Saturday, 29 March 2014

Franco Files:
The Blood of Fu Manchu


‘Fu Manchú y el Beso de la Muerte’ [Spain], ‘Der Todeskuss des Dr. Fu Manchu’ [“Dr. Fu Manchu’s Kiss of Death”, Germany], ‘Kiss & Kill’ [U.S.A.], ‘Against All Odds’, ‘Kiss of Death’ [U.S. video titles, according to IMDB?].


Having recently looked at one of the highlights of Jess Franco’s tenure with Harry Alan Towers, it seems only fitting that we should turn our attention to one of the flat-out stinkers… or at least, that’s how Franco’s two Fu Manchu movies usually seem to be viewed. Personally I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this one, as we shall see below.

The Fu Manchu series was of course the flagship of Towers’ modest production empire through the mid/late 60s. He wrote the scripts for all of them under his ‘Peter Welbeck’ pseudonym, and whilst they’re certainly no classics, I think the earlier entries certainly stand up well as entertaining rainy afternoon type fare.(1) As the decade progressed though, the audience for these kind of old fashioned adventure movies was beginning to drift away, and I can only imagine that interest in the series (which was already pretty outmoded when it began, let’s face it) was fading fast.

So, enter Jess Franco! Put to work on the next Fu Manchu picture by his new paymaster, and lumbered with a characteristically daft ‘Welbeck’ script, Franco fans will recognise that such circumstances usually spell kryptonite for the director’s creativity, but hey, at least he got to shoot in Brazil and hang out with Christopher Lee, and… well, I think he probably made the best of a bad job, all things considered.


Rich with the kind of dazzling invention and realism that if the hallmark of Mr. Welbeck, the plot here concerns – what else? - Dr. Fu Manchu’s latest devious plan for world domination, which this time consists of hypnotising kidnapped slave girls and dispatching them to the homes of world leaders and sundry other important men, whereupon – get this – they will kiss them with their Cobra venom covered lips, resulting in blindness, coma and (eventually) death! Quite what advantages this plan has over, say, sending them letter bombs or something, I’m unsure, but y’know, it was the ‘60s - gotta make an effort.(2)

One of the first victims of this characteristically half-baked diabolical scheme is Fu Manchu’s dogged arch-nemesis, Nayland-Smith of Scotland Yard, who as a result is blinded and thus spends much of the film off-screen, wrestling with cobra-induced fever. Presumably this turn of events was written into the script after actor Douglas Wilmer, who played Nayland-Smith in the three earlier films, bailed on the series shortly before shooting began, leaving insufficient time for his replacement (Richard Greene) to step into the breach.

Nayland-Smith’s absence from proceedings is unfortunate, not least because it temporarily shifts the burden of heroism across to his ersatz-Watson sidekick Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford), who sadly is portrayed here as an utter buffoon, with practically every line of his dialogue reduced a weak joke about how much he misses rainy old blighty and wants to have a nice cup of tea – a fixation that seems to obsess him to such an extent that he should probably seek whatever equivalent of addiction counselling is available to one-dimensional movie characters (he’s even moaning about not being able to reach his Thermos whilst he’s chained up in Fu Manchu’s dungeons!). (3)

As Petrie blunders into the Amazon rainforest following rumours of Fu Manchu’s last known whereabouts, the hero vacuum is somewhat eased by the introduction of rugged jungle adventurer type Götz George (German production money ahoy!) and wandering medic Maria Rohm (producer’s girlfriend ahoy!), who have also stumbled onto the trail of the villainous mastermind for… well, I forget the reasons to be honest, but they are around, anyway.

Much faffing about and several long digressions follow, and during its middle half hour, the film takes everyone by surprise by suddenly turning into a kind of South American jungle-western! Here, veteran Spanish actor Ricardo Palacios spits out scenery and cackles with gusto as a quasi-revolutionary bandit chief named Sancho Lopez. Together with his gang of sombrero-wearing cut-throats (must have been a long ride down from old Mexico?), Lopez takes command of the remote village where Rohm’s character is based, staging bloody massacres and raucous, whore-filled parties with equal enthusiasm.

Just a hunch here, but do you get the feeling maybe Franco or Towers or somebody came back all fired up from an early screening of ‘The Wild Bunch’ just before they started making this one..? It’s all pretty good fun anyway, so if you like the idea of Jess Franco knocking out about thirty minutes of a pulpy south-of-the-border western, dig in.

For the final half hour we’re back in more familiar Fu Manchu territory, but to be honest nobody really seems to have their heart in it anymore, as Franco’s camera starts wondering off to look at foliage and the film’s shaky adventure movie syntax frays to breaking point, with only a nice waterfall, a few sloppily choreographed fight scenes and Christopher Lee’s patented “stand up straight / say the lines / collect the cheque” methodology saving things from collapse.


Watching these Fu Manchu movies, I always find myself wondering who the hell they were aimed at, and who actually bought tickets to see them back when they were in cinemas. I mean, on the surface they’re pretty much just old-fashioned, kiddie-friendly adventure movies, very much in the spirit of the b-movie swashbucklers that Hammer used to knock out for the half-term holidays, but as the series progressed, they seemed to start throwing in all these vaguely kinky, Sadean sorta elements that seem squarely aimed at a more adult, horror/sexploitation audience – a stylistic disjuncture that leads to a pretty schizophrenic feel at times.(4)

I probably don’t need to tell you what effect hiring Jess Franco had vis-à-vis this trend, and right from the opening shots, things are amped up considerably here. The movie opens with scantily-clad slave girls being marched through the jungle in chains by whip-wielding henchmen, and before we know it, they’re being man-handled by a leather-masked torturer and suggestively mocked by Fu Manchu’s daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin). This kind of BDSM slave fantasy stuff was already bubbling under the surface in earlier instalments, but it’s pretty full-on here, becoming almost as sleazy as one of Franco’s Women In Prison films.

