Wednesday, December 26, 2007

11th January 2008: Jess Franco double!

The Secret of Dr Orloff

Spain/France 1964 b&w

aka El Secreto Del Dr. Orloff, Brides of Dr. Jekyll, Les Maîtresses du Dr. Jekyll/ “The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll”, Dr. Jekyll's Mistresses, Dr. Orloff's Monster, Dr Orlof’s Secret

Director/Writer Jesus Franco

Cast “Hugh White”/Hugo Blanco (Andros), Agnès Spaak (Melissa), Perla Cristal (Rosa), Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui (Dr. Conrad Fisherman)

Tonight we pay tribute to the Diabolical Mr F, Spain’s Jesus (or Jess) Franco. In a career that spans five decades he has directed a staggering 200-plus features. That’s OVER TWO HUNDRED films, and while he’s still upright and able to hold a camera, there’s still no stopping him. While working in every conceivable genre he’s best remembered for his sex-horror movies, though to be honest must of his output is so rushed and muddle-headed, they’re far from memorable. Luckily the two Jesus Franco films tonight are from his early period when he still cared about quality and not quantity – which means they’re relatively coherent, technically accomplished, and yet in their black hearts they’re very, VERY strange.

The Secret Of Dr Orloff from 1964 is a semi-sequel to Franco’s first horror picture, The Awful Dr Orlof. Made in 1961 in gorgeous black and white, Franco managed to fashion an idiosyncratic twist on both the Frankenstein story (in Orlof and his monster Morpho) – and the French horror classic Eyes Without A Face. Orlof, with its intense and perverse atmosphere and nightmare logic, initiated a new wave of sleaze and violence that emerged from ultra-conservative Spain under Franco (the General, not the director). Jesus Franco capitalized on its success by forging a series of increasingly salacious gothic horrors, often as co-productions with other European countries for financial reasons, but more than often to circumvent Spain’s strict censorship laws.

The Secret Of Dr Orloff thrives on the tension between what can and can’t be shown. The young Melissa arrives from Austria and is escorted by a love-struck taxi driver named Juan to her uncle Professor Fisherman’s desolate castle, and into a classic gothic tableau: a family haunted by phantoms of their past misdeeds. Fisherman’s wife is now a lush drowning her misery in a river of cheap liquor; Fisherman, having uncovered the infidelity between his wife and brother, has killed his brother, only to resurrect him with the help of the dying Dr Orlof’s technique of utilizing sonic frequencies.

The brother’s corpse, now named Andros, is kept in a glass case and sent out on late night missions by the feverish Fisherman to dispatch night club dancers, torch singers, and at least one prostitute. Wandering through the dark streets of Spain in a black polo-neck, the monster looks more like a Beat poet than an automated assassin; his frozen gaze can’t conceal he still has a shred of humanity left in him, and like all monsters this proves to be his Achilles heel.

It’s a crazed, sleazy B-film from the most fiendish of cinephiles, loaded with powerful images of desolate landscapes and close-ups of tormented faces (and in this film Franco is truly fixated on wide-open eyes). The jazz-obsessed Franco himself makes one of his numerous cameos as a pianist in the first night club sequence. His cinematic obsession with Orson Welles is also apparent in his use of shadows and deep-focus lenses, with more than a passing nod to German Expressionist cinema, and in particular The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Fisherman’s main motives for killing the “ladies of the night” are somewhat murky, though as Franco’s career progressed, logic becomes something that stays in math books. Obsession, madness, extremes – all key phrases in unlocking the secret of Jesus Franco’s bizarre filmic universe, as well as The Secret Of Dr Orloff.

Attack Of The Robots

Spain/France 1966 b&w

aka Cartas Boca Arriba, Cartes Sur Table)

Director Jesus Franco Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Jesus Franco

Cast Eddie Constantine (Al Peterson/Pereira), Françoise Brion (Lady Cecilia Addington Courtney), Fernando Rey (Sir Percy), Sophie Hardy (Cynthia Lewis)

Back in the Sixties, American actor Eddie Constantine spent much of his time in Europe as an unlikely star playing secret agent Lemmy Caution in a series of films culminating in Godard’s Alphaville. I say unlikely because he’s weather-beaten to the point of hail-damaged. Imagine Peter Lorre’s eyes grafted to a carp that’s been mangled in a speedboat’s propellers, and you’ll catch my drift.

Franco, ever the omnivorous vulture and cultural provocateur, took Eddie’s Lemmy Caution persona and Alphaville’s science fiction-noir as the launching point for his own Sixties pop free-for-all, the 1966 Attack Of The Robots. The titular robots are in fact reanimated corpses sent by a secret criminal organization as programmed assassins with deep tans (which turn marble white when “de-activated”), Mr Magoo glasses, and the rare blood strain Rhesus Zero.

Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution stand-in Al Peterson (or Pereira, in the original Spanish version), an ex-agent, hard drinker, womanizer and gambler now happily nailed to the chair of a Far East casino. He’s shanghaied by the Red Chinese (in the guise of opium den operator Lee Wee) who want the Rhesus-Zero Petersen on the job, as does his former employer Uncle Sam, who cons him into jetting to the Spanish coast as unwitting robot bait. Posing as ex-boxer Frank Frobe (as in Goldfinger’s Gert Frobe – you see the level Franco’s operating on!), Peterson hooks up with the hotel’s new go-go dancer Cynthia Lewis and infiltrates the nefarious web of robot masters Lady Cecilia and Sir Percy (Fernando Rey). He proves once again he’s the world’s UGLIEST secret agent – even without the controlling coke-bottle glasses, he looks exactly like one of the glassy-eyed automatons.

In Attack Of The Robots, Franco winds through a labyrinth of Sixties pop clichés with tongue in cheek and free eye winking at the audience. Eddie says, “How many James Bond films have YOU seen already?” and it’s possibly directed at us; Franco’s odd, self-reflexive humour, much of which is presumably lost in the translation, is rooted in another time and culture that’s forever receding into the distance. Ultimately, though, it’s enjoyably silly Euro-nonsense from a strangely familiar universe where everyone’s a spy or counterspy (even the 12 year old busboy), and every object is conceivably a gadget – from cigar bombs to electric gloves to exploding umbrellas. Naturally there’s Franco’s trademark visual fetishes: seductresses dressed in 30s bondage chic, exotic dance routines (and there’s Franco on the piano once again!), and a smattering of familiar faces for keen-eyed Francophiles.

Franco would return to Eddie’s character, as he would with Orlof and his monster, many times in his career, and in 200-plus filmography, a degree of recycling is almost mandatory, for Franco’s sanity if not for ours. For now, it’s still the Swinging Sixties for Franco as we descend into the spy-sci-fi-a-go-go Attack Of The Robots.

No comments: