Friday, 29 March 2013

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats
(George Barry, 1977)

If ever there was a film title destined to provoke immediate expressions of hilarity and disbelief from the general public, and a corresponding instant viewing/purchase decision from the kind of special cases I’d imagine/hope peruse this blog, ‘Death Bed: The Bed That Eats’ would surely be it.*

Once the initial chuckles have faded though, and the DVD has been obtained, I think the perfect way to experience ‘Death Bed’ would be to dive in blind, with zero prior knowledge. Such an approach would help to maximise the kind of holy mystery that movies like this thrive upon, and would allow the realisation to dawn slowly, alongside the events on-screen: what we are seeing here is not some ill-conceived, ‘last idea left in the bucket’ laff-fest, but actually one of the most challenging, original and uniquely strange independent horror films ever produced in the USA.

Of course, now that you’ve been hit with that bit of hyperbole, your expectations have been raised accordingly and your perfect blind viewing experience has been ruined. Sorry about that. But how else am I going to write the damn review? Lovecraftian evasion and vague intimations of the subject’s worthiness can only go so far. At some point I’m going to have to start talking about the stuff that happens in the film and why I like it so much, so we might as well get our facts straight right from the outset.

As is so often the case with such matters, we have Stephen Thrower and his endlessly rewarding ‘Nightmare USA** to thank for the dissemination of those facts, and it is fortuitous I think that the unlikely series of events that comprise the Death Bed Origin Story allowed the entirety of the film’s initial audience to experience it under the kind of perfect, context-less conditions that I am now in the process of denying my readers.

So, in short, it goes something like this: Detroit native George Barry filmed ‘Death Bed: The Bed That Eats’ between 1972 and 1977, relying largely upon the help of friends & family to make his vision a reality. Shopping a rough cut of the film around various theatrical distributors in the late ‘70s, Barry was disappointed with the few offers he received and, deciding that his options for getting the film shown in public were too dodgy and compromised to really be worthwhile, he took his reels home, stuck them in the attic and wrote the whole thing off as a failed misadventure, shifting the focus of his life toward more rewarding, non-movie related pursuits.

Little did he know however that a marginal LA company to whom he’d lent his print of the film had, for some reason, made an unauthorised video master of ‘Death Bed’ prior to returning it.

Shortly thereafter, we reach the dawn of the ‘80s home video boom, when new, fly-by-night video labels were suddenly hungry for absolutely *any* horror-related content that they could cheaply lay their hands on. And thus, a copy of this illicit video master somehow ended up in the greasy paws of a particularly shady UK-based outfit called Portland Video, who proceeded to rush it onto rental shelves around the British Isles with some cheap n’ cheerful original artwork and zero copyright/contact info. ‘Death Bed’ was unleashed.

And just imagine being one of those first, curious viewers, pushing that tape into the mew of your gigantic early ‘80s VCR, wondering what was about to transpire...

Uncompleted at the point at which the video copy was taken (modest completion funds, along with the prohibitive cost of a blow up from 16 to 35mm, were likely deal-breakers in Barry’s attempts to find distribution), ‘Death Bed’ featured no opening or closing credits whatsoever, with silence often standing in for planned music cues. Thus the film opens with a minute or so of total blackness, accompanied by what seems to be a series of strange munching noises – or perhaps footsteps on gravel, or someone eating an apple? By the time this has gone on for 45 seconds, you’ll likely be checking whether something’s gone wrong with the visuals, or worrying that the audio track has gone massively out of sync or something, just as heavy, reverbed footsteps and the high-pitched mad scientist whir of an oscillator chime in atop the munching, fusing together into what is gradually revealed to be a rough and disorientating music track.

Then, just before the one minute mark, a single word appears, high-lighted in white art deco Desdemona lettering: BREAKFAST.

Next, a grimy, underlit exterior shot of an isolated country-house. Canned thunder and wind noise join the cacophony, as a foreboding tracking shot across some unkempt grassland takes us to the doorway of a small, stone outhouse. Inside, a wood fire is burning beneath an incongruous wooden mantelpiece, surreally propped up against the bare grey brick wall, apparently without an accompanying fire-place or chimney vent. Panning across the room, we get our first glimpse of the bed itself – an ugly, blocky, purple-hued four poster thing, already looking threatening, and decidedly out of the place in this empty, concrete floored basement. We continue to pan over to the facing wall, where we find… a framed portrait of the bed?

Observant viewers may have noted that the painting (well, more a pen & ink drawing, really) is executed in a precise, black & white style reminiscent the famed Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. And indeed, when the portrait begins to speak to us, in a deep and sonorous English voice, it gradually becomes clear that we are listening to the spirit of Beardsley himself. Following his untimely death in 1898, it seems he found himself trapped behind the surface of his final work – a rendering of the bed upon which he died, the same bed which now appears to have been endowed with a hungry, demonic sentience, luring passing humans to their death, as Beardsley’s unfortunate ghost is forever condemned to hang alongside it in this subterranean chamber, bearing witness to its depredations for all eternity. (“I think half my time I’ve spent in listening to that monster snore”, Beardsley complains, later lamenting the fact he hasn’t had a cigarette in 70 years.)***

Once we’ve got our heads around this concept – and I’ll admit, it may take a few minutes - I suppose we’ll want to see this cursed recliner in action, and to that end, a couple of care-free, modern day young people are on their way, strolling toward their doom through buttercup-filled fields in that washed out, wistful sort of fashion unique to low budget films made in the post-hippie ‘70s.

When it comes time to speak, the couple’s post-synced line readings are… questionable, to say the least, but not in a way that really displeases me. In the first of numerous instances in which ‘Death Bed’ seems to be inadvertently channelling the spirit of Jean Rollin, the acting of the human characters here seems deliberately unnatural – their performances naive and emblematic, with slow, staggered reaction times serving to further the inevitable impression that everyone in this damn thing is walking through a stoned dream.

It is only after this initial couple have met their demise – sucked into the bed’s insatiable belly, after it’s already gorged itself on their picnic feast of fried chicken, wine and tomatoes – that we witness the single title card that provided ‘Death Bed’s original VHS audience with their only clues as to the origins of the bemusing production:

‘© George Barry 1977’.

Judging from the accents on the dubbed in dialogue track, they could assume the film was made somewhere in the USA, but beyond that… how could you hope to track down someone with as common a name as ‘George Barry’, holder of no other known film industry credits? Basically ‘Death Bed’ could have been beamed in from another planet - a perfect, inexplicable mystery film, with an intoxicating, otherworldly atmosphere and brain-breaking concept to match, ready to captivate and obsess appropriately attuned viewers for all eternity.

As the assorted human characters continue to behave in somnambulant, zoned out fashion (synced dialogue is often ditched entirely in favour of overlapping voiceovers, much in the manner of lower grade ‘60s exploitation flicks), and as Beardsley drones on and the bed churns and digests, we start to realise just what an impossible task Barry has set for himself here – making a film in which both of the primary dramatic agents are inanimate objects trapped in one room, whilst the ostensibly mobile, living characters just wander aimlessly, like human cattle awaiting the axe. By the time the ‘Breakfast’ segment is over, you’d be forgiven for thinking: how the hell is this thing possibly going to work..?

Well thankfully, Barry’s directorial suss is as otherly inspired as his choice of subject matter, and the ideas come thick and fast, with unexpected diversions, beautifully surreal imagery and goofy visual gags all piling up with such frequency as to completely overcome the potential monotony of the static and repetitious narrative.

Before we even really know what’s happening, super-imposed blood is dripping across stock footage of early 20th century street scenes as damned souls distantly wail. One potential victim suffers from strange, bed-induced nightmares in which she is seated before a white cube and served a platter of food full of huge, squirming bugs. Two roving lesbians discover a primitive riverside graveyard, and the bed’s telekinetic energy begins to make statues in the grounds bleed and paving stones crack. Eerie, disconnected incidents, seemingly designed to make fans of weird euro-horror rejoice, continue to multiply, apparently without end… and all that I’ve described thus far transpires within the first 30 minutes. Clearly boredom is unlikely to trouble us here.

For one thing, despite the film’s obvious low budget and accompanying technical crudity, the special effects are extremely well done, effectively realising concepts that I daresay no one in the history of cinema has been asked to represent on screen before or since. As the bed consumes its prey, yellow ‘digestive juices’ bubble up around the sheets, before we cut to a shot of the ‘food’ in question slowly sinking through the yellow-tinted interior of the bed’s ‘belly’, awaiting digestion. Does this ‘belly’ actually exist in physical space? Or are objects sucked into its realm transported to some kind of metaphysical interzone or netherworld, undergoing cartoonishly swift ‘digestion’ before the remains are spat back up into ‘reality’? It’s never quite made clear, but either way, a wonderfully grotesque, tripped out concept, beautifully conveyed by Barry and his collaborators.

The filmmakers were obviously having a great time playing around with this digestion effect, and as Beardsley’s examination of the ornate jewels that cover his fingers (trophies from past ‘meals’, mockingly bestowed upon him by the bed) segues into a series of flashbacks illustrating highlights from the bed’s gruesome history, the scope of its diet is expanded to include everything from a suitcase to a bottle of pepto-bismol, a teddy bear and a copy of ‘Tropic of Cancer’.

