Category Archives: France

Oasis of the Zombies (1982)

Director: Jess Franco

Apparently whatever money Eurocine refused to stump up for Jess Franco to make Zombie Lake, they were evidently willing to put up for this instead. Either that or Franco himself just gave in and made do… Anyway, he certainly made do without a new idea for this one, cos he basically just repeats the Nazi zombie thing from that film, except instead of a nice French village we have a nice (I suppose) North African oasis… In 1943, an Afrika Korps unit shipping a stack of gold is ambushed by French forces near said oasis and wiped out in a barrage of dusty stock footage from an older Italian war film; ever since, the Nazi dead have been haunting the oasis. Of course, this isn’t enough to stop various folks from trying to get their hands on the loot, including the son of the French captain who led the attack on the Nazis in the first place. However, at least Zombie Lake‘s French version clearly stated it was actually set not long after the end of the war despite not always looking like it, Oasis doesn’t… and by the film’s internal logic it should clearly be taking place around 1962 or 1963, but it is very clearly not doing that at all, it’s quite obviously the early 80s. (To say nothing of the Nazi zombies’ notably not exactly Third Reich military standard haircuts.) This is a not exactly minor issue that I frankly found insurmountable; in other Franco films you have a sense of things literally being otherworldly, but there’s no comparable justification for what was clearly just someone not thinking. Plus the zombie makeup is dreadful—one zombie is clearly just a skull on a stick, not even an actor—probably the worst since, well, Burial Ground just the previous year, and not quite so conducive to humour. The human characters… who really gives a shit. Yeah, not one of uncle Jess’ finer moments. On the upside, though, at least the moustache Antonio Mayans wears here is less terrible than the one he wears in Sadomania

The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1973)

Director: Jess Franco

Cos we need some Franco in there if we’re going to be spending this month doing horror, and this is one of a number of unwatched Franco titles on my list… and Jesus fuck, what a film it is. This could be, in many ways, the most bizarre Franco film I’ve seen yet, not just in the inherent strangeness of the story—a rather singular take on the Frankenstein story that’s actually nearer in its way to Bride of Frankenstein, except in colour, in widescreen, and rather more fucked—but in the telling of it, too, from the baffling camera angles which reminded me of Sergei Urusevsky to some extent (the credited cinematographer is Raul Artigot, who also shot The Pyjama Girl Mystery among a bunch of other stuff I don’t recognise, but Tim Lucas reckons in his DVD commentary Franco himself actually shot some of it at least) to the somewhat casual manner in which it approaches some of its more ludicrous moments, like the reanimation(s) of Frankenstein… and that’s before we even think about the extraordinary Anne Libert’s bird-woman. Lucas refers to the influence of the adult-oriented European comics of the period, of which Franco was apparently a fan, and the “comic book” comparison is perhaps the key to understanding a film which is even less realistic than usual for uncle Jess. Plot, well, the wizard Cagliostro wants Frankenstein’s monster to, er, assist him in his own project at creating a new race. Simple enough, and yet so many of the details make it just… something other (some of the more out-there stuff was apparently suggested by star Howard Vernon, who plays Cagliostro in a manner as bug-eyed as the rest of the film). And in many ways I suppose it is the sheer strangeness of the film that carries it along more than anything; Franco gets good value from his Portuguese locations, particularly that castle exterior, and from Artigot’s perplexing camerawork, but the overall oddity of the thing makes it weirdly compelling.

