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Franco Meets the Fearmonger: Weird TV, Weird Movies, and The Girl from Rio

I don’t remember the year. I do remember the house, however, the room, even the television set, which places the event somewhere during my elementary school years, probably between 1978 and 1982, then. It was, up until a fateful moment, a Saturday like any other. I woke up, watched cartoons, went outside to run wild for a spell, then eventually wandered back in for lunch and afternoon movies on a threadbare independent television channel, WDRB channel 41 in Louisville, Kentucky. It was the lowest of low budget operations when it launched in February of 1971, so much so that they couldn’t even afford to begin broadcasting every day until 3pm. With barely any money, they relied on cheap, often uniquely local products to fill their broadcast day. Few were the children in the area at that time who were not terrorized by the antics of Presto the Magic Clown and his sidekick, J.F. Frog.

They bought a package of cheap horror and science fiction films and aired them during an early evening show called “Fright Night,” hosted by the sinister Fearmonger, a local theater performer named Charlie Kissinger, shining a flashlight under his face. Kissinger was part of the city’s Shakespeare scene and appeared in films by local boy William Girdler, including Three on a Meathook (1972), Asylum of Satan (1972), Sheba Baby (1975) starring Pam Grier, Grizzly (1976), The Manitou (1978), and the legendary Exorcist cash-in, Abby (1974). Girdler’s films were precisely the level of productions that became fixtures on “Fright Night,” alongside a host of imported shockers, old serials, and Japanese monster movies. It was the place you could go if you wanted to watch a William Castle film, The H-Man, Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, or Bride of the Monster.

By the time I was up and paying attention, “Fright Night” was a thing of the past, having aired from 1971-1975, but WDRB’s affinity for obscure cult films lingered. At some point, they apparently got their hands on a stack of Euroshockers, edited for American television though still far more risque than what one would expect to stumble across on TV in the late afternoon. It’s where I saw my first Paul Naschy film, Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973), which I hated with a burning passion (of course, I had no idea who Paul Naschy was then, and while my love for his films has grown significantly over the years, I still harbor a grudge against Count Dracula’s Great Love). And it’s where, for some reason, someone decided to air Jess Franco’s Die sieben Männer der Sumuru (1969), aka The Girl from Rio, under the title Future Women.

Where Dracula’s Great Love was custom made to be hated by any kid who saw it, Future Women was designed from the ground up to appeal to little goblins like me. Bright colors, insane costumes, gun fights, weird sets…and the “torture” scene, in which our hero is tied down and has to endure nude women writhing all over him. Looking back, decades removed, I still can’t figure out how Future Women made it onto broadcast TV, even on a seat-of-the-pants independent station like WDRB. All I can figure is that either someone like me worked there, or all they knew about the movie was that it was a sequel to a Frankie Avalon film.

Future Women/The Girl from Rio was a follow-up to1967’s The Million Eyes of Sumuru (because Sumuru wanted to show up the thousand eyes of Dr. Mabuse), an adaptation of a story by that endless font of pulp-era Yellow Peril racism, Sax Rohmer. Like 1965’s The Face of Fu Manchu (Fu Manchu being another Sax Rohmer creation), The Million Eyes of Sumuru was lavished by producer Harry Alan Towers with a fairly substantial budget. While Sumuru is kind of a silly movie, it looks great and manages to achieve a moderately successful air of jet-setting James Bond-era excess. It was directed by Lindsay Shonteff, best known for directing disappointing spy-comedies (The Second Best Secret Agent in the World), cult film fodder (Devil Doll), and hippy exploitation (Permissive). Given Shonteff’s lukewarm resume, and the fact that Sumuru stars Frankie Avalon, one can reasonably expect a light-hearted, mildly kinky, probably slightly unsatisfying movie—which is exactly what Shonteff delivers.