Throughout the film, Barry seems unusually interested in generating an emotional response from the presentation of inanimate objects, his unnaturally smooth, gliding camera movements picking out and emphasising contrasting details, like an art connoisseur casually taking in the walls of a gallery. Elsewhere, the use of trick jump cuts to illustrate a fire going out, or a flower growing, evoke a silent-era naivety that again recalls Rollin (via Cocteau, presumably), whilst Anger-esque super-impositions are used to align key horror movie ingredients (blood, roses, skulls) with more prosaic objects (training shoes, garden statuary) to heady symbolist effect.

In fact it is rare indeed to find a narrative film in which so much of the screen time is entirely devoid of living people, with their absence sometimes giving ‘Death Bed’ the feel of a stop-motion animated short or weird college visual effects project, perhaps reflecting both Barry’s background mucking about with that sort of thing, and his evident inexperience with actors and commercial filmmaking. Even when human beings are on screen, he often seems more concerned with individual body parts and accessories than with their totality as characters, zooming in on earrings, bracelets, hands, feet or faces – anything to avoid letting the person in question exist on screen for too long, it seems.

But if all this talk of symbolism and abstraction seems rather high-minded, such concerns are more than balanced out by a strain of goofy, Monty Python-esque humour that often predominates in the film’s first half, with sudden insert shots, rinky-dink stock footage, gag newspaper headlines (“STRANGE MUNCHING SOUNDS HEARD IN NIGHT!” Proclaims the Daily Bugle), bodily function sound effects and so forth all serving to create a rather sophomoric vibe that you’d imagine would sit rather uncomfortably alongside the sort of brooding, metaphysical gothic atmosphere that the film seems to be simultaneously striving to create. Somehow though, they fuse together very well, establishing what amounts to a perfect tone for an independent horror film - not only wildly unpredictable (which always helps), but serious without being earnest, funny without being laughable, self-aware without being cynical, otherworldly without being impenetrable – just a real good time for anyone attuned to the pleasures of such imaginative, low budget filmmaking.

Which kinda brings us back to the Rollin comparison, and to the steady stream of potent, fairy tale-like imagery with which Barry invests his film. Just dig the bit in which white chrysanthemums deposited upon the bed by one unfortunate victim are stained with blood that pours from the eye sockets of her super-imposed skull, causing a patch blood red roses appear outside the bed’s lair, growing from her skull, which is now buried in the soil, looking as if it’s been there for a long, long time…. an astonishingly far-out sequence of abstract images, but executed with a simple narrative logic that makes perfect, intuitive sense. Yeah, you might think he’s overdoing it with the ‘blood & skulls & flowers’ type stuff, but what a instinctively great way to convey the idea that the supernatural forces in this film exist outside of time and stuff, pushing the present back into the past, and vice versa, on a whim.

Weird as it may be, in a sense ‘Death Bed’s central concept is also a great bit of lateral thinking, and not entirely without commercial forethought.**** After all, if the core function of the horror genre is to investigate the interplay between sex and death, well, you couldn’t really ask for a purer manifestation of that than the ‘death bed’, and these inevitable sexual connotations are duly explored in a number of moments when, despite the film’s idiosyncratic and rather child-like tone, Barry & Co seem to suddenly realise they are still ostensibly making an exploitation film.

Numerous boob shots, accompanied by the bed’s excited, disembodied panting give things a voyeuristic, sexploitational air, all leading up to perhaps the film’s most insane sequence (ok, maybe just the second most insane sequence), wherein a flashback tells us of an incident in which the bed was put to use by some kind of psycho-analytical sex cult who move it outside into the sunshine, wiring it up with electrodes and initiating a mass orgy that, as you might imagine, culminates in the biggest fried feast our four-postered antagonist has enjoyed in madness years – a vignette of queasy, impossible strangeness worthy of Jodorowsky’s ‘The Holy Mountain’.

There are a number of gleefully executed gore scenes too, including a bit in which a victim has her throat sliced by her crucifix necklace as the bed ingests it (I suppose you could read that as an ironic inversion of the cross’s usually function as protection in horror movies, if you can be bothered), and an agonising sequence in which a woman slowly crawls toward the basement door, her legs chewed up my the bed - rarely has a coat of ketchup on a pair of jeans and the repetition of some grinding, atonal music cue proved so gruellingly horrifying.

