By designating this entry in the series as a ‘special’, I simply mean that it’s quite long, so be prepared. Unless stated otherwise, all background info and quotes are extrapolated either from the interviews accompanying the Blue Underground DVD release of ‘Necronomicon’ (under the title ‘Succubus’), or from Tohill and Tombs’ ever-reliable ‘Immoral Tales’, pp. 93-95. Much of the poster art reproduced below is borrowed from Wrong Side of the Art.
Initially conceived as a low budget horror under the name ‘Green Eyes of the Devil’, this film was eventually shot under the title ‘Necronomicon’, and first screened in West Germany as ‘Necronomicon: Geträumte Sünden’ (that’s “Dreams of Sin” or somesuch). Perhaps most widely known by its American release title ‘Succubus’, IMDB informs us that it also went by ‘Delirium’ in Italy, ‘Paroxysmos’ in Greece and ‘Sex: Lidenskab og Fantasi’ in Denmark, reverting to its original ‘Les Yeux Verts du Diable’ for screenings in France.
Whatever you choose to call it, ‘Necronomicon’ certainly marks an important turning point in the career of Jess Franco, and arguably a pivotal moment in the development of European horror/exploitation cinema in general.
Artistically speaking, it was the first film that allowed Franco the freedom to move beyond the pulpy genre shockers he had worked on up to this point, and it certainly must have proved a bit of an eye-opener for those in the industry and who knew him primarily for The Awful Dr. Orlof. Basically, ‘Necronomicon’ sets the template not just for Franco’s own future work, but for that of many of his contemporaries too, as affordable colour photography, the lure of ‘edgy’, counter-culture informed material and a demand for stronger sexual content all pointed the way forward. If you’re looking for the genesis of the kind of art-damaged / psychedelic / horror-infused erotic thrillers that dominated a certain kind of cinema through the early ‘70s, and that Franco in particular specialised in, well… it all starts here.
Commercially, ‘Necronomicon’ is said to have done more business at the box office than any Franco film before or since(1), and it also netted him just about the only taste of mainstream critical interest he attracted in his entire career, making waves at the 1968 Berlin Film Festival and apparently eliciting praise from no less a figure than Fritz Lang, who is said to have called it “the first erotic film I've seen all the way through, because it is a beautiful piece of cinema”.(2)
Long before all that though, ‘Necronomicon’ began life as a run-of-the-mill horror project (the aforementioned ‘Green Eyes of the Devil’), planned by Franco in collaboration with Austrian actor/producer Adrian Hoven, and overseen by Franco’s usual backer at the time, Karl-Heinz Mannchen. After Franco and Hoven began scouting locations and shooting initial footage in Spain and Portugal however, Mannchen’s finances fell through, leaving things in limbo. Scrabbling around for a solution, Hoven put in a call to a friend of his, a dilettante would-be producer named Pier Maria Caminneci, offering him a free ticket to Lisbon if he wanted to fly in and check things out.(3)
As Franco recalled in later years, Caminneci proved to be a refined and affable character, though “sometimes insufferable because of his pretentious airs”, and the two quickly bonded over their shared love of jazz. More to the point, Caminneci was also extremely rich, well connected, and completely smitten with leading lady Janine Reynaud. A deal was done.(4)
Insofar as I can tell, Caminneci’s input (both creative and financial) seems to have altered the nature of the proposed film considerably, expanding its scope from a modest b-horror into a sprawling feast of daring ‘60s Euro-chic decadence, aimed just as much at an art-house crowd as the horror/sexploitation circuit. Accompanying this change of direction, it was Caminneci who helped give the project its new title too, with “Necronomicon” apparently being chosen after Franco spied what he insists was a copy of the forbidden grimoire of Abdul Al-Hazrad sitting on Caminneci’s shelves during a record listening party at the latter’s pad.(5)
Quite how the ravings of the Mad Arab fed into either Franco’s thin tale of ghostly sex n’ violence or Caminneci’s rambling, Fellini-esque script is anyone’s guess, but regardless, things continued apace. Franco was already friendly with French actor/producer Michael Lemoine, and had already offered the film’s lead role to his wife, the aforementioned Janine Reynaud, after a chance meeting in Rome. The ever-wonderful Jack Taylor was soon cast opposite her as the male lead (much to the chagrin of Hoven, who apparently wanted the part for himself), and Caminneci, Hoven, Lemoine and (of course) Howard Vernon were soon all fixed up with supporting roles. With Karl Lagerfeld on board to design Reynaud’s wardrobe (one suspects Caminneci’s connections may have helped out here), and some suitably eye-popping locations identified in Lisbon and Berlin, shooting began again in earnest.
