Sunday 20 April 2014

Franco Files:
Lorna the Exorcist


‘Les Possédées du Diable’, ‘Caresses de Chattes’, ‘Les Possédées du Démon’ [all titles used in France?], ‘Exorcism’ [Norway], ‘Sexy Diabolic Story’ [Italy], ‘Linda’ [U.S.A.], ‘Kleine Feeksen Maken Veel Heibel’ [‘Little Vixens Make a Lot of Fuss’(!), Belgium]


For my money, Jess Franco’s artistic (if not commercial) peak as a filmmaker came in the early ‘70s, around the time he began making extremely low budget movies for French producer Robert deNesle.(1) I can’t pretend to know much about deNesle, or Franco’s working relationship with him, but I can at least state my belief that many of the films that resulted – as highlighted by Mondo Macabro’s recent DVD releases of ‘Sinner’, ‘Countess Perverse’, ‘Plaisir à Trois’ aka ‘How To Seduce A Virgin’, and ‘Lorna the Exorcist’ – are very good indeed.(2)

As such, it is high time we got around to looking at some of them in this review strand. On a personal note, it was my initial viewing of 1974’s ‘Lorna The Exorcist’ that first convinced me that, more than just being some zany Euro-trash guy, Jess Franco at his best is a cinematic artist well worth paying attention to, with no disclaimers and quotation marks needed. So, this is one I’ve been building up to for a while, I guess.

One of Franco’s darkest and most troubling films, ‘Lorna..’ apparently proved just as unapproachable for ‘70s distributors and audiences as it does for 21st century reviewers, leading to what is probably one of the more convoluted and unfortunate release histories in a filmography full of convoluted and unfortunate release histories. Intermittently ignored, shortened, recut, redubbed, retitled and shopped around Europe and the USA in various states of disrepair through the remainder of the ‘70s, it was perhaps most widely seen in a truncated version that cut sections of the original film together with unrelated hardcore sex scenes.

As a result, Mondo Macabro’s heroic restoration of what they claim is the closest possible approximation of Franco’s original cut of the film splices together material taken from a multitude of prints and audio sources, leading to a viewing experience that is sometimes choppy, ragged and damaged… but would we really want it any other way? Looking like a film that's only barely escaped from some lost, night-haunted dungeon of euro-smut dementia, the resurrected ‘Lorna..’ is an absolute masterpiece of crazed, marginal cinema, and I bow before MM for bringing it to us in its (more-or-less) complete form.


First thing to note, in case you were wondering, is that ‘Lorna the Exorcist’ features no exorcists and no exorcisms (although by god, the characters could certainly do with some by the halfway point). Actually, the film’s most widely used title is a misnomer several times over, given that Lorna is the name of the supernatural presence whose influence a would-be exorcist would be called upon to get rid of, but you know how it is – European cinema was so exorcist-mad in the wake of Friedkin’s original, I’m sure deNesle could probably have just pulled out an old gladiator movie or something, called it “Hey Hey It’s Exorcist Time!” and still made money, so let’s just be glad he got behind this film instead, regardless of what he called it.

In brief then, ‘Lorna The Exorcist’ concerns the Faustian pact made by a weak-willed businessman (Guy Delorme) with the titular Lorna Green (Pamela Stanford), a mysterious woman whom he meets and indulges in a one-night stand with whilst trying to earn some dough in a seafront casino.(3) We don’t learn all this until a flashback sequence midway through the film, but the basic gist of their agreement is that Lorna’s magic will ensure his wealth and success in the coming years… but that his first born daughter belongs to her.(4)

Nineteen years later, the man is living in moneyed splendour with his wife (Jacqueline Laurent), and his daughter Linda, who, conceived around the time of his dalliance with Lorna, has now grown up into the shapely form of Lina Romay. (Hope you’ve got all those L names straight.)

