Jesús "Jess" Franco (1930-2013) was a Spanish film director, writer, cinematographer and actor. Franco, the underrated genius of exploitative 70s Horror moviemaking has become a legend for Grindhouse fans in the last few years. With his unique style of combining beautifully directed and artisticly styled Horror with extraordinary and funky music and a noble art of showing erotica he's got a large fanbase from Europe to America.
He studied at the Real Conservatorio de Madrid, focusing on harmony and piano and also earned a Bachelor's degree in Law and wrote some small novels under the pseudonym David Khume (the pseudonyms became one of Franco's trademarks). In Paris he studied directing techniques at the University of Sorbonne. The thing he liked the most was living in seclusion and watching movies from the University's archives all day and night. After becoming a film expert he started to make t first steps into the business doing cinematography and composing music for directors like Luis Saslavsky and Fernando Soler. Franco then directed short-documentaries like El Árbol de Espana (1957). His first feature film was called Tenemos 18 Anos (1959). This was a low-budget production, but Franco loved to be creative and work with his mind and even though he didn't have a lot of money he shot films really fast so that he could release several in the same year.
Franco's first Horror film was called Gritos en la noche (1962) and starred Howard Vernon as the legendary "Dr. Orloff". Franco's first film success was The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), starring the legendary icon of Horror movies Christopher Lee. After a few more sexploitation movies like Die Sieben Maenner der Sumuru (1969) and El Caso de las dos bellezas (1969), he directed the Fu Manchu sequel Die Folterkammer des Dr. Fu Manchu (1969), again starring the brilliant Christopher Lee in one of his cult classic roles. With the German master actor Klaus Kinski, Fred Williams, and again, Christopher Lee, Franco made El Conde Drácula (1970), it was his version of Bram Stoker's vampire story. It contained a lot of humor and his own brilliant ideas.
In the recent campaigns to fully restore Franco's films to their original versions, many have been released in The States in the way they were meant to be seen for the first time, showing what his fans have always noted and what his detractors have missed. Gritos en la noche has been issued as The Awful Dr. Orloff, an early great that played well in it's theatrical run, already showing a promise at an early stage. Another early film that should be seen is Miss Muerte, also known as The Diabolical Dr. Z a solid film that blends one of his favorite themes The Mad Scientist, with a touch of eroticism that would only hint to what he would be famous for, while the 1962 film The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus, is another film he would be known for as one of his best thanks to the DVD. Other Early to Mid 60's films of note are Attack of the Robots, which was sold to American TV through AIP, and Lucky the Inscrutable from 1967.
Franco's films could be placed into specific eras that are connected to various studios and producers, with his early films connected to the French company Eurocine, which he would work for for the majority of his film career. In 1967, he started to make films for Aquila Film Enterprises, the first being the film that would break him out worldwide, Necronomicon better known to the world as Succubus, a very dreamy and sensual film which was a cult hit immediately that was released in 1969 in The States through Trans-American, connected to the mighty AIP. Sadly, his two other films for the Aquila were the light romps that were the Red Lips films made in quick time with some of the cast members of his best film for them including star Janine Reynaud, and while Sadisterotica, or Two Undercover Angels, and Kiss Me, Monster are enjoyable, they did not follow up to the interesting scenes that made Succubus the film that made the world take notice of him.
The speed that Franco was making films was already legendary, and it was through the making of the Red Lips films shortly after Succubus when this was clearly noted in some areas of the Exploitation film industry. One of the leading stars of Franco's Aquila period, Michel Lemoine, is one of his strongest supporters, and has raved about that ease to making films in some interviews. Lemoine possibly was influenced by Franco to extend his contributions to cinema in Directing, leading to a number of films through The 70's and 80's including Seven Women for Satan.
1968 Franco began working with Harry Allen Towers - The British Exploitation Producer that took Franco on travels that would produce two Fu Manchu films with Christopher Lee and then some of the most influential work of his career. Hired on to make The Blood of Fu Manchu as a quickie film to follow Towers' three other films in the series, it looked like that Franco at least had a good time filming in Rio while meeting one of the most legendary actors of all time. Franco and Towers worked great all the way to 1970, although not without their problems.