Further upping the ‘class’ factor, celebrated pianist and classical/jazz innovator Friedrich Gulda was brought in to record a full orchestral score (Caminneci and Franco were both big fans), and, as previously mentioned, the film eventually made its debut in Berlin, picking up a number of international distribution deals (including a plum American contract from (s)exploitation specialists Trans-American Films), and went on to play theatrically in various parts of the world right through to the early ‘70s, cementing the names of all concerned in at least *some* people’s minds, and, we assume, making a tidy sum in the process.
One of those films that you can sit through multiple times and remember nothing beyond a few strange, shining images and the general impression that you quite enjoyed it, ‘Necronomicon’ is yet another Franco effort that doesn’t easily lend itself to textual analysis or summation. The notes I scribbled down during a late night viewing in April, convinced that I’d got a lead on some singular insights, now read like garbled nonsense, the indecipherable ravings of a sleep-deprived drop-out [No comment – ed.].
Blinking in the harsh light of day, I suppose what is chiefly notable about Necronomicon’s paper-thin storyline is the way that it forms a blueprint for the film Franco would proceed to re-make dozens of times over the following decades: a woozily paced trek through picturesque locations with a glamorous, tormented woman as she alternately seduces and kills a series of victims in her sleep/dreams/fantasies, en route to complete mental collapse, and/or some essentially empty consummation. Sound familiar..? Reynaud’s Lorna is a dry run, not just for innumerable future Lorna’s, but for Maria Rohm’s Venus and Lina Romay’s Doriana Grey too – the quintessential Franco protagonist in her first full-bloom.
Whilst Franco may have later described ‘Necronomicon’ as the first film on which he enjoyed complete creative freedom though, its difficult production background means that it actually plays as more of a collaborative effort than most of the films that followed – a circumstance that, in my opinion at least, doesn’t always work to its advantage. Franco is said to have shot most of the film on the fly, inventing scenarios from one day to the next, but Caminneci nonetheless takes sole credit for the screenplay (on the English version of the film, at least), and the attempts therein to reinvent the minimal horror plotline as an all-singing, all-dancing avant pop-art spectacular meet with mixed success at best, as vast swathes of discursive dialogue, intrusive voiceovers and unconvincing inter-character scenes all take their toll, making for trying viewing at times.
Not helped much by a distractingly glib, ‘arched eyebrow’-style English dub (the only language option available on the DVD under review, sadly), the script’s psychoanalytical and post-modern diversions are often pretty clunky and play, frankly, as pretentious garbage – chucklesome on the one hand, but unbearable on the other; cringeworthy attempts to lend the film some faux-hip intellectual credibility, handled so naively that they ironically make it seem far stupider than many of Franco’s straight up sex/horror films.
We cannot be 100% sure that this stuff is all the work of Caminneci I suppose (it seems likely that everyone threw ideas in here and there), but the tone is certainly a perfect match for the character sketch Franco provided for him, and it is notable that such content is entirely absent from subsequent Franco films, which, I would contest, demonstrate their psychological complexity and culturally-informed sensibility in a rather more subtle manner, without the need to throw in sophomoric shout-outs to Sigmund Freud and The Rolling Stones every five minutes.
That said, there are definitely some moments when Franco and Caminneci’s respective aesthetics come together to wonderfully goofy effect. For instance, it's hard not to love the scene in which Lorna visits ‘The Admiral’ (Vernon), the pair sitting in a bar playing some contrived word association game that Caminneci obviously saw as scaling dizzy heights of cross-cultural sophistication (“Henry Miller?” “Birds in winter”, “Charlie Mingus?” “Anger”, “The unconscious?” “Marquis de Sade”, and so on), as naked pretty boy bartenders stir cocktails with only upturned top hats protecting their modesty, and stock accordion music blares. Such a ridiculous assemblage of elements that for a moment all is forgiven, especially when Howard starts chewing pebbles(?!) out of his Dr. Orloff top hat, mere inches away from some fella’s junk.
