Saturday, June 19, 2021

About the Next Two Franco Titles from Severin Films

One of Lina Romay's unexpectedly revealing close-ups in THE HOUSE OF LOST WOMEN. 

Starting next Friday, Severin Films will once again be hosting their much-anticipated MidYear Sale, which will not only be offering a substantial number of their catalogue titles at 50% savings over their suggested retail price, but will also be debuting nine new titles at more conservative savings. Additionally, the title of a special limited edition mystery title is being reserved for unveiling on the day of the sale, which will be available only during the sale as supply lasts. Jess Franco's much-coveted BAHIA BLANCA was one such mystery title recently, so the prospects are exciting. For complete details about the sale, including a list of select Severin titles excluded from this sale, please visit this link.

Among the announced titles becoming available with the MidYear Sale are the long-awaited Blu-ray (and UHD) US debut of Paul Morrissey's BLOOD FOR DRACULA, Lucio Fulci's WARRIORS OF THE YEAR 2072, Ruggero Deodato's RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS, Joe D'Amato's ENDGAME, and two previously unavailable Jess Franco titles, BLACK BOOTS, LEATHER WHIP and THE HOUSE OF LOST WOMEN. Given the presence of BLOOD FOR DRACULA on the list, it was widely guessed that the Mystery Title might be a 3D edition of FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (aka ANDY WARHOL'S FRANKENSTEIN), but Severin's David Gregory was announced on social media that Severin will not be releasing this title, which had been secured for 3D release by another American label. 

As these two Franco pictures are relatively unknown to English-speaking fans, I thought I might prepare my readers for the sale by offering my thoughts about them here, generated from notes I took while preparing myself for my guest appearance yesterday on HOLLYWEIRD LIVE with Master Chaos. Before getting into the particulars, it should be noted that both films date from 1983 and Franco's Golden Films Internaçional period, which stands out as the last truly fertile phase of his long career in film: 18 films that Franco wrote, shot, directed, edited, scored and sound mixed in a three-year period. It was this period which introduced "Robert Foster" and "Candy Coster," the new alternate screen personas of Franco's familiar repertory players Antonio Mayans and Lina Romay.

BLACK BOOTS, LEATHER WHIP (Botas negras, latigo de cuero)

This is one of Franco's Al Pereira thrillers, starring Foster (that is, Mayans) as the amoral private detective originally portrayed by Eddie Constantine in ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS (1965 - Franco's ALPHAVILLE spoof) and then, in a very different, seedier interpretation by Howard Vernon in the more sordid DOLLS FOR SALE (aka Les Ebranlées, 1972). Mayans would essay the role in several films (and modes) over many years, all the way up to Franco's final two DTV features, AL PEREIRA VS. THE ALLIGATOR LADIES (2012) and RETURN OF THE ALLIGATOR LADIES (2013). This might be his first appearance as Pereira; it certainly is by name. However, he also appeared in two films playing the very similar "Al Crosby" (PICK UP GIRLS precedes this film, followed by NIGHT OF OPEN SEX) and another as "Fred Pereira" (DIAMONDS OF KILIMANDJARO) which - I suspect are either undercover aliases or some kind of meta spin-off from the central character, much as Michael Moorcock's Jerry Corrnelius character was adapted as Jerry Cornell and Jherek Carnelian, depending on the unique requirements of other novels.

Antonio Mayans stars as noir anti-hero Al Pereira in BLACK BOOTS, LEATHER WHIP.

As BLACK BOOTS begins, Pereira is in his hotel room, hurriedly packing a suitcase. He's in deep trouble, owing a large sum to some disreputable and threatening people, and has to get out of town. His efforts are interrupted by the arrival of Lina (Coster... er, Romay), a voluptuous blonde (Romay became Coster by donning a blonde wig) who performs live sex acts onstage at a local discotheque. She offers him two checks for a large sum of money - enough to clear his debts - if he will simply retrieve for her a monogrammed black bag that contains some compromising photos of her. She has some dandy dialogue, like "Come closer... I'm not contagious. Or are you afraid of being seen with a porn artiste?" Thus, though the film is played somewhat straight, the fact that Franco intends this film as an ironic joke is right there for the initiated to see: Lina is disguised as as "Candy Coster" playing "Lina," a woman who performs fellatio in a nightclub before crowds of people, who is nervous about some compromising pictures of herself. And yet within this joke, there is a kernel of seriousness. "Lina" is portrayed as the wife of another cabaret performer, Gene Daniel, a lanky and highly androgynous character who himself implicitly performs in a gay-orientated stage, and whose relationship to "Lina" feels endangered by a recent affair, which "Lina" insists was no more than an extension of her own stage act. So, another "joke" as the jealous husband (who does not at all look the usual jealous husband type) is driven mad by the idea of his wife having sex with another man, when she does this to earn a living every night... and yet, considering the real life structure that Jess Franco and Lina Romay had established for themselves since roughly 1974, which required her to simulate and then eventually have sex with other men (sometimes her own ex-husband, Ramón Ardid) on camera as Franco watched through the viewfinder, it is all too likely that such a tension at least once arose between them whenever Romay took advantage of their open relationship to engage with another man outside Franco's proprietary watch. So the autobiographical "joke" becomes an arena for serious exploration of something deeply personal, something of which he and she would have been fully conscious.