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Yeah, I kind of get what Ebert meant when he described this as an “anti-romance”. Red is about as heavy-handed as Blue and White, possibly even more so when it comes to the colour work; each film is full of things that are the colour in each title—blue pool lighting, big fields of snow, etc—and Red seems to be even more overtly full of “red business” than the other two films are of their respective colours. That said, I also felt Red possesses a degree of emotional warmth and resonance neither of the other two films particularly radiated, so that, whatever its issues, this is the one film in the trilogy I actually probably could watch again one day without undue distress. If Blue was about a woman on her own and White about a man on his own, both forcibly separated from their other halves, Red is about a man and a woman on their own but coming together. She’s a student and model who discovers him after she accidentally runs down his runaway dog; he’s a retired judge who spends his time spying on the telephone calls of the people who live near him (including hers). Not the most promising ground from which to grow a friendship, but that’s what happens, sure enough, as the two of them come to more of an understanding about each other; she brings him out of his shell of loneliness and bitterness and gradually comes to learn why he retreated into it in the first place. All played in lovely fashion by Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant. I wish the other two films could’ve been more like this. The storm ending is a bit more melodramatic than anything in the trilogy and kind of out of place, and Red still suffers the problem the other two films do of having stories that could each have been told in about an hour without losing much, but I still got more from this than I did either of the other two films, and given my experiences of those I frankly wasn’t expecting that.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Never did work out why this was never in the 1001 Movies book with the other two. Ebert characterised Blue, White and Red as anti-tragedy, anti-comedy and anti-romance. I can kind of see what he meant about the anti-tragedy and I’ll be able to judge the anti-romance when I see that one, but what about the anti-comedy? What is an anti-comedy? A comedy that’s not funny? That sort of thing doesn’t take an arthouse master… Anyway, our “hero”, Karol, is a somewhat more immediately appealing figure than Julie in Blue; his wife, Dominique, has dumped his sorry Polish arse in a fairly bitter divorce, and, left homeless, he encounters another Polish man who contrives to get him back to Poland, where, over time, he re-establishes himself and, having done so, sets about taking his revenge on Julie by faking his death and framing her for his murder. OH MY ACHING SIDES! Yes, this is comedy in only a fairly nominal sense as most people would probably understand it; I think the only actual laugh-out-loud moment I had with it was the scene where the airport baggage handlers nick the suitcase he’s been concealed in and find him inside. And even that was more of a mild chuckle than a proper LOL. (Do you have any idea how much I hate myself for typing those three letters in a non-ironic manner like I just did?) I’ve seen the word “droll” used to describe White, and it’s probably the best descriptor of its rather particular humour, more funny peculiar (as the scene just described may indicate) than funny ha-ha, and possessing a distinct undercurrent of unpleasant sourness. I liked it better than Blue, which is not to say that I actually particularly liked it per se; it’s not as dull as Blue, but I did still find it about as cold and not much more engaging.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

I’ve always been a bit of a “Three Colours” sceptic, despite only having seen this, the first part of it. Just something about the idea of it, I don’t know… cos Kieslowski evidently knew he would retire after making it (as he did, though I don’t think his death just a couple of years later was expected in quite the same way), and so it was obviously designed as a summation and Defining Artistic Statement (capitals used advisedly). Therefore it had to be Big, and Serious, and stuff like that. A rather deliberate and self-conscious monument. And, frankly, I wasn’t convinced, especially after I actually saw Blue; I missed it at the cinema and saw it later on video, but I obviously knew at the time, even when it was brand new, that it came bearing a vast reputation as this sort of epic pinnacle of early-to-mid-90s European Art Cinema. It was French and it was a Trilogy and you had to love it if you were a Serious Film Lover. And I didn’t. It actually rather bored me, and I never did bother with the other two films, although I’m remedying that now. In between times, I did also see L’enfer, directed by Danis Tanovic but written by Kieslowski (who seems to have left behind a number of scripts for other people to film once he’d retired), and I kind of hated that; it gave me the impression of Kieslowski having decided there was a certain formula to European Art Cinema, that there were certain things it should be about and do. This formula evidently included a certain quantity of ponderous self-serious wank, a good deal of which found its way into L’enfer and made me reluctant to explore Kieslowski further.