Indeed, perhaps the best course of action all the way through Necronomicon is to try to ignore the top-heavy babble of the script, to treat any semblance of plot as entirely coincidental, and to just enjoy the film as a pure aesthetic object – a level upon which it never fails to please.
Whilst actual sexual content here is far less explicit than what would become the norm for Franco productions post-1970, ‘Necronomicon’ is still pretty strong stuff for 1967. In fact as far as whacked out pop-art erotica goes, it remains kinky as hell, with violent S&M themed stage acts, aristocratic lesbian seductions and even some borderline male homoerotic moments, all overseen a leading lady who clearly has no qualms about showing off everything bar the you-know-what for the camera at the drop of a (top) hat.
Janine Reynaud, though considerably older than your average sex film starlet, smoulders all the more for her evident, um, experience, bringing an energy to her portrayal of a domineering sex fiend femme fatale, that, if it perhaps doesn’t quite reach the level of intensity achieved by Lina Romay a few years later, is certainly in the same ballpark.
Reynaud brings a mixture of sophistication and cynicism to her character that might well have eluded a younger actress, and if some chauvinist horndogs in the audience might have felt wary about the idea of lusting after a star who was pushing forty at the time of filming, you can be damn sure they had little to complain about after getting a good look at her assets in the hotel room striptease that occurs a few minutes into the film. At the risk of joining their unsavoury ranks for a moment or two, Ms Reynaud is *hot*, and none but a corn-fed fool would deny it.
Moving swiftly on, I believe ‘Necronomicon’ also marks the first of the numerous occasions on which Jess Franco chose to open a film with a scene of fantastical S&M violence that is subsequently revealed to be a stage performance in some only-in-the-mind-of-Jess-Franco nightclub, where a crowd of elegantly attired men and women clap enthusiastically. A quintessential Franco ‘primal scene’, variations on this little number are repeated in more films than I could possibly bother listing, but the one in ‘Necronomicon’ is particularly striking, with Reynaud licking the wounds of a shackled strong-man before slicing up her tomboy-ish female lover, and it also perhaps marks the genesis of Franco’s subsequent fixation with tying his characters to ‘X’-shaped wooden crosses (see ‘The Demons’, ‘Exorcism’, etc.).
More generally speaking, Caminneci’s bankroll and high-falutin’ aspirations give ‘Necronomicon’ the kind of playboy atmosphere that Franco was rarely rarely able to afford in later years, and it’s safe to say he made the best of it, with the cast & crew’s real life extravagance (“We ate well, we stayed in the best hotels,” Jack Taylor recalled, before noting that he still had to provide his own costume) perhaps spilling over into the film itself, as a general feeling of over-ripe, end-of-the-decade decadence predominates, honing in on the more erotically-fixated end of Fellini’s oeuvre with relentless efficiency.
The wild LSD party chez-Caminneci that occurs mid-way through the film is, in particular, a shameless Fellini rip, complete with the requisite transvestite, the dwarf butler, the animalistic degeneration of the pampered attendees, the whole nine yards. This fantasy of a decadent, doomed 1960s, in which designer clothes could be torn off any minute, where strange drugs and indescribably new experiences lurk round every corner, is cannily used by the filmmakers, contributing greatly to the tingly erotic frisson that permeates every frame of ‘Necronomicon’.
Though gifted with a title and opening scene that make it seem very much like a gruesome horror film of some kind, as soon as the camera pans out for the big reveal in the introductory night-club sequence (Franco’s winking dismissal of his horror past, perhaps?), the tone chances drastically, and ‘Necronomicon’s violent and supernatural elements are thereafter pushed firmly into the background.
Partly undertaken in an effort to sell the film to a different (wider?) audience, this laissez-faire approach to genre also seems to have chimed with the director at the time of production. Despite having initially planned the movie as a straight horror, Franco appears to have been rather fed up with the restrictions of genre cinema at this point, later claiming that ‘Necronomicon’ was his first attempt to “broaden the scope of the horror film”, instead creating what he described as a “pure psychological film”, delivering a “clear, precise study of the symptoms of paranoia”.
