “catering,” an accusation as bizarre as Vampire Junction given the libel hurled as some of these titles by professed Franco fans. 

While all the digital visual accouterments may be what the One Shot films are more infamous more, the era as a whole is not to be defined solely by post-production practices. Broken Dolls (1999), for instance, one of the best of the One Shot films and one of four films Franco completed in the the busy year of 1999, the convenience of shooting on digital allowing Franco to become prolific again, is completely absent of any visual effects. Franco instead opts for raw drama with another updating of a familiar story with tweaked results. Broken Dolls is a parallel take on La casa de las mujeres perdidas (1983). A perverse, prurient chamber drama, La casa de las mujeres perdidas is one of the most deranged of Franco’s Golden films, centering on the unhealthy family unit of former actor Mario (Franco regular Antonio Mayans), his daughters, the sexually frustrated  Desdémona (Romay), her handicapped sister Paulova, and their abusive step-mother Dulciena. Living on an isolated island with no others, a false paradise that has long lost its charm, the arrival of stranger on the island further disrupts the already fragile mental state of Mario whom had long lost all sense of reality, ensuring the inevitable dissolution of “the house of lost women” (the translation of the Spanish title). 

Broken Dolls takes the basic story of La casa de las mujeres perdidas, the abnormal, long fractured family of a disgraced former actor, this time ex-vaudeville performer Don Martin (Paul Lapidus), his wife Tona (Romay), and daughter Beatriz (Mavi Tienda) living on an island that feels more like a purgatory. Franco makes a major adjustment to the “family” structure in Broken Dolls however, replacing the handicapped sister with another woman, Gina (Christie Levin), a mistress of Don Martin whom has come to live on the island with the family. Another stranger announces their arrival, finally pushing Lapidus’ Don Martin, just like Mayan’s Mario, over the edge. Things play out a bit differently on this island though, with Franco adding an additional peripheral male character and a buried treasure to the tragedy. Despite being a mostly point-and-shoot affair, the isolated melancholia that permeated La casa de las mujeres perdidas is ported over to Broken Dolls. While the film may contain none of the controversial visual after effects, Broken Dolls is just as peculiar as some of the more fantastic entries in Franco’s One Shot catalog not simply due to the odd characters but Franco’s use of sometimes not so direct sound and having his mostly Spanish cast speak in heavily accented English, which was not a second language for some. Second only to the effects when it comes to critical gripes with this period, it certainly adds another layer of idiosyncrasies to this group of films, though Broken Dolls overcomes any audio obstacles with the excellent performances of La casa de las mujeres perdidas also carried over. Paul Lapidus’ in particular giving on the finest performances of this period, his demise in the sea being a classic reoccurring Franco image and Romay was known to be especially proud of her work in Broken Dolls. 

The new digital millennium also found Franco returning to one of his greatest literary influences, the Marquis de Sade. While the most famous cinematic adaption of the infamous/divine Marquis remains Pier Palo Pasolini’s take on Sade’s most notorious work The 120 Days of Sodom, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), it’s Franco who not only adapted Sade than any other filmmaker, but also understood Sade better than any filmmaker that has attempted to adapt Donatien Alphonse even when drifting with the material somewhat. Beginning with Justine (1968), which featured Klaus Kinski as the Marquis himself, Franco would return to Sade’s writings numerous times throughout the ensuing decades with some of his best work being Sade based such as Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969), Franco’s first of several treatments of Philosophy in the Bedroom and Eugenie de Sade, based on Eugenie de Franvil which features what is perhaps the finest performance from Franco’s first muse Soledad Miranda. Even films like Countess Perverse and The Sexual Story of O, while not being Sade adaptations, have clear parallels with Franco’s more overtly Sadean projects. Franco took Sade into the 80s with Sinfonía erótica (1980) and Gemidos de placer (1983), films which defiantly saw Franco experimenting with form. But much like his updated, hallucinogenic take on vampire movies in the digital age, little to no reference points can be drawn from Franco’s digital Sade offerings save for the other Franco films from this time, which were beginning to flirt with abstract video art more than actual movies though with Helter Skelter (2000), Franco’s first digital foray into Sade, the flirtation blossomed into full courtship. 

Despite its title, Helter Skelter has nothing to do with Charles Manson. Nor is it an “adaptation” or “interpretation” of any particular Sade work. Best described as a Sadean patchwork or compilation, Franco strings together a plotless collection of context-free erotic or sadomasochistic vignettes inspired by the spirit of Sade’s writings that more closely resembles an avant-garde music video with Franco recycling footage from previous One Shot films. The majority of the reused footage is pulled from Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell with some bits of Vampire Blues mixed with new footage while the occasional voice-over narrates with quotes from various Sade texts. Franco seems especially fond of the character of Almani, the chemist in Justine 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.” “I abhor nature” being the quote heard most often throughout. 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 interestingly in the book is actually said right before the first quote. Often dismissed as bottom of the Franco barrel, Helter Skelter is the most obtuse of the One Shot productions with Franco finally throwing all notions of conventional filmmaking to the wayside. A purely stream of consciousness endeavor, Helter Skelter is certainly one of the more delirious of the One Shot films, rendered strange from the opening liaison between Lina Romay and Mavi Tienda by Tienda sporting the previously mentioned pink wig, the appearance of a glass head and Franco of course indulging again in the post-production effects. 

It seems as is if Franco had intended Helter Skelter to be the first in an intended series as the opening credits read “Helter Skelter Part One: Pleasure and Pain” so perhaps Franco had planned future video experiments of a similar, Sadean nature that never came to fruition. Nonetheless, Franco’s final digital homage to one of his most reliable muses, Flores de perversión (Flowers of Perversion) from Sade’s Stratagem of Love, while only slightly less challenging than Helter Skelter, found Franco continuing on with this new, almost interactive style of filmmaking where Franco does indeed acknowledge the viewer (while still not necessarily giving all of them what they expected or wanted), with one of the best and most visually interesting works from this period. Although mounted during Franco’s tenure for One Shot, Flores de perversión was a independent project from Franco’s own Manacoa Productions. Two prostitutes (Carmen Montes and Fata Morgana) who arrive at the brothel of Madame Villeblanche (Romay) who, upon introducing them to her philosophy of sadomasochistic pleasure which has no use for men, orders her new understudies to punish any fellow worker who dares love a man and to lure potential male victims to the brothels torture chambers where Villeblanche and her pupils gleefully put their philosophy into action. Fitting in snugly with the work that led up to it, Flores de perversión also experiments with form even more than some of the One Shot titles. Flores de perversión may have a central storyline unlike Helter Skelter, though Franco again disregards traditional storytelling in favor of abstractions and fourth-wall breaking, with frequent cutaways to Montes and Morgana gyrating straight to the camera, along with the expected image contortions where again, like Helter Skelter, the film feels less a traditional movie and more an experimental sadomasochistic horror art/music video.  

Along with its sister film Flores de la pasión (Flowers of Passion, 2005), Flores de perversión was the first starring vehicle for Carmen Montes, one of the most reliable in a group of reoccurring Franco players unique to these later years who’s roles were just as important as any other familiar classic Franco names like Maria Rohm, Alice Arno, or Monica Swinn, but much like the actual films from this period, the efforts of these individuals have sadly been appreciated by few. Raquel Cabra made her start for Franco behind the camera at the very beginning of the One Shot days on Tender Flesh before stepping out from behind the scenes as “Rachel Sheppard” in Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula, Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell, Vampire Blues, Helter Skelter, Blind Target (2000), and the two “Flores” features. Likewise Mavi Tienda (1972-2016) first appeared on 16mm for Franco in Mari-Cookie before joining him in the digital years in Broken Dolls, Helter Skelter, and Blind Target. Although Analía Ivars was a familiar name after working with Franco since the 80s, her image as Silvia the vengeful bride in Bahía blanca (1984) being one of the most iconic images in Franco’s body of work, Ivars really makes her arresting presence known in the digital films. “Presence” being the key word as Ivars is the personification throughout Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell, Vampire Blues, and even the recycled footage from both repackaged in Helter Skelter. Red Silk (1999), Franco’s digital updating of his “Red Lips” female detective duo, which dates all the way back to Franco’s second film Labios rojos (1960) and would feature again in Kiss Me, Monster (1969) and Two Undercover Angels (1969), was the first of Franco’s later works benefiting from the participation of Christie Levin. Levin may have only totaled three roles for Franco during these later years, however it was Levin in her last role for Franco, Montes and Fata Morgana, whom Franco first introduced in Vampire Junction, that proved themselves to be the MVPs of this period with their work in Snakewoman (2005), Franco’s final film for One Shot Productions but also the most essential of the lot which also saw the return of a legendary member of the Franco family. 

Of all the films from Franco’s One Shot tenure, Snakewoman harkens back the most to Franco’s classic period, drawing mainly from Vampryos Lesbos but like Vampire Blues there are traces of similarly themed Franco films, the set-up of a doomed woman being summoned to a sexual void by an otherworldly female presence also echoing Macumba Sexual. Franco again though gives Snakewoman its own identity, changing the main characters profession of lawyer or real estate agent from previously mentioned films to a publicists’ agent, Carla (Morgana), sent to procure the rights to the life story of Oriana Balasz, a once scandalous silent-era actress who’s name has faded into obscurity. Stranger than the atmosphere of the Balasz estate, which while not as time bending as Shit City does provide the quintessential Franco sense of dislocation, is the woman claiming to be Balasz (Montes) who should be in her eighties yet has the appearance of a much younger women with a massive snake tattoo wrapped around her entire person. Carla’s propositions are rejected and she is sent packing, however just like Ewa Strömberg’s Linda Westinghouse and Romay’s Alice Brooks, Morgana’s Carla is unable to shake to allure of her host as she falls further under the spell of Oriana. It’s a familiar enough spell to make Snakewoman the ideal place to start for a digital Franco novice with the film not only being the most technically polished of the One Shot titles but overall the film is again the most “classical” feeling of the One Shot films while still giving a good impression of Franco’s modus operandi during this time, just without all the jarring post-production additions. Snakewoman is an important film as it also marked the return of Antonio Mayans to the Franco fold, his first film with Franco since the late 80s. Mayans’ presence does add to the films pedigree, but its Montes, who quickly proved herself to be an ideal Franco muse, completely uninhibited yet with a sense of mystery and especially Levin as the demented Alpha, driven insane by lust in the tradition of Agra in Vampros Lesbos and the mad woman by Lorna played by Catherine Lafferière in Lorna the Exorcist, that place Snakewoman in the upper echelon of this period of Franco’s work.  

Snakewoman may have concluded Franco’s One Shot period on a somewhat traditional note compared to what came before it, however in no way, shape or form was Franco done experimenting. If anything, compared to Paula-Paula (2010), even a work like Helter Skelter might seem conventional. A cliché slight against these films is the “home movie” tag due to the digital image quality but with Paula-Paula Franco does indeed mount a literal home production, staging the feature in his and Romay’s Málaga apartment. Billed as an “audiovisual experience,” Paula-Paula features around five or six minutes of “story” with Romay as detective Alma Pereira questioning erotic nightclub performer Paula (Montes) on the death of her lover and fellow performer, also named Paula (Paula Davis). After Romay exits the picture so does any concept of formal filmmaking with what follows representing Franco at his most stream-of-conscious and challenging, almost playing out like an extended version of one of Franco’s famous nightclub sequences with said hour consisting of lengthy dancing and cavorting between Montes and Davis with the image distortions put into overdrive. Paula-Paula also earns the “music video” brand even more so than Helter Skelter due to its conception. Scored using a CD gifted to Franco by the estate of the great Friedrich Gulda who provided the music for Succubus, the “audio” portion of the audiovisual experience takes precedence with  Franco, always a “free jazz filmmaker” in a sense, constructing the visuals around the music. Paula-Paula easily earns the title of best sounding digital Franco endeavor with Gulda’s compositions naturally being up to his own standards, standing alongside his work on Succubus with portions resembling Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. Along with the image altering, Franco also takes his fourth-wall breaking further in Paula-Paula by blatantly acknowledging the making of a film in his own house with no attempts at masking the numerous visible stage lights or obvious dressings. Montes again proves herself to be a phenomenal addition the Franco family, particularly during one of these fourth-wall breaking moments, addressing the camera reciting a strange tale about the fate of a prince at the hands of his beloved. Franco would go so far as to claim on the film’s DVD that Paula-Paula was his strangest work. A debatable statement, perhaps, however Paula-Paula did mark yet another chapter in Franco’s ever evolving approach to directing and would go onto be an important title, albeit for unfortunate reasons as it would feature the final screen appearance of Lina Romay. 

Romay passed away on February 15, 2012 following a sudden bout with cancer at the age of 57. A deviating loss for Franco as he and Romany had essentially been joined at the hip in film and life since the 70s, however Franco wasn’t ready to be counted out just yet. Like Johnny Cash going into the studio days after June Carter’s funeral, with encouragement from friend and collaborator Antonio Mayans, Franco was soon preparing another project. It’s fitting that it would be Mayans to give Franco to nudge to work again as Mayans would be the centerpiece of what would become Franco’s final feature, Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies (2012), in the role of the titular Al Pereira, Franco’s favorite hapless private detective and a role Mayans had essentially made his own. Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies found Franco returning to narrative in a way that even at this final stage saw Franco innovating his approach to digital filmmaking even further, merely using the outline of the once philandering Pereira being taunted to return to his previous hedonistic lifestyle by the “Alligator Ladies” (Montes, Davis and Irene Verdú), daughters of the diabolical Fu Manchu, to go on a series of dizzying self-referential tangents. Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies is certainly Franco shooting through a figurative mirror as the film is even more entrenched in the Franco mythos than some of the One Shot films, but literally as well, with Franco pulling back much further than in Paula-Paula, creating a hybrid film-within-a-film/making-of documentary with several moments of Franco and the cast, fully out of character, rehearsing scenes in the “finished” film immediately prior to said scene playing out, or simply hanging out and joking around in-between takes. A remarkably fresh approach for a final feature, and perhaps it was appropriate Franco chose to end the film (post-credits not withstanding)  with one such “behind-the-scenes” scene, with Franco calling a wrap while laughing with Mayans following a scene of ludicrous costumed dancing.    

Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies certainly feels like an appropriate final work for Franco and like other final films from directors who established their own insular worlds within their respective bodies-of-work such as Nikos Nikolaidis’ The Zero Years (2005) or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Gradiva (2006), it does seem as if Franco was knowingly looking back one final time. Franco being Franco however, that clearly wasn’t the case as he had future projects involving the Alligator Ladies planned, the closing credits of Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies even promising a sequel. Sadly Franco would pass on April 2, 2013 following a stroke at the age of 82, marking Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies as Franco’s final outing in the directors chair. In honor of his late friend, Al Pereira himself, Antonio Mayans, assembled the footage Franco had shot and along with new scenes directed by himself completed the follow-up film which was released as Revenge of the Alligator Ladies (2013), premiering at the Sitges Film Festival six months after Franco’s death. That may have ended the Franco story as far as brand new features were concerned, though a posthumous surprise in the form of Vaya luna de miel (1980), a feature thought lost for decades, was unearthed in 2019 and there are of course still some Franco treasures that remain elusive ensuring that Franco will continue to surprise for some time still.

When Paula-Paula hit DVD in 2010, Franco gave his thoughts on contemporary filmmaking and in essence summed up his entire career, but especially these final years  stating “…What I support is cinema with personality… You have to take personal risks all the time in order to renew cinema, to keep it fresh and to open new avenues. I’m always more than happy to take these risks. Anything to do one’s bit to overcome these, shall we say, hard times for cinema, is wonderful.” Limited as the audience of these later works may be, even among Franco fans, their importance to the Franco story is nevertheless not to be dismissed, displaying some of the biggest creative risks taken by one of the the most individualistic personalities who all throughout his career kept traversing down new avenues and kept things fresh by renewing the very idea and language of cinema and all for the better.  

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Tom Clark

Tom Clark is an adventitious film and music enthusiast currently at bay in the northeastern US. A devotee of the likes of David Lynch, Andrzej Zulawski and Jess Franco, he can mainly be found in his own little corner of the web, Vortice Mortale, shining a light on films and filmmakers he feels get overshadowed by the bigger names.

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