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