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Lina Romay as Countess Irina Karlstein in Female Vampire
Lina Romay as Countess Irina von Karlstein in Female Vampirevia

The dA-Zed guide to Jesús Franco

As Halloween approaches, we celebrate Jesús Franco, the Spanish master of psychedelic sleaze and well-shot grot


Franco’s debut was a teenage comedy in the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until Awful Dr Orloff (1962) that he really established the frenzied style for which he’d achieve fame amongst cult film fans. He made nearly 200 films during his long career, but The Awful Dr Orloff – a tale of an evil scientist stealing skin to heal his disfigured daughter – is one of Franco’s finest. If that story sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen seen Eyes Without A Face (1960) – though Franco himself denies seeing it before he made Orloff. But that’s just one of several influences – you can see traces of Hammer HorrorMario Bava and Bela Legosi in almost every frame. Which isn’t to say it’s a lesser work – like Tarantino, Franco takes his influences and combines them in such a specific way, his films are as distinctive as a fingerprint. And here, there are elements – tits, violence, strong/smart female characters, abject weirdness – that would recur throughout his career.


Insane plot twists, black-clad villains stalking isolated victims through desolate spaces – Franco’s second horror film, The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (1962), may well have invented the Italian giallo genre (think Dario Argento & Mario Bava). It was certainly an influence on the film credited with creating the cine-crime phenomenon, Bava’s Blood & Black Lace (1964). In terms of Franco’s signature moves, it contains an early example of the torture-horror for which he’d become so associated with. A barmaid (Gogo Robins) is stripped and whipped for a fairly shocking (certainly at the time) scene, made all the more intense by a complete lack of sound: all we hear is the film’s music, no screams. As for the plot, Baron Von Klaus himself is a character in possession of a tainted legacy title, with previous Barons blamed for a series of odd murders. When people start dying again, the current Von Klaus (Howard Vernon) is accused and investigated – but did he do it?


Christopher Lee playing Count Dracula – so far, so Hammer. But Hammer didn’t have a hand in this one, Franco directed this adaptation in 1970 for British producer Harry Towers (quite the character himself – arrested in 1961 for running a call-girl business with connections to Kennedy), and was so faithful to the original text we’re surprised he didn’t project full stops into the eyes of the audience after every line of dialogue. Despite the presence of Lee, Klaus Kinski is the most captivating thing here, with his character Renfield stealing every single scene he’s in.


Demoniac (1975) opens with an S&M stage play that involves a dove's blood splattered onto bare breasts, some creepy cunnilingus in front of beard-bearing gawpers, and a gut-wrenching stomach stabbing. But, believe it or don't, that's not the trashiest scene this orgiastic kill-thriller has to offer. Jesús casts himself as a disgraced priest convinced the theatre audience are possessed by demons, so sets out to exorcise them via the medium of murder and chained-torture.


Jesús Franco didn’t just adapt German crime novelist’s Edgar Wallace’s books – several times, with the best probably being Death Packs A Suitcase (1970). He also added Wallace as a contributor to two titles that were completely unrelated to the author’s work. Blood On My Shoes (1983) and Voyage To Bangkok, Coffin Included (1985) both gave Wallace a writing credit, even though he didn’t type so much as a sentence. We’re not sure if it was to acknowledge Wallace for his influence, or because Franco thought the addition would make the movies more bankable, but either way, the move is typical Jesús. Still, with titles that good, we wish Wallace really had written the books behind them.


Franco returned to Frankenstein more than once; we’re not sure what it was about the pitchfork-chased outcast with the huge heart/lady-obsession that appealed to the director, but there’s probably a clue in that character description. Newcomers should start with Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein (1972) – mainly because the titular monster is painted glittering silver, and it features a cannibalistic half-woman, half-bird – then follow it up with Dracula Vs Frankenstein (1971), his apparent tribute to Hammer Horror. If you do both as a double-bill, make sure you set aside some time to have a quick lie-down afterwards.


From the opening shot – bare breasted women on horseback with huge golden shoulder-pads that could very well be made from Christmas wrapping paper and cardboard – to the involvement of Franco regular Analia Ivars, Jesús Franco may have gone uncredited on Amazons (1986), but his twitching hands are all over it. That said, we can see why he left his name off the credits. A laugh-riot of so-bad-it's-bad cinema greatness, Golden Amazons is entertaining precisely because it’s terrible. It’s proof positive that Franco films don’t necessarily have to be good to be enjoyable. But please, never have a drinking game that involves taking a shot every time a nipple or random animal appears. You'll be dead within minutes.


An evil countess (Alice Arno) with a predilection for castration is released from her asylum prison, and heads straight back to her opulent country house, which doubles up as torture/sex dungeon. Once she’s home, her (kept) husband Charles (Robert Woods) sets her a challenge: to seduce and corrupt their neighbour’s innocent daughter, before adding the girl to their collection of victims. One of Franco’s best films, but also one of his most controversial – Virgin (1974) is a haunting watch, but worth enduring for a fairly surprising conclusion.