The implicitly erotic figure of Lin Tang plays a bigger role than usual here too, basically taking on the bulk of day-to-day evil-doing business from her father, as he largely scales back his involvement to just the all-important “standing around talking about the plans” element. In numerous scenes, she can be seen bossing around the female captives and behaving to all intent and purposes like one of the sapphic wardresses in Franco’s later WIP epics, whilst towards the end of the film, she’s even seen cackling to herself on her father’s throne, suggesting the possibility of a fun ‘Lin Tang takes over’ plot-line that I don’t think was ever fully realised in these films(?). Anyway, I like her a lot in this one - she’s pretty cool, and Chin seems to actually be having fun in the role for once too.

Elsewhere, this film’s stand-in for the obligatory Franco night-club scene arrives via a sequence in which one of Fu Manchu’s hypnotised slave-girls walks out of the darkness to perform a libidinous dance for Sancho Lopez during his gang’s victory celebration. Going on for far longer than it reasonably should in this sort of movie, this sequence proves to be surprisingly strong stuff, with only the thinnest of diaphanous gowns hiding her boobs from the full glare of whatever kind of mixed up crowd did actually go and see this movie as she rubs and writhes with abandon… before Lopez prematurely ends her performance by bloodily shooting her, which must have further delighted parents and moral guardians, I’m sure. (And yeah, they were definitely goofing on ‘The Wild Bunch’ here, weren’t they?)

For those still keeping score after that point, there are fully bared breasts to be seen on several other occasions, along with assorted whipping and dungeon bondage bits, as any remaining illusions about these movies being made for a juvenile audience go completely out of the window.



Mildly gruesome tortures and a few bits Kensington gore keep things on a Hammer-esque “good ol’ blood-thirsty stuff for the kids” sort of level, whilst smoke and dungeons and skulls and cobras and so forth during the Fu Manchu hideout scenes all perpetuate that particular kind of pulpy horror-not-horror atmosphere that defines these kinda films, whilst mixed up bits of DNA from jungle adventure movies, euro-spy flicks and westerns further dilute the brew elsewhere.


Pulp Thrills:

“The moon is full… the moon of life. Let her taste the kiss… of DEATH!”

So, just to recap, we’re talking here about a motion picture in which Dr. Fu Manchu, as played by Christopher Lee, hangs around in a hidden citadel in the heart of the Amazon, hypnotising kidnapped girls and using ancient Inca rituals to impregnate them with deadly cobra venom, for the eventual purpose of wiping out world leaders and thus conquering the planet. Those trekking through the treacherous, unmapped jungle to oppose him include a dysfunctional Holmes and Watson-esque duo, a proto-Indiana Jones two-fisted archaeologist and an obese Mexican bandit chief who appears to be getting paid by the guffaw. If that ain’t pulp enough for you, I’d suggest a trip to the saw-mill.


Altered States:

This is far from the most far-out film Jess Franco made, but if you were approach it from the opposite direction, as an example of a low budget matinee adventure film gradually going off the rails, I think it would emerge as being at least moderately weird.

In between the aforementioned hi-jinks, there is much ‘down-time’, much wondering-camera foliage footage and many focus-blurring scene transitions. Much like a more regular Franco film, things soon settle down into a familiar pattern, mixing exciting / kinky set-pieces with segments of plodding, procedural drag that could soon have the casual viewer (and with a movie like this, is there gonna be any other kind?) snoring in vain.

A brief montage demonstrating the progress of Fu Manchu’s schemes around the world does briefly highlight a few bits of absolutely eye-popping, pop art production design – very much in the style of the same year’s astonishing ‘The Girl From Rio’ and, more than likely, probably spliced straight in from unused footage shot for that film.

Music by Franco’s favoured composer Daniel White meanwhile is sadly not much to shout about, dominated as it is by assorted variations on an insipid tune that sounds like a slight variation on ‘Que Sera Sera’, which seems to play incessantly through the film’s middle half hour.



Most of the jungle footage here appears to have actually filmed in some corner of the Amazon rainforest, insofar as I can tell, and indeed, the locations used are very interesting and impressive, including some genuine stalactite filled caves, and a monolithic waterfall that adds greatly to the scope of the film’s otherwise rather uneventful conclusion.

Usually with these things, one tends to assume that all the locations used were probably just a quick bus ride from Rio, where Franco and Towers were based for the simultaneously shot ‘The Girl From Rio’, but, given that the Southern-most part of the Amazon basin is right over on the other side of Brazil, maybe they actually relcoated completely? Or, maybe there IS sufficiently Amazon-like terrain to be found within spitting distance of Rio? I dunno. If anyone can identify the surely-that-must-be-quite-famous dam/waterfall that appears in the film, maybe we can pinpoint it on our sadly non-existent Jess Franco Locations Map? (Obviously it would be a transparent map on a Perspex wall with flashing lights, like the one Fu Manchu always has knocking about in his hideouts..)

Meanwhile, all the scenes in the town besieged by the bandits and the colonial governor’s mansion where Götz George is kept prisoner look to have been filmed back in Spain, with distinctly familiar-looking grand interiors, and a few exterior shots that I *think* might match up with the complex of buildings memorably used a few years later in ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’ and numerous of Franco’s other early ‘70s productions.

I’d have to run some of the films again to be sure, and I can’t be bothered to do that right now, but… someone should do a book about this stuff, y’know? Big coffee table hardback thing – “In The Footsteps of Franco” – combining the middle class travelogue market with the cult movie freaks, it should be a good seller. I’m game, if any publishers out there want to pay for the plane tickets.