Frankie Avalon was trying to shed his teeny bopper beach party image by appearing in some espionage movies where, everything felt like a beach party movie adapted for the James Bond set (those beach party movies were already oversexed and a bit naughty; Frankie even smokes a joint in one of them). The Million Eyes of Sumuru fits nicely next to another Avalon spy comedy, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). It tells the story of secret agents (Avalon and hunky George Nader) fighting an all-woman army led by former Bond girl Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger). Rohmer’s Yellow Peril panic being softened by the goofiness of the story. The casting of Shirley Eaton as an Asian, without even bothering to slap on fake eyelids the way they did for Christopher Lee in the Fu Manchu movies, almost seems an intentional thumb in the eye of Yellow Peril racism, so utterly ridiculous is the idea.

The Million Eyes of Sumuru, like Towers’ Fu Manchu movies, was successful enough to warrant a sequel—but not with the same amount of money. In 1967, Towers handed the Fu Manchu franchise over to Spanish cult film director Jess Franco. What he didn’t turn over to Franco, however, was the budget of the first two films. At this time, Franco’s reputation was not what it would become in the 1970s, when he plied his trade primarily in no-budget sex and horror films (not that they don’t possess their charms). Much of his output in the 1960s was very accomplished, consisting of stylish horror films such as The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966), and similarly stylish tongue-in-cheek spy and noir films, including the Lemmy Caution film, Cartes sur table/Attack of the Robots (1966) starring American-born French pop star Eddie Constantine, and Lucky, el intrépido (1963). In 1968, he made not so much a jump as an easy continued transition into sexier fare with Succubus. That same year, the Fu Manchu series was dumped into his lap.

Working on a shoestring, as was usual for him, Franco slapped together a couple of movies for the Fu Manchu franchise that played to his strengths—those strengths being weirdness, psychedelia, and kink. The end results were a mixed bag, but Franco did something right. Series star Christopher Lee, for one, must have liked working with Franco, since he did it again in 1970, appearing in two pretty successful Gothic horror films, Count Dracula and The Bloody Judge. Orson Welles also considered Jess Franco a cinematographer of great genius (which he was) and hired him as second unit director on Chimes at Midnight (1965). Although that film was a pretty great, it was a nightmare production, hamstrung by constant budget woes—so much so that even Jess Franco found it a bit much.

Franco’s ability to finish a movie with almost no money, and thus ensure even failures would turn a profit, must have made Harry Alan Towers happy. As Fanco was finishing the Fu Manchu franchise, Towers handed him Sumuru, with the same lack of budget. Once again, Franco compensated by indulging himself. Shirley Eaton returns, but the rest of the cast is not in attendance, replaced by B-film stalwarts such as George Sanders and Richard Wyler. The Million Eyes of Sumuru‘s mildly risque flirtation with scantily-clad females was replaced by full-on nudity (cut, of course, from the broadcast print I’d seen so many years ago), unabashed salaciousness, and sexual torture (of men).

Losing the services of Frankie Avalon isn’t that big a blow. On the other hand, it does miss George Nader. It also lacks a cameo by Klaus Kinski as a drunken lecher swilling champagne and squirming about in a pile of pillows (a scene that was cut from many prints of The Million Eyes of Sumuru). Oh well, you can’t have everything, even though Kinski would have fit in with The Girl from Rio way more than the otherwise breezy Million Eyes. Franco may not have had a lot of money, but he masks that relatively well (most of the time), partly by leaning into psychedelia and vibrant colors and taking good advantage of the locations made available to him.

Following the climactic destruction of her base of operations in the Mysterious East at the end of The Million Eyes of Sumuru, the dastardly Sumuru (Eaton) has relocates her all-woman army to the city of Femina (Rio and, specifically, the Museu Arte Moderna). From there, she continues to hatch plots to take over the world, which apparently hinge on her scoring $10 million from a recently-arrived whilwind of plaid blazers and polyester shirts named Jeff Sutton (Richard Wyler, whose complexion in Future Women/The Girl from Rio resembles nothing so much as it does Arby’s roast beef). Sutton also attracts the attention of local mobster Sir Masius (George Sanders, hamming it up and sporting ascots, as was his way). Sutton soon finds himself and his collection of leisurewear in the crosshairs of both nefarious groups—though it seems this might have been the plan all along.