With Lorna long-forgotten, the family are planning a holiday to celebrate Linda’s 18th birthday, when Dad unexpectedly gets a call. The time has come for Lorna to claim what is hers, and she commands that the family return to the site of the father’s original bargain/seduction to make the delivery. Unable to refuse, but limply determined to try to do something to save his daughter once they get there, Dad changes their travel plans accordingly, and the scene is set for a very unhappy holiday indeed.

Kink & Creepitude:

In looking at this particular film, I decided that the only possible option was to combine these two categories, simply because the ‘sex’ and ‘horror’ elements within ‘Lorna..’ are so thoroughly intertwined that attempting to examine them separately would be an impossible task.

Several times in earlier reviews (cf: Macumba Sexual, Doriana Gray), I have touched upon Jess Franco’s unique conception of the ‘sex horror’ film. At the risk of repeating myself, Franco's basic approach is to side-step the more common practice of simply throwing sex into a horror framework (or vice versa), and to instead make films in which the sex *becomes* the horror, and in which horror arises from the sex, pulling the (assumedly hetero-male) viewer’s libido into strange and frightening new places in the process – a goal that I think ‘Lorna..’ realises more powerfully than any other film he ever made.

Before the horror gets underway however, the film does at least begin in conventionally ‘sexy’ fashion. Right from the opening moments (after a rather generic credits sequence that indulges Franco’s love of random foliage footage), we’ve got Pamela Stanford kissing a full length mirror and rubbing herself through diaphanous gown before reclining, legs spread, on a bed as Lina appears, similarly under-clothed, at her French windows. So far, all this is plotless, contextless – for all we know, we could just be watching some old porno loop, but nonetheless, it is somehow completely entrancing, even when stretched across the better part of ten minutes.

The haunting, cyclical electric guitar melody and ‘floating’ camerawork, the eerie slo-mo drift of the women’s movements and Stanford’s frankly mental make-up & wig all contribute to a thoroughly oneiric experience that’s more akin to a Jonas Mekas/Jack Smith style experimental short than yr average softcore bump n’ grind, forcing even the most sceptical of viewers to admit that a skilled filmmaker, fully engaged with the material, is behind the camera here… even as he finally gives in to the urge to hit the zoom and zero in on somebody’s beaver every thirty seconds.(5)

So far then, we’re basically just watching an unusually well-made porn film, but nonetheless, there is a strange ritualistic feel to this opening dream sequence that prefigures the horrible abuses of the sexual urge (both the characters’ and the viewers’) that will follow through the next ninety minutes, as ‘Lorna..’s sexual content gradually drops this conventional/comforting vibe completely and begins more to resemble some kind of transgressive art-porn assault-film, taking jaded Euro-sleaze fans way outside their preferred comfort zone with a fevered intensity and sense of suffocating WRONG-ness that rarely lets up.

Strangely, our first hint that there is something a bit more unsettling than usual going on here comes via an inexplicable sub-plot that features Franco himself playing a doctor in a rather cramped looking lunatic asylum (make of that what you will), treating a writhing mad woman with an aversion to pants. Presented with no overt connection to rest of the story, this character/set-up is of course a reoccurring motif in Franco’s films (see Dracula: Prisoner of Frankenstein, for example).

On one level, the inclusion of a hospitalised mad-woman can be seen as a cheap way to raise an “is it all in her mind..?” type psycho-psychedelic dilemma, or just as a bit of bonus titillation or random space-filling weirdness, but the disturbing significance of this archetype within the endlessly self-referential ebb and flow of Franco’s work was fully uncovered a few years later in ‘Doriana Gray’, and that film’s big reveal is perhaps prefigured here as the actress – whom we might most sensibly assume to be one of Lorna’s prior ‘victims’ - goes about her freaked out writhing in a manner far too fractured and agonised to rouse anything other than deep uneasiness in the viewer in spite of her gratuitous nudity, as her hysteria seems to build in parallel with the film’s main plot - her psychic connection to Lorna or Linda (or both) presumably cueing her in to events as they transpire.