For my money though, the film’s most jaw-dropping / extraordinary / hilarious moment is the one in which a magnificently bouffanted actor known only as ‘Rusty Russ’ has the flesh sucked from his hands whilst attempting to stab the bed, pulling out the skeletal remains and considering his ruined limbs with distant, dead-eyed contemplation. In the next shot, he and his sister are calmly sitting by the fire, as the joints on his bony new fingers slowly begin to fall apart. “Great… cartilage is decaying… I don’t think I can stand it..” he casually remarks, before asking his sister if she’ll kindly break off the remaining bones for him. An indescribably odd, emotional unreadable and completely unforgettable scene that kind of sums up everything I love and seek out in weirdo horror films… so beautiful I could weep, although I’m not really sure why.

But I won’t weep. Instead I’ll quickly finish the origin story I began all those paragraphs ago, even if it is a bit of an anticlimax. So in short, an older George Barry, ‘Death Bed’ long forgotten, happens to be browsing some film forum on the internet one day in the early 21st century, researching some other matter entirely, when he discovers a message posted by someone seeking any information on what on earth this ‘Death Bed’ film is all about. Communications of a “hey, I directed that film – how the hell did you get to see it?” type nature were exchanged, the small but dedicated cult of the Portland VHS was uncovered, and before we know it (well, 2004 to be exact), we have the Cult Epics DVD release before us, complete with a new closing credits sequence and additional music from Stephen Thrower’s group Cyclobe. The briefest google search turns up pages of reviews, screen grabs, posters for one-off screenings - ‘Death Bed’ belongs to the world.

A happy ending..? Well, kind of, but somehow I still find myself hoping that one day far from now, when the servers have died and the grid has gone kaput, when the libraries of information on cultural ephemera are long scattered or burned as fuel, some roving collectors of things past might stumble upon a carefully shelved copy of the DVD, might fire up the generator to get their reconstructed a/v set up going, and might spend eighty blissful minutes thinking, what the hell is THIS, content in the knowledge that they'll never, ever know.

*Unlikely as it may seem, there’s actually another ‘Death Bed’ – a 2002 Full Moon Pictures SOV joint directed by a guy named Danny Draven and ‘executive produced’ by Stuart Gordon. A few years back I bought a second hand copy of THAT ‘Death Bed’, mistakenly believing it to be THIS ‘Death Bed’, just because, well… how many films named ‘Death Bed’ can there possibly be, y’know? Thankfully, I actually quite enjoyed the other ‘Death Bed’, so no hard feelings. It’s kind of a gothy, psychological-erotic-horror type thing, but quite well done in spite of ample potential for terrible-ness – check it out, if you’ve got a minute.

**Now apparently out of print and already going for silly money on Amazon etc. - what a bummer! Every home, library and public building should have a copy.

***In one of Death Bed’s several strange and unexpected connections to “the real world”, Beardsley is actually portrayed in the film by well known rock writer and editor of ‘Creem’ magazine Dave Marsh – a friend of Barry who also helped arrange access to the house and grounds in which the film was shot. (All info via ‘Nightmare USA’, of course – I’m not *quite* enough of a rock-write nerd to recognise Marsh right off the bat.)

****According to the interview in Thrower’s book, Barry decided on the bed idea after considering a ‘Willard’-esque killer rat movie.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Damiano Damiani

Yet another obscure film director obit I’m afraid, and a bit of a late one too, but I learned today that Damiano Damiani passed away a few weeks back, aged 90, and thought it was worth pausing to mark the fact.

Damiani enjoyed a suitably epic career in Italian film and TV, working in some capacity in the industry from 1948 through to 2002, but to be honest most English-speaking film nerds probably remember him thing alone: 1966’s ‘Que Sabe?’ aka ‘A Bullet For The General’, an extraordinary piece of work that I think stands as one of the best post-1960 westerns made on either side of the Atlantic.

All of the Three Sergios went on to make movies with suspiciously similar plot-lines to Damiani’s film (Leone’s ‘Duck You Sucker’ / ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’, Corbucci’s ‘Companeros’, Sollima’s ‘Face To Face’), but, as immensely enjoyable as all those pictures are, for my money the sheer artistry and narrative intelligence of ‘Que Sabe?’ trumps them all. Without wishing to go overboard in my gushing, it is perhaps the best Spaghetti Western ever made, and it’s widely available on DVD too, so ferchrisake – if you like a good western, you know what to do.

Following that high water mark, Damiani seems to have generally aligned himself with the more high-minded, politically committed wing of Italian genre directors, echoing Sollima and Elio Petri in the way he detourned the conventions of crime flicks and melodrama, investigating the legacy of organised crime and institutional corruption in his homeland via such inherently controversial works as ‘Confessions of a Police Captain’ (1971), ‘How To Kill a Judge’ (1975) and ‘A Man On His Knees’ (1980), all of which have been on my “to watch” list for a while. Of course when Hollywood came calling, the best he could do was to take a bash at ‘Amityville II: The Possession’ (1982), but whatcha gonna do? Apparently it’s better than the first one at least.

