Very few figures in the landscape of cult cinema had the polarizing effect that Jesus “Jess” Franco had. The director helmed The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), A Virgin Among The Living Dead (1973), Exorcism (1974), Barbed Wire Dolls (1976), Bloody Moon (1981), and many more. So many, in fact, that his labyrinthian behemoth of a filmography, riddled with pseudonyms, erroneous credits, alternate cuts, and re-titled releases, may never be fully and accurately compiled. The Spanish filmmaker died a few days ago, April 2nd, at the age of 82.
I’ve met numerous film fans and filmmakers who despise the work of prolific Jess Franco. To them, Franco’s underfunded explorations of sex and violence are nothing more than tedious, flailing b-movie letdowns. However, I’ve met just as many people who adore every film Franco made… yes, every single one. There were over 160 of them, spanning five and a half decades… including three films completed only months before his death.
I don’t fall into either the enthusiastically pro-Franco or grumpily anti-Franco camps. While I’ve only seen a fraction of his movies, I found many of them less than remarkable. Still, a handful of them impressed me with their bizarre, dreamlike tone and/or their imaginative audacity. It seems these rare qualities are what earned Franco his dedicated followers - cult film fanatics who see Franco’s work not as low-budget clunkers, but as poetry written in writhing flesh and dripping blood.
I was introduced to the films of Jess Franco in the early-to-mid 90s by a special effects artist who worked on my early films, Tony Bridges. At the time, I think I’d seen a few examples of Franco’s work, but did not realize the filmmaker was as legendary as he was. Tony proudly owned a book titled Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco. This book (and Tony’s zeal for Franco films) informed me of the director’s tremendous impact on cult cinema.
In the early-to-mid 2000s, I co-owned a DVD authoring business. Most of our DVD projects were independent films. There was some excitement around the offices when we learned we would be providing the DVD authoring services for a few of Jess Franco’s more recent movies. Those who loved, and those who hated his films were equally enthused about contributing to the US releases of such a notorious cult filmmaker. While the movies we authored were not among my favorite Franco titles, I was still happy to claim my tiny slice of cult film history by working on these releases.
Jess Franco’s first childhood creative endeavors were in the world of music composition. (Later, the names of jazz musicians he admired would inspire some of his numerous directing pseudonyms). He transitioned into writing novels, acting for live theatre, and eventually filmmaking. His early skills bled into his film work. Franco routinely wrote, acted in, and composed the music for the films he directed. Outspokenly negative about his own movies, Franco tended to have tremendous freedom as a director, due to his track record of keeping films on schedule and on budget.
The collaborator most often associated with Franco is actress Lina Romay. Her film debut was in The Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein (1972), directed by Franco. This movie launched a creative partnership between the two (that spanned more than a hundred movies), as well as a romance that lasted until the death of Romay - Franco’s star, wife, and soulmate - about a year ago.
Whether you love or hate his films, one cannot deny that Jesus “Jess” Franco was an absolute original, a genuine lover of film, and an unbelievably driven, hard worker - even as an elderly man. He had a fascinating life and career. Likely, there will never be another like him.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze