Wednesday 22 August 2012

The Demons (1972)

AKA: “Les Démons du Sexe”, “Die Nonnen von Clichy”, “She-Demons”, “The Sex Demons”, “Les Novices Perverses”.

Presumably produced for frequent early ‘70s Franco enabler Robert DeNesle (correct me if I’m wrong), and perhaps shot around the same time as ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’ if the shared cast and locations are anything to go by, the intention here seems to have been to cash in on the controversy surrounding Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’ by knocking out a less alarming / less demanding softcore variant for the European sex film market. And, well, mission accomplished on that score at least, even if I’m not sure the end result is really a finest hour for anyone concerned.

Decidedly plot-heavy for a Franco effort from this era, the story here veers all over the place, spending much of the run-time spinning its wheels in paint-by-numbers nunsploitation/wrongly-accused-witch mode, before throwing in an unexpected (though sadly underdeveloped) swerve toward genuine supernatural shenanigans, a few scenes apparently torn straight from the script of 1968’s ‘Justine’ (possibly Franco’s worst movie to this date), some random historical intrigue involving William of Orange’s invasion of Britain in 1688, and a final reel diversion into one of the director’s beloved seduce-them-and-kill-them vengeance narratives (cf: ‘Miss Muerte’, ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’, ‘Venus in Furs’ and about a hundred others). So, make of that what you will, I guess.

Anne Libert and Britt Nichols are orphan sisters raised in a convent, one of them falsely accused of witchcraft whilst the other finds herself indoctrinated into some genuine witchcraft. Karen Field (Cave of the Living Dead, The Hunchback of Soho) and Alberto Dalbés (a grumpy looking fellow who turned up in no less than eight Franco movies between ’71 and ’73) are witchfinders, French/Turkish actor Cihangir Gaffari is “Lord Justice Jefferies”, and Howard Vernon turns up as an absent-minded astronomer secretly plotting the downfall of the king. A shifty crew, and no mistake.

Although jam-packed with crowd-pleasing nudity and sex scenes, ‘The Demons’ is sadly somewhat lacking in Franco’s special sauce. He does get to indulge his peculiar fetish for nude women tied to X-shaped wooden frames (cf: ‘Necronomicon’, ‘Exorcism’), and for lust-crazed lesbian sex/death encounters (cf: every damn Franco film ever), with his trademark crotch-zoom is much in evidence. Somehow though, it all still comes across as kinda vanilla – rote b-movie sleaze stuff really, and even the occasional moments of flat-out craziness just too daft to really work. The Britt Nichols “Satanic rape” scene in particular is one of most ridiculous things I’ve seen in a while. Anne Libert certainly looks the part in her nominal lead role, but the somnambulant acting style she carries across from ‘Virgin..’ doesn’t really fly in this more dramatic role, and sparks are never quite kicked up the way they should be. 3/5

Similarly, most of the horror elements here seem to have been thrown in as an afterthought. The obligatory torture scenes are fairly half-hearted, neither especially gruesome nor especially involving, and the way that Nichols’ character starts going around magically transforming people into laboratory skeletons towards the end of the film is a bit of LOL-worthy eurotrash guff on a par with the spectral gorilla-suit in ‘Orlof Against the Invisible Man’. You’ve gotta love it really. A brief scene in which Nichols visits to a blind witch in her lair is pretty tripped out (“three serpents guided you here, my child”), and proceedings do take on an agreeably berserk flavour from time to time, but flat direction and bland cinematography prevent the film from ever really accumulating much of an atmosphere. 2/5

Pulp Thrills:
Not much doing really, although if ‘70s era nun / witch trial type imagery floats your boat then naturally you’ll dig it quite a bit. 2/5

Altered States:
Above all, there is a distinct lack of *weirdness* to this film, despite the occasionally out-there subject matter. Technique-wise, it catches Jess on fairly drab and routine form, with only an awesome soundtrack and the temporal/geographic dislocation discussed below really lending it anything approaching an otherworldly feel. 2/5

An accomplished musician, linguist, gourmet, pop culture obsessive and unstoppable autodidact, Franco’s formidable learning apparently didn’t stretch much to the study of history, and his attempts to conjure a periodic setting here are even more off-message than usual, as a story purportedly set in 17th century England delights in a dress-code that veers from the late middle ages to the 18th century, and features styles of architecture and décor that have never been seen on these shores in any era. Outside meanwhile, the olive trees of the English countryside are bathed in glorious Mediterranean sunshine, and Franco & Daniel White’s blinding soundtrack of fuzz-rock jams and flickknife flute-funk evokes that unmistakable post-Cromwellian atmosphere about as well as you’d expect. Not that I’m complaining, you understand – I’d far rather spend time in Jess Franco’s head than in some dour Merchant Ivory period drama, and the director’s heroic disregard for any kind of historical/geographic accuracy is actually one of the things I like best about this film. Elsewhere, the distinctive villa used in ‘A Virgin Among the Living Dead’ features prominently, as do some nice Spanish castles and such. 4/5

As we shall learn as this survey progresses, period settings and literary source material often seem to have acted as kryptonite for Franco, causing him to rein in his eccentricities in search of a ‘slicker’, more ‘respectable’ style of filmmaking that actually ended up just as sloppy as his weirder, cheaper films, only far less enjoyable. Other films suffered far more severely from this malady than ‘The Demons’ (which certainly doesn’t purport to be slick or respectable by any stretch of the imagination), but it nonetheless seems to have fallen victim to it to a certain extent, as our man largely resists the urge to cut loose, instead turning in an efficient Euro-sleaze picture that only occasionally gets as wild as we might have hoped. Between all the sex and violence and intrigue and diabolism there is at least plenty going on, so if you’re in the mood for a bit of brainless, post-‘Mark of the Devil’ fun, this will probably do the trick, but it doesn’t really strike me as vintage Franco.


Kev D. said...

Best poster ever.

dfordoom said...

"period settings and literary source material often seem to have acted as kryptonite for Franco, causing him to rein in his eccentricities in search of a ‘slicker’, more ‘respectable’ style of filmmaking that actually ended up just as sloppy as his weirder, cheaper films, only far less enjoyable."

I agree very strongly. Franco's occasional veerings towards an almost mainstream approach are very unsatisfying. His "Count Dracula" being a particularly notable example.