A Guardian obit from Alex Cox (mainly dealing with ‘Que Sabe?’ and Damiani’s involvement with Leone’s disastrous ‘A Genius, Two Friends and An Idiot’), can be found here.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Corpse – Carter Brown
( (Signet, 1958)

Pretty standard stuff in pretty poor shape. Robert Mcginnis artwork, but not one of his best I feel (bit of a gloomy colour palette, etc). That “cool jazz and hot corpses” line is a classic though. In fact, the potential for some beatnik content even puts it in my ‘to-read-sometime’ pile.

(I always think the typography and design on these Carter Brown books looks kinda modern for the ‘50s… no other date to be found anywhere, but anyone who actually knows about this stuff reckon this might be a reprint from a later date?)

Damn this guy knew how to name a book. Predictably, I vote ‘Walk Softly, Witch’ and ‘Who Killed Dr Sex?’ as favourites.

Friday, 15 March 2013

The Yellow Villa – Suzanne Blanc
(Macfadden, 1968)


It seems author Suzanne Blanc - sometimes mistakenly assumed to have been French (see comments) - wrote several crime novels set in Mexico, winning two Edgar Allan Poe awards and a French 'Grand Prix de Littérature Policière' in the process. Beyond that though, biographical info is not forthcoming.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Cult of the Seven Wenches
– Kevin North

(Playtime, 1963)

Oh, *like* cattle… right. I hesitate to say ‘that’s a relief’, but it certainly beats my first reading.

Also, expect to see the phrase ‘erotic foulage’ finding usage on these pages before long.

Gotta love the implicit connection between bohemian lifestyles and sexual defiance that got early ‘60s readers' blood pumping with saucy titles like ‘Artists Colony’.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Spring Paperback Frenzy, week # 1.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared any old school crime, thriller, smut etc. paperbacks here, so now seems a good juncture to examine some recent acquisitions – sailing out tomorrow for an initial week or so in the sordid waters.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Doriana Gray

‘Die Marquise von Sade’, ‘Le Portrait de Doriana Gray’, ‘Le Porno Storia della Marchesa De Sade’.


“I hinted at the calamity of my birth – that will have to suffice.”

Jess Franco’s career has seen him dabble in an unholy array of genres and styles over the years, but if you were to ask me hand on heart where his greatest contribution to cinema lies, I’d probably point toward the series of often quite disturbing psychological sex films he made in early/mid-70s, mostly under the auspices of producer Robert de Nesle, and with Lina Romay front and centre in the cast list. Building on the template he’d established with his career-defining late ‘60s run of erotic horror/thrillers, but pushing things in ever more extreme and obsessive directions as censorship loosened and budgets lessened, this vague series could be said to include ‘Lorna The Exorcist’, ‘Sinner’, ‘The Obscene Mirror’, ‘Shining Sex’, and, later, ‘Macumba Sexual’. But the unsavoury carnal fixations Franco was exploring in these films arguably reached their peak of expression with the title we’re looking at today – a contender for the most intensely claustrophobic and fleshy entry in the entire Franco filmography… which is saying something.

Generally speaking, the films Franco made for Erwin Deitrich in the latter half of the ‘70s mark the point at which he abandoned the more personal / experimental streak that had prevailed earlier in the decade, and began churning out tawdry exploitation and cheap genre exercises in earnest. There are definitely some noteworthy exceptions though, and ‘Doriana..’ ranks highest among them. It seems likely it was shot around the same time as ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ (most of the same cast reappear with the same haircuts, and the locations & cinematography seem fairly similar), but, oh, what a difference!


“For as long I can remember, I’ve been living in the chateau… when I go for walks after long, lonely, dreamless night, I hear no human voices, only the laughter of a mocking bird..”

As you might reasonably expect, only the flimsiest suggestion of Oscar Wilde’s novel survives in this tale of siamese twins (both played by Lina Romay), separated at birth in a botched operation that we’re told resulted in both ‘damaged nerve fibres’ and ‘lost minds’.

Unscathed on the surface at least, Lady Doriana has grown up to become a reclusive aristocrat and mythic sexual libertine, but her mentally deficient twin, long forgotten by everyone, hasn’t been quite so lucky. Confined to an asylum in what seems to be a perpetual state of delusional sexual frenzy, she is a howling mad, naked wretch – the reverse mirror image of Doriana’s outwardly icy, refined demeanour, her rampant id personified in full fury.

