The cult horror director who once was described by the Vatican as “the most dangerous film-maker alive” passed away in April at the age of 82 in Málaga, Spain. Affectionately known as Tío Jess (“Uncle Jess”) among his fans, Jess Franco was one of the most prolific directors of all time (the exact number of his films, around 200, is the subject of much debate), adopting several pseudonymes to avoid, in his own words, being hated by his colleagues. His films, a concoction of horror, fantasy, eroticism and the surreal, were at the same time the subject of controversy and international censorship and the focus of an important cult following, with Quentin Tarantino citing them as a huge influence. Franco is best known for the films he made with British producer Harry Alan Towers and Christopher Lee and for those that featured the infamous mad scientist Doctor Orloff.
Along with Paul Naschy, the Lon Chaney of Spain, who died in 2009, Jess Franco was a seminal figure in Spanish horror. Both of them were true mavericks who dedicated their lives to exploring a genre that was consistently repressed in their country of birth by the other Franco, the dictator who ruled the country from 1939 until his death in 1975 and who, ironically, shared the surname of the director.
As a teenager, Franco, born Jesús Franco Manera in Madrid, was already a cinema lover who went to the pictures almost every day. He joined music school and learnt to play piano and trumpet, dreaming of becoming a jazz trumpeter. Eventually he decided he preferred “the glorious life of a moviemaker”, so he enrolled in the Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias Cinematográficas, while simultaneously working as an actor and writing pulp novels under the pseudonyme of David Khume. He moved to Paris to escape the dictatorship and complete his training as a cinematographer. He often recalled how delighted he was to discover in the French Cinemathèque and the Sorbonne those films that were forbidden by the fascist regime. When he returned to Spain, he got his first job in the industry as a composer. Soon he would work as an assistant director in several Hollywood projects shot in Spain, such as King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba (1958). He directed his first feature in 1959, the teenage comedy Tenemos quince años, as well as several documentaries in subsequent years.
It wasn’t until 1961 that he directed his first genre film, Gritos en la noche, known as The awful Doctor Orloff. The film was a French-Spanish co-production, and a rarity in his country of birth (the only other references were the forgotten silent films of Segundo Chomón and the 1944 Gothic mystery La torre de los siete jorobados, which featured a group of sinister hunchbacks terrorising the daughter of a deceased archaeologist). Gritos en la noche is the the first seed of fantaterror, the genre that thrived in Spain during the 60s and 70s, influenced by Hammer Horror and Italian giallo and cultivated by legendary names in the horror industry, such as Franco, Paul Naschy, Ibáñez-Serrador or Armando de Ossorio. Part of the reason why it was possible for Franco to produce the first Orloff were the changes in film-making policy in his country, intended to help the economy through foreign investment, which allowed for international co-productions.
The plot of Gritos en la noche revolves around a mad scientist named after the character played by Bela Lugosi in The Dark Eyes of London, an adaptation of an Edgar Wallace novel. Franco’s Orloff is a former prison doctor who kidnaps young girls and skins them to repair the face of his daughter, scarred after a fire. The film’s premise is clearly taken from the haunting French classic Eyes without a face (1960) that also inspired Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween and the Billy Idol song of the same name.
Orloff would be a recurring character in Franco’s filmography, often played by Swiss-born Howard Vernon, one of his regular actors. Vernon’s last appearance as the mad doctor would be in Faceless (1987), officially considered a gory remake of Eyes without a face, though it could also be defined as another take, and not the only one in his career, on Gritos en la noche.
Horror, especially of the surgical kind, was clearly a recurrent element in Franco’s ouvre, but so was eroticism. In the beginnings of fantaterror, it was frequent to produce at least two versions of each film, one with nudity, destined for the more open-minded European market, and a more chaste one that could escape the sharp scissors of the fascist censors. Franco’s sadistic, voyeuristic gaze is already noticeable in very early examples, such as the first Orloff and The sadistic Baron Von Klaus (1962).
