Saturday, 23 February 2013

Barbed Wire Dolls


‘Frauengefängnis’, ‘Jailhouse Wardress’, ‘Caged Women’, ‘El Reformatorio De Las Perdidas’, ‘Women's Penitentiary IV’.


Being a fan of a director like Jess Franco is all about learning to take the rough with the smooth, and at some point in this series we’ve got to acknowledge the fact that he made a whole pile of Women In Prison films over the course of his career, ranging from 1969’s surprisingly upmarket ‘99 Women’ to 1981’s unspeakably grimy ‘Sadomania’.

I know that the WIP genre has its fans, but, as you may have gathered from the tone of the preceding paragraph, I’m not really one of them. Probably best not dwell too much on my reasoning here, but let’s just say that more-so than their obvious legacy of cruelty and misogyny, I just find these films unspeakably dull – drab, joyless productions that offer few possibilities for visual or narrative excitement, like the slimy basement lurking beneath the grand ballrooms where all the more glamorous exploitation sub-genres go to party.

Obviously there are some noteworthy exceptions (Shunya Ito’s endlessly incredible ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ trilogy springs to mind), but by and large, I find these cheaply rendered tales of confinement and degradation to be a stone drag. So the $100,000 question is: can Jess Franco bring anything to the WIP party to make us sit up and take notice?

By way of an answer, let us turn to one of the earliest fruits of Franco’s long association with ubiquitous Swiss sleaze-baron Erwin C. Deitrich, and the third highest grossing film in Germany in 1975 according to Tombs & Tohill in ‘Immoral Tales’, ‘Frauengefängnis’ aka ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’.


Communal shower scenes are inexplicably absent, and there’s not a cat-fight to be seen, but aside from that this is WIP 101 really: beautiful Lina, sentenced to a lifetime behind bars for defending herself from a paternal rape attempt, finds herself condemned to a totally context-less island penitentiary ruled over by sadistic lesbian wardess Monica Swinn. Sharing a cell with a duo of underwear-shunning, mentally-damaged nymphomaniacs (Beni Cardoso and Peggy Markhoff), our heroine proceeds to run the inevitable gamut of electro-shock torment, rape, starvation, aphrodisiac injections, cowardly, lecherous doctors (euro-horror stalwart Paul Muller) and more rape, before an ill-conceived escape attempt leads to a desperate jungle pursuit, climaxing in… well you don’t think I’m going to spoil the ending of a grand drama like this, do you?


Given that the many of the scenes in this film present the director with a visual palette of bare concrete walls, unmade beds and largely unclothed women, no prizes will be awarded for guessing where Jess’s zoom lens tends to linger. Although things remain softcore, restraint was entirely off the menu by the time Franco was working with Dietrich, meaning that viewers will be able to draw the leading ladies’ private parts from memory by the time they get to the end of this one.

Initially, most of the naked writhing is handled by Markhoff, but inevitably Lina soon gets in on the act too (I mean she’s got a reputation for this sorta thing to keep up, and hell with the fact her character’s supposed to be a naive innocent), and sitting through the film’s more dreary passages becomes easier with the knowledge that we’ll soon once more be able to enjoy the strangely soothing feeling of being smothered to death by ‘70s pussy. The assorted inter-personal sex scenes by contrast are somewhat less soothing, showcasing a teeth-grinding awkwardness more in keeping with the WIP genre as a whole, and personally I was never quite won over by the nazi-kitsch antics of Commandant Swinn and her decidedly improper hot-pants, but each to their own. 3/5


With its sunny surroundings, sexy machine gun toting guards and improbable softcore seductions around every corner, I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that Jess Franco’s idea of a fascistic high security prison is less a relentless hell on earth and more like some strange holiday camp for habitual masochists.

In fact, the total unreality of the film’s world immediately undercuts any attempt to convincingly convey the brutality and horror of prison life, and if the obligatory scenes of squalid, high level nastiness (Lina wetting herself as electric shocks are administered on an iron bedspread, a naked Cardoso being starved and forced to beg for food) are indeed extremely distasteful, the disgust the viewer feels is less a gut reaction to the events depicted on-screen, and more a kind of soul-sapping, second-hand revulsion at the idea that we have somehow chosen to watch these listless, poorly staged atrocities in the name of entertainment. Grim.