As Doriana drifts through life, wrestling with loneliness and her inability to truly ‘feel’ anything in the course of her frequent, impersonal sexual encounters, she finds herself becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the malign psychic influence of her ‘shadow’, and when her lovers begin to die at the point of climax, their life energies drained and consumed, well… obviously we’re talking about a Jess Franco film here, so a bit of self control, some long walks in the country and cold showers etc, are not really on the menu.

In terms of Franco genealogy, ‘Doriana Gray’ recycles much of its general business from ‘Female Vampire’ (the lone aristocratic wonderer who leaves her lovers dead, the presence of an intrusive reporter, the mixture of frenzied sex scenes and brooding, ethereal weirdness etc.), and its basic plot-line would soon be re-worked in far more light-weight fashion for the self-explanatory ‘Sexy Sisters’. Despite this though, ‘Doriana..’, like all of Franco’s best films, is very much its own beast – a wholly unique experience, even as it rampages over territory that will prove over-familiar to even the director’s more casual fans.


“Don’t go… stay here and look… I have a little mound, and a valley deeper than the village well, and breasts you could crack an egg on..”

It is a common line of thinking when looking at the emergence of explicit sex films in the ‘70s to see them as essentially stifling the creativity of the filmmakers who chose to partake in them – killing all momentum stone-dead, reducing potentially talented directors to mere camera pointers, filming ugly, static camera fuck scenes when they could be doing something far better with their time, and so on and so forth.

Doubtless there were some individuals for whom this was the case (Jean Rollin is perhaps a good example), but the establishment of a viable market for pornographic films actually seems to have had the opposite effect on Jess Franco, allowing him to get straight to the heart (or rather, straight to the crotch) of what really made him tick, as the distant and sometimes distracted feel of his ‘60s work began to mutate into something both far more graphic and far more emotionally involving, resulting in a crude but startlingly uncompromising form of low budget cinema – unsettlingly perverse, genuinely erotic and so relentlessly voyeuristic that even Europe’s most dedicated porno freaks must have started to wish he’d pull the bloody camera back for a bit of fresh air every now and then.

In essence I think, Franco was (and hopefully still is) an old fashioned sensualist – a man who lives for the pleasures of music, food, culture, cinema, travel, and women. (And, whatever you might think of his movies, you’ve got to at least admire the way he managed to shape his career as a film director into a routine that allowed him to indulge all of these passions on a regular basis.)

It is natural therefore that his more personal films should reflect this approach to life. And as he reached what the more pretentious amongst us might wish to term his ‘mature style’ in the early ‘70s, it is hardly surprising that he should begin to address the ugly shadows that are always lurking in the corner when decadent behaviour is taken to extremes.* Y’know - mental and physical collapse, guilt and moral turpitude, addiction and loss of sensation, madness, despair – that sort of thing. Not a path that’s often much explored by conventional pornography, for obvious reasons, but the genius of a film like ‘Doriana Gray’ is that it manages to cut right to the quick of such heavy subject matter whilst still functioning as lusty, grade A erotica that leaves 90% of the other filmmakers attempting such stuff in the dust.

Much of the credit for allowing the film to successfully straddle (if you will) this gap between arousal and disgust lies of course with the wonderful Ms Romay. I don’t know whether I’ve thus far had a chance in these reviews to pay tribute to the astonishing presence Lina Romay brings to Franco’s ‘70s films… but then I don’t know if the feeling conveyed by her performances in movies like this one can even really be communicated in words. I mean, I’m not usually the kind of guy to get all misty-eyed about actresses in adult movies and so forth, but - those who have seen her in ‘Female Vampire’ or ‘Lorna’ or even the Dietrich-directed ‘Rolls Royce Baby’ will know what I’m getting at.

It would be easy to put the strength of her performances down to her apparent exhibitionistic tendencies and seemingly endless enthusiasm for appearing in this kind of material (a rare virtue indeed in the patriarchal and oft-abusive world of smutty movies), but I don’t know if that quite covers it. Let’s just say that Lina operates on a whole other level from anyone else I have ever seen try to do ‘sexy’ in front of a movie camera. Even when it in the midst of the ‘action’, she seems able to unleash a reservoir of raw, amped up emotion that goes way beyond the standard male-fantasy moves usually demanded by such scenes. Without wishing to labour the point, I would defy anyone of a woman-fancying persuasion – hell, anyone period – to sit through one of her peak-era performances without experiencing *some* kind of strong reaction. If not necessarily sexual arousal, then fear, unease, mesmerism, hilarity, repulsion and wordless fascination are all equally valid responses, just as they are valid responses to Franco’s cinema as a whole. But just like his camera, you won’t be able to ignore her, that’s for sure.

And speaking of Franco’s ever-roaming phallic gaze, ‘Doriana..’ is also notable for taking the director’s penchant for genital close ups to a level of absolute insanity, frequently zooming to the point of utter pubic oblivion, ensuring that Lina’s bush gets as many close-ups as her face. Actually, one or the other of them is on screen for practically the entire movie, an approach that could have taken on a horribly invasive quality in the hands of most other filmmakers, but as is often the case, Jess’s fleshy obsessions play out here in a manner than seems more worshipful than demeaning, and that fits the film’s densely claustrophobic, internalised narrative pretty well.

That said, I’m afraid there are some pretty grim moments here too (in particular, a grisly hetero scene between Raymond Hardy and Martine Stedil nearly made me lose my lunch), but whenever Lina is on screen in either of her incarnations, the sparks fly. 4/5


“Tell me, is this girl in the clinic of the mysterious Dr. Orlof your sister? Is she insane? Is she a nymphomaniac?”

As was discussed in my review of ‘Macumba Sexual’, what makes Jess Franco’s particular brand of sex-horror films work so well is that, rather than presenting us with a horror film plus some sex (or vice versa), he hits us head-first with a scenario in which the sex IS the horror, internalised within the characters partaking of it.

In these films, sexual dementia (as a symptom of Franco’s preferred notion of carnal vampirism) seems to travel through the air like some kind of psychic plague, emanating from the ‘bearers’ (Doriana and her twin) and possessing each character in turn, as logic crumbles, naked writhing becomes an epidemic and the world becomes a very frightening and disorientating place indeed, reality reduced to “an incoherent nightmare of sex”, to borrow a choice phrase from the Westminster Gazette’s memorable dismissal of Arthur Machen’s ‘The Great God Pan’.

Although the deaths of Doriana’s lovers are pretty perfunctory here – more implied than graphically depicted – it is the sex scenes that surround them, and Lina’s performances within them, that form the main source of the horror, as we’re treated (and/or subjected) to perhaps Romay’s single most unhinged, uninhibited performance in a career full of unhinged, uninhibited performances – a visceral and terrifying portrayal of mental collapse that sometimes cuts too close for comfort, channeling a nameless catharsis worthy of a Zulawski film.

As befits ‘Doriana Gray’s schizophrenic themes, the film’s overall effect relies heavily on Lina’s trademark move of shifting her expression in a split second from euphoric ecstasy to pain, to mindless screaming madness - capturing the viewer off-guard in that awful, frozen moment when the music warps or vanishes in a strangulated echo effect, as our assumption that you’re watching a decadent, easy-going sex scene falls away, twisting a knot in our stomach as we’re forced to suddenly recalibrate our expectations, before we look back again and realise that Doriana is panting, staring blindly with glazed eyes, drooling on the corpse of her partner, as the camera cuts to her incarcerated sister’s inhuman primal scream… oof.

In between these encounters, the atmosphere cools off, and we’re treated (in the rather bizarre English dub at least) to an eerie, monotone voiceover that works to effectively somnambulant effect, elucidating Doriana’s thoughts in the form of some rather Poe-like brooding soliloquys, as she explains her understanding of her sister’s psychic domination in terms of a gothic curse, outlining the long history of genius, melancholy and madness that have tormented the women of her family for generations, taking a leaf or two from Vincent Price in ‘House of Usher’ in the process, and rather unexpectedly investing the film with a rich, ennui-wracked gothic tone, reminiscent of Franco’s earlier ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’. 4/5

Pulp Thrills:

“A lady as smart as you are, who owns a whole publishing house for erotic memoirs, isn’t gonna indulge in tiddlywinks..”

Not much doing from this angle I fear. In the film’s lighter moments there’s certainly fun to be had with the goofy English dub (see the quotes at the top of these sections), and with the idea of a world where reclusive aristocratic publishers of erotic memoirs engage in off-the-cuff lesbian seductions at the drop of a hat. But relentless genital close-ups and screaming, demonic hysteria do rather tend to distract from the ol’ pulp thrills I find. 1/5

Altered States:

“I am endowed with an unlimited lust for pleasure, which is the secret of eternal youth..”

Mention must initially be made of the incredible, minimalist sitar-rocking score from Walter Baumgartner**, mainly consisting of just a few languid, resonating notes that repeat throughout the film, hanging in the air like some attempt at a melodic progression left forever unresolved as its composer drifted off into stoned slumber.

