Sunday, April 19, 2015

Succubus / Necronomicon (1968)

During an interview included on the 2006 Blue Underground release of Succubus, Jess Franco spoke of a sixteenth century book he had come across on a bookshelf entitled Necronomicon that had belonged to a wealthy actor and film producer Pier A. Caminnecci, who had invited Jess over to his house to indulge in his extensive jazz collection, as the two were mutual jazz fans. Jess read a short story from this particular book that was so extraordinary he had to make it into a movie. Of course, this incarnation of the Necronomicon was most likely an imitation since this popular mythical tome came entirely from HP Lovecraft’s imagination in the early twentieth century, but it’s still fun to think that Jess may’ve been influenced by the actual ‘book of the dead’ written by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred. Jess blended the material from the book with a script for a horror movie he had previously worked on, and the result is one of his most provocative films.

Originally titled The Green Eyes of the Devil, Succubus was the first film Jess Franco made outside of his native country of Spain. Due to frustration from the heavy censorship imposed in Spain at the time, he opted to seek German financial backing and shoot the film in Berlin and Lisbon. After the German funders eventually pulled the plug on financing, the film’s producer Adrian Hoven contacted Pier Caminnecci, who was his associate at Aquila Movie Enterprises (Castle of the Creeping Flesh (1968)), to finance the movie. He was on board after being besotted by Succubus’s leading lady, French model and actress Janine Reynaud, who had an affair with him during the production of the film. Interestingly, Caminnecci has the official writing credit to this film, and his character seems to be attempting to lure Lorna into an affair when her boyfriend William (Jack Taylor -his first role in a Jess Franco film) is distracted.

Janine was introduced to Jess by her then husband Michel Lemoine, who plays the devil-like Pierce in the film. Finely matured and with lioness-like facial features, Janine Reynaud is a strong, spellbinding presence as Lorna Greene, a violent S&M nightclub performer, an erotic love queen, a countess, and probably a lot of other things. Janine’s experience as a model shows, and she’s a good actress too, which is most apparent in her demeanor during the de Sadean segment at the start that will have you feeling dirty, until it’s revealed to be a swanky nightclub act that’s all in good fun, for the time being of course.

Succubus should be viewed more as a memorable experience rather than a movie with any kind of definite meaning (although anyone interested in deconstructing the film should check out a well written essay on Succubus by Jack W. Shear in chapter six of the book Dracula’s Daughters: the Female Vampire on Film). The script sometimes feels improvised; even Jack Taylor claimed that Jess would continually add to the script during filming, but like the Jazz music in the soundtrack, the outcome is stellar. The film offers a unique and consistent sense of traversing between real and unreal worlds, a conscious and a subconscious aspect, with a primary inspired focus on Janine Reynaud and her appealing aesthetic features that, in a way, foreshadows future legendary Jess Franco muses Soledad Miranda and Lina Romay. 

Thanks to his having free creative rein (and perhaps being a little out of control), Jess was able to reach a new level of surreal eroticism with Succubus that manages to transcend strict horror film boundaries and become something quite unconventional, a characteristic trait that would be further developed in a lot of Jess’s best work from hereon.

The great Howard Vernon is here too in a small role as The Admiral in a standout short segment between him and Lorna, some kind of esoteric word dueling game, which is basically Jess namedropping a lot of his influences, that comes off as a little pretentious but it’s too unusual to lose interest in; and I like the way it suggests that Lorna’s countess alter ego has her own unique past by being in intimate company with a different man who she knows very well.

Since this is a trippy film from the late ‘60s, it’s no surprise that it features a somewhat memorable LSD party, where the film reaches some of its more bizarre moments. Party goers crawl on all fours like dogs; partake in clothed orgies, and Adrian Hoven’s shrink-like character narrates by reading aloud passages from a book off a shelf. A lot of it might not have any real meaning, but it is still quite avant-garde and entertaining.

Succubus had to be one of my first art-house experiences, and it left a pleasant impression, most notably my memories of a beautifully old looking limestone river castle (the Belém Tower in Lisbon) in the film that seems to exist at the edge of reality. Lorna’s visits to this castle in a hazy, soft-focused dream-world, feel like subconscious memories of a different life, where she is a countess living in a castle.

The biggest strength for me is the movie’s ability to create a convincing sense of being inside Lorna’s mind. With the free flow narrative, schizophrenic voiceovers, and Hoven’s psychoanalyst character sporadically appearing at times, there’s a pervading feeling of subconscious thoughts and images. Just like the film, Lorna is rather enigmatic by nature. She’s the movie’s title succubus, a kind of predatory femme fatale, but her deadly impulses come from a different identity, the countess from the castle, who emerges and becomes Lorna. It’s unclear if Lorna abandons her identity when she is the countess or if the countess is her real identity. When Lorna retreats to her dream castle, the film achieves a beautiful fantasy/gothic horror semblance. The omnipotent presence of Lemoine’s penetrating glance and malevolent voiceovers suggest Lorna is some sort of “devil on earth”, who’s been handpicked for some nefarious scheme.

As confounding as it can be sometimes, everything about Succubus is still ingenious. Ostensibly it might come off as cheap sexploitation, but it turns out to be a surprisingly rich experience. Reynaud is such a strong and alluring lead, and something about her makes her seem born for this role. 

Thanks to my friend Terence, I was able to see the German version of the film as well as a startling alternate intro and finale scene in the Italian version, which includes Lorna’s birth and her death, where she turns into a skeleton. The German version wasn’t that different from the US version, but I was amused by a scene where Lorna breaks into a vocal song and dance that was edited out in my DVD version. 