From here, we’ll bypass a lot of story set-up stuff and another, slightly more sinister, dream (OR IS IT?) coupling between Lorna and Linda, clearly setting the scene for the latter’s psychic domination by the former, and move on to what is probably one of the most shocking and bizarre moments in Franco’s entire filmography – the bit best referred to simply as the “literal case of the crabs” scene, wherein Lorna’s vengeful black magic bestows a terrible fate upon Linda’s biological mother.

A pretty pivotal scene in the movie, this is where the gloves really come off, so to speak. A total WTF by anyone’s standards, it’s just… I mean … crabs?! What? Why, in god’s name, Jess, why? What the hell were you thinking? Ok, so insert shots of some other poor lady’s vagina are clearly used for the close-ups, and there are no shots of the crabs, um, emerging or anything (thank god), but still, JESUS F-ING CHRIST JESS, what are you trying to do to us here..?

Grotesque as it is though, this madness does actually make perfect sense within Franco’s own cosmology. As Stephen Thrower perceptively points out in an interview included on the Mondo Macabro DVD, female genitalia is of course the relentless focus of Franco’s camera - the absolute centre of the sexual impulse that dominates his films. So to show this part of the body visibly contaminated by evil, inhabited by monsters… what more of a completely literal demonstration of the director’s sex = horror nightmare trip could you ask for..?

And after that, well… up to this point, we were simply watching another oddball Franco sex film, but after the crabs, there is a feeling that ANYTHING could happen, and, like any good horror director, Franco ruthlessly tightens the screws (no pun intended). Pre-crabs, the relationships within the family only seemed *slightly* strange, and the Linda/Lina seductions still had the potential to play as easy-going, soft-porn fun, but, post-crabs, all bets are off, and things quickly begin to become almost unbearably uncomfortable and fucked up.

Frankly, the idea of a family trapped in a cramped hotel room under heavy psychic assault from some sort of omniscient witch would be a frightening enough idea even without all the sexual ickyness, but Franco’s real genius in the last half hour of this film is the way he really goes all out on the sex/horror project, filling every moment with horror that is sexy, and sex that is horrific, refusing to allow viewers any kind of either/or get-out clause.

Perhaps on a pure, lizard brain level, the remaining Linda / Lorna scenes, or the sight of Linda writhing naked in front of her father, might be considered as sexy as anything in a more conventional erotic movie, but the way the director rampages fearlessly across usually unbreakable taboos here, pulling notions of familial dysfunction, mental illness and psychic cruelty into these emotionally excruciating sexual encounters is both daring and genuinely frightening. Attraction and repulsion, sex-drive and death-drive, fear and desire, animal lust vs. moral imperitive - these are the dualities at the core of every horror film, surely, and here Jess Franco sets out to explore them with a sledgehammer.

As Lorna begins insisting that she is Linda’s mother as she appears out of nowhere to seduce and/or abuse her ‘daughter’, both suckling and bloodily deflowering her shortly after the poor girl has witnessed the traumatic primal image of her biological mother writhing naked in unspeakable pain, and as we see Linda, utter madness in her eyes, offering herself spread-legged to her doomed father, well…. we’ve gone so far beyond the comfort zone of the kind of ‘raincoat brigade’ audience this film was ostensibly made for by this point, it’s a wonder Europe’s more sensitive perverts weren’t fleeing from the cinemas in tears.

Not in any way a vision of a ‘cool’ or aspirational witch, Pamela Stanford’s Lorna eventually looks flat-out insane as she looms over Linda, waiting to possess her soul. Her strength arising only from the brutality of her attack and the defencelessness of her victims, she is a desperate and twisted creature, looking like a vampire long deprived of blood, or a near-death Warhol circle junkie… kind of rat-like and almost physically falling apart beneath her OTT glam-rock make up as she frantically pushes herself into the fresh mind and body of the poor Linda.