The speed at which Franco made his films was already at their legendary level, proven by the three films he made almost back to back with Aquila around 1967 (Though the release of the Red Lips films was a little later, around 1969), but by the time he worked on The Blood of Fu Manchu, he already was starting on another film starring Shirley Eaton and George Sanders that was to be The Girl From Rio, using the annual festivities there are a backdrop for some of the more colorful scenes in the campy but cool Action-Adventure film with a touch of the sensual. This was another follow-up film to another Towers film, this time The 1,000 Eyes of Sumuru.
By the time production wrapped up for The Girl From Rio, extra footage of the Rio festival was made for a later day as well as some footage for was to be an influential Women In Prison film which was completed after a deal was quickly set. 99 Women was the film that really introduced Franco to the American audience, and with great performances by Mercedes McCambridge, Herbert Lom, and Maria Schell, along with Maria Rohm who appeared in many of Towers' films at this time, it became a WIP film that broke new ground for the long-standing Exploitation genre. By 1969, Franco was a name to watch...at least for the film industry...as it turned into a huge Drive-In hit that shocked and won over audiences. Although this was a censored release, later on there would be a version with X-Rated scenes added in that were not by Towers or Franco, adding onto the many versions of his films released through the 60's and 70's that for a while confused many who wanted to look into his work.
In the rush to make a film from the work of a very controversial author came along the idea to try and make a film adaptation of a novel by The Marquis de Sade that wound up as Justine. Although it was logical that for an Exploitation film for a worldwide release, very little of de Sade's sadistic epic novel was used, but the basic storyline was adapted for a Costume Drama that went more into the sensual than previous Franco films. Starring Jack Palance and Klaus Kinski, the film had some interference by one of the studios backing the film, AIP, who insisted that Romina Power should play the title role, and the results were a little less satisfactory than expected, but still coming out as a good Exploitation epic, although oddly enough, AIP in The States would hold back the release of the film until 1972 with a very edited version titled Deadly Sanctuary.
In Late 1968, possibly after wrapping up on the film that was the final Franco-Christopher Lee Fu Manchu film, The Castle of Fu Manchu, Franco met with a couple of members of a high-standing Pop band from England called Manfred Mann ("Do Wah Diddy Diddy" "Pretty Flamingo") in the interest in creating a soundtrack as well as appearing in the film. The meeting was successful enough to be a start of the production of what was Franco's most impressive film to date, Venus in Furs. Although AIP once again interfered with the story, as well as insisting that the film be titled after a novel that had nothing to do with the film, it still kept it's Jazzy and surreal story about a woman abused and murdered at a party returning as a ghost and seeking revenge on those who were with her that fateful night. It may have been all a dream, and maybe it was the musician's dream...let's just say it's a Sexy Jazzadelic tale to just get lost in. The decision to cast James Darren in the lead was a lucky shot as he could play trumpet - a very important requirement to play the role successfully - and another surprise to some was that Manfred Mann, the musician, and Mike Hugg, the Bassist from Mann's band, were into Jazz and were could play it with skill for their moments on screen, and their performances, as well as that of Barbara McNair who has a couple of singing performances (The title song is great!), Rohm, and the small but notable roles for Dennis Price and Klaus Kinski, all added up to what is a great moment in 1969's year in film.
After these films were released, Franco started to gain a group of die-hard-fans who loved his style of moviemaking. His films were always artistic, wonderfully shot and ambitious genre classics. But the best films of Franco's work were still to come. After his success in the 1960s, the 1970s were Franco's big time to shine.
In 1969, he formed his own independent company to make films that were more Adult and experimental without aiming for the commercial release, Prodif. Starting with Nightmares Come at Night, he would also experience some trouble of releasing films himself as it would take a couple of years for the film to see any kind of release, although Sex Charade (1970) and most importantly A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971) would find a release quickly, with the latter being called one of his most important films. Teaming up with Christopher Lee once again in 1969, thanks to Towers being able to persuade him to take the part, he would wind up in the classic Sex Trip of Eugenie as the Narrator filmed apart from the sexual scenes as a kind of "Special Guest.". Lee would be more of the star in two solid Franco films, one being an epic standout film The Bloody Judge, in the style of Witchfinder General with Vincent Price, with the legendary actor playing Judge Jeffreys in a great performance and added Exploitation value thanks to some punishment scenes featuring Howard Vernon being over the top (With this trend in mind, one should also note of another great Witchfinder-styled Exploitation film called Mark of the Witch, Produced by Adrian Hoven, who produced Franco's Aquila films back in 1967).
1970 saw the release of what was to be Franco's final film Produced by Towers, Count Dracula, featuring Lee as the Count in the way as he was meant to be played, away from any modernization that Hammer tried to surround the legend with at the time. Although it is a strong favorite with fans, it was a flawed production due to the budget which really had an effect on the special effects that were showing their cost by the end of the film. Despite all the words of Franco's critics, though, the film actually has some of the most attractive photography in a Franco film next to The Bloody Judge, Venus in Furs, and A Virgin Among the Living Dead, and it should be said that the film solidified the friendship between Franco and Lee once and for all while they tried to create a film more based on the book. In an era where there were many variations on the theme, it has to be stated that the story had to get back to the basics in film by the Late 60's, making this a relief for fans of the Dracula legend, some who rate it very high. The film also had a very interesting cameo by one of the most famous of Franco's muses, Soledad Miranda, who would also be a part of Nightmares, but would move onto bigger roles soon.
The 1970s started with the great cult exploitation flick La Isla de la muerte (1970), starring the beautiful Marie Liljedahl as Eugenie, a sexy woman who gets in a lot of perverse situations. And a few months later, Franco released his next "Eugenie" film only called Eugenie (1970). It starred Franco's favorite actress Soledad Miranda, one of the most beautiful and ambitious actresses of exploitation cinema. After a few more projects with Miranda like Les Cauchemars naissent la nuit (1970) and Der Teufel kam aus Akasava (1971), Franco directed his (in my opinion) best and absolutely greatest film ever: Las Vampiras (1970) aka Vampyros Lesbos. This great mixture of astonishing and breathtaking camerawork, great sleazy Horror suspense, sexy erotic scenes and a brilliant soundtrack is one of Franco's most popular movies. It was starring his muse Soledad Miranda again and, in another role, the blonde Ewa Stroemberg. Franco gave himself a role too, he is co-starred as Memmet, a little bastard who likes to capture women and keep them in his cellar. After that, he made his last film with Soledad Miranda called She Killed in Ecstasy (1971). Tragically, Soledad died in a car accident.
Starting in 1970, Franco made a decision to team up with Artur Brauner, and with his Production, he made a series of films which included the classic trio of film starring Miranda. There has been some discussion on who was the best Franco Muse of The 70's between Miranda and Lina Romay, but even if those who side with Miranda only have a small amount of films that display her presence, those films have been sighted by fans to be among the best of Franco's Post-Towers work (The soundtrack to Vampyros Lesbos is a cult classic that is marked for being proof of Franco's excellent choice of music to go along with the sexy happenings). This was the period which really started Franco's hyper-production making the Towers period look somewhat tame by comparison. They included the many different versions and titles along with the many different AKAs he used that caused endless debate among film fans leading to a number of films rumored to have had Franco in the Director's seat. While there were many different names used through his career, a good number of the long line of these names used date back to The 70's.
By 1972, Franco was also working with Robert De Nestle for a series of films that was to feature more sexuality including Sinner, Lorna the Exorcist, and Les Emmerdeuses. Other films from the Early 70's feature quite a diverse line of films including the Dramatic Devil's Island Lovers, a well-received prison drama that showed what Franco can make even without the famed erotica of the era; some throwbacks to the classic monster movies including Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein; an atmospheric thriller in Night of the Skulls; a more Erotic return to the Witchfinder genre in The Demons, a films with a slightly funky Bongo and Wah-Wah guitar filled soundtrack that was one of the very few Post-Towers films to have a theatrical run in The States; and some Erotica featuring Lina Romay, who became the most notable of ladies thanks to her performance in Female Vampire, one of his most notable films for Eurocine (and one that was made famous on video years after it's release in The States through it's edited version called Erotokill), for whom he worked for on many films including what was to be another fan favorite, Exorcism.
