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



  1. One of the relatively few Franco films to receive a theatrical release in the U.S. (where it was rated X and did quite well), this is, as Fritz Lang reportedly called it, "a beautiful piece of cinema" (that's from memory but may be exact). Really the first Franco on which Franco let loose the full Franco. I'm terribly fond of it and would probably rhapsodize it at much greater length had I not just concluded such a spectacularly bad day.

    1. That would have to make Succubus one of the earliest X-rated films, since the MPAA introduced the X-rating in 1968. The US poster really seemed to capitalize on that novelty, which I thought was a little like the Emmanuelle movie slogan: “X was never like this”. It must’ve been a blast standing in line trying to get into an X-rated film back then. Of course, it all seems so tame nowadays in comparison to what you can find on TV now.

      I would have to agree. At the moment I honestly can’t think of a more beautiful film.

    2. My favorite use of an X-rating for marketing was definitely Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song: "Rated X By An All-White Jury."

  2. This was the second Franco film I saw after Virgin Among the Living Dead and it permanently sealed my love for Franco's work (which, I must admit, has become sort of an addiction lol). The only thing I knew going in was the nightclub act (I actually thought Americo Coimbra was going to be the main character). I did not expect the rest of the film to be so beautifully surreal and dreamlike. My favourite scene would have to be when Lorna (or should I say, the Countess) takes the trolley to the castle and we hear her internal nonsensical monologues.

    That moment where Janine Reynaud sits in front of the mirror is lovely that it's hard to believe Roger Ebert would go out of his way to call her ugly (half of his review of Orgasmo was just him trashing Succubus).

    The film is a bit pretentious but in a very sincere and amusing way. Franco really made the most of what he was provided and indulged heavily. The only scene I disliked was the bit where the woman gives 'advice' to Bill, it made me cringe. The part where Bill recites the Necronomicon story, on the other hand, was just awesome (I think Jack Taylor had a hand in translating the script which was in Spanish).

    1. Succubus was one of the early Franco films for me too. I just took a chance with it, and I’m glad I did. I easily fall for that blend of swanky-modern ‘60s/’70s with gothic drama/horror, and I think this movie had a lot to do with that. Plus I had never experienced a film of such a surreal nature. I felt like escaped into a dream when I first watched it.

      Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but everything about that review of Orgasmo you mention seems really unfair without any mention of what the movie achieves (except for breaking record grosses). Who would’ve imagined the kind of appreciation and following these kind of “worst movie of all time” Eurocult films would have so many decades later.

    2. Ebert's remarks on the movie are perfectly illustrative of why I had such a love/hate relationship with him that has tended to teeter over, in more recent years, into hate. When I was younger, I never missed Siskel & Ebert and there's no denying he was a major influence on me and on how I perceived film as an art in my formative years but at the end of the day he's more often than not just another fucking Kael-ite. This will sound a bit strange but it even makes me a bit angry he went and dropped dead on me before I ever had the chance to meet him and have it out with him over some of his bullshit.

  3. One of the few Franco films I havent seen. But now, after this and the mild Lovecraftish connection, I particularly want to check it out. Im kind of a sucker for Lovecraft in film.

    1. Succubus is an evocative parapsychological film, but, despite its alternate title and its origins, there’s not a whole lot that is really all that Lovecraftian about it. It’s still a very worthwhile film, especially if you are already an established Jess Franco fan. I’m certain you’ll like it, Rob.

    2. I'm a sucker even for vague Lovecraftiness! And Franconess. Win/Win.