Credited as "Lorna Green," Asunción Calero fully lives up to the name in

Speaking of "Lina's" stage act, it's assembled from footage of one night's turn-out at a Spanish discotheque facing the stage and smiling like they are being entertained (how surprised they must have been, if they ever saw the film!), and close shots of "Lina's" blonde wig lowering to the stomach and nether parts of an unidentified stage partner. The only blow job we see is the one we construct in our own imagination. While there is some frontal nudity by both sexes in the film, the sex scenes per se are likewise obviously simulated and played for laughs. For example, Coster's "Lina" is a soft-spoken femme fatale but also the loudest sex partner imaginable. When she and Pereira rut while standing up in a lakeside forest, her orgasmic yelping scares away every bird in a two-mile radius. As Pereira goes about earning his money, he gets into deeper trouble at every step and at one point finds himself in a locked room where he is stripped and held at gunpoint while a towering dominatrix named Bruta thrashes him with the titular leather whip. Bruta (played by an anonymous Asunción Calero) is introduced in the exact stance used to introduce Janine Reynaud in Franco's SUCCUBUS (Necronomicon, 1967), which was also carried over to the film's German poster. I assume it is Calero who is billed onscreen under the name "Lorna Green," the name of Reynaud's character (indeed, archetype), another meta-reference that makes still more sense when, at the climax of a long (and surprisingly serious) sofa-bound sex scene with "Lina" (or was it just Lina?), Calero is punished for her crimes in an inversion of SUCCUBUS' climactic murder.

On a purely trivial note, at the beginning of this film, Mayans has shaggy hair and a mustache, which he later trims to make it easier for him to hide in plain sight. I never thought of Mayans as a Paul McCartney look-alike, but when he's wearing a mustache, he's a dead ringer for SGT. PEPPER era McCartney - which has a meta quality of its own since "Robert Foster" IS Antonio Mayans' version of a SGT. PEPPER alternate identity. Franco also gives us a privileged glimpse of Mayans barbering himself to go undercover, and this intimate study of male vanity rings a recognition bell with a similar scene of Jack Taylor grooming his own distinctive mustache in 1973's FEMALE VAMPIRE.

If you're only interested in absolute praise or dismissal, I'd have to disappoint you on both counts. BLACK BOOTS would not be a Top 10 Franco title, or even a Top 20; it might be a Top 30 or 40, certainly Top 50. But when a director has made close to 200 films and variants, even Top 50 puts it within the uppermost 1/4th of his achievement, which would make it the mathematical equal to one of the Top 3 in, say, Christopher Nolan's total achievement of 16 features - and to his students, Franco's films offer a far more ambitious metascape than the so-called "Nolan Universe." All told, speaking just for myself, I would consider this important viewing for anyone with a vested interest in what Franco was doing. It's not entry level material; it would not win anyone over who was already dispositionally on the fence. It would be a mistake to approach it the way we approach most movies; this is more akin to a love letter to initiates.

HOUSE OF LOST WOMEN (La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas)

Of these two films, HOUSE OF LOST WOMEN  is the one that you might be able to show to a member of the uninitiated and make a fan of them - or at least someone keenly interested to seek out more. However, if you start looking in Franco's sprawling filmography for something else like THE HOUSE OF LOST WOMEN, you just won't find it. Suddenly popping up in the early final quarter of his work, this is a unique Franco film. It’s said that Jean-Claude Carrière (the world-famous screenwriter who wrote for Buñuel, Godard, Forman, Schlondorff, Kaufman... and Franco) may have had something to do with originating the idea or the story, which I can believe. Franco himself called it "a comedy of manners.. bad manners" in the interview we published in the very first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG. More specifically, I believe this film is Franco's savage satire of the work of Pedro Almodóvar, Spain's most successful filmmaker at the time of production - and one who would soon quote Franco's work in the main titles of his 1986 feature MATADOR. 