© At the Mansion of Madness


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Interrabang (1969)

Considering movies like Barbarella (1968), Top Sensation (1969), and Russ Meyer’s Vixen! (1968), it would seem that the late ‘60s, the peak of the sexual revolution in the western world, was a turning point for erotic movies. Sexually charged films from this era were not only challenging censorship but were also challenging the monolithic wall of puritanical behavior that associated sex solely with marriage, which also mirrored the changing attitudes towards sex during the revolution.

With both “the pill” and penicillin on the market, pregnancy and STDs were less of an issue, and a woman’s sexuality outside of marriage was becoming more widely accepted, unlike before when it was more permissible for unmarried men to have sex, the so called “double standard.” Naturally, sex began to saturate the media, was used to sell products, and became a big part of mainstream culture. In addition, more and more married couples began experimenting with extramarital sex.

After the Hays Code was put to sleep in 1968 sexploitation cinema would really begin to thrive. With hopes of being free from the restraints of censorship, erotica would be used to explore new creative avenues of film making.

Inevitably, a lot of these so called sexploitation movies were taken to court, but a good way erotic filmmakers could get passed this was to not only make their movies sexually explicit but to make them intellectual and artful as well, which was particularly more common in foreign sex movies. On the VH1 documentary Sex the Revolution, John Waters said that in order to win in court you had to prove that a prosecuted sex film was socially redeeming, which would then make it acceptable.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Maniac Mansion (1972)

The Italian-Spanish co-production La mansión de la niebla / Maniac Mansion was the directorial debut of Spanish filmmaker Francisco Lara Polop, who had been previously working as a unit production manager for about ten years. He would also produce the Paul Naschy classics The Hunchback of the Morgue (1973) and Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973).

Made at the height of the Spanish horror boom, Maniac Mansion really is quite the fanciful gothic horror film with enough giallo and murder mystery influences to make it appealing to all Eurocult fans.

The fiery intro credit sequence is hypnotic and a nice mood setter, featuring a killer theme and a couple of chilling evil-witch cackles. The beginning of the story is a lot more grounded in reality with a somewhat unremarkable setup involving numerous shady characters, among which are a few familiar faces including Jess Franco regular Alberto Dalbés, before derailing into a foggy nightmare world, where things get a lot more interesting. Initially, you might start feeling better off just reading a mystery novel instead, but it does start to get good when all of the characters seemingly enter what feels like Silent Hill all of a sudden.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Man with Icy Eyes (1971)

Although commonly referred to as a giallo, Alberto De Martino’s The Man with Icy Eyes would have to be a rather atypical example of the genre, if not an ostensible one. It is set and filmed in a southwestern desert city called Albuquerque, NM (where I’m from, but we’ll get to that later). It doesn’t follow the violent murder mystery plot set forth by Mario Bava and popularized by Dario Argento, nor does it have any of the attractive gothic horror crossovers with ultramodern psychedelic fashions or drug-induced delirium. If anything, the film is more of a rustic detective story with a smattering of the crime thriller and a climax not entirely unlike that of Lucio Fulci’s One On Top of the Other (1969). Given the film’s mystery element, tense soundtrack, and early ‘70s era, and considering the presence of key players like Antonio Sabato (Seven Blood Stained Orchids 1972) and Barbara Bouchet (Don’t Torture a Duckling 1972), I can still dig the giallo tag. It also flirts with the supernatural, just a little, and there’s a colorful nude photography scene with Bouchet to give the film a minimally erotic edge.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Simona / Passion (1974)

You might not know it from looking at the playful erotic movie posters and DVD covers, but Simona is no sex comedy. Though still playful and sexy in certain parts, Patrick Longchamps’ Fellini-inspired adaptation of the French novel Story of the Eye (1928) is a dark oddity of avant-garde filmmaking, with a heavy undercurrent of social alienation.

At the time the film was released its lead actress Laura Antonelli had recently achieved overnight fame from her award winning role in Salvatore Samperi’s sexy, controversial dark-comedy Malizia (1973). She had made such an impact that moviegoers flocked to see Antonelli in Simona, which was actually shot about a year before Malizia (Simona was shelved for a while before being released).

Simona was unfortunately confiscated in Italy for its explicit content. One-time Belgian filmmaker Longchamps had a friend with connections in the Vatican who organized a private screening of the banned film for four priests, and after finally being approved by the church, Simona was released in Italy, where it made a lot of money (the film was never released in its native country of Belgium). Eventually the original film negatives were acquired by "distributors of ill-repute," and as it currently stands, a properly restored version of Simona, as far as I know, remains unrealized.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Night of the Walking Dead / El extraño amor de los vampiros (1975)

"The sun shining in my dreams 
  The light is getting hot
  Saved by eternity
  I have seen death so close
 Away, awhile the angels crossed the sky
 But I'm condemned to stay here." -- Heavenly  

In his memoirs, Paul Naschy said he had referred Argentine film directing stalwart Leon Klimovsky to be director of his seminal Spanish horror classic La noche de Walpurgis, AKA The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), because one of the film’s financers wanted a quick and reliable director.

It would seem that Klimovsky was known for his fast shooting and workmanlike skills, and yet he managed to direct some real atmospheric classics of Spanish horror, often on low budgets and high pressured shooting schedules, and he introduced an oft-imitated technique of filming vampires and zombies in slow-motion, capturing a uniquely nightmarish plane of existence in the process.
Klimovsky’s vampire films are exceptional and interestingly varied, and they belong alongside the best of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. The aforementioned The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman was a record breaking box office success that revived the Spanish horror fantasy genre. The other Klimovsky directed vampire films that followed were the epic The Dracula Saga (1973), the more grindhouse flavored The Vampires’ Night Orgy (1974), and the romantic, adventurous, and somewhat eclectic Night of the Walking Dead / The Strange Love of the Vampires, the topic for tonight

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