“I am sterile, like all who come from beyond..”, Lorna declares at one point; such a striking and chilling line of dialogue. Despite obsessively pursuing sex, and feeding off the sexual subjugation of her victims, she can gain no satisfaction or relief whatsoever from it, and it is the horror inspired by the resulting emptiness that drives her to madness – a black-hearted judgement on the meaninglessness of abusive/pathological sexual behaviour perhaps, and a similar condition to that which afflicts many of the supernatural denizens of Franco’s sex-horror films, from ‘Female Vampire’ to ‘Doriana Gray’ and beyond.


Pulp Thrills:

Even with all of the above going on, Franco always had such a great feel for way-out modernist furnishings and peculiar pop-art visuals (see ‘sight-seeing’, below), and in particular, Lorna’s space age bachelor pad is absolutely amazing. It looks like any self-respecting ‘60s Euro-spy protagonist’s dream-home, and when Howard Vernon himself stomps in, playing a cameo as some kind of Morpho-like minion (inexplicably named Maurizius in the script, but fans will know he’s a Morpho really) and wallops Guy Delorme in the face with a spiky sea-shell…. well, that’s some kinda pulp movie heaven, right there.

Regarding the film’s more extreme sexual content, Pete Tombs in the notes accompanying the Mondo Macabro DVD draws a connection with the blood-curdling excesses of the numerous porno-horror fumetti that were popular in Europe at around the time this movie was made – not something that had occurred to me, but I can definitely see where he’s coming from vis-a-vis the constant, gratuitous nudity and surreal, puerile gross-ness often on display here.


Altered States:

As I hope has been made clear in the preceding sections of this review, ‘Lorna The Exorcist’ conveys a heavy, authentically nightmarish atmosphere at almost all times. Lorna’s ambiguous relationship to reality (is she a witch, an evil spirit, a ghost..?) and her sudden appearances and dreadful acts, together with the otherworldly angles and gleaming glass walls of the looming holiday complex and the “I can’t believe this is happening” disbelief expressed by the trapped and persecuted family all combine to take ‘Lorna The Exorcist’ way-out-there way quickly, as Franco manages to thoroughly trash our sense of reality, even whilst firmly rooted in a budget-conscious world of real-life location-shooting with minimal use of lighting, visual tricks or special effects.

This being a Franco film though, we’ve got to have at least some ‘down time’, and the most significant departure from the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere that dominates the rest of the films is – hey hey - the disco scene! I mean, you didn’t think Jess Franco was going to make a soul-destroying sex-horror film without one of those did you?

Clearly shot on the fly at a real discothèque with little in the way of pre-planning or staging, this sequence has a brutally drab, realist vibe to it that is completely at odds with the kind of glorious stylisation Franco usually brought to such scenarios. Filmed largely in fixed camera long-shot, it is hideously embarrassing for all concerned, and flat-out hilarious in places, revealing Lin(d)a & co. to be one weird family unit. Despite their uptight demeanour upon entering ‘the club’, the family immediately take a table and order scotch (“bring the bottle, it’s cheaper that way” (!)), before father, mother and daughter immediately get up and hit the dancefloor, nervously frugging to overdubbed library jazz amid the crowd of teenagers. Damnedest thing I ever saw, and the combination of Lina’s utterly misguided one-piece outfit (I won’t even try to describe it) and the artless, home movie feel of the scene just pushes it over the edge. A portrait of family life, Jess Franco style? I sure hope so.(6)

The stilted awkwardness of this sequence seems to characterise all of the movie’s sporadic attempt to have its characters interact with the ‘real’ world (check out the bit where Guy Delorme phones up the hotel concierge and basically says something like “could you send a doctor please, my wife has died, oh and by the way, I need a gun..” as if that was somehow normal behaviour), and ironically these lapses succeed in making the film feel even weirder, creating a sharp division between those imprisoned by Lorna’s malign influence, and those who are simply oblivious to it.