Oh, and the Fu Manchu hideout stuff is largely done on sets that I’m guessing are redressed versions of the ones seen in ‘Brides..’, and god knows what else besides. (Hey, you need a dungeon? Give Harry a call.)



‘The Blood of Fu Manchu’ is not film that really gets much love, but I must say, I quite enjoyed it. Sure, it’s sloppy, tedious, cynical and practically the dictionary definition of “a load of old rubbish”, but the sheer amount of stuff going on gives it a strangely epic flavour that few other Franco productions can really match, and, whilst fans of the director will have to accept that it explores his favoured themes and obsessions only in passing, taken as an example of a rainy Sunday pulp adventure movie that’s completely lost the plot and wondered off into unknown realms, I think it has a lot to recommend it. I’d definitely place it toward the top end of Franco’s catalogue of work-for-hire genre exercises.

‘The Castle of Fu Manchu’ followed later the same year from Franco & Towers, and even commentators who hated ‘Blood..’ admit that it looks like Citizen Kane compared to that one, so…. that’s something to look forward to I suppose?


(1)‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ (’65) and ‘Brides of Fu Manchu’ (’66), both directed by Don Sharp, are quite a bit of fun (I reviewed ‘Brides..’ here). I’ve not seen the third instalment, ‘The Vengeance of Fu Manchu’ directed by Jeremy Summers, but I think I’m gonna walk not run on that one given that Summers also made the unspeakably bad ‘House of 1,000 Dolls’ for Towers.

(2) Which is more than Christopher Lee and the film’s make-up team are doing here incidentally – aside from the floppy moustache, Lee isn’t even trying to appear Asian by this point in the franchise… which, though a let-down for fans of casual movie racism, is probably for the best, all things considered.

(3) My favourite thing about Marion-Crawford’s performances in these movies is his habit of yelling “FU MANCHU!?” in moustache-ruffling, outraged surprise at least once per film.

(4)If you think about it, I guess Hammer were actually doing much the same thing too, as ‘The Swords of Sherwood Forest’ gave way to ‘Prehistoric Women’ and ‘The Viking Queen’, although these Towers films, being considerably closer to the margins, tended to get more sleazy more quickly. As I mentioned in my earlier review, ‘Brides of Fu Manchu’ has to be the most erotically charged movie ever to be granted a ‘U’ certificate by the BBFC, and I’ve subsequently seen evidence that they even shot some alternate nude sequences for it (“for the Japanese market”, no doubt).

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Contest Winners!

Well, the results are in from our fifth anniversary competition bonanza, and first off I feel I must apologise for making the questions so damn difficult. (I suppose it's quite hard to judge these things when you already know the answers?)

Nonetheless though, we have a winner, and Christopher Trowell of London came through just before the deadline with a frankly astonishing 6 out of 8 screen-grabs correctly identified! A veritable cornucopia of prizes are on their way to him. Volker C. Steiber of Winston-Salem, NC took second place with 2/8, which gives you some idea of the spread of scores received (sorry again). Some nice stuff is in the post to him too.

Thanks to both of them and to everyone who took part, and, to end the frustrations of anyone still racking their brains trying to place these mysterious images, answers are as follows;

03: Privilege (1967)

04: Devils of Darkness (1965)

06: Nightbirds (1968)

08:Wild Guitar (1962)

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Věra Chytilová
(1929 – 2014)

Very sad to hear this week about the passing of Czech filmmaker Věra Chytilová, who directed one of my all-time favourites ‘Sedmikrasky’ (‘Daisies’) in 1966.

In the unlikely event that anyone bothered to ask me, I’d be inclined to pick ‘Daisies’ (no pun intended) as one of the key works of ‘60s counter-cultural cinema, and I recall that Chytilová’s particular mixture of formal / political radicalism, raucous entertainment value and dream-like fantasy was very much on my mind vis-à-vis the kind of thing I wanted to look at when I started this blog, even though I never actually got around to writing about it.

Sadly, the notions of “ground-breaking feminist cinema” and “psychedelic slapstick mayhem” don’t coincide as often as perhaps they should, but ‘Daisies’ stands tall as a rare and joyous example of what can be achieved when things are done right – a unique, funny, bizarre, sexy, other-worldly, thought-provoking and staggeringly beautiful film that also represents a definitive example of one of my favourite imaginary sub-genres - “surrealistic movies about young women who have zany adventures, upset people and generally ferment anarchy for no good reason”, a category of films that would be just as numerous and popular as, say, kung-fu if I had my way. (Also see Smashing Time, Louis Malle’s ‘Zazie Dans Le Metro’, Jacques Rivette’s ‘Celine & Julie Go Boating’.)

Of course, Chytilová left a whole life’s worth of other film & art projects behind her too, and I daresay she’d be pretty pissed off at the 95% of casual obituary writers who have just concentrated on her ‘greatest hit’, but what can I say – laziness and lack of time has thus far denied me the opportunity to engage with her wider work, which, along with numerous other less heralded works of the Czech New Wave, is currently lost somewhere on my long-list of potential viewing priorities, but… one day, one day.

A more informative obit, along with a Vimeo window that allows you to watch the entirety of ‘Daisies’ (why, that can’t be allowed, surely?), can be found here.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Tale of Zatoichi Continues
(Kazuo Mori, 1962)

It seems that the runaway success of Kenji Misumi‘s Tale of Zatoichi took executives at Daei studios by surprise back in 1962. When ‘Tale of Zatoichi Continues’ hit cinemas barely six months later, it clocked in at a mere 73 minutes, reusing many locations, sets and actors from the first film, and basically bearing all the hallmarks of a quickly rushed out sequel.

