The Marquis de Sade wrote ceaselessly during his long, ten-year incarceration in Paris’s infamous Bastille prison, and when as a punishment his writing implements were confiscated, de Sade turned to writing on his sheets in red wine, then escalated to using his blood and finally wrote on the walls of his cell using his excrement. Such was his mania for committing his thoughts to words.
Jess Franco, who died in 2013, aged 83, was a filmmaker in much the same vein as de Sade was a writer, a man so obsessed with film that he would secretly film a secondary feature while shooting a commissioned work, a man who in his later years would shoot almost nonsensical ‘films’ in his front room, seemingly happy so long as he had a camera in has hand and could see a woman through the lens.
Prolific to the point of absurdity, Franco’s prodigious output varied from the truly creative (Succubus, Vampyros Lesbos), to the fabulously exploitative ( Female Vampire, The Demons, Justine), through to the tedious (Esmeralda Bay, Snakewoman) to the virtually unwatchable (Paula-Paula, Al Pereira vs the Alligator Women) et al. Yet Franco’s place in exploitation cinema’s pantheon of heroes is deserved, not for his prodigious output, but for the passion with which he made his films, for like de Sade, Franco would, if he had to, have filmed in his own blood and shit.
Franco, was in many ways, a more accomplished film director than the impression given by some of his lesser films, and had he perhaps remembered the wise saying that sometimes less is more might have concentrated on making one good film rather than ten bad ones. For when Franco got it right, as he did with titles like Justine, Succubus and Virgin Among the Living Dead, he showed a real creative and artistic flair coupled with moments of surreal brilliance. This was a man who, like his contemporary Jean Rollin, was his own worst enemy.
His reputation progressing from minor critical acclaim, to accusations of misogyny for titles like Exorcism and its later reincarnation, The Sadist of Notre Dame, through to dislike and pariah status as the sadism of films like Sadomania and Women Behind Bars alienated both genre critics and mainstream horror fans, and pushed Franco more and more into the ghetto of sadistic pornography. Indeed, by the late nineteen seventies and early eighties Franco was effectively finished as a commercial film director and this should, as he was in his now in his fifties, have heralded either a slow exit, a career change or retirement – and this is perhaps where Franco’s obsessive film making and the precarious nature of the film business merged.
For the film industry has no pensions, no retirement plans and attracts mavericks and dreamers – and exploitation and sexploitation cinema attracts more than most. All Franco could do was make films, and like Jean Rollin, Lucio Fulci and others, they were his life and without them he was creatively castrated and financially barren. That, plus his at times detrimental and obsessional need to make films, meant that Franco could not fade gracefully into the sunset but rather lingered in the wings long after the curtains had closed, a bit like a guest at cocktail party that refuses to take the hint that its time to go after all the other guests had left.
When I eventually met Franco, he greeted me with something along the lines of “thank god for Redemption”, not because Redemption is particularly wonderful, but because, as we had with Rollin and other directors, by releasing and bringing their films to a new audience for the first time since their cinema release we were reinvigorating their careers and bringing their work to a new audience.
Yet in Franco’s case it almost didn’t happen. In 1993, Redemption Films released Succubus and I received a written warning from the British Board of Film Classification, stating that Jess Franco was a director whose films the BBFC regarded as bordering on criminal. I was told that were I to attempt to release other films by him or to bring them into the country there would be consequences… A year later I submitted Demoniacs and Sadomania and both were categorically banned with the implicit threat that by pushing the work of Jess Franco I was, indirectly, championing criminal sexual material and that if I continued I too would face not civil, but criminal proceedings. I mention this for the first time because I want to get across just how much of a pariah Jess Franco was considered to be.
These are two quotes from the BBFC to my solicitors which show just how close to having criminal proceedings issued against Redemption we were for trying to champion Jess Franco:
SADOMANIA: … “it is grossly unsuitable for viewing in the home. Few, if any, of the sex scenes are consenting,… women that persistently refuse to succumb to the sadistic prison regime are systematically tortured, humiliated or degraded, often for the purpose of arousing the impotent male governor and through him the male viewer of the video work. … There is no doubt in our minds that the erotic presentation of such scenes would be found depraving and corrupting by a British jury”.
DEMONIAC: … “The Board has never granted a BBFC certificate to any film or video which seeks to encourage sexual sadism, and this film is clearly sadistic in that it seems ‘to have no purpose or justification other than to reinforce or sell the idea that it can be highly pleasurable to inflict injury, pain or humiliation (often in a sexual context) on others’ (Home Office Report on Obscenity and Film Censorship, Williams, HMSO, 1979)….|
…The work of this particular film maker has often fallen well outside the parameters of BBFC standards because of the manner in which it presents scenes of vicious sexual violence or of violence to women in a sexually arousing context, offering little pleasure to the viewer other than a conscious vicarious gratification of misogyny. Where such emotions focus on the harming of others, the Board must always consider drawing a line, as we have in refusing a video certificate to DEMONIAC”.
Redemption Films challenged the banning of these films – along with Bare Behind Bars -legally, and lost. We then sought and won leave to judicially review the BBFC’s entire operation, a massive undertaking and one which would, had we pursued it, opened up all the machinations of the BBFC’s internal workings to public scrutiny; however, we ran out of money and had to wait until our battle over pornography several years later to finally oust the BBFC chairman James Ferman which in turn heralded in a period of more liberal censorship.
We did though release two more Jess Franco films in this period, She Killed in Ecstasy and, most memorably, Vampyros Lesbos, which became a massive seller, sales ironically not driven by the films visual content, but by its soundtrack. Released as Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party, Franco’s work was suddenly trendy in a whole new way, attracting a whole new audience among Europe’s burgeoning dance and club scene.
Now Jess Franco is rightly something of a legend and for all his contradictions, successes and failures, accusations of sadism, and inability to produce anything of real worth for the last twenty or so years, he was, and is, a true hero of exploitation cinema. A man who loved, ate and slept film. A man who, despite the BBFC’s vicious accusation that he was a misogynistic sadist, loved and enjoyed women, as anyone who saw his puppy-like devotion to Lina Romay over nearly 40 years would know, and who in his heart was an artist – and like most artists he had his flaws and weaknesses but ultimately what made him an artist was that he could do nothing else but make films. He may have used a camera rather than a paintbrush and film instead of a canvas, but that was because film was his blood, and he only stopped filming when his blood stopped flowing and his heart, like his camera, finally stopped.