Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Halloween Mix CD 2013.

 Presenting for your listening pleasure, the sixth annual Stereo Sanctity / Breakfast In The Ruins Halloween Mix!

I fear this year’s comp may prove a slightly more gruelling listen that previous years, for the simple reason that, after six years, I’m running pretty low on good, horror-themed rock n’roll songs, necessitating a move toward a greater proportion of soundtrack stuff, random instrumental creepery and general noise. Of course, there’s still old Halloween comp perennials like The Cramps, The Misfits, The Flesheaters and Electric Wizard to keep you grounded amid the charnel atmos, and I’ve also dug up some old favourites from my archive of old movie samples, so… approach with open ears and a singularly weird and unsettling journey awaits (I hope).

Probably available for a limited time only, due to the near-impossibility of keeping downloadable files up for long on the increasingly locked down corporate internet, but as ever, if you miss it, just give me a shout.


Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Old New Worlds:
January 1965.

 With a new year beginning, and the magazine evidently pulling in enough sales to see itself returned to a monthly schedule, the editorial of New Worlds # 146 finds Michael Moorcock in a buoyant mood, judging 1964 to have been “..another boom year in the field of SF publishing”, and singling out in particular four “brilliant books” published in the past twelve months: Ballard’s ‘The Terminal Beach’, Aldiss’s ‘Greybeard’, Charles Harness’s ‘The Paradox Men’, and – notably – William Burroughs’ ‘Dead Fingers Talk’ (a sort of “remix” of his ‘Naked Lunch’ texts if I remember correctly?), qualified here as “a book which can’t strictly be called SF, yet which deals in all the ideas found in SF”.

After the numerous thrilling and thought-provoking yarns illustrated above (disappointingly, this, and indeed most of the subsequent issues of NW I own, entirely fail to credit their illustrators and cover designers), this issue’s review & commentary section kicks off with a jaunty ‘background’ piece by Gordon Walters, examining the history of the ubiquitous ‘hyper-space drive’ in SF, and swiftly digressing into a discussion of the dilemmas faced by skiffy writers trying to keep pace with real world scientific discoveries:

“Before the first World War, heroic adventures on Mars ala E. R. Burroughs were quite plausible in light of what was known about Mars. Today, the science fiction writer moans softly: ‘I mustn’t dream of cream princesses enthroned on Mars because the astronomers insist that mammalian life is impossible. So I have to find an outlet for my sexual fantasies among a bunch of nasty green lichens!’”

Sex rears its inquisitive head once again on the letters pages, which this month are largely concerned with the aftermath of a Langdon Jones story entitled ‘I Remember Anita’, which was published in NW # 144, and which apparently took a more frank approach to mammalian life than many SF readers were used to.

“I’m not a prude, far from it!,” insists Louis E. Van Gastel of Alost, Belgium. “I enjoy pepper on my meat but I don’t eat a lot of pepper with a little meat if you see what I mean. […] But why must Mr. Jones express the feelings of a young, sensitive artist so crudely! It isn’t sex anymore, it’s downright pornography! What youngster, with refined artist’s feelings, would so blatantly overstress his sexual relation with an adored and respected mistress! No, sir, it should have had a more delicate touch!”

“Am I mistaken if I take your editorials as a warning for shocks to come?,” Mr. Van Gastel continues, “All right, shocks it will be, but please note the difference between shock and disgust!”

A curt response from our editor simply clarifies that NW’s staff “are not publishing a magazine for schoolboys”.

Ivor Latto of Merryton Avenue, Glasgow takes a rather more measured approach, but emerges equally unimpressed:

“One of 1964’s most controversial tales you call it; by that I hope to God you don’t mean because of its sexual content, for I don’t think I could take another bout of Should There be more Sex in SF? Mr. Jones has as much right to employ blunt sexual realism as any non-sf writer… if he thinks it justified for his purpose […] The sweaty realism of love and death has been employed to advantage by many writers, most notably by the Existentialists. But when Sartre or Camus do this they use the language of realism.”

With the air suitably cleared, it is left to Tony Walsh of Bridgwater, Sussex (both he and his wife enjoyed the story, he notes), to address the real burning issue here;

“Could not the emotional impact be made just as effectively in another context (substitute an earthquake or nuclear explosion, say)? In other words: Is it SF?”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Elizabeth French Briscoe of Brighton Road, Dublin reveals herself as no friend of ours, calling as she does for an all-out ban on illustrations in Science Fiction;

“Illustration has given SF a bad name. […] it is only recently that I have ‘discovered’ SF, having been put off by garish covers depicting bug-eyed monsters: I took the accompanying reading matter to be a decadent genre slanted toward sadistic boys, until I chanced upon a novel by Arthur C. Clarke.”