Despite the film’s brevity and sometimes obvious lack of resources and shooting time however, director Kazuo Mori nonetheless does a sterling job here, turning in a movie that, if perhaps not quite the equal of Misumi's film, still puts an original enough spin on the material to make for similarly rewarding viewing.(1)

For one thing, ‘..Continues’ is a far more frantic, action-packed adventure than its predecessor, and if it lacks something of the first film's elegiac tone, well, it also gets through more bloody sword battles in it’s opening ten minutes than 'Tale..' featured in its entire duration, so, y’know – swing and roundabouts.

That’s not to say that Mori simply falls back on violence to disguise a lack of depth however, and, aided by another script from Minoru Inuzuka, he deserves credit for taking what could have merely been a crowd-pleasing, chanbara slash ‘em up and investing it with an even more doomed and conflicted emotional weight than Misumi’s film.

Before all that gets underway though, we’ve got a lot of, well… shenanigans, more or less… to enjoy. The film begins with Zatoichi happily asleep in the prow of a ferryboat in his fetching old lady head-scarf, when the boat is unexpectedly commandeered by a gang of yakuza. Annoyed by this interruption, Ichi manages to silently steal their leader’s sword and slash his face with it before he is unceremoniously pushed into the river. Returning to his slumber as he dries out on the riverbank, he is saved from the gang’s subsequent wrath by the intervention of another fugitive swordsman with a strangely familiar look about him.

Wondering into the nearest town oblivious to the confrontation that went down whilst he was asleep, Ichi is engaged in his capacity as a masseur by an emissary of a high-ranking Edo aristocrat. When he gets to work on his new client however, it turns out that the man is clearly insane, or else has succumbed to some kind of chronic mental deficiency. Unperturbed, Ichi departs through the back entrance with his modest pay packet, only to immediately find himself challenged by a trio of well-dressed samurai. Turns out that the aristocrat’s retainers don’t much like the idea of a humble masseur spreading rumours about their master’s condition, and have sent the boys out to shut him up permanently. Well, Ichi reflects sadly as the samurai lie dead at his feet ten seconds later, if they wanted me to keep quiet, they could have just asked nicely. Instead they sent out the swordsmen, so what’s a guy to do?

Whereas in the first film, Ichi was reticent about engaging in conflict, and largely avoided being drawn into it, here he seems to get into trouble wherever he turns, and, with yakuza and samurai already turning the town upside down in search of him by the end of the first reel, he retreats to the comfort of a friendly inn, only to find his troubles deepening even further.

Whilst sipping his sake in a quiet corner, Ichi gets to know a working girl named Setsu (Yaeko Mizutani) who seems to have taken an immediate shine to him.(2) Entering into a mood of reverie, he declares that Setsu reminds him very much of a lady named Ochiyo, the former love of his life, who some years earlier was stolen away from him by another man, a rogue whose duplicity during their ensuing confrontation was responsible for causing Ichi's blindness.

Following this surprisingly casual info-dump of back story, things become tense – to say the least – when it becomes clear that the man who stole Ochiyo from Ichi is actually also present at the bar, and also competing for Setsu’s attentions. Yes, it’s that same mysterious warrior who protected Ichi back at the riverbank. Apparently he is a notorious bandit, on the run from the law along with a craven sidekick... and he does have a *very* familiar caste to his features.

From here, things begin to crossover with the events of the first film to a considerable extent, as it turns out that Ichi is returning to the district where the events of ‘Tale..’ took place, to visit the grave of the slain samurai Hirate a year after his death. Before long, the ever-multiplying mob of bad guys with a grudge against our hero have teamed up with the treacherous yakuza boss whose forces Ichi reluctantly led to victory in the first film, meaning his gang is consequently on his tail too. (This diversion also allows Otane (Masayo Banri), heroine of the first film, to reappear for a slightly pointless but nicely played cameo that sees her now engaged to a local carpenter, but still weeping over her missed chance with Ichi.(3))

As all interested parties proceed to converge upon the shrine where Ichi is busy paying his respects, an obligatory showdown seems inevitable, but, of course, the presence of that mysterious bandit will lend proceedings a far greater significance than that of our hero just swatting a few top-knotted flies...

Though a tad rushed, perhaps a bit more hit n’ miss it it’s cinematic style than it's predecessor, and riddled with minor inconsistencies, ‘..Continues’ nonetheless remains a powerful and involving business, elevated by a heavy dose of personal history and fateful conflict, and driven forward by excellent performances from Katsu, his real life brother Tomisaburô Wakayama (um.. spoiler-alert?), and Yaeko Mizutani, all of whom rise above the material at hand to deliver a substantial emotional wallop in places.(4)

All the action is a lot of fun too of course – effectively staged by Mori with much use of many intricately planned, low and high angle ‘battlefield overview’ type shots - but on the whole ‘..Continues’ remains a very downbeat film, low on comic relief and full of petty frustrations that boil over into a thoroughly doomed fugue by the time we reach the final reel. Ichi’s grief at the death of his brother (um.. double spoiler alert - sorry..) is genuinely harrowing, an incredible feat of physical acting from Katsu, but an extremely rushed ending with a confused, fatalistic tone rather dilutes the overall impact, leaving us feeling a bit disconnected from the apparently pointless pain and strife we’ve just witnessed, memories of the touching companionship we witnessed during Ichi’s scenes with Setsu long gone as our man ploughs on blankly through his allotted menu of carnage.

Far from the abstract, ‘Man With No Name’ type hero we might have naturally expected him to become, Zatoichi has actually acquired a pretty extensive back story by the end of this instalment, with a mysterious lost love, a tragically slain brother, several ongoing friendships, innumerable grudges and the continued affections of several living women all casting a shadow over his immediate future. The abrupt splice cut that prematurely ends the film doesn’t allow him his traditional ‘walking into the sunset’ moment, but even if it did, Ichi would still have exited this film as a man with a lot on his mind, the blood he has been obliged to spill over the course of the preceding seventy minutes having done little to resolve his troubles, or anyone else's for that matter.