Still, you know me and my unfortunate tendency to think “I really need to give so-and-so a second chance in case I misjudged them when I was younger”, which is partly what’s driving me now to give the rest of the Three Colours trilogy a chance at last. Which, obviously, meant revisiting Blue first. And, well, it still bored me to tears all these years later. There’s one IMDB review that acknowledges the lead character, Julie, is pretty impenetrable, trying to cut herself off from everything in her grief, and so comes across as hard to like or connect with, but the film’s rather remote approach is actually more respectful of the audience because it’s not trying to manipulate us. I can kind of see what they mean but I don’t buy it; I think that in trying to depict what that IMDB reviewer calls “emotional frigidity”, the film itself just becomes emotionally frigid, and I don’t think there was ever a point at which I actually did give a damn about Julie’s grief. I don’t know, to be honest, if I was even supposed to; I don’t think I ever felt Kieslowski giving me much to work with. And I found the music hideously overbearing, which is a fairly major problem in a film that is, in some part, about that very music. Not an auspicious start to the trilogy for me at least; I’m sure I’ve seen it said somewhere that Blue is actually the comparatively weak link and the other two are better, and, well, I dearly hope that’s the case…

Seven Women for Satan (1976)

Director: Michel Lemoine

I gather Michel Lemoine began as an actor for respectable filmmakers like Maurice Tourneur, Sacha Guitry and Julien Duvivier, but over time his slightly strange looks seem to have made him hard to cast in “normal” films, so he found himself in B movies instead and the directors who took him on got less reputable, people like Jose Benazeraf, Antonio Margheriti, Max Pecas and the infamous Jess Franco; ultimately, as a director himself from 1970 onwards, Lemoine found himself stuck in the porn ghetto like Jean Rollin. This, on the other hand, was an evidently sincere attempt at a film fantastique, one of many films that have been inspired by The Most Dangerous Game, but this had a bit of a twist to the usual human hunting, with the lead character (Lemoine himself) being the son of the original story’s Count Zaroff, an otherwise normal (?) businessman kept in the Zaroff family’s old ways by the butler Karl (Franco regular Howard Vernon—apparently he and Lemoine had both been in the same Sacha Guitry film in 1948 as well as Franco’s Succubus). At that time, of course, the idea of a “French horror film” was still too much for some people to accept, and Lemoine had to put up much of the budget himself since he couldn’t find a producer who’d stump up more than half of it, and unfortunately that money was kind of wasted when French censors objected to the film’s admixture of sex and violence and slapped an X rating on it… said rating had only just been introduced for pornography and extremely violent films in France, and was a commercial death sentence; as such, Lemoine was bankrupted and the film effectively vanished for over a quarter century. Whether or not its re-emergence is a good thing, well, eye of the beholder and all that, I suppose. I imagine you’d need to be a pretty hardened 70s Eurotrash devotee (particularly of the Jess Franco style, which it does resemble strongly) to really get much from it; certainly I found it incoherent enough that I suspect I’ll need a second viewing just to try to piece together what the hell actually happens in it. Still, if nothing else, there’s a really excellent choice of location (that chateau brings an amazing amount to the film) and the cheesetastic synth-rock score is actually kind of fantastic in its own way…

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Director: Georges Franju

Even now there’s still something bracing about that scene. I remember first seeing this film on SBS probably about 20 years ago—before I was particularly into horror; I wasn’t approaching it then as a “horror classic” but a general foreign classic—and the surgery scene left me kind of dry-mouthed and quivering. And then I got to the end of the scene as they start to peel the face off and JESUS FUCK NO HOW COULD THEY GET AWAY WITH THAT IN A FILM OF THIS AGE CHRIST THAT’S FUCKED etc… and it mercifully faded just as the face peel started. And then a bit over a decade later, your humble scribe invested in the Criterion DVD, and got to that scene, and JESUS FUCK NO CRITERION’S PRINT DOESN’T FADE OUT AT THAT POINT IT SHOWS MORE CHRIST THAT’S EVEN MORE FUCKED THAN I THOUGHT IT WAS AT FIRST I MEAN REALLY FOR A FILM RELEASED IN 1960 ONLY A FEW SECONDS LONGER BUT IT MAKES SUCH A HORRIBLE DIFFERENCE WHERE IS MY GOD NOW etc. And on re-viewing again this afternoon, I still kind of felt that way at the crucial moment; knowing what to expect doesn’t necessarily make a thing easier to bear… That’s not bad for a film of this vintage.

