With Jess Franco, I don’t necessarily think it's a simple matter of taste but more a matter of acquired taste. I mentioned a while back in my write-up for A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD that I wasn’t too impressed with Franco at first. In fact, I started watching his movies just to see if they are as bad as some people say they are. But the impulse to continue to explore his works stayed with me, and I’m glad I didn’t lose interest, otherwise, I really would’ve missed out on some gems, like this one.
A married couple lives a blissfully happy existence together, until the husband’s controversial research on human embryos results in him being expelled from his occupation by the medical association. He is driven to suicide, and his wife swears revenge on those she believes to be responsible.
This story contains no real surprises, and it ends up being easy to see where everything is going, and so, it instead becomes more important that we at least enjoy our time in the world that the film creates for us and the company of its lead character. The pleasant company in SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY is Soledad Miranda, who I’d like to describe as being like a fragile doll with enticingly dark features and doughy eyes that stare seductively. In a room full of people, she stands out like a beautiful black rose in a garden of weeds.
Miranda’s character, Mrs. Johnson; the vengeful killer, is something a bit more unusual than one would expect. She’s introduced in the film, alone and on an island, emerging from a very breathtaking nonsymmetrical mansion on a hill that is very adequately described as "a house born in a dream." She beautifully descends a long flight of stairs, wearing a purple cape/shawl that flows in the wind and wanders to the seashore to lament the loss of her husband, Dr. Johnson (Fred Williams). The ethereal beauty and dreamlike landscape here causes Miranda’s character to seem like something not of this world and more like an angel of vengeance with a divine focus to put her deceased husband’s soul to rest. It’s apparent that Jess Franco seems to have the intention to add a little more of the Cinéma Fantastique to the familiar revenge plot, as well as an ambiance that made Franco films like SUCCUBUS and VAMPYROS LESBOS irresistible.
Franco does an exceptional job at presenting an interesting case on the ethical implications of controversial research and violating the so called ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for bettering humanity. However, the opposing scientists end up coming off as a little comically narrow minded. In the lead character’s mind, these scientists that put a stop to her husband’s research are the ones responsible for his suicide, destroying both their lives. None of the scientists know who she is or what she looks like, but she knows who they are.
I liked the implication of the coming judgment by having Miranda sail from the lonely island on a small motorboat. The sky view camera shot of a lone woman with her purple cape, sailing to the city, made me think more of a vampire or a succubus leaving her lair, baring a curse to inflict upon those she has targeted and tends to seduce (these being characters played by Franco regulars Paul Muller, Howard Vernon, Ewa Strömberg, and of course, Franco himself). At this point, it is easy to see that the story is going to become episodic, as the angel of vengeance exacts her perceived justice, but something that makes the formulaic plot more alluring than it otherwise would be is that the title and cover of the movie (for me, at least) suggests the possibility of mid-coitus murders to look forward to.
I don’t think that any of the victims make it to the point of actual coitus before being killed, but the emotional state of mind Miranda’s character appears to be in, definitely qualifies as ecstasy. This is not necessarily the overwhelming joy type of ecstasy but more of a state of rage that comes out as soon as she grabs ahold of the knife she impressively has kept hidden somewhere on her near-naked body. For her male victims, the final act of liberation comes in the form of implied (off-camera) phallus mutilation, which is something that is guaranteed to make anyone respond viscerally.
When Miranda attempts to seduce another female, Dr. Crawford (Strömberg), it is done in a less perverse manner, as she looks a lot less like a prostitute as she did when she went after Vernon’s character. The girl-on-girl meeting between Miranda and Strömberg echoes the encounter between the actresses in Franco’s VAMPYROS LESBOS. Their conversation is about art and reading, and the two really start to connect so well that it is easy to forget that one really wants to kill the other.
In between murders, we cut to Mrs. Johnson back at her island home where she mourns over her husband’s corpse. Even though I don’t feel any sadness here, the scenes are still marvelous on account of Miranda’s array of facial expressions that depict different personas, like the pale white grieving widow and the broken woman who’s just snapped. Oddly enough, a police inspector (Horst Tappert) makes it known that they are aware of Dr. Johnson’s death. This could only mean that they are letting her keep her husband’s rotting corpse, or she exhumed it somehow.
The part I favor the most is when she literally stalks Dr. Houston (Paul Muller’s character). Later in the story, Dr. Houston becomes pretty sure that it is Dr. Johnson’s wife that is after him; only he’s not too sure of what she looks like, and so, he becomes terrified of the black-haired beauty that has been following him like a ghost. In what is probably the most exciting scene in the movie, we witness Dr. Houston attempting to evade Miranda’s flirtatious advances. Her persistence is wonderfully amplified with a shot of Dr. Houston leaving a seaside bar, with Miranda, easily doubling as The Reaper, following not more than 100 feet behind, and the same as she follows him up the stairs to his flat, where she can be seen constantly a story below him, thanks to an outside camera view of the windowed stairwell. Even though she wants to kill him, it is actually kind of hot. Needless to say, he ultimately is unable to resist her advances, like he doesn’t seem to care about the risk anymore.
SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY is my favorite Jess Franco/Soledad Miranda film, though most believe VAMPYROS LESBOS is the better of the two (EUGENIE DE SADE is another one that deserves praise, too). SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY does have an empty revenge story but that doesn’t seem to harm it that much. Even though I didn’t sense much chemistry between Mrs. Johnson and her husband, the film does make the point that they were happy together, and perhaps that is all that needs to be known. The ‘70s style is prominently recognized in the film’s funky and enjoyable score. Despite little blood and most of the gore taking place off camera, the kills, or perhaps the buildup to the kills, are done well. The otherworldly emergence of Miranda’s character in the dreamlike mansion and her ability to stalk, seduce, and kill is what mainly sells the film. It’s another example of Franco at his best.
Soledad Miranda is commonly referred to as the doomed actress, on account of a tragedy which occurred shortly after being in this film. In 1970, she died while in a coma brought on by a car accident, which occurred on a drive with her husband to sign a contract that would’ve likely resulted in her international fame. I was unaware of her untimely demise when I first watched SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY and VAMPYROS LESBOS several years ago, so it was shocking to me when I did find out. All I can say is that her fans were cut short of her on-screen talent, and it’s sad to think about what may’ve become of her career had this tragedy never occurred. RIP