Like the film itself, André Bénichou’s music score takes a simple & cost-effective premise (solo electric guitar) and gradually renders it totally twisted, as the spidery, hypnotic melody that accompanies much of the film is gradually filtered through a woozy swamp of effects units (delay, wah-wah, distortion etc.) until it becomes completely unrecognisable, lending a horrible feeling of dread to the film’s more unwholesome sequences. Definitely one of the most distinctive and experimental scores ever commissioned for a Franco film.



The scene that introduces us to the family takes place in very grand, palatial interior that I’m SURE I remember seeing elsewhere in the Franco canon (‘Sinner?’, ‘Doriana’?). After that though, the majority of ‘Lorna..’ takes place in the purpose built ‘new city’ of La Grande-Motte, established in the late 1960s by architect Jean Balladur in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the South of France.

A jaw-dropping feat of near-fantastical modernist architecture, La Grande-Motte is a weird, package tour utopia, an artificial harbour dominated by ziggurat style pyramid-hotels incorporating towering, geometrically patterned walls of overlapping glass & steel. The perfect setting for a Jess Franco film in other words, and, inventively used by the director, it’s disorientating shapes and surfaces serve to give the ‘Lorna..’ an almost sci-fi feel a times (very much recalling Godard’s similar use of pre-existing architecture in ‘Alphaville’).

The positioning of ancient gothic horrors within this kind of futurist, post-war European landscape is of course a trait that runs through many of Franco’s films, and here place and theme seem to gel perfectly. More than ever, the location becomes a conscious part of the story, and the mid-film flashback sequence directly ties Lorna’s apparent ‘haunting’ of this holiday complex to the actual construction of the buildings within it. As her Faustian seduction of Linda’s father plays out, we cut away to shots of cranes and building crews, literally constructing the maze within which the characters are later trapped.

Lorna’s laconic voiceover describes the new development as “a doomed attempt to create something from the solitude”, raising the eerie notion that her spirit could have been roaming this uninhabited coastal hinterland since time immemorial, until the weird curves of newly constructed buildings once again allowed her to attain new, equally ‘modern’ physical form, returning once more to terrorise and feed off the living.



Lina, Linda, Lorna…. what does it all mean? And then he gives his ex-wife the credit for writing the ‘script’!(7) What was going through Jess Franco’s mind when he made this thing? Probably best not think too hard on the matter, if we want to get out of here alive. As with so many makers of mind-destroying, idiosyncratic art, chances are he didn’t think about it at all. I bet he just scribbled down a few ideas, set out with his cast and camera, did it, sent the reels back to the producer, went off to make the next one.

He’d already been through the same process dozens of times by this point, so who knows what strange stars were aligned for this one, but what emerged is I think possibly the best film he ever made: a horrifyingly visceral, uncompromising and utterly absorbing outpouring of freakish, Freudian nightmare. ‘Terrible’ in the literal, old fashioned sense of the word, it is a feverish anti-masterpiece in which the director’s usual b-movie fun and games become entirely possessed by the kind of dreadful, inexplicable power that is only hinted at in most of his other films.

Whilst ‘Lorna..’ still offers up all the kitschy good times fans might expect of an early ‘70s Franco production – gratuitous sex, weird architecture, psychedelic Mediterranean holiday vibes, ridiculous disco excursions, Pamela Stafford plastering on her make-up like house-paint, Howard Vernon bashing someone in the face with a seashell – it also captures a moment in which the maestro completely transcended his legend, producing a film whose unglued intensity pushes it more into the realm of Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’ or Walarian Borowczyk’s ‘Dr Jekyll et les Femmes’.

Aptly summed up by Thrower as “a film of profound unhealthiness”, ‘Lorna..’ is the kind of movie that all those ‘cinema of transgression’ goofballs from the ‘80s and ‘90s WISH they could have made, and it deserves to be seen as a cornerstone of any study of the kind of ‘sex-horror’ films that dare to take that label at face value.

(1) Non-Francophone readers may like to note that deNesle’s name is apparently pronounced DA-NELL, rather than DE-NESEL or somesuch – knowledge that may save you from ridicule the next time you are called upon to publically debate the merits of early ‘70s French soft-porn producers. Working as a producer since 1950, it appears deNesle had occasional brushes with respectability via projects like George Franju’s ‘Judex’ (1963), but his general output prior to hooking up with Franco can probably be more aptly represented by such titles as ‘Girl Merchants’ (1957), ‘The Night They Killed Rasputin’ (1960) and ‘Sadistic Hallucinations’ (1969). Check out his CV on IMDB – it’s a hoot.

(2)In fairness, there are a number of other, as-yet-unseen-by-me Franco / deNesle joints that we might assume to be of somewhat lesser quality - ‘Robinson and his Tempestuous Slaves’, ‘Celestine, an All-Around Maid’ and ‘The Lustful Amazons’ for instance - but I’m not writing any of them off until I’ve actually seen them.

(3) I probably won’t need to remind readers well-versed in Francology that Lorna Green was also the name of Janine Reynaud’s character in Necronomicon. Although their back stories are quite different, I suppose we could maybe *just about* accept the notion that this is a return appearance by the same character… the initial Lorna’s unquiet spirit still roaming about the Mediterranean coast after completing her initial spate of vengeance, sating her appetite with new victims, perhaps..? The idea’s there if you wanna run with it.

(4) Having not seen this film for a while before revisiting it for this review, I could have sworn that Jack Taylor played the role of the father… funny how the mind plays tricks on you (particularly when you keep force-feeding it Jess Franco films). To be honest, I kind of wish it was Jack Taylor. I like Jack Taylor.

(5) At this stage, Franco was still usually shooting softcore, but often pushing things to the very edge of hardcore, and whilst I have no particular desire to see explicit sex on screen, the rather silly close-ups here of the ladies waggling their tongues mere millimetres from each other’s pubes sort of make you wish he’d crossed the line and just got on with it.

(6) Whilst we’re on the subject of crap bits in the film, it’s also worth noting that the flashback sequence illustrating Lorna’s initial meeting with Lorna’s father is undermined by an absolutely interminable casino scene that just goes on and on, to no very clear purpose.

(7) Though I believe the couple were estranged by this point in the wake of Lina, Franco’s wife Nicole Guettard continued to work with him throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, often credited as a co-writer or “script supervisor” (what a job that must have been). So her appearance here isn’t entirely unexpected, but still… picking up the sole writing credit under her rarely used “Nicole Franco” name, on a film that focuses heavily on dysfunctional family relationships..? I can’t speak for the writing talents or proclivities of the former Mrs Franco, but I find it hard to believe anyone other than Jess wrote a word of this movie (assuming anyone ever wrote it down at all), and I can’t help suspecting there’s some kind of weird or cruel joke going on there somewhere, but it’s not my place to speculate. Trying to make sense of the credits on Jess Franco films is often a bit like trying to decode a cold war spy cypher or something, so who knows.


Neil Fulwood said...

Bravo! This is singularly the best appreciation of a Franco film I have yet read.

Soukesian said...

Great, great piece! (And another disc sold to Mondo Macabro!)

Elliot James said...

This is Franco's most disturbing film due mostly, in my opinion, to Pamela Stafford's look and performance, a blend of mental illness and icy-cool, supernatural maliciousness as well as Lina's waifish sexual delirium. Lorna's repulsive-looking. There's an atmosphere of creeping revulsion and disgust that permeates the film. As you point out, the "city of the future" location work adds a very different dimension since most of Franco's locations are either Gothic or tropical. It has the same textural feel as The Tenth Victim that used areas in Rome that looked atypical. Franco predates Cronenberg in his use of venereal horror with Lorna as the agent of infection and disease that destroys the family.