Of course, my reaction was much the same as the general reaction seems to have been back in the day, and the French critical reaction was even more stunned; what was a French filmmaker doing making horror at all, and why this particular one? Georges Franju, the documentarian and co-founder of the Cinematheque Francaise, lowering himself to make a nasty cash-in on the recent rise of Hammer? But the film wasn’t just that in the end; Franju liked his pulp fiction (cf. Judex and Nuits rouges), but his documentary background meant he took a different approach to it, as the DVD notes helpfully remind us. It’s more detached, not played for luridness, and the film uses music in an extremely careful way by not using it in the surgery scene to underline the horror of it all (only a few bits of the film are underlined thus). Similarly, as Patrick McGrath’s essay observes, a “normal” horror film would’ve had the police or the lover save the day at the end of proceedings, which this one notably doesn’t; they completely fail to solve the mystery. The bafflement with which some greeted the film back in the early 60s isn’t hard to understand, and there’s still something a bit “other” about it now; a “mad doctor” film that mostly avoids exploitation and successfully demands to be taken seriously, driven by some lovely performances, especially Edith Scob, who spends most of her screen time masked, but also Pierre Brasseur as the doctor whose foolishness (he caused the car crash that disfigured his daughter) drives him to atone by resorting to kidnapping other young women for their faces. Remarkable stuff all round.

A Tale of the Wind (1988)

Directors: Joris Ivens, Marceline Loridan

I suspect this gets classified as “documentary” largely because, you know, Ivens made documentaries all his life, and surely he wasn’t going to do any differently this late in his life (the film was released shortly before his 90th birthday, making him the oldest filmmaker in the world at that time). Except he did, although I’m damned if I quite know what it was he did; I suspect it’s also classed as “documentary” largely because other people don’t know what else to call it either. I’m filing the film here under both documentary and fantasy, because it really is both of those things, sometimes simultaneously too, and trying to untangle the threads of each mode is tricky at times. It’s not really documentary but it’s also not exactly narrative either. I’m sure I’ve seen other films like it, though surely not many, and I’m damned if I can think what any of them are right now. Maybe compare it to the “non-fiction novel”? I don’t know.

One thing seems to be reasonably certain: most of the film actually seems to be the work of Mrs Ivens, his co-director Marceline Loridan, who this blogger rightly observes shouldn’t be left out of the equation. It seems the film began as a sort of film-about-a-film deal, in which Ivens and his crew would make their film about the wind and Loridan and her separate crew would film them doing so… except Ivens fell ill during shooting so it had to be rethought. As such, I’m presuming that—the obviously fully scripted scenes aside—a certain amount of what we see is re-enactments (to varying degrees) of things that actually happened, maybe even the actual things themselves; the amusing scene of Ivens and Loridan being harassed by officials who won’t let them film the terracotta warriors has more of a ring of truth to it than some others—i.e. it doesn’t look acted, which is not to say that it wasn’t, of course. Mr Honeywell invokes phrases like “magical realism” and “a sort of cinematic interior life or mental construct”, and that really seems to be the best way to describe whatever the hell A Tale of the Wind is, along with Loridan’s own reference to it occupying a sort of “no man’s land between Lumiere and Melies”. Quite perplexing, but fascinating and full of attractive things.

Zombie Lake (1981)