Following the lead of Moorcock’s editorial, this month’s review features seem more positive than usual, with MM (under his own name) offering  up extensive praise for the aforementioned ‘Greybeard’ and ‘The Paradox Men’, whilst Langton Jones undertakes an affirmative reappraisal of the work of this issue’s lead contributor, Arthur Selling.

Later on though, our editor’s alter ego James Colvin has the knives out once more, passing acidic comment on the ‘juvenile’ approach taken to SF by publishers, and those among his peers who are willing to pander to it (brave words perhaps from the creator of Elric?), finding time to take at least a few of his contemporaries down a peg or two along the way;

“I’ve had the feeling recently that I’m being cheated all round. Poul Anderson’s ‘Time and Stars’ (Gollancz, 16s.) shows us a writer who, in all his working life, seems not to have developed at all. His best current stuff is as good as his best stuff of ten to fifteen years ago, his worst is as bad as ever. […] This pulp Western dressed up as an SF story [is] badly written, highly reactionary and embarrassingly sentimental – and it won this year’s Hugo Award for best short fiction. […] I’m still bewildered – can it mean that the Hugo has become valueless as an indication of what is good? I’m equally bewildered at Gollancz for selecting it. I always had the impression that he was a left-wing publisher. Not any more, it seems.”

“Damon Knight’s reputation is good, yet surely he can’t have gained it from his fiction? I hoped his latest novel might be an improvement on his short stories, but no such luck.”

And so on.

‘Colvin’ does at least conclude with a mention of one notable volume that might have slipped beneath readers’ radars;

“Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Pan, 3/6) is a wonderful study of a run-down society of the future, told in the first person by a latter-day Teddy Boy in his own weird patois. It is powerful and horrifying – and spoiled by a hurried, rather sentimental ending. Still much better than most of the stuff being produced inside the field at the moment.”

So much for those ‘encouraging signs’ then.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The Devil Came From Akasava


According to IMDB, original shooting title for this one was ‘Hüter des Steines’ (“Guardian of the Stones”). Upon release, most territories went with a variation on the English ‘..Akasava’ title, although Greece opted for ‘Aorati apeili’ (“Phantom Menace”?), and Italian viewers were offered the chance to enjoy ‘Una Venere Senza Nome per l'ispettore Forrester’ (“Inspector Forrester and the Nameless Venus”..!?).


Just speculation on my part really, but at several points in his career, Jess Franco seems to have used a quick spy or detective film as a kind of ‘chill out zone’ during particularly heavy periods of filmmaking. I'm not sure why these genres were singled out for such treatment, but perhaps their pulpy and predictable architecture proved a bit more relaxing for Franco than the risqué sex and horror themes of his better-known work – the equivalent of a quiet week by the pool for this relentlessly prolific director, perhaps?

1975’s ‘Downtown’ and 1966’s ‘Residencia Para Espías’ both fit this pattern, but ‘The Devil Came From Akasava’ is perhaps the most definitive example of the phenomenon, emerging mid-way through the brief but extremely busy period that Franco spent working for German producer Arthur Brauner’s company CCC Films. (According to the chronology presented in ‘Immoral Tales’, Franco began work for CCC in late 1969, and in addition to '..Akasava', had completed ‘Vampyros Lesbos’, ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’, ‘Jungfrauen Report’, ‘La Venganza del Doctor Mabuse’ and ‘X312: Flight To Hell’ for them by the end of 1970).

Quite why the decision was taken to make a spy film at this particular juncture - long after the Euro-spy cycle had faded away, and during a rather troubled/transitional phase in the James Bond franchise – is something of a mystery, but at a guess, maybe it was Brauner himself who had a preference for these bland, slightly outmoded genre thrillers? (After all, ‘X312’ and the Dr. Mabuse film are hardly your usual Franco fare, and his final film for CCC the following year was a very-late-period krimi, ‘Der Todesrächer von Soho’ (aka ‘Death Packs His Bags’), with Brauner himself co-writing.)


