Monday, June 4, 2012

She Killed in Ecstasy (1970)

What decides when to move forward with experimentation that may be considered unethical or taboo but could better humanity? Debates on the ethics and consequences of the research are usually conducted. But what of the consequences of the idea being turned down? One possible answer to this is provided in Jess Franco’s SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY, where a physician, who believes his experiments hold the key to making humanity far more resistant to disease, is condemned, on moral grounds, by his colleagues, insulted and has to endure his precious documents being ripped and thrown aside.
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


  1. This one is from Franco's prime "era," after he got away from Harry Alan Towers. His budgets drop off, but he gains a lot more freedom, and spends the next few years doing some of the best work of his career. This one certainly belongs in that category, even if the rolls-of-quarters-and-a-few-bologna-sandwiches budget sometimes means we have to imagine, rather than see (Soledad's suicidal plunge, in her car, over a cliff ends up being an uneven drive down a rocky-but-only-somewhat-steep hill). Franco took the basic plot, here, from Cornell Woolrich's THE BRIDE WORE BLACK. He'd already made it once (as MISS MUERTE/THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z), and he would make it many more times over the years.

    The fright-wig Soledad dons when stalking Ewa Stromberg has always seemed unfortunate to me, but the murder--using a transparent, blow-up pillow so she can watch Stromberg smother to death--is an ingeniously grisly stroke.

    The sequence from the DVD cover above is just astonishing. Soledad, plagued by memories of her previous life, increasingly lost in remorse and overwhelmed by the horror of it all--we can practically see her mind going, right there on camera.

    Franco's narrative is, as usual, fragmented, impressionistic, and dreamlike; though that moment happens near the end of the film, that's not necessarily where it happens in the course of the story. You mention that Soledad's character must have absconded with her husband's corpse at some point. I rather think she never left him. She put him in their bed, and that's where he stayed until she put him in her car and drove off the cliff. The cops and the villains know of his death because we're seeing a dream, not a tale where hard logic applies.

    Great write-up on a great movie.

    1. Thank you, J, and welcome back :).

      I had never heard of THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, but after going through a couple reviews and a synopsis, some aspects of the story do seem strikingly similar. The vengeance-bound femme fatale is a common story that never seems to go out of style. Though I’m sort of glad I didn’t, I almost felt bold enough to make a comparison to KILL BILL in the review. I had completely forgotten about Dr. Z, but you’re right about this being a similar story, especially the rejected medical Doctor. SKIE almost feels like a more adulterated version of Dr. Z, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.

      Haha! I do prefer Soledad’s long dark hair, but the short blond wig wasn’t so bad. She was nearly unrecognizable, which added to the believability of Stromberg’s character not being suspicious of her.

      Yes, I do think I was guilty of committing the sin of thinking too rationally in a dreamlike story about how Soledad’s character was still able to be in contact with her husband’s corpse, which is something I usually discourage. I like your take better. These scenes could’ve easily taken place at any point in the story, or perhaps in her mind (I re-watched the scene from the film’s cover, just now, and noticed this time that the classical music fits wonderfully). Her husband’s body may’ve never physically been there at all, but it instead may’ve been a figurative representation of the torment and loss that is haunting her. Whether or not it was a blooper, her husband cannot be seen in the driver’s side seat during a shot of the car, with Soledad at the wheel, at the final moment before she takes the plunge.

    2. Franco is a big fan of many pulp writers--Woolrich, Sax Rohmer, Gaston Leroux, Edgar Wallace, etc. His movies are peppered with references to them (one of his upcoming projects, in fact, is another Wallace adaptation). The KILL BILL comparison would have been appropriate--Tarantino lifted the entire set-up from that movie from THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, and even called his anti-heroine "The Bride."

      You referenced the way Paul Muller's character was stalked; I love the idea that he's scared out of his skin, but even with his being absolutely convinced she's going to kill him, she works such a spell over him that he doesn't even care. Muller is fantastic in just about all of these pictures. He always surprises me with his range, probably because he looks, to me, so much like Larry Fine from the Three Stooges.

      Taking Franco's narratives too straightforwardly can get one in all sorts of jams. Like most Euro-genre filmmakers who prefer dreamlike narratives--and that's most of them--he's perpetually accused of being sloppy or incompetent based on things he actually did on purpose, particularly by American viewers, who tend to rigidly favor strong, linear narratives, and often have trouble with that kind of disjointed storytelling. What you mentioned is an example. Another I've run into is his use of focus in something like FEMALE VAMPIRE, where he allows the image to go out of focus in order to punctuate moments of delirium. I found this rather clever, but those who missed the point of it accused him of being an incompetent boob who can't even keep his camera in focus.

    3. Focusing techniques are a great way to achieve a dreamlike ambiance, especially the soft focus, which I used on the image header for my blog. One focusing technique that didn’t quite work for me was a sex scene with Rosalba Neri in Franco’s 99 WOMEN, though. There was a lot of close ups and purposefully out of focus shots which made the scene a little more tedious than it should have been.

    4. I haven't seen 99 WOMEN in a very long time, but I can certainly get behind any complaint about allowing Rosalba Neri to go out of focus during any scene involving sex or nudity. Some things just shouldn't be done.

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  3. Interesting review. It's nice to find the less known films being enjoyed and reviewed. Cheers!

    1. Thanks! I appreciate the compliment, and thank you for joining.

  4. Interesting review....being great fan of Jess what I thing is this--Jess Franco is one of the great film art director as well as art film director.....