It should probably be noted that the UK 18 rated version of the film I’m watching runs to 77 minutes of what IMDB claims is a potential 93, but given the strength and duration of what’s been left in, I can’t honestly imagine much of the missing footage was cut for reasons of explicitness (unless there’s a hardcore version out there somewhere, in which case god help us all). 1/5

Pulp Thrills:

I suppose if you were to consider the ‘70s WIP film as a valid pulp aesthetic in its own right, ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ would be an absolute hoot, ticking pretty much all of the relevant boxes for full scale camp enjoyment. As outlined above though, that’s not really my preferred bowl of gruel, and I found precious little escapist fun here, in spite of the complete detachment from reality. 1/5

Altered States:

Well quite a lot of the film is out of focus, so there’s that.

A brief rape scene in the prison governor’s office has some strikingly good disorientating, baroque compositions, but this stands out as an exception, and on the whole the technique here is unashamedly slap-dash, with erratic focus errors, wobbly, improvised zooming and awkwardly cropped framing all suggestive of a film whose makers spent more time looking at the clock than the viewfinder.

In the extras included on this Anchor Bay DVD, the supremely weasel-like Mr Dietrich expresses his belief that the film’s technical shortcomings were not merely the result of laziness and directorial apathy, but a deliberate statement of cinematic primitivism that directly prefigured the innovations of the Dogme 95 movement. And, indulgent though I am toward Jess Franco’s erratic artistic whims, even I feel I must pause here to suggest that this mind-bogglingly self-important claim is, how you say? A load of bollocks.

Probably the weirdest moment in ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ is a creepy, vaseline-fogged incest flashback in which Franco makes an appearance as Lina’s father, both parties seemingly carrying out their movements at half speed in a baffling and rather laughable attempt to mimic the effect of slow motion. Well, you win some and you lose some I suppose – at least they were *trying* for something a bit different. 2/5


Filmed entirely in Honduras, ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ fits in nicely with the whole swathe of jungle-set films Franco made through the Dietrich era and into the early ‘80s (‘Doriana Gray’, ‘Sexy Sisters’, ‘Voodoo Passion’, ‘Diamonds of Kilimanjaro’, to name but a few), all of which feel like they could have been shot next door to each other, despite utilising a wide variety of ‘exotic’ (and no doubt affordable) locales.

Anyway, we get some jungle, a fairly impressive coastal fort, a few colonial looking houses. It’s ok I suppose, but not really much more eye-opening than the kind of terrain you’d see in one of those Filipino Vietnam movies. 2/5


Y’know, in truth, ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ isn’t really that bad. It isn’t that good either… in fact, who am I kidding, by any reasonable standard it’s bloody awful. But if nothing else, the performances given by Lina Romay and Beni Cardosso feel genuine, managing to connect on a vague, emotional level that helps us empathise with their characters’ hopeless plight to an extent that is rarely encountered in the ultra-cynical realm of the WIP film.

And maybe I’m just saying this because I’m a fan, but despite its numerous crimes against social and cinematic decency, ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ doesn't leave one with the impression that Jess Franco is a bad man or a misogynist – more just a down-at-heel technician going through the contractually obligated motions, throwing in some personal touches as and when he can; a feeling that would sadly predominate through the majority of his subsequent collaborations with the Dietrich empire.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Diabolical Dr. Z

‘Miss Muerte’, ‘Das Geheimnis des Dr. Z’, ‘In the Grip of the Maniac’.


During the mid 1960s, it seems Jess Franco was primarily working out of Paris, building on the relative success of ‘62s The Awful Dr. Orlof with a whole series of low budget pulpy capers, many of which are sadly quite difficult to track down these days. So for the moment I’ll have to merely imagine the joys contained within the Orson Welles-endorsed jazz-noir of ‘Death Whistles a Blues’ (1964), the comic book euro-spy shenanigans of 1967’s ‘Lucky The Inscrutable’, and the sight of Eddie Constantine tangling with some enraged automatons (presumably) in ‘Attack of the Robots’ (1966). Thanks to the sterling efforts of Mondo Macabro though, we can at least enjoy a pristine presentation of a film that the few critics who have seen fit to comment on such things rate as one of the best of Franco’s black & white years, ‘Miss Muerte’, better known to English-speaking viewers as ‘The Diabolical Dr. Z’.


Ok, take a deep breath folks, because I'm afraid we've got some plot synopsisin' to get through.

After escaping from a high security prison, an exhausted convict has the bad luck of falling into the hands of one Dr Zimmer (Antonio Jiménez Escribano), a blind elderly scientist with some peculiar notions about the manipulation of the nervous system, which he believes can be ‘adjusted’ to refine a creature’s balance of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ tendencies. This being a zany mad scientist movie of course, these somewhat esoteric concerns (based, we’re told, on the work of a certain Dr. Orlof) also allow him to administer electrical charges to subjects’ spinal columns, frying their brains and forcing them to obey his every command.

Delighted to have a live human to test his theories on, the wheelchair-bound doctor takes his discoveries to what appears to be the local council of research scientists, or somesuch. When his esteemed colleagues mock and belittle his ideas, Zimmer is so overcome that he promptly suffers a heart attack and dies on the spot.

And that would seem to be that. But, stepping up to prevent this from being a very short mad scientist movie indeed, we have Zimmer’s devoted daughter Irma (Mabel Karr), who vows to continue her father’s work by any means necessary, and also to hunt down and destroy the callous scientists whose scorn drove him to such a sad end.

At this point, the plot will be starting to sound familiar to those who’ve seen Franco’s rather dreary ‘She Killed In Ecstasy’ (1970), amongst others. Could we be in for an early example of the director’s seemingly endless stream of softcore variations on the old ‘The Bride Wore Black’ storyline?

Well… sort of. But there’re enough twists and turns left in this prototype to make it a somewhat weirder and more enjoyable prospect. You see, whilst she’s contemplating the form her vengeance will take, Irma finds herself (as you do in a Franco movie) attending a freaky strip club, where she catches a performance by one ‘Miss Death’ (Estella Blain), a dancer who writhes orgasmically around a giant spider web, pretending to dispatch helpless male mannequins.

Having faked her own death via a convenient car fire and a murdered hitchhiker, Irma – with the help of the aforementioned prison escapee and her father’s housekeeper, now both mindless zombie slaves – contrives to kidnap Miss Death (real name Nadia), conditioning her to obey unquestioningly via the now familiar spinal shock treatment, and sending her out to track down the disparaging doctors, seducing and killing them one by one with her long, poisoned fingernails!

So there ya go. Interestingly, it seems Franco co-wrote this one with Luis Bunuel’s regular screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, and whilst there’s certainly nothing here to suggest that Carrière took this assignment as seriously as his work for Bunuel and other art-house directors, we can at least speculate as to how much of the movie’s unusually eventful (by Franco standards) plotting, its queasy psychological overtones and more outré elements, might have originated with him.


For the period, ‘Miss Muerte’ seems singularly erotically charged, but it’s sometimes difficult to quite figure out why. Although it’s definitely at the saucier end of mid-‘60s horror, nothing here is *particularly* shocking or explicit, but somehow the whole thing is just sort of… kinky. Everything seems to crackle with a slightly unsavoury sort of sexual energy, as unusual bits of fetishistic imagery pop up here, there and everywhere.

There’s an unmistakably sapphic, S&M-like quality to the way Irma treats her female victims and slaves – a line of thinking that may only be only hinted at here, but will need no further explanation for fans of Franco’s later work – whilst a lengthy sequence in which she murders the aforementioned hitchhiker during an off-road skinny-dipping excursion sees her donning surgical gloves over a dripping wet swimsuit as she takes the wheel of the car to run down the bikini-clad girl; provocative, to say the least.

Miss Death’s spider web striptease is of course the film’s big erotic highlight though, and as befits Franco’s legendary enthusiasm for staging such bizarre nightclub sequences, it is absolutely spell-binding, causing what until this point seemed to be a simple mad science b-movie to suddenly disappear down an erotic avant-garde black hole; accompanied by free-form, discordant wailing and creepily abused Indian strings, Blain writhes wildly as a white web is projected across a featureless black background… human eyes dart back and forth beneath the face of a porcelain mannequin, as the rest of the film’s world seems to vanish into deep space… and god bless Jess for managing to make all this *sexy*, for god’s sake.

