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.




John Grissmer’s sleazy 1977 thriller is ripe for rediscovery

Every dreamy thing you’ve heard about the 1970s in regards to it being a Golden Age of American cinema is 100% true, with audiences hungry for edgier offbeat movies, thus birthing a market for various madmen to make lower-tier, downmarket stuff and still have plenty of eyeballs waiting to receive their wares. And with the MPAA’s newly minted ratings system – born after the new wave of more extreme stuff like Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange dared to make their way onto mainstream screens – still in its wobble-kneed infancy, plenty of nasty little numbers squeezed through the cracks and sneaked away with mild PG (or the similar GP) ratings; this, despite the fact that many of these pictures were not geared for kids or family viewing and often were choked with sleaze, suggested smut and decidedly mature melodrama.

Among the endless spate of movies that your son Timmy could freely see on a Saturday afternoon in the cinema if he so desired,  is director John (Blood Rage) Grissmer’s tawdry and really rather mesmerizing 1977 shocker Scalpel (aka False Face). The movie was released twice in the ’70s to American hard-tops and drive-ins before slinking to VHS via a slew of distributors in the 1980s and then – like so many of these pictures did – faded into the ether. Now, with so many boutique labels dragging the celluloid swamps for “forgotten” genre product, Arrow Video have pulled Scalpel back from the abyss and given it their typical “surprise birthday party” treatment, a stunning Blu-ray rendering that features TWO (two!) color-graded prints (one in a greenish tint approved by DP Edward Lachman (The Virgin Suicides) and another in standard color by the Arrow brain-trusts themselves) and a glut of special features that put this greasy gem in proper historical context. It’s genuinely amusing for me –  and many other likely horror/cult movie admirers of my generation – to see such a grandiose, figurative red carpet rolled out for a picture as obscure as Scalpel but that’s what make this particular release so damned wonderful. Because Scalpel bloody well deserves it!

The film stars character actor Robert Lansing (memorable to me most potently for his haunting performance in the fifth season The Twilight Zone episode “The Long Morrow”) as the blank-faced plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Reynolds, a brilliant architect of flesh who also happens to be one of the biggest sons-of-bitches sliming around the deep South. Seems this prick murdered his wife (the film suggests as much in a darkly hilarious flashback sequence) and his daughter Heather’s (Judith Chapman, Eurohorror legend Patty Shepard’s sister!) beau, the latter incident of which was witnessed by the girl and set her to running. In fact, when Scalpel begins, Heather has been MIA for a year and despite this, her now-dead Grandfather has willed his entire 5 million fortune to her, cutting out his despised son-in-law entirely.

Presumably livid (but as played by the chill Lansing, only visibly mildly put-out), Reynolds hatches a scheme to take a mutilated stripper into his lair and “remake” her face to be a dead-ringer for his gone-girl daughter. The idea is to pull a Henry Higgins and “teach” the scrappy young hustler to walk, talk and act exactly like Heather, thus fooling the family and attorneys into thinking that she IS in fact Heather. The plan works and the duo split the 5 million and – in a gently sick twist – begin a torrid sexual relationship behind closed doors. But when the real Heather shows up (also played by Chapman) things go from sweaty mad-science to full-blown psychodrama and very quickly, an unsavory and decidedly unhealthy menage-a-troi develops.

To say more about Grissmer’s crown-jewel of secret-sleaze would be to spoil the ample fun it offers. But man alive, is Scalpel fantastic. It’s like someone hired Jess Franco to direct an episode of Love, American Style. It’s a leering, straight-faced free-fall into bad behavior and yet it’s not gory at all (save for a few blood-blasts) and there’s no explicit sex and I cannot recall even a bad word uttered by any of the cast. In a sea of schlock cinema where everyone just keeps trying to out-porn the next guy, this restraint is admirable and charming and recalls the early days of post-code Hollywood cinema, when filmmakers had to weave-in the taboo gingerly so as not to alarm the thought police, thus making the movie feel even MORE dangerous. The cast is dynamite, with Lansing’s relaxed sociopathic doctor alternately amusingly chilling and eerie, especially when he breaks from his boozy stupor to giggle like a toothy madman. Chapman is excellent too, in a challenging duel role that makes you legitimately believe that she’s two people, more than a decade before David Cronenberg tried the same stunt in 1988’s Dead Ringers. Tying this grubby Southern Gothic together is a lush score by Dan Curtis’ right-hand man, the legendary Robert Cobert, who mines his work in Dark Shadows to sculpt a romantic, melancholy and haunting tapestry of sound.

If you’ve never seen Scalpel – and I’m willing to bet that many of you have not – I highly recommend you make time for it. They don’t make movies like this anymore.

Scalpel is available now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video


Stanley Kramer’s 1955 melodrama offers one of Robert Mitchum’s most nuanced performances

With his lazy-lidded resting face and macho. swaggering gait, Hollywood has rarely ponied up a more unique looking superstar as Robert Mitchum. And the actor’s off-camera life was just as singular. He was a tough talking rebel of the highest order who made no apologies for his manners and famously snubbed his nose at the very system that supported him. Most of you know the infamous story of his 1948 pot bust, where when asked by a frenzy of reporters upon his release how he liked prison, he retorted “It’s like Palm Springs without the riff-raff.” While other actors of the time would have withered from the scandal and had their careers clipped, Mitchum owned his perceived transgressions and emerged not only unscathed but even more successful. Mitchum was indeed a bad boy, a baddass…and a great goddamn actor.

And while I pride myself as having seen most of Mitchum’s output (his signature role in Charles Laughton’s haunting 1955 American Gothic Night of the Hunter – my second favorite film of all time, incidentally – is the stuff of legend), Stanley (On the Beach) Kramer’s sweepingly melodramatic adaption of Morton Thompson’s then-popular (and even more soapy) novel Not as a Stranger eluded me. What a treat then, to find the film via Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release and discovering that the picture  features one of Mitchum’s most restrained, nuanced and deceivingly muted performances, woven into a well acted, written and directed entertainment that does his work justice.

Not as a Stranger sees Mitchum cast as Lucas Marsh, a deeply driven and gravely serious medical student whose dreams of being a doctor are sabotaged by the fact that he’s dead broke. His widowed, alcoholic father (Lon Chaney Jr.) has drank away Marsh’s life savings and he is forced to do odd jobs at the university to cobble together the cash needed to keep him in school. But when the well finally dries up, the icy young man exploits the affections of an older, well-off nurse (the legendary Olivia de Haviland) and asks her to marry him. And while his best friend and dorm-mate (played by a frail looking Frank Sinatra) chastises him for clearly using the woman for her money and positioning himself as a “kept man”,  Marsh blazes in to the union and becomes what must become.

Marsh’s single-minded adherence to medical ethics make him a brilliant doctor, but he soon isolates himself from his fellow man and begins treating his doting wife like a doormat. When he takes over a small town practice, his ego goes into overdrive, threatening to steamroll over every and any good thing he’s built.

Not as a Stranger is in line with much of Kramer’s work,  shining lights on peripheral actors and giving them plenty of space to shine and enrich the main narrative with only a few choice lines. Broderick Crawford’s no-nonsense professor (seen in the clip below) is commanding and Chaney (known mostly for his work in horror films) is especially a revelation. While only on screen for minutes, he manages to deliver a career-best performance as a ruined man who cannot drag himself out of the gutter and is fully aware of his self-destruction and his affect on those around him. He also is the one who first calls his son out, remarking that while Lucas’s mind is magnificent, his heart is pure ice.

But he’s only half right.

The beauty in Not as a Stranger lies in Mitchum’s work, though upon release and even today, many critics have cited his turn as Marsh to be blank, expressionless, lazy. But that’s just it. Marsh IS blank. He’s still a little boy who lost his mother and watched his father drown himself is booze and his home life, his stability, dissolve in front of his face, helpless to stop it. Through medicine, that same boy latched on to something larger than he was and would or could ever hope to be. He turned himself into what he had to become to survive, his eye always on the prize. People weren’t to be trusted. Only he mattered.

In that respect, Marsh is a kind of sociopath and Mitchum nails the character, giving us an automaton that, when backed into a corner, explodes into quick bursts of rage, before retreating back into his armor. And when the final moments of the movie wind down and Marsh finally fully hits the wall and Mitchum finally dissolves, it’s startling and heart-wrenching.

Not as a Stranger was released the same year as Night of the Hunter and while Mitchum’s performance as the mad preacher Harry Powell in that film seems on the surface seems to be the superior example of the actor’s craft, his work here is far subtler, a kind of puzzle box that takes a patient viewer to carefully, thoughtfully unlock.

Not as a Stranger is on Blu-ray now from Kino Lorber