Make of that what you will (if clinically diagnosed paranoia made the world look like this, I think we’d all be giving it a shot), but reminders of ‘Necronomicon’s b-horror origins nonetheless remain visible throughout, poorly disguised by the thin coat of art-house gloss. Some rather cheesy ‘horror-y bits’ give the game away quickly enough - check out the shock zoom on Howard Vernon’s slightly unconvincing ‘corpse’ (stabbed in the eye with a hat pin!), or the hilariously inept ‘killer mannequins’ scene - and the subsequent mixture of Euro-art vibes with blatant drive-in horror elements stands out as pure Franco, even if his usual ratio is more or less reversed here.
Not much doing here I’m afraid. Within the grand narrative of Franco’s career, ‘Necronomicon’ can easily be framed as the director’s big attempt to break away from the pulp traditions that he’d been tied to during the preceding decade, and even the amusing intrusion of plastic figurines of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and Godzilla, during a brief skit about Michael Lemoine’s character assuming a new role within the pantheon of horror icons, does little to change that. These inanimate cameos occur in a contrived, self-aware environment that acts as pure kryptonite to the pulp spirit – more Lichtenstein than Sax Rohmer, and a big thumbs down from this category’s judges.
Of course, some may argue that the whole ‘60s Euro-decadence thing constitutes a valid pulp aesthetic in its own right, and then there’s the whole Necronomicon tie-in, but, hmm, I dunno…
Perhaps realising that this was his opportunity to make his mark as a visionary, risk-taking director, Franco uses the combination of creative freedom and relatively lavish budget available to him here to turn in something truly special. Whatever you think of ‘Necronomicon’s content and intentions, in terms of attention-grabbing cinematic style, it is off the scale - perhaps the most visually arresting movie Franco ever made.
Most notably, much of the film is absurdly overlit. And I don’t just mean “it’s a bit too bright”, I mean the kind of thing that would give any trained cinematographer forty fits: often the screen is completely saturated with blinding white glare, blurring the image or hiding the figures onscreen entirely, giving characters a kind of ghostly halo and distorting bright patches of colour into grainy, fuzzed out blocks. Even now, nearly fifty years later, it still looks astonishing – challenging, disorientating and often extremely beautiful.
This technique gives the film’s exteriors an unearthly, disintegrating quality – a sort of coldly angelic feel, one step away from total oblivion, even as the bold primary colours (like the assorted passions on display) ring out red hot. At a push, perhaps this whole lighting scheme could be seen as a reflection of Lorna’s precarious state within the story: beyond the realm of the living, yet consumed by human desires. Or something. It looks pretty cool anyway, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Even random, in-car travelogue footage shot in the rainy Berlin suburbs looks quite compelling (shades of ‘Female Vampire’?), and many individual shots in the Lisbon sections in the film look quite incredible, the extreme lighting effects lending the compositions a semi-accidental painterly quality that takes the breath away. Just try freeze-framing the oddly composed long-shot at around the 15-minute mark, of Reynaud in the red dress, walking towards her Cadillac, with the Gaudi-esque monastery in the background. It’s like one of David Hockney’s LA paintings reimagined by Salvador Dali. Extraordinary.
Whilst I can’t speak for the input of credited “cameramen” Jorge Herrero and Franz Lederle, this technique strikes me as a great demonstration of Jess Franco’s off-the-cuff genius: taking a glaring in-camera ‘mistake’ that most filmmakers would have corrected immediately, and instead deciding to build the look of his whole film around it, giving ‘Necronomicon’ a highly distinctive style that I’ve never seen replicated elsewhere. (Even Franco’s own happy-go-lucky approach to photography in his later films rarely adopts this ‘light-bombing’ technique to anything like the extent seen here.)
During darker, less saturated scenes, quality varies (as per usual with Franco) between richly detailed, deep focus tableaus and totally random, slapdash stuff that looks like it was shot in someone’s apartment with about five minutes notice. Examples of his oft imaginative camerawork are easy to spot – a static scene focusing on a table in a bar with action filling both the foreground and background to Bruegel-esque effect, a love scene where the camera pans back and forth across back of participants’ heads, the good ol’ ‘sex scene shot through a fish tank’, and so on - but it is the blinding white light that will stick most strongly in the viewer’s mind after this one.
Officially registered as a Spanish/West German/Italian co-production, ‘Necronomicon’s shooting locations were determined more by financial and political necessity than by choice: ducking out of Spain to avoid government censorship, the production’s main shoot took place in Lisbon, before the principals decamped to Berlin to pad things out and fill in the gaps.