As Wikipedia says, "Desire, passion, family, and identity are among Almodóvar's most prevalent themes in [Almodóvar's] films" - and so it is here. This is a film about the family of former actor Mario Pontecorvo (Mayans... er, Foster), who has retreated lock, stock, and barrel to his own private island in the wake of career-ruining news concerning his seduction of a 14 year-old co-star. Pontecorvo himself is a kind of Ingmar Bergman protagonist - slim, greying, neurotic in a black turtleneck; a narcissist, introspective, lost in memories that may be no more than pure invention. His second wife, the slutty Dulcinea (Carmen Carrión), whose name underlines the Quixotic side of Mario's nature, walks around naked in front of everyone, is starved for the attention of a "real man" given that Mario's fear of women has rendered him impotent. Pushing 30, Lina Romay (again, as "Candy Coster") plays Mario's 18 year-old daughter Desdemona, who has never seen a man other than her father and likes to masturbate in front of him - hell, anybody! And then there is Paulova (Asunción Calero, here billed as "Susana Kerr," an alias which evokes Soledad Miranda's "Susann Korda" alias from her 1970 films for Franco), an adult but developmentally disabled child who makes the already punishing lives of her family still more unbearable. 

Antonio Mayans and Carmen Carrión as the very strange Mr. and Mrs. Pontecorvo. 

The movie doesn't start out as particularly promising but, after the first 10 minutes or so - which consist largely of Desdemona fingering herself in full view of her father's wearing willpower, and the unbidden arrival on the island of Pontecorvo's #1 fan, who's given the hilarious name of Tony Curtis - played by Tony Skios), unexpected things begin to happen. Against all odds, in what starts out as one of her silly "Candy Coster" parts, Lina Romay gives one of her most deeply felt performances. A few times in this movie, she is unexpectedly transported to a deep place that reminded me of her best moments in CELESTINE, MAID AT YOUR SERVICE (1975), often noted as one of her best roles. At certain points, she appears to stop acting altogether and Franco's camera continues running, to sop up the fascinating but unreadable truth on display. There are moments in which I felt I was seeing through Candy Coster, and through Lina Romay to the core being of Rosa Maria Almirall Martinez. There is a scene in which Desdemona loses her virginity to Tony Curtis, and she is remarkable, as are the framing scenes which posit the film as her own narrated reminiscence. I’m calling this Top 10 Lina Romay, maybe even Top 5. And when our Tony Curtis gets around to the needs of Dulcinea, only minutes after satisfying Desdemona, Carmen Carrión likewise startles us by transcending the prevailing requirements of caricature to give us a deeply etched portrayal of a tragic physical hunger finally sated. This is a particularly convincing tryst - not at all graphic, but vividly felt and conveyed as an episode both triumphant and tragic. But then we also have a riotous sequence in which Desdemona's stepmother catches her indulging in her favorite hobby and orders her to satisfy her or face the consequences... a command played to the soundtrack of a Spanish parody of the TV series DALLAS, complete with references to J.R. and Sue Ellen.  

As the problem child, Calero is properly annoying (my cat, sleeping next to me, awoke during her screams and looked at me as if to say, "What in the hell are you watching now?") and there is one sequence - a gem, if you will, of bad taste - in which Desdemona catches her masturbating with a decapitated rubber doll's head and cheerfully offers her a sisterly lesson in this essential means of enduring island living. And then we have Antonio Mayans, never better than he is here. His final scene, in which he rails against his punishing God in the sky on the edge of the beach, calls for a standing ovation - seriously.

By the time we reach the climax of the picture, THE HOUSE OF LOST WOMEN turns very serious indeed. In a sense, this film is a reworking of Franco's 1973 genre romp THE EROTIC EXPLOITS OF MACISTE (a society of women and eunuchs is overturned by the arrival of one virile male visitor), but as Mario storms the vacant beach of his island in the film's closing moments, I think it becomes very apparent that the movie is expressing Franco's sense of isolation within the film industry and his absolute disgust with what was passing for popular entertainment in 1983. There are many references to then-au courant topics in newspapers, radio, and television, and in Mario's ranting soliloquy he is quite transparently asking whatever happened to the audience Franco's movies once had. Hence, we get a film that delivers the ironic comedy he invented for our sardonic enjoyment, but we are also given privileged glimpses of what seems to be the reality, the sadness, the struggle of the various people involved in its creation. This movie seems to be saying, “Hey, don’t dismiss these actors so quickly. They can still surprise and move you! Look how much they are giving of themselves, just to please you! And look what I can still do! Why is no one still watching? Why does Almodóvar get taken seriously for doing this and I can’t?”

RIP Jess. A growing number of us still hear you.


(c) 2021 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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