Also contributing to a heavy-ass psychedelic atmosphere are all the usual tricks Franco utilises to squeeze as much oppressive disorientation out of his tropical paradise locations as he possible can: palpable heat haze, abstract close-ups and drifting, variable focus. Blinding, overlit sunshine and black, impenetrable shadows (often combined in the same shot). Baroque mirror shots fill the screen with jagged, conflicting angles whilst distant, fuzzy yachts bob back and forth on the tide of the picture-book harbour, as all the time that infernal sitar twangs away, never quite finding the right note it needs to finish things off.

Soon even the genital close-ups begin to take on an abstract, alien character, as frantic zoom shots fill the screen with beige blurs, strange goose-pimpled landscapes and stray pubic hairs curling in the foreground like spider webs, as Franco's lust inspires him to simultaneously break every conceivable rule of cinematic etiquette.

On the soundtrack meanwhile, a constant, deafening chatter of canned birdcalls, hooting owls and mewling cats mixes with the hypnotic voiceovers of the English dub track, as Lina’s vocal stand-in recites verses from a totally tripped out Wickerman-style plain song nursery rhyme (“Your hands wave like a bird’s wings, but they cannot grasp the stars”).

One particularly incredible moment combines all of this, as thunder rolls overhead and the creepy singing continues, as Franco zeros in on a rainbow shining in an overcast sky above a row of slummy looking apartment buildings, contrasted with a monolith-like fern leaf (or maybe it’s an overturned parasol or something?) in the foreground. The camera pulls back to reveal Lina’s shadowed form, encased entirely in shadow as she walks forward, away from us… “your rainbow coloured eyes… dive into the blinding light..” intones the disembodied voice as the shape of Lina’s fuzzy black breasts depart stage left and the camera zooms further into the clouds and the slowly fading rainbow…

I hear Kubrick’s people put a lot of time and effort into that hyper-space sequence from the end of ‘2001’. Franco just grabbed his camera one day and looked out of the hotel window. I think I’m give them about a draw in the psychedelic stakes. 5/5


I’m not sure where ‘Doriana Gray’ was shot, but the setting has a tropical sort of look to it that adds weight to my theory that it was filmed back to back with ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ in Central America, or possibly the Caribbean. The scenes set inside Doriana’s chateau though also recall the kind of Moorish splendour Franco often captured so well in Spanish and Portuguese locales – especially the echoing marble entrance hall, wrought iron railings etc. – but I guess it’s equally possible that such architecture might have been replicated in some grand, colonial outpost across the Atlantic or whatever. So the jury’s out, but it’s all pretty nice to look at anyway. 3/5


If you’ll allow me a bit of a generalisation, most of the international film industry’s attempts to sell ‘sophisticated’ erotic films to a wider audience during the 1970s were a total bore, producing movies that were tacky, thoughtless and decidedly un-erotic, irrespective of the veneer of ‘class’ that was crow-barred into them. What a difference then to witness Jess Franco at the top of his game here, working pretty much single-handedly with extremely limited means and singularly grimy technique, but managing to craft a sex film that is visually stunning, emotionally devastating, thematically coherent, and that could probably give a corpse a hard-on. That it probably never got an airing outside of the kind of unimaginable flea-pit porno houses that presumably ran these Deitrich hardcore flicks, whilst down the road semi-respectable citizens could have been flocking to see some worn out Emmanuelle/Story of O derivative, is something of a tragedy, if a wholly predictable one.

I mean, in many ways this is a pretty difficult film to watch, and probably something of a head-fuck for those unfamiliar with Franco’s general mode of operation; but for any existing fans out there who’ve yet to see this one, be assured that it’s just about the most uncompromising, undiluted dose of Franco genius business you could hope to find from the mid ‘70s, and pretty much a definitive statement of where he was heading through the first half of that decade.

*Not that I believe Franco himself ever took his behaviour to extremes, I should make clear – as far as I’m aware, he has always been a very moderate, well behaved and agreeable sort of fellow. In fact in some ways, you might say that the true genius of his life lies in the way he found a legitimate excuse to spend about thirty years hanging out in tropical beauty spots, listening to hot jazz and staring at naked ladies all day, without ever even having to act like a jerk.

** Herr Baumgartner appears to have provided music for pretty much every Erwin Dietrich related Swiss/German sex film released between 1970 and 1990, leading me to initially suspect he might be a pseudonym used to cover for the use of recycled and/or library music. But an earlier career scoring German b-movies, and the IMDB-provided knowledge that he born in Switzerland in 1904 and died there in 1997, would tend to suggest he was in fact a real composer, so, uh, good on him I suppose. It’s not often you get to hear a porno soundtrack written by an 80 year old survivor of two world wars.