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A film only review. A DVD from Mondo Macabro can be imported for around £10 if you're lucky, more like £20 if you're not.
I used to hate the films of Spanish director Jess Franco. But then I ended up watching so many that I started liking them after all, a bit like a hostage developing Stockholm Syndrome. It is generally said that the more Franco you see, the more you will come to appreciate his little foibles. Instead of cursing his longeurs and technical deficiencies, you will come to realise that they are what makes the films what they are. He worries away at the same themes like a dog with a bone, and eventually you greet the Franco motifs like old friends, albeit friends you wouldn't give your phone number to.
Eventually a whole parallel film world opens up before you, and you realise that the only fair way to judge Jess Franco's films is to judge them against other Jess Franco films, rather than against 'real' films. A film by almost any other filmmaker will be better than a Franco film, at least in the ways we judge normal films. With Franco, a whole different set of criteria apply, and while a neophyte viewer may wonder why on earth we've just spent five minutes watching the camera pan around and zoom in on bits of a cliff face, the seasoned Jessketeer will nod sagely and muse on how Franco did something similar in Vampyros Lesbos. Franco has made well over 100 films, so there's plenty to choose from (although quite a lot are just hardcore porn and don't seem to be widely available). Hitchcock aside, I have now seen more films by Franco than any other director.
Countess Perverse (1974) is probably in the top ten percent of the ones I've seen. It is mercifully short (only about 75 minutes), but even so, it has long passages in which nothing happens except Franco exploring his passion for filming treetops. One frequent Franco feature is to film boats chugging slowly across harbours. Here he inverts that by having the camera in a boat going across a harbour, thus neatly confounding the expectations of his audience. Or something.
The plot is basically the same as in the old RKO horror flick The Most Dangerous Game. It's about evil aristocrats hunting people for sport. Being Jess Franco, the evil aristo in question is a naked lady, and the people she hunts are also naked ladies. She and her husband eat the flesh of their victims, which is a slightly novel twist. The plot concerns a guy called Bob and his wife Moira, who procure a young girl, Silvia, for the evil Count and Countess to hunt. Silvia is described as 'dim but juicy', which seems a fair assessment.
One of Franco's most famous idiosyncrasies is constantly wobbling, badly focused camerawork, with heavy emphasis on the zoom lens. In this film the camerawork is actually pretty competent - it only goes out of focus when it's obviously meant to, and the camera movements are smooth. Possibly he had a tripod when making this; possibly he even hired a cameraman, rather than shooting it all himself. The thing that kept me coming back to Franco before I grew to understand his stuff was that he did occasionally throw in an image of real beauty, or at least abiding oddness; there are quite a few such moments here.
There is, of course, a lot of nudity in this. There are very few characters - only six, in fact - and I think we see them all in the nude. Mostly it's the ladies (inevitably, Lina Romay is one of them. She was Franco's partner from the early 70s until her death earlier this year). The love scenes are fairly typical of Franco - a lot of glacially slow lesbian canoodling, often partly obscured by items in the foreground. Franco's usual leading man, Howard Vernon, also has a love scene which can best be described as 'horrifying'. At one point the creases in his buttocks seem to be making a 'V'. Vernon is usually a cool customer, to the extent that in a lot of his horror movies he seems bored and unengaged. In this film he actually lets rip with a few good bits of over-acting, but I still wish we'd not seen his arse. Anyway, mostly the nudity features ladies, and pubic hair fans will be in for a real treat.
Probably the best feature of the film is the completely bizarre building that is used as the Count and Countess's mansion. A deranged, angular curiosity, it is difficult to figure out what the building was actually used for in real life. There are some odd, almost Escher-esque series of staircases which are used a few times, too - for once Franco has been blessed with a genuinely unusual location. It's not clear where it's meant to be set, but in one forest scene Franco has dubbed his usual tape of 'exotic jungle noises' over it, so probably it's meant to be tropical.
Franco films often have wild jazz funk soundtracks, and this is no exception. One piece of incidental music sounds just like the opening guitar riff of 'I Want To Be Your Dog' by Iggy Pop. There are other, less welcome Franco perennials too, such as dodgy continuity (the naked Countess sometimes wears shoes and sometimes doesn't). At one point we can very clearly see the shadow of the cameraman on the wall by some of the characters.
But I would say this is one of the best of Franco's films, and might be one of the few I'd recommend to a non-initiate. There are a few genuinely great moments, such as when Lina Romay walks in to find the Count and Countess gloating over the corpse of a victim, or when the count starts laughing hysterically during a cannibal dinner. The location is profoundly unusual, and Howard Vernon is giving a bit more of himself than in his other horror work. Towards the end, as characters chase each other through fields of tall grass with a largely percussive soundtrack, I actually started to wonder if it was meant to be a homage to Onibaba. I quickly dismissed any such thought - this is Jess Franco we're talking about, for goodness sake - but this is a lot more accomplished than most of his cheap, weird movies.
It also has enough fun stuff - nudity, lesbian scenes, hunting (somehow everyone is really good with a bow in this film) - to make it not boring. This is a rarity - A Franco film that is actually enjoyable. Mostly. Approach with caution, but do approach.