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The Sleazy World of Jess Franco

Body Count: Volume 13

Horror has seen its fair share of hacks. The genre may not necessarily have its roots in exploitation, but it didn’t take hucksters long to figure out that you can make a simultaneously schlocky and profitable movie on whatever currency happens to be jingling around in your pocket. So for all the Tod Brownings, George Romeros and Alfred Hitchcocks out there, there’s a Bruno Mattei. These clowns have crafted monstrously prolific careers by way of a long resume of catastrophic cinematic misfires. Italy has, per capita, more of these celluloid slinging jokers than anywhere else in the world but none are so horrifically misguided as Spain’s own Jesus Franco.
Franco, whose career began in 1959, has cranked out more than 200 films, the bulk of them produced in the 70’s and 80’s. The actual total of Franco pictures is completely unknown and has been estimated to land somewhere in the 250’s. Among this staggering roster, maybe three of them are any good. Occasionally, Franco would con his way into some kind of adequately budgeted movie with a reasonably decent cast or a script would find its way into his hands that managed to translate to the lens well but for the most part, Franco’s list of movies is a tragic road map of ineptitude. They symbolize a Freudian journey into the mind of a sexual degenerate, a series of films characterized by upskirt shots. Franco’s early career showed promise, which is made even sadder as he slid further away from realizing his potential when he did everything he could to emulate the erotic successes of Jean Rollin.
Franco has a few winners like 99 Women, Vampyros Lesbos, The Awful Dr. Orloff and Faceless (more or less a remake of Dr. Orloff) but for the most part, his gigantic filmography is defined by grabage like:
femalevampireFemale Vampire, 1973
I bought a copy of Female Vampire one day in  comic shop by accident. Having bought a tape I believed to be a collection of Clive Barker short films, it turned out, instead to be this piece of shit. I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth, though. This tape, at the time very hard to track down, netted me a lot of good bootlegs in trade. The plot is a series of loose scenarios where Franco regular, the beautiful Lena Romay, wanders around wearing a belt and a cape and not much else. She’s some kind of vampire and goes from person to person, giving them head and extracting their life energies that way. That’s about it. Oh yeah, and she’s mute. And Franco stars as the Van Helsing foil who does nothing but watch Romay take a bath. The end. Female Vampire goes by many names, in many different cuts, some including hardcore porn inserts. The real nature of this movie is a soft-core porno and Romay is quite attractive and totally nude throughout a giant portion of the movie, but there’s not much else going on here.
devilhunterdvdDevil Hunter, 1980
Franco wouldn’t be a contender for the crown of exploitation king if he didn’t hop on the cannibal bandwagon. Just about everyone, by this point, was doing everything they could to capture some of Eaten Alive’s marketshare in shock circles but, remarkably, Franco spun a tale that was at least somewhat original. Even if it all feels like a fever dream, there’s not much else like it. Some kidnappers kidnap a big movie star and hide her in a jungle fortress while some hired commandos come after her. There’s some kind of super-cannibal monster roaming the jungle, though. There are some pretty crappy cannibal flicks out there. Flicks that feature stone-age bushmen in the frames wearing digital watches and shit, but there’s nothing quite like Devil Hunter. Devil Hunter features tons of sustained nudity. During long scenes of dialog, Franco’s camera drifts around, zooming in on boobs, ass and bush randomly. A cannibal monster stalks the jungle with giant bug eyes that seem to be fixed to its face with Play Doh. Every woman in this movie does little more than scream at the top of her lungs while pumping her huge 70’s Euro-boosh into the air. There’s little context and just about everyone in the movie looks like they accidentally wandered in from another set. They’re not sure what to do because the cameras are rolling, so they take a good look at the cast and sets and… improvise!
The Sinful Dr. Orloff
, 1984
Franco has a bad habit of remaking his own movies several times over. Easily the most revisited concept is the Dr. Orloff story. No matter how you spin it, it’s just about the same old tale time and time again. A doctor obsessed with restoring the life/body/face of his wife/mother/daughter. Originally, The Awful Dr. Orloff isn’t bad. It’s a moody mad scientist horror movie that managed to set the pace for Jess Franco, he even managed to remake it with success in the form of 1988’s Faceless. But for every door opened by The Awful Dr. Orloff, it was shut by crap like The Sinful Dr. Orloff, a series of cheap excuses to splatter some jiggly Spanish boobs with Franco’s signature spaghetti sauce stage blood.
sadomania_poster_01Sadomania, 1981
Sadomania may, in fact, be Franco’s coup de grace. It’s unclear what kind of movie he’s trying to make here as it starts out like a cross between any given Ilsa movie and the Hills Have Eyes and then takes off in all directions, finding ways to put its perpetually nude cast in progressively more kinky situations. The female half of a pair of newlyweds winds up in a kinky BDSM harem when the pair run afoul of a local woman who runs a sort of “love camp” the sorts of which you find in Nazisploitation movies. That’s about it. Franco appears as a horrific gay stereotype and a lot of topless women have some of the most unarousing kinky sex imaginable until Franco pushes the whole thing over the edge as a man with severe sexual dysfunction bangs his wife while watching another woman being raped by a dog. Seriously. Would I lie to you?
It was only after some recent reviews of Severin released Jess Franco movies on DVD that it occurred to me that of all the Franco movies I’ve seen, I probably like one of them and absolutely loathe the rest. I can think of worse filmmakers, people like Godfrey Ho, but Franco’s preoccupation with women’s naughty bits and how they look when tied/chained up elevates his status as the sleaziest director in the world.

Bryan White
Editor, Cinema Suicide
@CinemaSuicide on Twitter