Perhaps one of the most prolific cult directors of all time, Jesús Franco Manera, though often shortened to Jess Franco, is a fascinating filmmaker to examine. While derided by many as purveyor of low brow smut (though he did make many pornographic films), Franco’s acolytes (lovingly referring to themselves as Francophiles) sing the praises of the Spanish schlockmeister.
In a career spanning over 150 films and several decades, Franco’s output could fill an entire book, so it stands to reason that his work can be a bit difficult to tackle at first.
With that said, I’ve narrowed down his massive oeuvre to five films that I feel best represent his unique aesthetic and approach to storytelling.
The Girl From Rio (1969)
Riding off the success of Barberella and Danger: Diabolik, Franco’s attempt at a groovy 60s espionage thriller is a tour de force in pop art action fun. Though a sequel to The Million Eyes of Sumuru, no prior viewing is necessary for this film. Instead, just embrace Richard Wyler as your discount James Bond and enjoy the lavish coastal scenery, hypnotic lounge music, and Franco’s penchant for capturing the majesty of unorthodox architecture.
From early Cronenberg-esque, sterile corporate compounds to space age torture chambers, it’s all beautifully captured, despite being outside Franco’s usual gothic wheelhouse.
A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973)
Originally titled The Night of Shooting Stars, this is arguably Franco at his most distilled. Creepy castles, shady aristocrats, and plenty of nudity, the film is Franco’s meditation on death and coming to terms with it. Released after the death of his long time muse Soledad Miranda, the film feels like his most personal, reflecting his emotional turmoil.
The final scene in which the protagonist is led hand in hand to her watery grave as the rest of the cast join her in succession is truly haunting. There’s a strong undercurrent of melancholic futility that pervades the film. The protagonist is haunted by morbid visions that hint at her inevitable demise, shot with the aid of a gorgeous washed out color palette and Franco’s trademark quick zooMcs5srPmBvwms to both baffle and entrance the audience.
She Killed in Ecstasy (1971)
One of Franco’s defining narrative traits was his emphasis on female leads, frequently employing several mainstays who are referred to as his muses. His first was Soledad Miranda, who passed away tragically in a car accident at the age of 27 in 1970. She Killed in Ecstasy feels very much like a gender reversal of the vigilante flicks that would become popular in the post-Death Wish cinematic landscape three years later: a woman’s scientist lover is driven to suicide by the colleagues who mock his experiments on fetuses. In response, she embarks on a killing spree, taking revenge on those who derided his work.
Franco is noted for reusing narrative patterns in his work, and this film in many ways is a spiritual successor to his 1966 film The Diabolical Dr Z. However, the film’s stabs at ideas such as intellectual snobbery and a strange pro-choice subtext (?) are enshrouded in a lush bossa nova soundtrack and dazzling color work. It’s not entirely there as far as balancing cheap spectacle (the violence and sexuality) and loft themes, but there’s enough there to keep you interested.
Venus in Furs (1969)
While many of his contemporaries in Italy were deep into the 70s giallo boom, Franco took his own stab at Hitchcock inspired thriller fare with Venus in Furs, a spiritual success to the master of suspense’s own Vertigo.
This is one Franco’s more dream-like films, a whirlwind of sex, jazz, and seemingly non-sequitur scenes that elucidate the hero slowly losing his grasp on reality. It’s one of his most colorful films as well, a dizzying array of velvet reds, oceanic blues, and lush purples. The camerawork is more static than some of his other work from around the same time, lingering on reaction shots to enforce an idea of seduction and captivation by the female form.
Like many of his films, the film’s ultimate thesis is that female sexuality is not something that any man can control or comprehend. Any attempt to do only results in death, despair, and running around a beach looking for meaning in all of it.
Count Dracula (1970)
Though a mid tier Franco film at best in terms of quality, Count Dracula still serves an example of Franco taking his admittedly campy at times approach to set design to a tried and true narrative. Christopher Lee, often cited as being irritated by Hammer’s frequent attempts to keep him in the role of Dracula, took on this project under the assumption it would be closer to the original Stoker novel.
Admittedly, it’s not the most exciting film at times, frequently falling in traps of prolonged shots of characters walking around or dialogue scenes that serve no narrative thrust. However, those tend to be package deals as far as Franco is concerned, so the real fun is enjoying the scenery. Ludicrously over-cobwebbed furniture and great use of shadow serve to make Franco’s version of Castle Dracula the most visually imaginative one since the original Lugosi film.
Klaus Kinski turns up in a role as the demented Renfield, chewing up scenery like no other. Though frequently upstaging Lee at times, Kinski brings a level of originality to the story, taking the implications of Enfield’s insanity to the logical conclusion. Also, Lee’s Dracula has a thick mustache, so if that doesn’t get you in the door, I don’t know what will.