Hang on, the devil came from WHERE..? No, me neither. Well apparently, Akasava is fictional African nation, and it there that our “adventure” begins, as we see some kind of super-precious stone being dug out of the wall of a mine-shaft by a bloke in a radiation suit. The stone is subsequently sealed in a lead-lined briefcase and, despite the radiation suit bloke being able to casually take his helmet off as he cradles it in the opening scene, it now gives off a prodigious radioactive glow, sufficiently powerful to vaporise anyone in the immediate vicinity when the case is opened, just like in ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ (or ‘Repo Man’, or ‘Pulp Fiction’, depending on your age and level of hip-ness).

Various haggard-looking gentlemen and a few ladies are of course after this stone, and in pursuit of their goal, they walk back and forth between places a lot. Sometimes they drive jeeps between the places, and sometimes they even take aeroplanes. Whilst they are in the places, they natter on incessantly about nothing of particular import, and occasionally die, in a not terribly exciting fashion.

So yes, basically what we’ve got here is a singularly dull reworking of ‘60s Euro-spy cliché, in which everyone seems pretty laidback and nothing particularly interesting happens, and that both opens and closes with footage of some salty characters shooting at each other with pop-guns whilst running around a complex of off-season holiday chalets.

Some familiar faces are amongst their number: Franco himself, Howard Vernon, Alberto Dalbés, Ewa Strömberg (a blonde actress who appeared in most of Franco’s CCC productions) and the ubiquitous Paul Muller. Krimi regulars Walter Rilla and Horst Tappert are also on hand, adding to the feeling that ‘..Akasava’ was in some sense intended as a vague tribute to the Edgar Wallace cycle.

Most notably though, the legendary Soledad Miranda is here too, portraying a glamorous British secret service agent (or glamorous Interpol person, or something - it’s kind of unclear), in one of only three lead performances she supplied to Franco films prior to her untimely passing.


So, look, I’ll level with you. There is only one reason for anyone to bother watching this film: Soledad Miranda. Admittedly, she’s not given a great deal to do here (nobody in this film really gets much to do), but, as has been widely acknowledged, the sight of Soledad Miranda lounging around looking bored is roughly equivalent to that of most screen performers unicycling across a tightrope over an active volcano. So fair enough.

Given that the time Franco was able to spend working with this extraordinary actress was cut so tragically short, it seems an dreadful shame that he stuck her in pictures as gloomy as this one and ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’, but whatcha gonna do? No one knew what the future held, so there is little blame to be placed.

Anyway, it goes without saying that she looks spectacular here. As with any great ‘sex symbol’ type movie actress, Miranda has charisma and energy to match her beauty, usually standing out as by far the most exciting thing on screen, regardless of one’s sexual preferences. And, this being a Jess Franco film, she does at least get to strut her nigh-on elemental stuff here in several obligatory night-club striptease scenes.

Obviously close cousins of the iconic night-club scenes in ‘Vampyros Lesbos’, with the same black backdrop and the same ‘Sexadelic’ library music going into overdrive, these performances are a little more conventional perhaps, with no candelabras or mannequins anywhere in sight, but still, those enchanted by the equivalent scenes in the earlier film will definitely want to check them out. Certainly, there are few actresses who could look as beguiling whilst straddling a red-upholstered bar chair, clad head to foot what looks like long strips of used cine-film, as Miranda does here.



Few horror elements, or any atmospheric touches suggesting such, are to be found here, although there are a couple of decidedly un-thrilling violent slayings to enjoy(?).


Pulp Thrills:

Allegedly based on an Edgar Wallace story (though no one seems sure which one), you’d expect to get a fair old dose of pulpy shenanigans from this tale of triple-crossing secret agents, dodgy African doctors, gun-toting strippers and psychotic butler-assassins. But once again, ‘Akasava’ comes up short. Too poverty-stricken for any of the glitz or visual stimulation found in the earlier euro-spy cycle (or even in Franco’s earlier ‘Red Lips’ movies, for that matter), and with a pitifully small allowance of action and intrigue, things play out in a workaday TV movie sort of fashion that largely fails to capitalise on the potentially fun ideas presented by the story.

Though rambling and childishly illogical as you please, the plot-line is also extremely dry, almost entirely lacking in the kind of wit and invention that might have made it work. I’m perfectly happy to watch a thriller in which we don’t really know what’s going on, but when we simply don’t CARE what’s going on, that presents a bit more of a problem, y’know?


Altered States:

‘Akasava’ largely finds Franco in a“bored / get it done”, point-and-shoot sort of mood. It was movies like this one that helped make his abuse of the zoom lens a running joke, and indeed he takes this time-saving ‘technique’ to unhappy extremes here, never once pausing to set up a new shot when circumstances instead allowed him to get away with wobbling left or right, hitting the zoom and refocusing a few times instead.

When it is used to deliberately disorientating or psychedelic effect (as in Dracula: Prisoner of Frankenstein for instance), I like this style a great deal, but when applied to the hum-drum material found here it is simply irritating – precisely the kind of abuse of cinematic space that the anti-zoom lobby complain about.

Also much in evidence here is the other bug-bear of Franco detractors, his lugubrious pacing. We’ve spoken a lot about this in earlier reviews, and I think the crux of the matter is that, when a Franco film creates a world that’s fun to get lost in, I’m more than happy to indulge him and take my time. But in an ostensibly ‘plot-driven’ film such as this one, when things meander on endlessly whilst we’re watching, say, some people hiring a car at an airport, or discussing the whereabouts of their cousin in a hotel breakfast room, the boredom that results is simply excruciating.

Thankfully, things are at least propelled along by some GREAT music. Unfortunately for those of us who have already seen ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ and ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’ though, it is mostly the same music, all pulled off Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab’s legendary ‘Vampire Sound Incorporated’ library LPs, ‘Sexadelic’ and ‘Psychedelic Dance Party’. (Much of the music used in these three films was re-issued on CD in the ‘90s as Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party, and I’d guess that if you’re reading this, there’s about a 75% chance that you already own it and listen to it with obsessive regularity. As well you should.).

Usage of the Vampire Sound material in ‘..Akasava’ concentrates mainly on just one or two primary cues, which are looped in teeth-grindingly repetitious fashion, but in the film’s favour is the fact that this pre-existing soundtrack allowed at least some scenes to be cut to the music, upping the pace somewhat and allowing some sequences to manifest a (largely accidental) sense of style and purpose, particularly during the slightly more eventful final half hour.

There are occasional nice shots, particularly in Soledad’s scenes, with mirrors, reflections, objects d’art etc. used to good effect, and a couple of instances of surprisingly good lighting. Mildly sexy bits featuring Ms Miranda seem to be scattered at roughly 15 minutes intervals through the finished film, and these bits, as per usual when Franco’s eye is in the viewfinder, tend to be the best bits, cinematically speaking. But nonetheless, it is a bland, ‘down-time’ feel that largely predominates.



If there’s one thing even a sub-standard Jess Franco spy movie should be able to deliver, it’s some groovy locations, but disappointingly, most of Akasava seems to resemble an off-season Iberian holiday camp.

“Beautiful country, isn’t it?”, Franco’s character proclaims as we’re shown some non-descript mud-flats during a boat ride to… somewhere. Not sure where this bit was filmed, but it looks like some kind of appropriately impoverished third world harbour. Brief shots of Moorish architecture rather suggest Turkey, leading me to think that perhaps this footage was shot whilst Franco & co were over there for ‘Vampyros Lesbos’?

In keeping with the generally lacklustre nature of this production though, it’s hard to really get a sense of place, with cast & crew rarely bothering to venture much beyond their hotel rooms. In fact, if non-descript, early ’70s budget hotel interiors and airport corridors are your thing, you will see sights in this movie that will carry your soul to new heights of reverie. And for the rest of us - well, it could be worse I suppose, but I’m not about to book my ticket to Akasava just yet.

Requisite attempts at some spy movie ‘globe-trotting’ also take us to London. You could probably write a book about German commercial cinema’s obsession with setting films in unconvincing versions of ‘London’, but, surprisingly, I get the feeling parts of this film may actually have been shot there. The inevitable faded establishing shots of Tower Bridge may not bode well, but the location of a secret rendezvous between Soledad and a middle-aged police inspector – supposedly a London brothel, with a sign outside reading ‘Chez Jackie’ – DOES have a convincingly shabby British look to it.

Just a hunch, but could this be the same down-market Paddington hotel where Pete Tombs met Franco in the early ‘90s..? (See this blog post for details.) According to Tombs, Franco said that he discovered the hotel whilst working for Harry Alan Towers in the late ‘60s, and that he subsequently stayed there whenever he visited the city. Though he was no anglophile and rarely shot in the UK, JF clearly liked the feel of this “run-down Edwardian flophouse”, and it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that he might have done it over as an unconvincing “brothel” for one of his films.