Originally titled Wanda The Wicked Warden, before being retitled to cash-in on the unrelated Ilsa series, Ilsa, The Wicked Warden (1977) has a much darker plot than your typical sexploitation flick: a young woman infiltrates a mental institution to uncover what’s happened to her missing sister, before stumbling across a plot to make pornography with the hospital’s inhabitants. Essentially an excuse to link together a series of S&M scenes with occasional cuts to the jungle setting, Franco’s Ilsa is held together by a towering performance from Dyanne Thorne as the titular sadist. Her expression of evil enjoyment is fairly captivating and it elevates a disturbing experience into a must-see.


The sort of imposing orchestral soundtrack that'd give Hans Zimmer a brown note, Klaus Kinski wandering around in a judge's wig leering at naked women locked up under lighting that'd give Argento a migraine, then the memorable opening line: “This is the story of Justine, and the misfortunes of virtue.” This is the way Franco's two-hour adaptation of the Marquis De Sade's Justine (1969) begins, and it only gets more bat-shit/beautiful from there. Imagine if Terry Gilliam made an S&M fuck film, and you’re halfway to imagining the basics of Justine – as our heroine finds herself thrust from pervert to pervert in her search for freedom.


Frequent Franco collaborator/frenzied fornicator (read his autobiography Kinski Uncut for detailed descriptions of his countless conquests), Klaus was arguably the best male actor Jesús worked with. Despite his difficult reputation, he was an endless professional on Franco’s sets. Franco once put it, “The legends say he was a son of a bitch. But he was fantastic.”


In 1972 Franco encountered an 18 year-old Spanish girl named Rosa Maria Almirall. He cast her in the Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein, compared her to Soledad Miranda in interviews, then renamed her: Lina Romay – stealing the sobriquet from a 1940s jazz singer. The great love of Franco's life, he would go on to make over 100 films with Romay over a 15 year period, even crediting her as a co-director in the 80s. We’re not sure how his obsession began; possibly because of her intense presence, possibly because she seemed to have been born with a complete lack of inhibition, possibly because she was one of the most beautiful/stylish women the screen has seen. Partners for decades, they married in 2008. Romay passed away in 2012, with Franco dying just a year later.


Franco’s fascination with De Sade was obvious from Orloff onwards – so it was something of a relief when he was allowed to adapt the author officially, starting with Justine. He went on to to make several Sade-celebrating pictures. In 1999, Franco said: “The fact is that De Sade fascinates and grips me. I keep going back to him, although it would be more correct to say that he never leaves me. He is an excellent source of inspiration. He was probably a raving madman, but he got over his madness by writing these stories, solving difficult situations, exaggerating, provoking and digressing in the most unusual manner. I love his morality plays, very moral may I say. His way of being lubricious and evil was simply fantastic.”


A significant turning point for Jesús, Necronomicon (1966) – otherwise known as Succubus – is the first pure example of the mixture of atmospheric/weird eroticism and female domination that consumed the director’s career following its release. If it feels like a stream of consciousness to watch, that’s probably because that’s how it was made – funding was only secured when one of the investors fell for the leading lady, before casting himself as her lover (acting opposite her real husband), and Franco was frequently forced to script scenes the day of shooting. Somehow, he produced a hypnotising masterpiece, as awe-inspiring as the best of the art-house – in fact, Fritz Lang himself called it “a beautiful piece of cinema.” Franco’s camera celebrates the costumes by Karl Lagerfeld and the cat-like movements of captivating French lead Janine Reynaud with equal consummation.


Franco was second-unit director on Orson Welles’s Chimes At Midnight (1965), and fans can see clear parallels between the mad-genius director and Jess. After all, they were both passionate, playful and boundary-pushing when it came to making pictures. In 1990, Franco acquired the rights to the surviving footage from uncompleted Welles passion project Don Quixote, with the aim of finishing the film. Franco faced several challenges – not least the fact Welles had filmed in several different formats – 35mm, 16mm and Super 16mm – and the subsequent release was almost universally panned. We have a feeling Welles wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.


It’s part of Jesús’s legend that he fell out with Harry Towers when the eccentric producer found out Franco would shoot films for him in a single day, then rent his equipment to other filmmakers, pocketing the profits (other sources say the final clash came when Franco shot XXX material for Eugenie (1970) without telling Towers). Actors would accuse the director of making full films from alternate takes without telling (or paying) any of the performers. Whatever the truth of it, Jesús Franco always found finance for his next feature.


It’s pretty safe to assume Tarantino was a Franco fan. He used a track from the Vampyros Lesbos (1971) soundtrack in Jackie Brown (1997) and, when Succubus (1968) was was shown at Fantastic Fest in 2009 – with Jesús in attendance – the print was borrowed from Tarantino. Not only that, but his influence can be seen on screen – Franco pioneered the sudden crash-zoom QT utilised as recently as Django Unchained (2012). When asked about the director, Franco said: “I'm glad I have inspired directors like Tarantino. They inspire me every day.”


Rio 70 (1969), from a certain perspective, is an absolute mess – the plot’s nonsensical, the dialogue’s awkward and the characters would barely make sense on the pages of a comic-book. But it’s notable for several reasons. It’s a spy thriller containing Goldfinger (1964) Bond girl Shirley Eaton’s final performance; it’s got one of Franco’s greatest scores – sounding like the sort of thing that’d go straight to number one on Jupiter – and its central army of Amazonians are almost impossibly beautiful, decked out in the most future-stylish outfits this side of a Gareth Pugh catwalk. For maximum enjoyment, tune out the script, focus on the score and pretend you’re watching one of the longest music videos ever made.


A bright and cheerful starlet in her early years as an actress, Jesús Franco transformed Soledad Miranda into a dark, hypnotic figure – an underground icon of cult cool. She's probably most famous for her addictive appearance in Franco's Vampyros Lesbos (1971), one of seven films the pair made together over an astonishing eight month period. Miranda died at the tragically young age of 27, but thanks to Franco her legacy will live on forever.


Otherwise known as Two Undercover Angels (1969), and the slightly more titilating Sadist Erotica, whatever you call it, Two Avenging Angels is a pop-art masterpiece. Like a wild mixture of House Of Wax (1953), Peeping Tom (1960) and Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1968), it sees an eye-patch wearing avant-garde artist named Klaus Thriller as the key suspect in a murder case involving victims who look a hell of a lot like his latest sculptures. Oh, and did we mention Mr Thriller has a werewolf as an assistant? Luckily, the two titular private detectives – codename, Red Lips – are on the case. But can they catch the criminal before more murders are committed? Almost constantly entertaining, this is one of Franco’s most fun films. That it was released the same year as his heralded great-work Succubus is something of a miracle.


Essentially Franco's version of Ten Little Indians (1965), this is about as close as he comes to family viewing, despite the fact the literal translation of the title is Tomb Of Silence, which sounds a lot scarier than the Sunday afternoon murder mystery it actually is. What’s fascinating about Tumba is that it proves Franco could make as straight a giallo-thriller as his peers, he just chose not to. Despite the fact his usual madness is almost entirely absent, it’s still worth seeking out – that rare example of a film that’s curious because of its normalcy. Oh, and the score’s fantastic, too.


You’ll find Franco fanatics ready to argue to their last gasp what Jesús’s greatest film was. There are plenty to choose from, after all. But for casual visitors to the director’s twisted universe, Venus In Furs (1969) is inarguably it. The story of a trumpeter’s obsession with a dead girl – an obsession that seemingly brings her back to life to take revenge on her killers – Furs is a wild ride, as freeform as great jazz (Franco’s love of which is a clear influence on the film) and just as captivating. Communicated almost constantly via voiceover, Furs is an experience so surreal it feels like lucid dreaming, yet it still manages to deliver a plot as coherent as a summer blockbuster. If you’re new to Jesús, this is one trip you have to take.


Not to be confused with the Wicked Warden – though the title isn’t the only thing the two films have in common. Women Without Innocence (1978) sees Lina Romay end up in yet another mental institution, this time suffering with shock after being found naked and covered in blood in an opulent mansion, with two corpses for company. Sadly, the institution proves to be an insufficient sanctuary, as a black-clad killer is offing patients all around Romay. Throw in a subplot about some missing diamonds and by-now almost-contractual nudity/lesbian sex, and this is archetypical Franco. Worth watching for one of Romay’s stand-out performances, her Margarita Martin is a layered presence surrounded by lunacy. 


In the 1980s, Franco focused on the hardcore aspect of his sex and death obsession, seemingly caught in a frenzy of filmed fucking. He made 13 pornos in 1986 alone. Which isn’t to say he was ever particularly shy, even pre-80s, whether he was making horror flicks or thrillers, sex was almost constantly present, normally as a precursor to pain, shame or death. Downtown (1975) – a relatively run-of-the-mill detective drama – contains a naked interrogation scene that occasionally cuts to close-ups of Lina Romay’s spread vagina. It makes Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct (1992) bits look like Bodger and Badger


Yuka is a key member of a gang of (constantly) near-naked jungle women in The Lustful Amazons (1974). When she conspires with adventurer Pygar (Robert Woods) to steal some gold from her tribe-buddies, all hell breaks lose. Yuka was one of Lina Romay’s early roles for Franco, and, in a film packed with female – and some male – nudity, it seemed extreme at the time. Looking back now, it almost seems tame.


Brilliantly, despite the fact it was probably inspired by the 1940 novel The Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich, the opening credits of The Diabolical Dr Z (1964) claim David Khune as the author of the book the film’s based on, with David Khune just so happening to be one of Franco’s many pseudonyms. Now, we’re not saying that Franco got paid twice – once for the script, and once for the rights to the book that didn’t exist, only that if he did it was an example of the cheeky cleverness that drove his career. Whatever its origins, Dr Z’s tale of a surgeon who creates zombie slaves is as essential as our similarly-titled first entry, The Awful Dr Orloff - shameless entertainment from a true cinematic master.