Not that it takes that much effort I suppose – the transparent spider body-stocking (initially complemented by a Dracula cape) that Blain wears both during her act and through the rougher business of her subsequent kidnap and brain-washing is extremely risqué, only barely managing to conceal her modesty as she flees from Irma’s zombie henchman and wrestles on the dusty ground with Dr Z’s housekeeper, and by the time Irma takes her on lion-tamer style with a raised chair and whip, it’s safe to say things things have heated up to the level of psycho-sexual frenzy that Franco would go on to explore more thoroughly in his best films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. 3/5


Very little here is creepy in the old school gothic horror sense, but in terms of yr unsettling medical imagery and furtive perversions of science type stuff, it’s totally out to lunch.

For a start, Dr. Z has a great, weird laboratory going on. Franco’s early ‘70s run of Frankenstein films revealed his obvious love of this sort of thing, and the selection of paraphernalia on show here is truly strange: giant sun lamps, primitive computer equipment, banks of oscillators, maddening flashing lights and a menagerie of caged animals. The undoubted star of the show though is one of the film’s most memorable conceits – a sort of remote controlled confinement device that allows a captive to twist around in place whilst strapped to an upright gurney, wrists and ankles clamped by flexible robotic claws, perforated like giant drinking straws. Never given a word of explanation, this thing is totally unique in my experience of watching strange horror & sci-fi films - more like a weird bondage toy gone horribly wrong than something you’d be liable to find in a non-Jess Franco affiliated laboratory.

There is something really peculiar too about the sound design in the laboratory sequences, as demonstrated by the deep, melancholy jazz theme that plays over yet another bonkers scene in which Irma operates on her own scarred face - an incredibly strange and unsettling moment. (Interestingly, some shots here are framed with jagged black borders and white lines, in what seems like an audacious bit of pre-pop art stylistic invention.)

These icky shots of Irma cutting her own burned flesh with a scalpel, and of Nadia having electrified rods driven into her forehead and naked back during her zombification, aren’t terribly strong stuff today, but their graphic nastiness seems deliberately designed to shock and appal a ‘60s audience. Perhaps taking their cue from Franju’s infamous surgery scene in ‘Yeux Sans Visage’, they seem to be aiming for an instinctive gut response - ‘gore moments’ before the dawn of gore.

And on a more conventionally atmospheric note, sequences like opening prison break and Miss Death’s pursuit of one of her victims through cramped, vertiginous streets of what looks like some Dutch lakeside town have a wonderfully, shadow-haunted noir quality to them… but we’ll get to that in a minute. 4/5

Pulp Thrills:

Given what’s been outlined above, it shouldn’t take much work to justify a good score in this category, and indeed, ‘Miss Muerte’ draws upon all manner of 20th century pulp fiction to aid its assorted carnage, with a particular accent on the French tradition.

In addition to the story’s obvious debt to Franju and ‘Yeux Sans Visage’, there are other sequences such as the one in which the villains asphyxiate poor Dr Moroni using a fake taxi with an interior exhaust pipe – an idea that makes no sense whatsoever in script terms, but seems to have been introduced solely to bring a gleefully ghoulish, Fantomas-like sensibility to proceedings. And elsewhere, in between the more contemporary horror thrills provided by poison-nailed zombie strippers, chilling train murders and Frankensteinian bondage craziness, the clued up viewer will be able to identify deliberate nods not just to Franju and Feuillade, but also to figures as diverse as Robert Bresson, Cornell Woolrich, James Whale and Orson Welles. 4/5

Altered States:

At this point, Franco’s films were often closer to being conventionally ‘well-made’ than his later, more wayward work, as well as using scripts that take greater pains to conform to the logic of linear plotting (in spite of the crazy subject matter). Often, this striving for cinematic ‘normality’ can serve to short-circuit the kind of hypnotic drift that characterises Franco’s ‘70s work, but, so long as you’re prepared to tolerate the lethargic pacing and workaday ‘investigative’ scenes, this higher degree of formalism actually pans out pretty well in ‘..Dr. Z’.

If my rough estimate of the timing involved is anywhere near correct then Franco was fresh off working as an assistant to Orson Welles on ‘Chimes At Midnight’ when he came to make ‘..Dr.Z’*, and, perhaps fired up by that experience, his desire to make his presence felt as a ‘proper’ filmmaker can be clearly seen here right from the opening prison-break, with its audacious POV camera work and moody, Wellesian tracking shots. Subsequently, a seemingly endless supply of long corridors, imposing low angles and multi-layered, deep focus mise en scene does little to hide Franco’s obvious fascination with Welles' technique, giving the film a dense, vertiginous sort of quality that renders it both atmospheric and faintly trippy in a way that fans may not quite have been expecting.

This is helped by the way Franco often makes an effort to inject potentially dull scenes with at least some gratuitous weirdness, as can be seen when an exposition-heavy conference between the film’s police duo (Franco himself as the local detective, with British mad-composer-genius Daniel White making a rare cameo as “Inspector Grinder of Scotland Yard”) takes places whilst a lady in evening dress blows long, discordant notes on a trumpet in the background, almost drowning out their dialogue.

And speaking of Mr. White, the dissonant, expressionistic jazz score he provides here adds considerably to the film’s top-heavy, Wellesian flavour, generating some moments of real cognitive dissoannce as it accompanies flailing robotic arms, feverish hints of bondage and icky surgery sequences, helping to ensure that, whilst it might be a stretch to call ‘..Dr. Z’ ‘surreal’, it’s certainly pretty damn weird. 3/5


Aside from a few references to a place called ‘Hartog’ (a quick google search reveals no European towns of that name), the setting of ‘The Diabolical Dr. Z’ remains entirely vague. Germany? Holland? France? Anybody want to take a guess?

Studio sets and anonymous suburban locations predominate, and it would likely take more research than I’ve got time for to pin down either the Spanish looking castle exterior that appears at one point (looks a lot like the one in ‘..Dr Orloff’?), or the impressive municipal building that Dr. Zimmer enters to attend the medical conference.

The film’s sight-seeing highlight is probably the aforementioned lakeside slum town (my instincts say it looks Dutch, but again, who knows). The whole stalk / suspense sequence set amongst the winding streets is wonderful, full of slow-moving shadows and artfully composed shots that provide an early example of Franco’s talent for both picking out distinctive locations and utilising them in unearthly, transformative fashion. 2/5


Of the innumerable mad science movies made in Europe during the ‘60s, this is definitely the wildest I’ve come across, imbuing its zany storyline with a sense of lingering perversity and a cracked aesthetic sensibility that is pure Franco.

Inevitably, the film takes a heftier chunk from ‘Les Yeux Sans Visage’ than some may be comfortable with, but if ‘The Awful Dr Orlof’ can be seen as a “garage rock cover version” of Franju’s masterpiece (a nice turn of phrase I picked up from this article), ‘..Dr Z’ returns to the same source material for something more akin to a side-long psychedelic freakout.

That said, the “consumer advice” aspect of my responsibilities as a movie reviewer causes me to note in closing that, whilst I certainly enjoyed it a great deal, ‘The Diabolical Dr. Z’ is perhaps not *quite* as much of a b-movie fun factory as the review I’ve just written would tend to imply. As is often the case when Jess Franco tackles stories that should by rights be snappy and fast-moving, much of the film has an infuriatingly meandering feel to it, with a lot of down-time between the highlights that drags even more than usual. As such, those who have a bug-bear about movies being ‘too slow’ should probably note that they may not find the assorted craziness outlined above delivered to them quite as quickly or regularly as they might wish.

But, as Franco fans will be well aware, all of his movies have their share of slack, and such gripes are minor indeed compared to the wealth of batty riches that a film like ‘The Diabolical Dr Z’ offers the indulgent viewer.

*Unfortunately we don't have much time here to go into the story of how Franco hooked up with Welles, and why he wasn’t credited on the finished film, but, uh, yeah… it happened. Look it up online, or read about it in ‘Immoral Tales’, or ask me about it sometime.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

People Who Died.

