Since May of this year, I have embarked on an ongoing exploration into the cinema of Jesús Franco. After first viewing Justine (also known as Deadly Sanctuary), one of seven Franco films released in 1969 (his filmography boasts 203 directorial credits from 1957 to 2013), I sought out more of what this infamous Spanish auteur had to offer. Like Justine, some of these films have been extraordinarily entertaining: The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), Female Vampire and Women Behind Bars (both 1975), and Bloody Moon (1981). Others, however, have been downright atrocious: Emmanuelle Exposed (1982) and Red Silk (1999), one of the worst films I have ever seen.
The latest addition to what is now a 25-films-and-counting “Summer of Jesús Franco” is The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, available on a new Blu-ray edition from Redemption Films, which has released several other Franco titles. Neither top notch, nor bottom of the barrel, this 1972 feature—one of nine he released that year—is a decidedly middle of the road Jesús Franco film, with a fair amount to admire and plenty to ridicule.
A common complaint (or excuse) regarding many Franco films is that his plots are usually inessential. It’s true that many times the narrative is unimportant at best, utterly incomprehensible at worst, but this seems to be an unfair disregard. No matter how muddled the plot—as in the way it is all presented—there is always a larger story to be told, and The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is an excellent case in point. The basic premise revolves around the murder of Doctor Frankenstein (Dennis Price) and the theft and revitalization of his monster, which is then used to kidnap virgins for the evil Cagliostro (Howard Vernon) in order to fulfill his desires and his experiments. Said experiments concern the creation of a new race of perfect women: a “combination of beauty and submission.” Assisting Cagliostro is Melisa (Anne Libert), a squawking vampiric creature who is half woman half bird, mostly nude and with talons. Standing in Cagliostro’s way is Doctor Seward (Alberto Dalbés) and Frankenstein’s daughter, Vera (Beatriz Savón), who takes over the reigns of her father’s operation. Observing much of this is a largely silent horde of cultish individuals who hover hauntingly in the background.
As he did with Count Dracula (1970), Franco incorporates several standard conventions to acknowledge the literary source as well as its various cinematic incarnations. Unlike Count Dracula, here these conventions are but mere jumping off points for a far more eccentric take on the familiar story. In this extreme departure from prior Frankenstein tales, there nevertheless remains a recurrent exploration of reanimation, its scientific foundation (a magnetic life ray in this case) and its purpose (to get information from a “dead” person and to have a controlled being at one’s disposal). Even Cagliostro himself is some sort of deceased individual who periodically returns from the hereafter to wreck havoc. Into this, Franco liberally dispenses his own thematic predilections of sex, sadism, and violence, occasionally all in the same scene or even shot.
Like most Franco films, Erotic Rites was shot on the cheap, and while this financial deficiency is readily apparent, as in the spray-painted silvery coating of the monster (to presumably make him metallic?) as well as in some hilariously bad special effects (a sulfuric acid attack that makes no sense whatsoever), the director keeps things dynamic if not always convincing. Franco employs an irregular stylistic fluctuation of technique, with shifty, unstable zooms and erratic hand-held pans. But what one sees in some of his films, and again, Erotic Rites is a good example, is a more controlled and thoughtful incorporation of striking camera angles and creatively psychedelic lighting. Certain shots even have an enchanting gauzy sheen or an effectively disorienting wide-angle perspective. In contrast to the more shoddy technical facets of certain Franco movies, this type of surprisingly arresting imagery indicates, at least as far as I can tell, a more evident interest in the material and a more earnest attempt to make something very good if not great. And even if it all doesn’t come off every time, Franco deserves credit for his imaginative resiliency and his total lack of conventional restraint.
As for this particular Blu-ray release, there is good news and bad news. On the plus side of things, this is the uncut version that Franco preferred. While there is some minor gore, more pronounced is the gratuitous nudity (admittedly also minor compared to some of his work), and all of this is fully intact. The downside is that the alternate version—generally known by the film’s original title, La maldición de Frankenstein, somewhat longer, and edited for nudity and violence—has scenes featuring Lina Romay in her screen debut. The beautiful and amazingly audacious Romay would become Franco’s muse, starring in dozens of his films. She would also be his life partner and, eventually, his wife. Though her scenes in La maldición de Frankenstein apparently have little to no relation to the actual plot of the film, her presence in every Franco feature that I’ve seen (save for that Red Silk catastrophe) has elevated the enjoyment level considerably. Even if irrelevant to the story, perhaps that would have also been the case here.