Who knows what Freud might have made of Jesús ‘Jess’ Franco if he was to lie on the couch and confess to the lurid shimmer round the female prison guards, vampires and lingerie nuns kept trapped in his soft-porn fantasies. Fortunately for us cult historians at SBS Movies, the Madrid native and former jazz muso didn’t speak away his sexed-up visions in therapy, he scorched them to budget celluloid, leaving a pioneering oeuvre of (s)exploitation that continues to warp film history.
Already dabbling in schlock-horror, Franco’s filmic path veered one night in a Madrid cinema. After a screening of The Brides of Dracula (1960) - one of the ‘horrors’ being factory-pumped out of B-grindhouse Hammer Productions – he wondered, why can’t I do this? Upping the ante with lots of nudity? Filming naked chicks was one thing, but breaking taboos was another, and here’s the rub for Franco; his key-holed leers into rehab camps for topless girls were as much a reaction to state censorship as they were the products of a febrile imagination. Spain was missing out on what much of the world now remembers as the sixties; a time when free love and psychedelic drugs shook up the old order.
With Dictator General Franco (no relation) in power and the church holding veto rights over cultural productions, Jesús Franco grew weary of having his scripts rejected by the Ministry as ‘insane’. He had no interest in making propaganda films that were little more than brochures for the wonders of the regime. When foreign investors flashed a sack of Deutschmarks at him, he quickly decamped to West Germany where he could pursue his more violent and erotic daydreams without restriction.
From that period comes Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy, both starring Andalusian pop singer and starlet on the rise, Soledad Miranda. She chose the stage name ‘Soledad’ (solitude) so her pre-Google family might remain clueless to the kind of lewd romp that opens Vampyros Lesbos; her undressing one of her female slaves.
Only when the camera pulls back do we realize vampire Nadine’s fleshy performance is really a nightclub act for well-heeled voyeurs. In the audience is the creatively named Linda Westinghouse from Simpson and Simpson lawyers. (No doubt she had good references from Fisher & Paykel.) Linda recognises Nadine as the woman who has been haunting her dreams. When Linda later visits Nadine on her isolated island, they do what girls do in Franco’s world. Sunbathe naked. Drink blood and make love to jazzy sitars. Linda wakes days later in a mental hospital with all the other wanton nymphets who, like her, can’t remember a thing about their visit to the island. But Linda is not like all the others. Vampire Nadine has fallen hopelessly in love with her and wants a kind of same-sex marriage.
Cue an adventure into unpruned pubic hair, where aesthetic close-ups are more important than plot plausibility, yet elliptical storytelling dissolves our addiction to neat narrative. Franco’s universe is a dimension with its own logic. And it works.
If the loose femme-fatale’s, or fallen women, we know from 1930s film noir were the antithesis of good housewives keeping spotless castles for man-kings, then Franco’s vixens, bringing sex and death, have their opposites in nurturing Spanish mothers. But as bringers of death, these anti-heroines seem banished from love. In both films - young, rich and hot - they become isolated on a luxury island. It’s as if Franco’s saying, even in my boundary-breaking world, the price women pay for liberty, is existential loneliness. But these Eve’s, banished from the garden, are not ashamed of their nakedness. They weaponise it, hypnotising docile males with their lingerie, a trusty blade tucked in the back of the G-string.
Watch 'Vampyros Lesbos' at SBS On Demand
In She Killed in Ecstasy, Soledad Miranda returns as the wife of a maverick doctor conducting medical experiments on human embryos. When his peers deem his research unethical, he’s de-registered. Angry and catatonic, he can’t make it off the bed, no matter what state of undress his young bride finds herself in. When he kills himself, she gets disguised in a fishnet-teddy and seeks revenge, the film climaxing with passion too bizarre to spoil.
By definition, exploitation films exploit or cash in on genres or trends, and while Franco exploits his own fantasies, he also exploits our desire to voyeurise the actresses he leeringly shoots. It doesn’t however, seem that the actresses were exploited, many remembering Franco, who died in 2013, with affection. Some admit to being exhibitionists, another became his lover for 40 years, while Soledad Miranda was on the cusp of signing a major contract to go mainstream when she was killed in a car accident at 27.
In a world that’s lost its ability to shock, where every tween with a phone and McDonald’s WiFi can view tube porn and Saw-like torture that leave nothing to the imagination, there’s something haunting about these films. They live in another dimension. A world of myth and desire, where sin is exciting because of the prohibitions that deny it. Naïve too, these films seem quaint, almost folksy, a collision of fake-blood kitsch and eroticism that, nevertheless, are best watched with the blinds down. They’re a very specific kind of art. An art that, now our innocence is lost, can never come again.