For my money, director Jess Franco is the best and most prolific adapter of what I would call Sadeian cinema; he did borrow directly from the Marquis de Sade’s texts from time to time, but even when his loose plots are wholly his own, he captures the Sadeian spirit more faithfully than any other filmmaker (perhaps with the exception of Alain Robbe-Grillet). Films like 99 Women (1969), Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969), Eugenie aka De Sade 70 (1970), the other Eugénie aka Eugenie De Sade (1973), The Demons (1973), and Sinner: The Secret Diary of a Nymphomaniac (1973) are all deeply Sadeian in the sense that they are concerned with sadomasochism and erotic torture, are fixated on women’s sexuality (often featuring powerful women in lead roles), and the conjoined themes of sexuality as liberating and destructive forces.
1968’s Succubus, also known as Necronomicon, is among the first of these—and marks a turning point in Franco’s career—coming after early Spanish horror classics for the director like The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962) and The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966), but just before the glorious rush of ‘69 to ‘73, a busy period for Franco that resulted in some of my favorite of his films and established him as a master of surreal, erotic, and stubbornly antiauthoritarian cinema. I believe it was his first film (or one of the first) shot outside Spain—in Germany and Portugal, with German financing—and the newfound freedom of this arrangement likely explains the experimental nature of Succubus. 2018 happens to be the film’s 50th anniversary and in celebration of that, this serves as my love letter to the film, to its recently departed star Janine Reynaud, and to Tío Jess, who I (and a lot of Eurocult fans) still miss every day, since his death five years ago.
Succubus doesn’t just star Reynaud, but is a vehicle for her as many of Franco’s films were for leading ladies like Soledad Miranda, Maria Rohm, and his beloved Lina Romay. Franco’s occasional red-headed muse, Reynaud was a French model who had somewhat of an unusual career trajectory: she didn’t begin acting until later in life, in her mid-30s. Like his countryman Jose Larraz, Franco often proved his willingness to move beyond the stereotype of casting only young women in erotic roles. And Reynaud is abundantly sexy in the film, right from the opening frames, where she sadistically tortures a couple tied up in a dungeon, though this is revealed to be just a faux snuff stage show at a nightclub. Within the first ten minutes alone, she performs a frenzied, private striptease for her boyfriend William (Franco regular and Eurocult mainstay Jack Taylor), but goes to bed frustrated when he passes out drunk (I think we all know that pain).
Lorna’s sexual frustration is at the heart of the film and Franco seems to suggest that this force is responsible for delusion, madness, even violence, though it is often unclear whether said violence is real or imagined. The film’s tagline—”The sensual experience of ‘69”—belies the fact that this is also a horror film and not merely an erotic drama. Like what is perhaps my favorite Franco film, Venus in Furs (1969), or some of his slightly later titles like Nightmares Come at Night (1972), Succubus is a surreal, dreamlike experience without a clear foothold in reality. This tendency to favor images and vignette-like sequences over narrative structure is one of the things I find so appealing about Franco, but which also makes him a bit of a hard sell for fans of more conventional films.
Fantasy gives way to dreams, dreams give way to nightmares, and nightmares to waking madness. Is Lorna insane? Dreaming? A demon set loose upon the Earth? During a bacchanalian party sequence, featuring a room full of guests who appear to be on acid, a poem—presumably about Lorna—is read by Adrian Hoven, the prolific German actor and director, who also produced Succubus. He intones, “As she is a Greek goddess, so is she a devil. […] A devil who must swallow the living in pursuit of her earthbound desires, but a devil who must devour the dead in pursuit of her hell-born lust.” This culminates in a mock orgy, where (clothed) members of the party become animalistic and swarm Lorna, kissing and biting her, until William pulls her from the room in a rage and they leave—but they are finally able to consummate their relationship (at least for the first time on screen).
Like the leading characters of some of Franco’s other Sadeian films, Eugenie and Eugenie de Sade, Lorna is shaped and somewhat controlled by men, but her sexuality is an all-consuming force. Early in the film, a voice over recounts: “In the sweltering heat of the tropics, Pandora opened her forbidden box of evils and cursed all men thereafter.” Like many of Franco’s films, Succubus does contain some film noir-like elements, such as the jazzy score and a recurring voice over, dizzying dream sequences and possible psychiatric sessions, but the gloomy visuals of both traditional horror and noir are replaced by a brightly lit, picturesque Mediterranean set. This recurring fixture of Franco’s films—such as Vampyros Lesbos (1971), perhaps the sunniest vampire film ever made—add to its air of dream and disorientation. Lorna’s sexuality can thus be seen as a force connected to the natural world, to the very rushing tides and sunlit vistas she walks.
Similarly, Lorna’s romantic fantasies of being a princess, journeying to a castle in search of her prince, are contrasted by her madness; it is implied that she kills a man (wonderful Franco regular Howard Vernon) who stirs her desire. In an early erotic sequence, Vernon’s character and Lorna play a strange word association game that ends in heavy petting on a carpet, while they are surrounded by naked manservants in bowties. Vernon’s character is later shown laid out in a public funeral, with his corpse out for open viewing, though a red pin is stuck through one still-bloody eye. Lorna shrieks and runs through a crowd of lamenting women. Her boyfriend later tells a story about “a palace built in another world”: “One day, by a river in a garden, she stabbed the prince, murdering him, as if she were overpowered by a devil.”
The film grapples with whether Lorna is evil or merely mad; this is highlighted by sequences like a lesbian tryst midway through the film, where Lorna and her companion (Nathalie Nort) are surrounded by costumed mannequins. When Lorna’s desire is at its peak, she stabs the woman to death with a large sacrificial blade, somewhat foreshadowing similar scenes in Jean Rollin’s sex film Bacchanales sexuelles (1974) and Umberto Lenzi’s underrated giallo, Spasmo (1974). The trope of a beautiful but murderous countess living in a castle by the sea would reappear to varying degrees in later Franco vampire films Vampyros Lesbos or Female Vampire (1973). But unlike those self-possessed and very powerful, if tragic figures, Lorna is a victim of her own tormented passions, a figure stuck between the gothic, supernatural world of her imagination and William’s modern, nightclub world where she is a performer in exotic costumes.
Like Venus in Furs, Nightmares Come at Night, and A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), the central mystery of Succubus is bound up with figuring out what is real and imagined, a problem that Succubus doesn’t really strain itself to resolve. It takes pleasure in the mystery itself, in the fever dream, rather than in answering questions or explaining events, and in this way Franco bears more in common with arthouse directors like Jacques Rivette (or sadomasochistic auteurs like the previously mentioned Alain Robbe-Grillet) than he does with more conventional genre filmmakers. Like the majority of Rivette’s output, Succubus is fixated on a potential conspiracy, though it keeps the details rather murky; perhaps not coincidentally, the master of conspiracy on screen, Fritz Lang, was allegedly a fan of Succubus, claiming it was the first erotic film he appreciated.
I’ve read some rather bitter criticism of Succubus—and of course of Franco in general—that it is intentionally frustrating and elusive, and simply makes no sense. But why does it have to? I’ve always felt that an insistence on narrative logic—so favored by Hollywood—is reductive and stifling, conservative, even antithetical to cinema itself. Many of my favorite filmmakers buck such conventions to relate stories of profound emotional, if not logical, truth, works full of beauty, transgression, and originality. 50 years on, I think Succubus should be celebrated because it exemplifies and upholds the Sadeian principle that desire is an all-consuming force—perhaps the dominating force in this celluloid world of light, flesh, blood, color, and form—capable of alchemical transformation not only in the lives of fictional characters or the page or screen, but also in the real-life spectators of such art.