Once again incorporating random circumstances into his artistic agenda, Franco claims that he thus conceived the idea of a film split between “two different worlds”, contrasting the Latin/Catholic traditionalism of Southern Europe with the secular, modernist vision of post-war West Germany. The extent to which this contrast can really be identified within the garish overload of the finished film is questionable, but either way, some of the scenery along the way is certainly worth a visit.
In Lisbon, we find some splendid hilltop vistas over the city, sea views, a delightful funicular railway, a ruined Moorish palace, some incredible Rococo interiors and - perhaps the film’s visual highlight - an absolutely jaw-dropping, gravity defying fairytale castle [actually a 16th century coastal fort, the Torre de Belém - see comments], within which Lorna supposedly dwells. It sure looks like a beautiful city. I’d love to visit sometime.
Meanwhile, Berlin offers drizzle, grey skies, and a vast traffic intersection overseen by a multi-storey carpark and gigantic, faceless skyscraper. A metallically decorated beatnik bar privides a backgrop for the finale, and vague John LeCarre vibes can be felt when Taylor and Lemoine share a conspiratorial moment atop a busy pedestrian overpass, as a nearby cinema billboard advertises ‘Dr. Shivago’ in 70mm.
Standing amid all this, dominating the background of many shots, is a picturebox medieval church – another example of Franco’s keen eye for disconcerting architectural clashes, exhibiting a mixture of modernist and gothic iconography that, whilst wholly accidental more likely than not, suits the aesthetic of this film very well indeed.
As the dust clears and the white light fades, your final analysis of ‘Necronomicon’ very much depends I think on the angle from which you approach it. From the high-minded cinéaste point of view to which the film sometimes aspires, it could no doubt seem an abysmal failure: a garish disasterpiece of bad taste and frivolous excess, in which a gang of cynical exploitation producers trample toward the Fellini/Godard dollar with cruel and sloppy abandon, with any good moments that result arising largely from pure chance and technical ineptitude. From an exploitation fan’s POV meanwhile, it is liable to generate the usual litany of complaints: pretentious, incomprehensible, slow, with weak laughably weak horror elements, not enough skin, no story and so on and so forth.
Hit that magic sweet-spot somewhere between the two approaches though – a place where I hope most readers of this blog prefer to dwell – and ‘Necronomicon’ becomes something of a qualified triumph: a loopy, over-reaching slice of perfect pop-art erotica that finds Jess Franco’s visual imagination firing on all cylinders, with a cabal of like-minded freaks ready to write the cheques and do all the necessary heavy-lifting to help him realise his vision, however cracked and inconsistent it may turn out to be.
An essential rite of passage for any Franco fan, and a key component in piecing together an understanding his work, ‘Necronomicon’ hopefully remains a solid enough piece of cinema to prove intoxicating viewing for any open-minded fan of strange, stylish, way-out film-making, regardless of their opinion on the big JF.
(2) Oft-repeated by Franco fans and supporters, the Lang quote should perhaps also be taken with a pinch of salt. The story goes that Howard Vernon overheard Lang’s remark after a screening, passed it back to Franco, and… well I’d like to believe it was 100% accurate, but you know how these things go. Lang never publically mentioned the film to anyone subsequently, as far as I know.
(3) Caminneci had worked with Hoven on two previous films made in Germany, ‘The Killer With The Silk Scarf’ (1966) and ‘Death on a Rainy Day’ (1967). His sole directorial effort – entitled ‘How Short is the Time for Love?’ – appeared in 1970, with Hoven, Reynaud and Lemoine all on board. Insofar as I can tell, no one with access to the internet has ever seen it.
(4) According to Tohill & Tombs, Reynaud’s husband Michael Lemoine was aware that his wife was engaged in an affair with Caminneci during the production of ‘Necronomicon’, but “..stayed in the background, because it was good for business”. Beyond dutifully repeating that, I’ll try to leave any further speculation as to the private lives of these individuals similarly out of the spotlight.
(5) For those coughing and spluttering at this assertion, rest assured I have a follow-up post in the works specifically looking at Franco’s claim that he read a copy of the ‘Necronomicon’ at Caminneci's place.