Director: Jean Rollin

Alas, poor Jean Rollin, making the film Jess Franco refused to make… and I don’t think Franco drew that line very often when you consider his filmography; this time, though, apparently Eurocine were offering even fewer resources than Franco was used to and so, having written a script, he told them to fuck off when it came to actually filming it. Enter Jean Rollin, apparently roped into doing this on the day he was supposed to be starting a holiday, and thus was a notoriously titanic turd born. Amongst other things, Zombie Lake is widely criticised for its zombie makeup effects, and with good reason; early in the film one zombie chows down on a pretty young thing and the green stuff on his face rubs off on her face. YIKES. And then there’s the somewhat wobbly period setting, for which Scott Ashlin rips into the film… but! The French soundtrack specifies the wartime incident that led to the village’s present undead trouble happened only ten years earlier, which detail is left out of the English dub. Unfortunately, having clearly set itself in the mid-50s (at least in one of its languages), the film doesn’t then do much to convince you that’s when it’s actually set; the girls’ sports team that rolls up to town after the wartime flashback strike me as much more 1980 than 1955 for some reason (there’s a lot of haircuts like that in the film)… Odd how at times it feels like both a Franco and a Rollin film, at other times it feels like neither, but odder still is that, despite its many and varied problems, bits of it at least actually do work. Sometimes unintentionally, perhaps—the child asking for the bucket of fresh blood is a golden moment I’ll have to screencap—but I actually thought the wartime flashback business was quite well handled (there’s almost no dialogue; wonder if that helped) and there’s something kind of intriguing about the relationship between one of the undead German soldiers and the child he fathered with one of the village women. I can kind of understand why Rollin was happy to use a directorial pseudonym (though he kept his own name for his acting credit for some reason) and spent years disavowing his responsibility for it, it’s obviously nowhere near his best, but I didn’t think it was quite the debacle it’s usually painted as.

Cannibal Terror (1980)

Director: “Allan W. Steeve”

I’m sure I would never have watched this film had it not been part of the Drive-In Delirium project, indeed I may never have even heard of it otherwise. But THAT TRAILER! How could I not watch the film after seeing it! Lina the kind-hearted prostitute! The two small-time hoodlums! Those remarkably European-looking cannibals! “And it could have been an everyday story if it weren’t for… CANNIBAL TERROR”! There’s a shot in the trailer that’s UPSIDE DOWN, for fuck’s sake… if the trailer was pushing such boundaries of ineptitude, what must the film itself be like? And who do you blame for it? Apparently none other than Jess Franco was once thought to be the man behind the pseudonym, largely because a lot of it apparently reuses a stack of footage (and other resources; some DVD releases of this film, including the Severin issue I watched, even include artwork from the Franco film) from one of his own cannibal films of the same period (both films were produced by the Eurocine company), and IMDB actually gives him a co-writer credit. But “Steeve” seems to have really been one Alain Deruelle (who also has a small role in the film), whose probably mercifully short directorial career seems to have otherwise mainly consisted of porn; interestingly, the other “Allan W. Steeve” film Deruelle made was, according to IMDB, another Jess Franco job rehashed into a new film. But “Steeve” also seems to have been at least one of the actors in the film (Olivier Mathot), and one of the writers, Julio Perez Tabernero… regarding whom, this interview (in Spanish) seems to ascribe him pretty much full directorial credit (Chrome’s translate function is not terribly clear), and, as I once wrote of another film, I can’t imagine someone claiming credit for something this shit if, you know, they didn’t do it. (Odd how Tabernero isn’t listed as a writer on this print either, though…)

Anyway, SOMEBODY made this thing, and Jesus fuck what a piece of shit they made. Light on terror, and not much heavier on cannibals, this French review—or, rather, Chrome’s translation of same—sums it up quite beautifully: “Indeed, Cannibal Terror accumulates almost all the faults of the world” and “the scenario is to piss”. It surely is: our trio of not entirely capable crooks kidnap a child, for some reason things don’t quite go to plan and they wind up having to seek refuge with help from an associate, who finds them a safe haven on an island or something in a house remarkably close to cannibal country. Nothing can possibly go wrong in such a setting… Cannibal Terror is never quite berserk enough to achieve true transcendence, but it comes close at times, in the vigour with which it says “fuck you” to such niceties as decent dialogue, logic, editing (there’s an astounding violation of screen direction at one point that I had to rewatch just to prove I’d seen it), pacing, energy, all the stuff that usually goes into an actually good film; and it treads a fine line between “so bad it’s good” and “so bad it’s just awful”. However, I think it errs on the former side just enough to be watchable if you’re in the mood for a laugh at something terrible. And at least I never spotted any upside-down shots in the film, unlike the trailer…