I saw my first Jess Franco film in 1971. It was CASTLE OF FU MANCHU on a double-feature with THE YIN AND THE YANG OF MR. GO (direction attributed to Burgess Merideth). I had been reading Sax Rohmer's novels and was thoroughly caught up in the yellow peril (The Mask of Fu Manchu and The Bride of Fu Manchu were my favorites of the novels). I had also recently become a fan of Christopher Lee. I knew that Franco had directed CASTLE OF FU MANCHU and had directed Lee in the as-yet-unreleased COUNT DRACULA (1970) which had been covered in the first and second issues of Cinefantastique and which I was also dying to see. I was so looking forward to CASTLE OF FU MANCHU. Both films were awful, but CASTLE OF FU MANCHU was a huge letdown. It was barely competent, with obvious monochrome stock footage spliced in to the muddy color footage. I didn't know it was possible for such a piece of junk to get released.
COUNT DRACULA would eventually raise my estimate of Franco's talents, but not by much. In the late 1990s a colleague handed me two of his Franco tapes to watch, LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN (1968) and WOMEN IN CELL BLOCK 9 (1977). The latter was daring. I'd never seen anything like it. But there was real talent and an individual vision at work.
Forty years later, I decide to collect all the Franco DVD's I can find just to see what all the fuss is about. He was a disciplined talent in the 1960s with an oppressed perversity trying to kick its way out. By the early 1970s Franco's perversity has taken over, and he's a grungy fetish director. But there are so many striking images and vital ideas in his films. Home video is the perfect medium for him. I watch CASTLE OF FU MANCHU again on DVD in a home-festival among 70 of his other films. That film is the least of his accomplishments. As an independent film maker who struggles to get his own films financed, I get it now. Jess Franco was a reckless primitive who was going to make movies whether he had the money and the time it bought or not. The fact that he was a reckless primitive is precisely what makes his work so interesting. He was fearless. He wasn't afraid to try anything, he wasn't afraid to express himself, he wasn't afraid to shock people and break taboos, and he didn't care what the world thought of him. He was going to make movies to please himself and everyone was invited to watch and enjoy if they wanted to.
I have enormous respect for Franco's independence and commitment to film. I respect him as a cinematic storyteller. I respect him for getting his films made, sometimes with no more than a handful of centavos. I think his ideas -- even the ugly ones -- were better than his technical execution, but often I'm finding, now that his films are being cleaned up for DVD, that his technical execution was better than my first impression. He's the only director who gave Christopher Lee the chance to play Dracula the way the actor had always wanted. So last night I raised a glass (of grape juice) to toast Jess Franco, and celebrated his career by watching COUNT DRACULA. It looks as if he sat the actors down in 19th century houses with its old furnishings, stuffed his actors into period clothes, and shot the scenes. No fuss over lighting or props or costumes or the subtleties of blocking and portraiture. Just go in and shoot it. That's precisely what gives Franco's COUNT DRACULA its vitality.
Rest in peace, Jess Franco. Thanks for the movies.
Are they available?