(In a disorientating shot / reverse shot arrangement during this sequence, the inspector, standing in a spacious hotel lobby with a grubby carpet, appears to be conducting a conversation with a dressing gown-clad madam ensconced in what looks like an upstairs bed-sit with a wood-panelled kitchenette in one corner and the rest of the room masquerading as a café, with several small tables and a jukebox. A bizarre moment of low budget cognitive dissonance that I very much enjoyed.)



The number of these kinda pulpy thrillers and spy films Jess Franco made during the ‘60s, you’d think he’d be able to knock one out in his sleep by this point. Unfortunately, ‘The Devil Came From Akasava’ very much gives the impression that he called our bluff and did actually direct it in his sleep.

Aside from Soledad Miranda, and the awesome music (which most fans have probably already heard in several other films, and own on CD), I honestly can’t think of any reason to bother watching this film. But having said that, I can’t really say that I disliked it either. In fact I found it’s sheer, inoffensive aimlessness quite soothing. If I were a fugitive criminal who’d been instructed by his boss to go and hide out in the cinema all day until the heat was off, I think I’d be very satisfied if a film like this was playing on a loop.

I could mull over my predicament, plan and scheme and lament my sorry state, without ever being overly distracted by the brightly coloured people walking around, talking about whatever and occasionally dying up there on the screen. It’s like an ambient movie - a vaguely pleasing, background kinda thing. The vintage genre cinema equivalent of one of those Brian Eno albums, perhaps. Could that be a first? Maybe. Let’s assume it was deliberate and chalk it up as another great idea from Jess Franco Ltd!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Weird Tales:
Jess Franco meets The Elder Gods.

Creating a timeless story or a memorable literary character is one thing, but in instigating the legend of Abdul Alhazred and the Necronomicon, H.P. Lovecraft went one step further, birthing an idea that tore itself free from the pages of his fiction almost immediately, rampaging off into the real world against its creator’s wishes, never to return.

Even during his lifetime, correspondents were apt to besiege Lovecraft with queries about the nature and history of his forbidden tome, prompting him to pen numerous missives stating in no uncertain terms that he had INVENTED both the book and its author, weaving together a few fragments from his (always highly imaginative) dreams into a unique modern myth. One such disavowal originally prefaced Lovecraft’s official ‘History of the Necronomicon’, written in 1927, but not published until after the writer’s death in 1938. An ingenious bit of faux-scholarship, this ‘history’ of course only served to fan the flames of speculation even further, with its evocations of distant antiquity, suppressed medieval translations (throwing in the name of genuine 17th century scholar Olaus Wormius was a neat touch, even if HPL placed him in the wrong century), and of the Mad Arab himself – exiled wonderer of cursed lost cities, torn apart by invisible demons in a public marketplace.

Despite of the author’s repeated assertions that the book had no basis in reality though, and in spite of the complete lack of any reference to a ‘Necronomicon’ or ‘Al-Azif’ anywhere in the world’s library catalogues, bibliographies and sundry collections of antiquarian material, the damned thing just refused to die. Alongside the inevitable avalanche of hoax editions that began to appear once widespread Lovecraft fandom took off in the 1970s, unsubstantiated rumours of ‘authentic’ editions have proliferated ever since – a kind of bibliographic bigfoot, with just as many clueless hunters in pursuit.

As teenaged Lovecraft fans, my brother and I both knew perfectly well that Lovecraft claimed to have invented the Necronomicon, but did that stop us visiting the reception desk at the British Library on a trip to London, to politely enquire as to the whereabouts of their copy? Of course it didn’t. Back in the early days of the internet, one of the first things I can remember downloading (god knows from where) was a mammoth text file containing what purported to be a series of instructions for ritual workings transcribed from the Necronomicon – an incompressible mass of cabbalistic ascii derangement, broken up at intervals by dire warnings about the perils of messing with the black arts, and of the mental health-related dangers awaiting anyone who should so much as glance at this material without the aid of proper magickal purification procedures. Where the hell did this thing come from..? (And where did it GO, for that matter – I’m pretty sure I’ve got most of my other files from that era archived away, but this eye-sight endangering compendium of .txt blasphemy is nowhere to be found.)

Even today, in the darker recesses of the internet, you can find those who will remind you that H.P. Lovecraft’s father was a keen collector of antiquarian books, as well as a high-ranking Free Mason. And we all know what THOSE guys are like, right..?