Although it seems a bit of a drag to break my brief blogging hiatus with yet another obits post, the fact is that January (and late December) saw the largely unreported deaths of a number of notable people whose work impinges on the world of this weblog, so it would seem appropriate to mark their passing before roaring on with the unstoppable juggernaut of exhilarating, up-to-date content that is my 2013 posting schedule.

First off, a man who impinges very directly on this blog – literally hangs over it in fact, for it is he who can be seen gazing across the automotive graveyard of a post-apocalyptic Trafalgar Square in the image I’ve used as a header. As well as being probably the first (thus far the only..?) actor to breathe cinematic life into an incarnation of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, playing Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s film of ‘The Final Programme’, Jon Finch (1941 – 2012) pulled off an exceptional run of ‘cult movie’ achievements in the early ‘70s, appearing in Hammer’s ‘The Vampire Lovers’ and starring in both Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ (mental note: must watch that one again sometime) and Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’. And, whilst I think I might have griped a bit about his casting in my review of ‘The Final Programme’, basically he was really great in all of those films – brooding and charismatic with a perfect balance of physical prowess and thespian chops that makes it quite surprising that he never managed to become a household name movie star, despite of the high profile exposure presumably provided by the Polanski and Hitchcock roles.

To a certain extent, the retreat from the limelight seems to have been his own decision. According to his Wikipedia page, he turned down the chance to try out as James Bond in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (thus inadvertently inflicting Roger Moore upon the world), and also declined to appear in long-running TV series ‘The Professionals’, claiming that he “couldn’t possibly play a policeman” (high five), before having to bail on a part in ‘Alien’ for health reasons. Playing occasional roles in British film and TV thereafter, he seems to have been a fellow who valued his privacy, living a quiet life in Hastings, which sounds like a good kind of life to me.

Although born in the USA, Patty Shepard (1945-2013) spent pretty much her entire life working in the Spanish film industry, and she will probably be best known to folks in these parts for her iconic appearance as Countess Nadasdy in the classic Paul Naschy flick ‘La Noche de Walpurgis’ aka ‘The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman’ (1971 - an absolutely superb bit of dream-like euro-horror weirdness, highly recommended if you’ve not seen it).

As fans of this kinda thing will be well aware, she was a pretty ubiquitous presence in ‘70s Spanish horror (with occasional sojourns in Italy and beyond), appearing in ‘Assignment Terror / Dracula vs Frankenstein’ (1970), ‘Witches Mountain’ (1972), ‘My Dear Killer’ (1972), ‘Crypt of the Living Dead’ (1973) and ‘The Killer is One of Thirteen’ (1973), alongside a whole shedload of comedies, westerns and low budget thrillers, including Anthony Margheriti’s 1974 kung-fu western ‘The Stranger and the Gunfighter’ (because yeah, that exists). Prior to all that, she somewhat inevitably spent a brief period working with Jess Franco in the late ‘60s, chalking up appearances in ‘Residencia Para Espías’ (1966) and ‘Lucky The Inscrutable’ (1967), and what more can ya say? She was a classic face from a great era and I’m glad she was in things.

I’m a little hesitant to write an obit for Nagisa Ôshima (1932-2013) for the simple reason that I’ve never actually seen any of his films. I’ve certainly been reading a lot about him though – mainly in Jasper Sharp’s excellent Behind The Pink Curtain – and his position as a chief advocate of and contributor to radical Japanese cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s, alongside such comrades as Kôji Wakamatsu, Maseo Adachi and Toshio Matsumoto, is of great interest to me, so hopefully I’ll be able to return to pay more effusive tribute to his achievements once I’m actually familiar with them.

And finally, I wasn’t sure whether or not to write anything to mark to passing of Michael Winner (1935 – 2013), but what the hell. I don’t like his films, and I certainly didn’t like his politics, but he did at least approach his career with a kind of damn-the-torpedoes enthusiasm that’s hard not to admire, and even I’m forced to admit that British film and culture in general would have been ever so slightly less interesting without his input, so a hearty farewell to the old sod.