Later in the sixties, the director worked with Christopher Lee and British producer Harry Alan Towers in two of Lee’s five films as Fu Manchu, in The Bloody Judge (1969), where Lee played the sadistic Judge Jeffreys, and in the actor’s sole non-Hammer Dracula (1970), which was also his favourite.
He spent most of the 1970s making international co-productions away from the restrictions of his country, and eroticism and gore progressively became more prominent in his works. The film-maker was a fan of the Marquis de Sade, whom he had discovered through his nephew when he was just a teenager. De Sade’s works were, of course, forbidden in fascist Spain, and they clearly had a big impact on him, because he would end up adapting some of them to the screen: Justine (1969) and Eugenie (1970) were also produced by Harry Alan Towers. Towers asked Christopher Lee to play the part of the narrator in the latter. The actor accepted and only found out that the film was softcore pornography after some friends told him it was being shown in Old Compton Street. Lee was furious.
In 1971, Franco met his muse Lina Romay, then seventeen. She became the star in Female Vampire (1973) and his lifelong partner, whom he finally married in 2008. She died in 2012. It was easy to guess why they seemed made for each other: Romay was at least as fearless as him. She starred in over 100 of Franco’s films and was a legend in the hardcore porn industry of the time, working as an actress, director, producer and writer.
When asked about which of his films he would save from a fire, Franco always referred to Venus in Furs, not an adaptation of the Von Sacher-Masoch novella, but a hallucinogenic thriller with cult actor Klaus Kinski. But his favourite was probably Necronomicon (also known as Succubus), a surreal trip with a night club stripper, mannequins, S&M and dancing midgets before David Lynch made them popular. Metropolis director Fritz Lang called it “a beautiful piece of cinema”. It was largely improvised by Franco, who started shooting without a script, with most scenes quickly sketched in Spanish the night before the shoot and translated into English by actor Jack Taylor the following morning.
Lang wasn’t the only “serious” film-maker who admired his work. In 1965 Franco was hired as the second unit director in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. They worked together on several occasions, including the incomplete Treasure Island, with Welles as Long John Silver. Franco regarded his time with Welles as “the most important vital experience in my life”. In 1990, he purchased the rights to some of the footage of Welles’ unfinished project Don Quixote. The American director had spent several decades of his life, until his death in 1985, trying to finish what initially was going to be a 3o minute TV special. After it was cancelled by CBS, Welles decided to go ahead and create his own version of the Spanish archetypal hero, set in the 20th century and sponsored by Frank Sinatra. But the project was never completed. Franco worked on a new edit that included scenes of his own creation. The result premièred in Cannes in 1992 under the title Orson Welles’ Don Quixote. Critics hated it and remarked upon the superior quality of the original material. But critics’ opinions never had any impact on the film-maker. He thought that it was his job as a director to entertain people, not to achieve artistic merit like Cervantes or Shakespeare, though he recognised that Welles himself or John Ford were close to that concept.
In 2009 Franco received the honorary Goya, an award given by the Spanish Film Academy to celebrate a lifetime achievement. With this gesture, the Academy rewarded the creativity, productivity and pioneering efforts of the master of grindhouse cinema. In his speech Franco was humble as usual, acknowledging Romay’s support and recognising the labour of all young amateur film-makers. “To make a film”, he had said in several interviews, quoting the words of director José Luis Berlanga, “you only need two things: a camera and freedom”. The quote captures the two most important principles of his career: his love of cinema and his hatred for the Spanish fascist regime. In the 2010 documentary Llámale Jess he recalls how he was offered several propaganda films that he emphatically rejected: “I won that battle against those sons of bitches. I’ve always done whatever the fuck I wanted”.
In the last year of his life he completed three films, among them Al Pereira VS the alligator ladies, released in Spain just before his death. Franco was busy until the end and even though he didn’t care about posterity, he’ll be remembered for his films, his authenticity and his fearless attitude.