Jess Franco has left us. The man behind so much cinema, a man that left an indelible imprint on the cinema and the fantasies of those whose work touched them in primal places was just that, a man of flesh (and seemingly, smoke) and on April 2nd, 2013, his time amongst us expired. And it was just weeks after his most recent theatrical premiere. As it should be. He worked whenever possible, with whatever means were available. His movies were fearless and his output is well and truly peerless. There is so much to be said of the man and his movies it is a seemingly impossible task. I want those that knew him much better than I could ever to have their say. I was quite touched by the words of Analia Ivars and Katja Bienert today and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to hear them. But I can tell you about my relationship to the cinema of Jess Franco, and I think that is tribute enough. I know I’m not alone, Franco’s films have been revered and reviled long before I ever saw one, and hopefully will continue to be discussed and debated, championed and derided long after I’m gone. I spent a little time opening up my DVD collection and looking at each disc. I know my history with each, my opinion of the contents and how I’d watch each again, informed by the others that I’ve experienced since. It’s amazing really…
I found Franco movies by accident like most. If I had known I was watching cut up, aspect demolishing prints of things back when I started I may have taken more care. These weren’t like the other films that I found when I first started separating out “European Trash Cinema” from the rest of the pack with directors like Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci at all. They aren’t comparable and certainly have no interest in being the same as anything else. I started to realize after I became the happy viewer of hundreds of Italian trash epics that Franco wasn’t anything but a genre of one.
Jess Franco films. They may encompass stories from all avenues of Tropesville. Detectives and Mad Scientists, Hookers and Lawmen, Mystic Forces and Human Pride all collapse into a mash of intellectually remuxed mayhem that I’ve always seen as Franco seeking the perfect film. It’s right behind his eyes, he sees it every night, and he is going to bash away at the tools that he has to try and pull it out of his head. A great example of this comes during the excellent documentary on the making of Blind Target entitled Antena Criminal. Franco is beside himself with frustration at the inability of one of his cast to get one scene correctly. Lina Romay, his partner in life, cinema, sex and smoke steps in to console him. As the entire microdrama plays out we know how it will end, because we trust that Jess Franco IS going to get a shot. Probably not THE shot. But he’ll try again. In another movie. And again. And again….
So, I sat there mystified and delighted in turn by these movies. The monsters were different. They mixed classics (Hey, a Silver Skinned Frankenstein Whipping Machine!) with unique elements of horror such as mute birdwomen and ghostly phallus worship to create movies that were more mood than movement for me. And then there were pulp movies that had detectives down on their luck or high on that special taste of female flesh with bad motivations! And the casts! A whirling melange of actors and actresses that represented places in his filmography, some lasting long and providing continuity amongst the shared plots though they may play other roles… and others lost tragically soon. What could have been becomes another element in watching the films as others step in to either echo the loss or fill the void at different times. And while many would cite his earliest films to showcase his obvious skill, it was when I first saw Lina bump, crotch and all, into a camera to kick off Female Vampire (as Erotikill, such a title)…I was hooked. I love those crazy 60s films, but when Franco found that he could have his pulp and his horror and work in the strangest fantasies he could concoct, and make them flesh with his friends and co-workers, he hit me square in the eyes. Exorcism! Lorna The Exorcist! Downtown!!! I’m absorbed, I’m sucked in. I’m watching everything I can get. I’m a Franco Fan! And check out FACELESS!! It’s like Franco’s greatest hits goes splatter!
I had lots of inspiration, there are zines that loved him (MONSTER! International), banged on him (Oh, Chas…you made me want to see them all the more) and called him a hack/artist/maniac as different reviewers stepped in. I just started to see them as I saw them. Jess Franco’s work INSPIRES individual responses from the right viewer, and they are legion. Even if you HATE his work, you watched it and responded. Better to be seen than forgotten…
Then IT happened. Something I took as my own,even for a little bit. I was co-running a forum (anyone remember Horror HQ?) and Jess Franco was back! After the awesome though sonically challenging for anyone that can’t penetrate heavy accents KILLER BARBYS it was full speed ahead. I remember various fans getting together to produce a film with Jess, who was now seeing life as an inspiration to several younger Spanish filmmakers and out popped TENDER FLESH. I love this film, perhaps not so much for it’s content as it will stand the test of time, but for when it happened and the weird sense of appreciation that I felt was being shown Jess Franco. He had been put through some pretty economically difficult challenges (that was not really going to improve), but he wasn’t doing the films he wanted to do. Tender Flesh IS a Franco film. Not the vision I’m sure, but with familiar faces and themes he knew well, it started a relationship with One Shot Productions (and others) that would keep Jess working cameras of several different styles (even video) to keep on filming. To keep the cinema of Franco alive in it’s own way. I don’t just enjoy the films, I really appreciate them. I sat down and collected what I could and wrote about them. I will never forget receiving mail from across the globe either agreeing or disagreeing (one or two were actually kind of insulting!) with what I was saying. But they were new European Trash Cinema films! And I’m always game for more Mari Cookie!
A decade has passed since then. I proudly played Franco soundtracks at my wedding and other family functions. I started this blog and put a good number of posts up RIGHT HERE
and I’ve learned more about Franco films than ever before. And I’ve experienced more Franco films than ever.
And I want to keep experiencing them. In an age of social media there are Franco fans that find each other, and some of his extended cinematic family is right there as well…ready to talk and share their memories and truths about Jess Franco.
He may be gone from this world, but I believe that he has gone from man of flesh to a cinematic genre all his own. You can take pulp and porn and horror and comedy and mash them up, but not the way he did. Ever.
Franco will inspire those that felt attuned to his wavelength and will continue to do so. I’m one of them, and so are you. I’m also hopeful that others will see the outpouring of support for this unique voice and give it a listen. If not, I’ll always have MY piece of the world of Jess Franco, and you’ll have yours and everyone will have an opinion.
He will not be forgotten. That is a tribute greater than words.
I hope Jess found Lina waiting for him with a closet full of wigs, a pack of his favorite smokes, a variety of cameras and tools and THE SCREENPLAY to make the movie that he always wanted to make. The one behind the eyes of the man that put his dreams to film and gave them to us.
Thank you, Jess Franco.