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Jess Franco, R.I.P.

Tim Lucas is reporting that Spanish filmmaker Jesús “Jess” Franco passed away this morning at the age of 82.

Along with Jean Rollin, who passed away recently as well, Franco was one of the major European cult film directors of the ’70s and ’80s. And like Rollin, he made a ton of cheap, shitty movies. He directed something like 200 of them since his first short in 1957, often helming four, five, six different films in a single calendar year. He was a workman, and to his credit he was directing right up until his death. According to IMDB, his final completed film is the 2012 Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies. From the title, I can only imagine how terrible it is.

Yes, Franco made shitty movies, and I mean him no disrespect by saying that. When you make six movies a year, not all of them are going to be good. In fact, most won’t be. 1982’s Oasis of the Zombies, about Nazi zombies guarding a lost shipment of gold in the desert outside Tripoli, is unwatchable. 1973’s Female Vampire is nothing but a wank film with only the slightest hint of a plot involving a perpetually naked vampire, played by Franco’s wife and muse Lina Romay, who kills her victims through oral sex. You read that right. Of course, the whole movie isn’t like that. At other times, the film is more concerned with showing Romay masturbate on a bed or in a bathtub. Jess Franco, everyone.

But even the shittiest filmmakers can strike gold on occasion, and in my opinion Franco did it with two films that are surprisingly strong on atmosphere and style. One is 1973’s A Virgin Among the Living Dead. Despite its title, this is a ghost story, not a zombie movie (though additional footage was added to an alternate version of the film to turn it into a zombie movie for no good reason). The story follows Christina, who returns to her family’s castle in their remote, ancestral village for the reading of her father’s will. But her family is acting weird and performing strange rituals, and her father keeps showing up, and the specter of death is hanging around in the form of a bare-breasted (of course) woman in black. Eventually, Christina figures out that all her family members are ghosts now, and they expect her to join them in death. After a big orgy, of course, because this is still a Jess Franco flick, duh.

The other is perhaps the film Franco is best known for: 1971’s Vampyros Lesbos (pictured above), an extremely stylish and accomplished (for Franco) film with a title so embarrassing to mention to video store clerks that you’ll never be gladder for the relative anonymity of Netflix. Its lounge-jazz soundtrack may be more famous than anything that happens in the movie, as evidenced by part of it being used in the score for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Anyway, in this one, sexually frustrated lawyer Linda travels to a small island off the coast of Turkey to help Countess Carody with a real estate inheritance from Count Dracula (eye roll!). The Countess takes a fancy to Linda, seduces her and drinks her blood, and then releases her with no memory of what happened, except for some strange dreams. Then a local doctor figures out what’s going on teaches Linda to defend herself against the Countess, only Linda isn’t exactly sure she wants to because hubba hubba. It’s sleazy, yes, but also hallucinatory and sensual and kind of a masterpiece in its own right. It’s hard to believe Jess Franco made it.

On a side note, I got to meet Franco and Romay briefly in, I think, 2000 at a convention in Chicago. Conversation was difficult, English wasn’t a first language for either of them, but I was excited to shake their hands. After Romay passed away in February of 2012, everyone who knew them knew Franco wouldn’t last long without her. It seems they were right. Just over a year later, he’s gone to join the woman who helped define almost every aspect of his life.

Franco may have been more of a prolific filmmaker than a great one, but there’s no denying his lasting legacy on European cult cinema. And after directing 200 movies, he’s definitely earned his rest.

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