By the time of Exorcism, which might be called a mix of Gothic and Erotica including a fine S/M opening performance with Romay as the "Victim" that was filmed in both skinful and clothed versions, Franco's films really started to go into the era in which many different versions were made for different markets, causing no end to the confusion as to what the viewer has seen. Exorcism was to be one of the more extreme of cases where it was made with Hardcore scene for a version called Sexorcism, and also one watered down and released in The States on video as Demoniac. Many of Franco's critics date from this era, viewing what was to be later known as heavily cut versions including AIP's release of The Bloody Judge as night of the Blood Monster from 1972, but in Exorcism's case, Franco made a remix of that film called The Sadist of Notre Dame featuring more of his murderous character which was said to have been the version used for the highly criticized Demoniac release.
In the Mid to Late 70's included his well-known works, including some of his best known WIP films, that were made for Producer Erwin C. Dietrich, including the sleaze classic Greta, the Torturer, which shortly turned into Wanda, the Wicked Warden, and then more famously thanks to the presence of star Dyanne Thorne, Ilsa: The Wicked Warden, the unofficial-now-official third Ilsa film. These were possibly Franco at his most extreme, and with films like Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun and Barbed Wire Dolls, this period of Franco's work has many fans forming sharp opinions, with many Exploitation fans raving about them while those who side with his 60's work offering some criticism with a version of Jack the Ripper starring Klaus Kinski being the most comparatively sedate of an otherwise wild era also defined by Women in Cell Block 9. Still, no matter what side one was on, it is to be agreed that these films still had very unique and bold scenes that remain some of the most talked about moments in Late 70's Exploitation.
By The 80's, Franco mainly kept base at Eurocine, although he still worked for other studios from time to time. Through The 70's very few of his films made it to The States, but by The 80's, with a decrease in Grindhouse theaters and Distribution companies that would promote his films, the main outlet for his film was through the growing video industry, although there would be theatrical playdates around the world. Although he kept the erotica alive through a number of films, Franco also went back into general Exploitation, including some attempts at the Cannibal genre (Cannibals, Sexo Cannibal), and other films like Oasis of the Zombies. and a slight return to the WIP film in Sadomania, seen by many Franco fans as another extreme highlight.
The Late 80's saw a slight return working with Christopher Lee in films that were more Action Adventure in nature including Dark Mission, a major change of pace from what he was making through The 70's and 80's. 1988's Faceless was seen by many as a return to form, but by The 90's, Franco was seen less productive with many films that had only a small release. By 1996, Franco returned to film making with Killer Barbys, and then went into the world of Direct to Video productions through One Shot Productions including Vampire Blues. Along with the last-known One Shot video production, Snakewoman, the last Franco videos known were from 1995, The Flowers of Passion and The Flowers of Perversion, both with a small release although still with their fans.
Franco's history has many fans who still investigate a huge and diverse body of work and many critics who usually cry out the usual "Why do they like him?" complaints. No matter what side the film fan is in when it comes to Franco, it is without a doubt that several of his films are among the most influential or at least ground-breaking in Exploitation history. Although it can be said that there are way too many films for one to say "I have seen them all," the best of his work has been well-received and respected by those who are willing to cast aside the criticisms and find out for themselves why he is a legend.
The following is the original end to this page, proof enough that there are many favorites for many fans, just one of the many reasons why Franco still remains a most talked-about film maker.
In the end, I just want to mention my favorite Jess Franco movies which I recommend every movie lover in the world: First, the brilliant Vampyros Lesbos, perhaps my absolute Franco favorite. Then, of course, Il Cacciatore di uomini (1980) aka Sexo Cannibal starring "Mr. Cool" Al Cliver. This movie is another great horror meets erotica film from Franco. And then, of course Franco's great Fu Manchu movies starring Christopher Lee and his El Conde Drácula project with Klaus Kinski. And, how could I forget, the two "Eugénie" movies with Soledad Miranda and Marie Liljedahl.