Could the young Howard Philips not have chanced across some mysterious volume on his father’s shelves – a copy perhaps of a work so obscure and terrible as to have been excised from all official records? And could the contents therein not have fried his brain good and proper, inspiring not just the cosmic excesses of his later fiction, but also his blackly paranoid view of the universe in general, not to mention his subsequent ill-health..? And, when subsequently pushed for details re: his source material, could he not have simply laughed off the suggestion that any of it had any basis in reality, denying the existence of his dread tome so as to not lead others down the same sorry path..? (1)

Well, no - probably not, to be honest. Obviously such ideas are nothing more than wildly unfounded speculation. But nonetheless: the get-out clause for Lovecraft’s denials is established. And as the lore surrounding his book becomes ever more convoluted in the hands of subsequent writers, ‘researchers’ and random internet yahoos, HPL’s insistence that he invented the Necronomicon out of thin air will never be filed as anything more solid than a “PROBABLY”. Personally, I think it is extraordinarily unlikely that the Necronomicon had any kind of life prior to Lovecraft, but look how even I started this paragraph.

And that leads us, eventually, to Jess Franco. On the surface, his 1967 film Necronomicon may seem to have taken absolutely nothing from Lovecraft’s tome beyond a snazzy title, but that’s not the way the director himself remembered it.

The following screengrabs are taken from the Franco interview accompanying the Blue Underground DVD release of ‘Succubus’/’Necronomicon’:



Whatever you make of his claims, Franco’s reminiscences here are clearly pretty garbled. As every Lovecraft nut knows, Abdul Alhazrad died in Damascus in around 738AD. I think we can safely assume that he wasn't Jewish, and that he never went anywhere near Spain or the inquisition. And none of that stuff about German monks and the University of Vienna has any basis whatsoever in either fiction or reality, as far as I'm aware.

Assuming we take Franco at his word though (because life’s usually more fun that way, right?), and assuming he was just getting the details mixed up as his memory faded, it then begs the question of precisely what the hell kind of book he and Pier Caminneci thought they were consulting on that fateful night in 1967, as the J&B flowed and a rare Chico Hamilton side spun on the hi-fi...

The first commercially published ‘hoax’ Necronomicon was the L. Sprague DeCamp "gobbledygook" edition, produced by Owlswick Press in 1973. Prior to that, no book – at least, no officially recorded book – is known to have carried the name.

Could Caminneci - by Franco’s account a rather boastful and pretentious individual – have been conned by some nefarious bookseller proffering another mouldy old volume of esoteric lore, or even a specially prepared forgery? Anything’s possible I suppose.

But then - doesn’t Lovecraft’s ‘History..’ state that the last known printed version of Wormius’s Latin text circulated in Spain during the 17th century…? And does it not seem that the details of this edition, and of the fates of the volumes produced, are vague at best, based on little more than unsubstantiated rumour..?

Could it not be that, somehow…

Well I’ll leave you to finish that thought yourself.

Or of course, it's equally likely that Franco, always a wily old devil, was just bullshitting on a heroic scale here – stringing the interviewer along with some off-the-top-of-his-head crap in an attempt to add his own footnote to the Necronomicon myth, and to give his public something a bit more meaty to chew on than that he just grabbed the word randomly out of a Lovecraft paperback and thought it would make a cool name for a movie.

I know which explanation my money’s on, but nonetheless – as soon as a concept as endlessly malleable and irresistible as the Necronomicon has got its foot in the door of reality, we can never escape it. That ‘probably’, that ‘maybe’, just keeps making it stronger as it spreads and mutates, nourished by that unquenchable idea that somehow, somewhere, it sits on a shelf where you’d least suspect it, ever-lurking.


(1) Heading even further toward the edges of way-out-there-land, the late occultist Kenneth Grant wrote at length about his belief that the Necronomicon exists as an ‘astral book’, unwittingly accessed by Lovecraft during his dreams, and also drawn upon more consciously by Alastair Crowley, whom Grant speculates may have been in telepathic contact with HPL.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


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.


Pulp Thrills:

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…


Altered States:

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.

(1) Whilst ‘Necronomicon’ is often referred to as Franco’s biggest success, personally I find it hard to believe it raked in more dough than, say, ‘Faceless’ or ‘Bloody Moon’ in the VHS era, never mind his ‘70s WIP epics (which reportedly made a ton in Europe), or even ‘The Awful Dr. Orlof’ (which played extensively in US cinemas through the early ‘60s). Anyway, with no reliable figures to work from, it’s a bit of moot point.

(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.