As we discover, Sutton is actually a secret agent hot on the trail of Sumuru. This leads to a lot of scenes of people walking down hallways and through vaguely futurist architecture, all while women in black uniforms made of leather and… umm… is that cardboard?… stand at attention. There are a lot of scenes of women standing with their arms akimbo, and this film might set a record for the number of shots framed between someone’s legs.

The script, of course, barely makes sense and, like many Franco movies, the film seems to lose interest in its own screenplay very quickly anyway. How much you enjoy a certain type of Franco film depends on how willing you are to surrender yourself to his surreal peculiarities. What we get in place of coherence is a wonderfully oddball, beautifully shot fever dream. Harry Alan Towers may not have given him much money, but lord knows it must have seemed a fortune compared to the budgets with which Franco usually had to work. Franco’s instincts, and cinematographer Manuel Merino’s camera, are in perfect harmony. The result is gorgeous, a film full of weird angles and vibrant color. Merino perfectly understand how to photograph the moods, impressions and indulgences of Jess Franco.

The finale of The Million Eyes of Sumuru was pretty fun, and surprisingly violent, if you were expecting things to be more Frankie Avalon instead of Harry Alan Towers. Frankie Avalon and a bunch of Hong Kong cops storm Sumuru’s island stronghold while George Nader struts around without a shirt. The Girl from Rio attempts to recreate that finale on a larger scale, with less money. So little money, in fact, that they couldn’t afford blanks for the guns, which means the big shootout is full of colored smoke bombs being tossed around while Sumuru’s army shake their machine guns at the invaders. It’s not of sound technical quality, but I admire the energy Franco and his cast throw into it.

Not having much money for sets, Franco and crew rely primarily on existing locations around the film’s two primary locations, in Rio and Barcelona, Spain. They further spice things up by constantly shooting at strange angles and making sure the repetition of shapes and patterns in the architecture is matched by leather-and-cape clad armed women standing in formation. It works almost all of the time, the only artistic gaffe being the shots with a lone woman standing in what looks to be a parking lot. I guess Femina needs to serve its commuters just like any other metropolis.

By the end of Future Women, back in whatever year that was I caught it on TV, I was a Jess Franco fan for life, though at the time I didn’t know it, since the name Jess Franco wasn’t what held my attention about the film. But it’s safe to say that a good many of my personal affectations and stylistic preferences were forged the day I watched my first Jess Franco film at far too early an—or was it exactly the right—age. Still today, I adore Jess Franco Eurospy outings. Everything about them is weird. The Girl from Rio may not be to the liking of many, but it certainly isn’t mundane. Like many of Franco’s films, it’s infused with a screwy sensibility, and you feel off-kilter the minute you surrender yourself. It’s something that looks a lot like our world, but everything is just slightly off. The Girl from Rio falls somewhere between comic book caper and strange dream, with maybe a dash of psychotropically-induced hallucination, the kind of spy movie someone would make after eating a bunch of magic mushrooms while hanging out in some weird strip club—which is probably what actually happened, knowing Franco.

Whatever the case, I think the end result is hilarious and fantastic. Million Eyes was already something of a comedy, but stripped of any budget to speak of, Franco shrugs his hunched shoulders and just takes it off the deep end, somehow simultaneously playing it straight and hamming up everything in his film. Within the Eurospy genre, Jess Franco created his own little cinematic universe, unified by style if not story. The Devil Came from Akasava (1971) belongs beside The Girl from Rio. His duo of freewheeling “Red Lips” private eye films, Rote Lippen, Sadisterotica (aka, Two Undercover Angels, 1969) and Küss mich, Monster (Kiss Me, Monster, 1969) may as well be happening in the same universe. The kink and nudity of Rio would be taken even further in 1977’s much more explicit Blue Rita. Heck, even his early spy films, Attack of the Robots and Lucky, el intrépido, fit into this crackpot grand unified Francoverse. One can easily imagine them all huddled around a table in some strange, hidden jazz club, watching a surreal performance that is somewhere between striptease, interpretive dance, and burlesque shock show.

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About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

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