A look at one of Jess Franco’s most fascinating and personal movies
It’s gratifying the level of admiration that global cinema culture now has for Spanish sleaze architect Jesus “Jess” Franco. And while it’s a shame that more of that adoration and intellectual dissection of his work didn’t thrive more prominently when he was among the living, it’s still wonderful that so many learned, passionate writers, thinkers and daring dark film lovers spend so much time talking about him. And so they should. In the annals of film history, I cannot think of a more fascinating figure than Franco, not just because of the sheer volume of movies he made (over 200 that we know of) but because he was so driven and dictated by his obsessive need to make them. Here was a man who truly lived to make pictures, in some ways because he made pictures to live.
Which makes sense because Franco worshiped Orson Welles and indeed mentored with him making the 1965 picture Chimes at Midnight, in which Franco served as second unit director. Welles was the Hollywood poster boy for boyish rebellion and high-minded culture, a pearl before a city full of swine; he was a visionary who refused to buckle to industry standards, entering the business with a bang (1941’s Citizen Kane) and, after the harrowing ordeal that followed in that controversial film’s wake, spent the next 50 years traveling the world scraping up money to make movies exactly how he wanted to make them. Franco most assuredly took his work aesthetic from Welles’ book but while Orson would take years to prep a picture, Franco would fire out a half dozen films in the same time. Sometimes he had dough (his myriad lush psychedelic films in the late 1960s with producer Harry Alan Towers stands as his higher budgeted efforts) and sometimes he had, well, literally NO money. Didn’t matter. He just made the movies he wanted to make.
Sometimes the distributors and producers – be they Spanish, German, French, whatever – would monkey with the pictures Franco delivered. Sometimes they ordered new scenes to be shot, XXX hardcore inserts to be spliced in, different sub-plots with different actors who were more popular in the country in which said distributors had purchased the film for to be shot and included in the final cut. Often Franco rolled up his sleeves and made the changes himself, thus retaining control of the product as best he could. Occasionally, the alterations were done without him. Sometimes he used his own name on the finished film. Sometimes he used one his dozens of pseudonyms. And of course, all this substantial cinematic skullduggery has only served to enrich Franco’s enigmatic mythos, defining the ever-swelling cult that has sprouted up in recent years.
Case in point, The Sadist of Notre Dame, recently release by Severin Films via a 4K scan from elements found in a French nunnery (a likely tale, but a fun notion). Sadist is perhaps one of Franco’s most interesting and complicated movies, certainly it remains one his most personal, seeing as he opted to take on the lead role himself. North Americans first widely encountered Sadist via Wizard Video’s VHS release in the early 1980s under the title Demoniac, a cut version of the film that dialed back much of the ample sex and violence. Years later, Synapse released the original cut of the film under the title Exorcism (it also exists in a XXX version called Sexorcismes). That version was shot in 1975 for frequent Franco bankrollers Eurocine and it’s a wet, taboo-bending affair filled with sado-masochistic sex and murder. In 1979, Eurocine asked Franco to shoot new scenes for the film and he did, inventing a new plot entirely, changing the name of characters and fleshing out his own role in the film, giving him a deeper, more tormented motive for his madness. That’s the Sadist version, which is the harder version of the Demoniac cut and while bearing the mark of its Frankenstein-stitch up structure, it’s an absolutely mesmerizing psychotronic experience.
It’s also reportedly Franco’s preferred version of the film, or so composer, author and Franco know-it-all Stephen Thrower says in the the supplemental interview on the back-end of the Blu-ray. All versions of the films see Franco star as defrocked Priest Vogel who slinks around Paris at night stalking and slashing all women who he deems to be morally corrupt. In the Exorcism cut, there’s more of an emphasis on sadism, opening as it does on a sickening – but staged – S&M performance and driven as it is by these scenes of extremity. But Sadist is closer to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. It’s a much more intimate, artful and psychological profile of a compulsive fiend and Franco plays the part to perfection, with his popping eyes spying on his prey before delivering fevered, accusatory monologues chased by a flash of his blade. All this delirium is encased – as in most Eurocine/Franco efforts – by a melancholy, dreamy lounge jazz score by Daniel White, the perfect balm for the harsh shenanigans on screen. naturally, the beautiful Lina Romay – Jess’s muse on and off screen – shows up in both versions, looking stunning either in or out of wardrobe.
To love Franco isn’t to necessarily love all of his movies. Hell, you don’t even have to like half of them and I know – despite my citing Franco as my personal favorite filmmaker of all time – that many of his movies, I find damned near unwatchable. No, each one of Franco’s movies is a piece of a larger puzzle, a brush stroke on a massive, complex canvas and a tapestry of passion that has never been equaled. But Sadist is certainly among his best pictures. Even seen as a stand-alone bit of Euroshock, it has a mesmerizing sort of majesty, a Paris Gothic with a strong sense of place and time and purpose, that makes it immersive and unforgettable. To call it a masterpiece might be a stretch but calling it a Jess Franco Masterpiece is absolutely on point.