(1) Like Inuzuka and Misumi, Mori was another industry veteran, having directed his first film in 1937. Unlike his venerable colleagues however, he appears to have kept up a frantic film-making schedule through the sixties, turning in about 4 or 5 movies a year, including two further Zatoichi instalments, before slowing down (or at least moving to TV) at the start of the ‘70s.

(2) Though this was Mizutani’s only appearance in a Zatoichi film, her other credits include ‘Oban’s Dripping Contest’ (1961), ‘Hero of the Red Light District’ (1960) and ‘Sleepy Eyes of Death: Hell is a Woman’ (1965), all of which I mention solely because I enjoyed typing the titles so much.

(3) Could the apparent propensity of all women who cross Ichi’s path to fall head over heels for his charms be pointing the way toward an ongoing series of egocentric, Bond-style seductions in future instalments? Only time will tell, but I kinda hope not.

(4) Though he sits very much in his Katsu’s shadow here, Wakayama went on to match and arguably surpass his brother’s fame (in the West, at least) thanks to his starring role in the legendary ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ series (1972-75) – a series that sits roughly midway through the actor's impressively vast catalogue of Japanese genre movie appearances, which stretches from 1955 right through to his death in 1992. He returned to the Zatoichi series once more, playing a different character (I assume?) in ‘Zatoichi And The Chest of Gold’ (1964).

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

This Week’s Wheatley:
To The Devil – A Daughter
(Arrow Books, 1960 / first published 1953)

To put it plainly, I’m not really a fan of Dennis Wheatley (1897 - 1977). Although “the prince of thriller writers” (as he is heralded on the inside cover of this paperback) wrote extensively on a number of subjects that greatly appeal to me – Satanic cults, adventure on the high seas, exploration of lost/ancient civilisations, and so on – the authorial voice and general tone of his prose makes it impossible for me to ever get very far with one of his books.

I don’t know enough about Wheatley’s personal life and proclivities to start throwing ‘-ist’ words at him, but… how best to put this? Trying to read a Wheatley book is a bit like being trapped in the back room of a private members club in Calcutta in the 1920s, being interminably lectured by a drunken British cavalry colonel. Not so much ‘old world’ as actively ploughing backwards into the past, it’s easy to imagine Wheatley snorting with derision at the work of his ‘modernist’ literary contemporaries, naturally assuming that his rip-roaring tales of melodramatic daring-do are infinitely superior works, just because, well, it’s bloody obvious, isn’t it? They've got STORIES, and such.

Even more distressingly, Wheatley seems to have combined his cheery advocacy of Victorian colonial imperialism with an adherence to a strict Manichean belief system that saw him banging on – apparently in earnest - about the eternal battle between good and evil at every possible opportunity… which can’t possibly be a healthy combination, I’m thinking.

Nonetheless though, given my interests in old horror films, pulp fiction and so on, a certain amount of Wheatley contamination is inevitable. As I’ve mentioned several times before on this blog, I absolutely love Hammer’s adaptation of ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (to some extent precisely because the pompous attitudes that render the novel unbearable become wonderfully entertaining when transferred to an 80 minute genre movie), and for one reason or another Dennis’s name crops up more frequently on my shelves than that of many an author who I actually like.

Case in point is this edition of ‘To the Devil a Daughter’, the cover of which provides such a knock-out bit of straight-down-the-line horror-pulp artistry, I just couldn’t say no. (Cover artist is uncredited as per usual, but signature in the bottom left corner reads ‘Sax’?)

Staring at this cover, and reading the equally evocative list of chapter headings, really makes me wish that Hammer had stuck to a similarly old school approach when they came to film this one, rather than belatedly turning in some kind of muddled, post-Omen ‘70s thriller type effort complete with creepy jailbait nudity and the worst “oh shit, we forgot to film an ending” ending in cinema history. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.

(In fairness, it’s been a long time since I saw Hammer’s ‘To The Devil a Daughter’, and I know it has its supporters… maybe it’s about time I gave it another shot..?)

For no particular reason, several more Wheatley-related posts to come over the next few weeks!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Franco Files:
Venus In Furs


‘Paroxismus’ (Italy?), ‘Black Angel’ (pre-release/script title), ‘To Fantasma tis Afroditis’ (“The Ghost of Venus”, Greece).


Beginning in about mid-1968, Jess Franco spent a couple of years on the payroll of maverick British producer Harry Alan Towers – a typically frantic period that saw the director signing his name (well, ONE OF his names) to a total of nine films. Whilst Towers’ production muscle succeeded in bringing bigger budgets and closer brushes with ‘respectability’ to Franco pictures though, the producer’s overbearing influence also often seemed to stifle Franco’s rogue creativity, leading to a body of work that can be broadly summarised as a load of old rubbish, a few missed opportunities, and at the top of the heap, two or three shining examples of Franco-genius where everything came together just as it should.(1)

And thankfully today, we’re looking at one of the latter. As was the case with most of his collaborations with Towers, Franco had a handful of slumming ‘name’ actors and a wide variety of international locations to work with here, but, unlike the confused literary adaptations and run of the mill genre exercises that comprised much of the rest of their joint output, 1969's ‘Venus In Furs’ gave the director a chance to funnel these attributes into a more personal project, delivering a commercially viable film that also allowed him to work through some of his characteristic obsessions with… well, a certain degree of freedom, at least.(2)

Often singled out as the Franco film that non-Franco fans are most likely to appreciate, and rated by many as his best work, ‘Venus..’ isn’t really a personal favourite of mine, but, taken on a purely technical level, it is certainly one of our hero’s more cohesive and accomplished efforts.


According to Franco, the seed for what eventually became ‘Venus In Furs’ was planted after a conversation he had at some point with the legendary jazz musician Chet Baker. Therein, Baker held forth about the strange stories & visions that unfolded in his mind whilst he was on-stage playing a solo, and, inspired by this idea, Franco hit upon the notion of making a film about a celebrated black trumpet player in the Miles Davis mould, who falls in love with a ghostly, white woman whilst lost in musical reverie.

As Franco tells it, Towers and the film’s potential American backers knocked hell out of this noble idea, insisting that audiences in the ‘States weren’t ready to accept a black, male protagonist, and so, reluctantly, Franco agreed to reverse the races of the two leads. Later claiming that this decision “tore the guts” out of his original vision, Jess nonetheless ploughed on with developing the project, which somewhere along the line got mixed up with the latest reiteration of his perpetual “avenging ghost of dead woman kills two blokes and a lady whilst falling in love with a living man” story, this time starring Towers’ number one lady, Maria Rohm.

In fact, the variation on that theme here veers so close to the narrative of the previous year’s Necronomicon that ‘Venus..’ practically becomes a slightly refined remake of that film. Seeing as how ‘Necronomicon’ was still doing brisk business in American theatres at the time under the name ‘Succubus’, the US backers were presumably not adverse to this development. ‘Venus..’ was eventually distributed by AIP in the ‘States, and all of Franco’s beloved jazz stuff – though still present – fell increasingly into the background as production went on.

To some extent, the art-house pretentions of ‘Necronomicon’ are revisited here along with the story - witness for instance the elegant “jet set party” in which members of the “Greek Riviera yachting crowd” appear frozen in statue-like still-life - whilst the ponderous beatnik narration of James Darren as the Chet Baker-esque trumpeter protagonist plays just as prominent a role in the English language version as the equivalent voiceovers did in the earlier film. Whilst still peppered with ridiculous nonsense though (“I tried not to remember why I had buried my horn..”), the narration here is nonetheless a lot weirder and funnier than the heavy-handed, self-aware blather of ‘Necronomicon’s English dub, with some pretty entertaining passages of soul-searching hep-cat jive going down, at times almost exactly replicating the loopy, first person drawl of a Bob Tralins-esque pulp novel.

James Darren has a bit of a “guy you get if you can’t get David Hemmings” kinda vibe about him, but he’s young and keen, and he actually emerges as one of Franco’s more engaging male protagonists, mixing lost-little-boy good looks and world-ravaged intensity to great effect. (And if Franco’s vision for the character perhaps didn’t stretch much beyond “BE LIKE CHET BAKER”, Darren certainly does his best to deliver.)

Initially, I thought that this mixed up horn player might be a bit of a one-off character in the Franco-verse, but actually of course, he fits right in: both as a more interesting successor to Jack Taylor’s character in ‘Necronomicon’, and as a direct forerunner of Taylor’s wondering poet in 1972’s ‘Female Vampire’, a film that in many ways is just as much a remake of ‘Venus..’ as ‘Venus..’ is a remake of ‘Necronomicon’ - a perfect example of how the cyclical logic of Franco’s ur-narrative blends and changes while the central riff plays on.

This archetype of the questing male artist whose psychic sensitivity locks him into a doomed love/obsession scenario with the ever-present female ghost/revenger is of course Franco’s way to hook the audience into the idea that is the central thematic concern of all these films (and of all ‘Bride Wore Black’ type revenge stories in general, when ya think about it): the matter of blind, unalterable cosmic fate.

This ever-present theme is particularly strongly communicated by the key scene in ‘Venus In Furs’ that sees Maria Rohm’s Wanda murdered by a trio of jaded aristocrats (Klaus Kinski, Dennis Price and Italian pop cinema regular Margaret Lee, for anyone keeping score). The sequence plays out slowly and theatrically, almost like a fairytale, heavily emphasising the obsession with fate that seems to fixate Franco whenever he wheels out this story. He even throws in tinted ‘flash-forwards’ from Kinski’s pre-murder face to the later scene of his own demise, just to drive the point home: these sadists may think they're in control of their destiny, but whether they know it or not, they're already victims.

Perhaps more interesting though are the repercussions of the fact that James Darren’s character passively witnesses Wanda’s murder – not an aspect of the story I can remember being passed across to many of its other variations.

“Man it was a wild scene,” reflects the trumpeter’s voiceover, “but if they wanted to go that rough, that was their bag”. The notion that Darren’s character on some level enjoys witnessing Wanda’s degradation is raised at several points in the film, and the implication that this romantic ‘innocent’ is thus in some way party to the crimes of Kinski & co. certainly throws some interesting twists into the formula.

Certainly, the strange fate that awaits Darren at the film’s conclusion can most usefully be read as the result of his realising too late that he too has been one of Wanda’s victims all along, rather than the post-revenge love interest he naively assumed himself to be, whilst the implications of his taking pleasure from viewing a sexualised murder taking place, then subsequently believing himself free of guilt, also provides unsettling commentary on the nexus of sadism and voyeurism at the heart of Franco’s cinema, obliquely suggesting that there is a stern moral judgement waiting to be passed on filmmaker and viewer alike.

All of which sounds pretty high-minded I suppose, but, this being Franco, there are of course some glaring flaws that prevent ‘Venus In Furs’ from ever becoming the mythic Franco ‘masterpiece’ that you could screen for your Film Studies lecturer and expect to get away with it.

For one thing, the movie is full of totally pointless, Mondo-esque stock footage of the Rio Carnival (presumably shot when Franco was in South America making ‘The Girl From Rio’ and ‘The Blood of Fu Manchu’ for Towers the previous year). And for another, the a-cappella musical sting that plays after each of Wanda’s revenge murders (y’know, that “Venus in furs will be smiling” one) is just incredibly infuriating - so heavy-handed and inappropriate that it almost kills the effectiveness of those scenes stone-dead.(3)

And the numerous scenes between Darren and his ‘real life’ girlfriend Rita (played by singer Barbara McNair) are also a bit of a drag, to be honest. Presumably the last remaining vestiges of Franco’s original “black trumpeter falls in love with a blonde goddess” storyline, these segments seem to have been preserved long after whatever point they're trying to make vanished from the script. They are interesting in that they play closer to a straight relationship drama than anything you’d usually see in Franco film, but sadly they’re also quite dull, and the ‘love triangle’ aspect of the story never really gels, wasting valuable time with what one suspects is only a pale echo of Franco’s original vision.


Whilst ‘Venus In Furs’ has absolutely nothing to do with the Sacher-Masoch book of the same name (AIP insisted on the title for some reason, and Franco grudgingly obliged by having Maria Rohm wear furs in a few scenes), ironically it does to some extent reflect the director’s genuine interest in the works of the Marquis DeSade. The sex & sadism of Wanda’s murder scene in particular is amped up beyond anything else Franco had filmed up to this point in his career, and there's certainly a lot more waist-up nudity and (non-explicit) sex scenes here than I remember seeing in any of his earlier films, whilst the pain/pleasure dynamic of the whole thing is emphasised pretty strongly in Rohm’s grimly ambiguous performance.

Furthermore, it struck me whilst revisiting the film for this review that, between Rohm’s black bob wig, the occasional fetishisation of camera equipment and the extensive use of mirrors and fractured frames amid moments of elegant, stocking-fixated S&M, ‘Venus In Furs’ actually comes pretty close at times to replicating the style of renowned erotic comics genius Guido Crepax. (Despite the frequent stylistic cross-over between their work, I’m not aware that Franco ever admitted to admiring, or even being aware of, Crepax, so it is possible that the similarities are entirely coincidental; after all, they were basically both just horny devils with a good artistic eye and a thing for Louise Brooks haircuts, weren’t they?)



Following ‘Necronomicon’s lead, ‘Venus In Furs’ continues Franco’s determination to frame his supernatural horror stories in a manner that completely rejects the clichés of ‘60s gothic horror film-making. As such, it is difficult to really think of ‘Venus..’ as being very “horror-y”, even though the violence is quite strong for the period and the weight of eternal doom hangs heavy over the characters.

The one exception to this rule is the scene of Wanda’s murder, which seems to knowingly wink in the direction of the gothic, taking place as it does in a candle-lit stone dungeon complete with an ornate wrought-iron grating through which Darren’s character observes the action, and a variable light source that seems to flash on and off every few seconds. Whether this is meant to represent some extremely unrealistic lightning, a swinging overhead light fixture (very noir) or simply some wild, non-diegetic stylistic quirk, I’m unsure, but it is certainly very effective, shading us from what we imagine to be fleeting moments of unseen brutality, even as the erotically-charged violence of the scenario is laid bare, setting the agenda for what is basically an inventive and unusual ‘ghost movie’ with suitably ghoulish aplomb.


Pulp Thrills:

Though it is not really ‘pulp cinema’ in the same sense as Franco’s pre-‘Necronomicon’ genre movies, ‘Venus..’ nonetheless perfectly epitomises the kind of “Mediterranean cocktail lounge erotic apocalypse” aesthetic that would go on to dominate his work for years to come, and that could easily have found itself replicated in some luridly jacketed airport best-seller later in the '70s.

Plus, you know – beatniks, hep-cat jive-talk, etc.

It would have been easy have go with 1 or 2 on this one, but instead I’m gonna give it…


Altered States:

‘Venus In Furs’ begins as only a Franco flick can, with shaky travelogue footage of Istanbul, and the shadow of a pair of hands resting against the glass of a hotel window overlooking the shimmering sea… by which point fans will have relaxed, safe in the knowledge that Uncle Jess is at the controls, whilst his detractors conversely will be preparing for the worst. Once the film gets going however, both camps may find themselves adjusting their expectations slightly...

For instance, whilst the flashback / flash-forward structure and general atmosphere of freaked out zaniness tend to render ‘Venus..’ a disorientating experience for those watching with one eye elsewhere, attentive viewers will soon cop to the fact that the film is actually a very linear and well-constructed example of Franco’s narrative technique, telling a simple story with circular thematic unity and barely any loose ends, and utilising a system of imagery that, by and large, remains coherent throughout.

Dig for example the way that characters involved in the central revenge narrative are repeatedly framed, tableau-like, against bright red walls. These shots are spread throughout the film, all leading up to a breath-taking concluding image of Maria Rohm stretched out & comatose on a tiled floor, coldly observed by her erstwhile victims as they lean against the walls of a deep red ‘ghost room’, the symbolism of which recalls the otherworldly terror-spaces of David Lynch’s films, as Wanda’s karma is demonstrated to have gone full circle; an idea that is powerfully conveyed without the use of any crude explanatory dialogue or join-the-dots exposition.

Also notable by its relative absence here is the kind of in-camera ‘experimentalism’ that characterised so many of Franco's films. A few of his trademark wobbly zooms and focus-blurring transition shots can still be found, but by and large I think, Towers kept Franco on a tight leash technically-speaking, and as a result most of the footage here is properly framed, in focus and professionally lit, leaving Jess to conjure his preferred atmosphere of psychedelic delirium through more conventional means of jagged angles, kaleidoscopic mirrors, jarring cuts, weird interior décor and wild music – all of which works excellently, elevating central sequences such as the murders of Price and Kinski to dizzying heights of sado-orgasmic revelry, whilst also no doubt earning the director a few box-ticks from viewers who lack patience with his usual diet of wandering zooms, incidental detail and fuzzed out extreme close-ups. (Interestingly, 'Venus..' also utilises a lot of slow-motion, tinted colours, solarized shots, and other post-production tricks that were presumably beyond the director's means as his budgets hit the poverty line and his workload multiplied over the next few years).

The film’s jazz elements also add greatly to its overall success I think. The notion that Franco “makes films like jazz” has become a bit of a truism amongst commentators on his work, but rarely did he make a film that  reflects his love of music as directly as this one – indeed, you can see him right there during the film’s performance scenes, laying it down on trombone, bass and piano alongside James Darren (a genuine trumpet player) and members of Manfred Mann’s late ‘60s ensemble ‘Chapter 3’.

Mann and his long-time collaborator Mike Hugg were deep into their own twisted jazz groove by this point, and hiring them to provide the soundtrack to this movie was an inspired move, even if, as is par for the course in a Franco film, I’m uncertain how much of what we eventually hear during the film’s other scenes actually originated with the credited composers.(4) (The American print of the film under review here includes a bunch of fairly generic sounding orchestral library cues, and then there’s that damn ‘Venus in Furs’ jingle to account for too…).

Anyway, regardless, the film’s jazz scenes are really cool, conveying a smoky, sweaty authenticity that captures the joy and swing of a weed-fuelled late night session via roving camera-work, snappy editing and some hot playing... and there are a lot of other good music moments to enjoy here too.

Barbara McNair’s best scene by far arrives when she delivers a great, ‘Stones-esque tough-ballad entitled either ‘Let’s Get Together’ or ‘I Got A Feeling’ (toss you a coin for it), whilst writhing around horizontally on a blue-tiled nightclub floor as the band rocks out behind her! (Fans will note that this is the closest ‘Venus In Furs’ gets to a kinky nightclub scene, which surely means it can’t POSSIBLY qualify as "the perfect Jess Franco film", right?). My favourite bit of music in ‘Venus..’ though has got to be the demonic, Bruno Nicolai-esque bass pulse that builds into a totally whacked out, atonal horn freakout whilst Dennis Price meets his demise – far out, man! (I'm guessing that one at least  is a Mann/Hugg joint.)

Through use of this musical heavy weather and formalist visual beat-down, Franco’s original idea of a dream / reality disjuncture occurring in the mind of a wigged out jazz musician is actually still communicated pretty well by ‘Venus In Furs’, even as that notion becomes pretty marginalised within the script. With the precise points at which Darren’s external reality blurs into Wanda’s internal dream-space remaining, as they should, extremely unclear, we are left with a film that is as trippy as anything Franco made in the ‘70s whilst also as cohesive as anything made by... well, you know, a ‘normal’ film director. Win/win? You tell me.



One of Harry Alan Towers’ characteristically insane international co-productions, ‘Venus In Furs’ appears to have been filmed all over the place – Rome (in Carlo Ponti’s house!), Istanbul, Barcelona, Rio, maybe other places besides – but nonetheless, it somehow lacks the strong sense of place that pervades so many of Franco’s other productions.

Though some of it was undoubtedly shot by the man himself, the location-work in Istanbul and Rio feels very much like stock footage, crudely inserted around scenes shot on sets (actual SETS on a Franco film ferchrissake, what’s that all about?), and anonymous interiors that could have been filmed anywhere.

Occasional nice things do still stand out at times: a scene in which Darren and Rohm flee from the cops features a network of ancient, overhanging streets, presumably in Istanbul, that very much recalls the still-unidentified location that was put to such good use back in The Diabolical Dr. Z, and this actually leads on to a brief but snappily edited car chase(!) through some similarly colourful Turkish neightbourhoods.

For the most part though, as our dashing trumpeter himself puts it; “When you don’t know where you’re at, man, I tell ya, time is like the ocean..” - a statement that ironically makes a pretty good criticism of many of the less successful films Jess Franco turned in over the years.



Having basically said a lot of broadly positive things about ‘Venus In Furs’ above, I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to trying to express in words why the film leaves me a little cold. Whether viewed from within the Francoverse or outside it, it is certainly a richly accomplished and stylistically daring example of late ‘60s horror/exotica, with a great deal to recommend it, but… I dunno, man. Somehow it just feels a bit emotionally distant to me.

Maybe, speaking as a fan of Franco’s far more ragged and damaged ‘70s work, I just end up seeing this one as the equivalent of his shiny, well-produced major label album; it’s cool as far as it goes, and I can’t really fault it much, but… given the choice, you’ll always be more likely to find me chilling with the rough demos of the same material, or the weird drunken live album, if you get my drift.

(1) That may not sound like much of a compliment, but whatever your opinion of him, I think Jess Franco actually achieved a better hit rate than any of Towers’ other pet directors. Just try making it alive through a double bill of ‘Circus of Fear’ and ‘House of 1,000 Dolls’ if you want to get an idea of the sheer tedium involved in your average, non-Franco H.A.T. production.

(2) Whilst it was Towers’ influence that first brought them together, it is interesting to note that both Klaus Kinski and Dennis Price apparently found working with Franco sufficiently agreeable that they went on to collaborate with him again on some far cheaper productions during the ‘70s.

(3) Who the hell came up with this stupid jingle anyway, and how did it end up in the film..?! Given that Franco disapproved of the ‘Venus In Furs’ name and his claims he lost control of the final cut, it is reasonable to assume it wasn’t *his* fault, and it doesn’t really bear much resemblance to the rest of Mann & Hugg’s work on the movie either, so who knows…

(4) Check out Mann’s overlooked ‘Chapter Three’ LP, also from ’69, if you don’t believe me. It ain’t no ‘Quinn The Eskimo’, but it’s as fine a slice of moody, creeped out jazz-rock as you could possibly wish for, with some definite Italo-soundtrack overtones too. Recommended.