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Film

Franco Shadows Franco in These Two Strange Films

The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus and The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein illustrate what bad things can happen when you have too much time on your hands.


The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus

Director: Jess Franco
Cast: Howard Vernon
Distributor: Redemption
Year: 1962
USDVD release date: 2015-06-09

The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein

Director: Jess Franco
Cast: Howard Vernon
Distributor: Redemption
Year: 1972
USDVD release date: 2015-07-28

Made ten years apart, these Jess Franco films star Howard Vernon in stories about perverse aristocrats who whip and torture naked people. It's what happens when you have too much time on your hands. The incurably tasteful would insist that too much time is what you need to sit through such provocative trash, but we'll try to explain the hypnotic allure.

Those who think of Franco as a slipshod, style-free hack would be bowled over by the widescreen black-and-white photography and elegant, arty tone of The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus, a French-Spanish co-production set in a German town upset by the murders of several women. Between Godofredo Pacheco's camera and Daniel White's diverse jazz/classical/avant-garde score, they might think Franco's bringing too much taste, for the first hour and 20 minutes are calm, polite, and even plodding in its investigation, albeit beautifully composed and shot with sleek cat-like movements.

It feels like a post-Psycho effort tamer than its title implies -- until the narrative arrives at a sequence all the more shocking for the sedate proceedings thereto. While still stylish in its chiaroscuro, we're confronted with a torture scene surely much stronger than anything else in 1962, complete with topless nudity, implied sex, whips and chains. Its disturbance is underlined by the lack of natural sound. We see the woman screaming, but all we hear is nerve-wracking expressionist music with a naïve tinkly aspect somewhere between harpsichord and cimbalom. It feels like the movie exists to sandbag viewers with this scene, or perhaps it's the pay-off for those who bought tickets to a teasing title and got a bland procedural. Whatever the thinking, its impact casts a decadent shadow on the movie's decorum.

The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (the onscreen French title translates to The Curse of Frankenstein ) casts viewers adrift from the start with hallucinatory activities -- its fabulous Portuguese locations shot in widescreen with a frequently warping wide-angle lens and sometimes mistily out of focus -- whose meanings only become clear as the fragments gather into a dreamlike sense. In his commentary, scholar Tim Lucas calls it an homage to Universal horror classics, serial cliffhangers, and European erotic-horror comics, and that explains the general delirium as much as anything.

The opening sequence features Frankenstein (Dennis Price) and his assistant (Franco) performing painful acts on the silver-coated monster (Fernado Bilbao) until they're attacked by a wildly strange, Greekly mythical, blind, naked bird-woman (Anne Libert), all feathers and talons and shrieking chirps. Birdcalls remain part of the film's noisy avant-garde soundscape throughout.

It gets weirder as the story unravels a hodgepodge of serial-like conflicts and reversals. Frankenstein dies -- not for the last time in this movie -- and his equally monomaniacal daughter (Beatriz Savón) vows revenge on the evil, immortal Count Cagliostro (Vernon), who's pulling the strings from a nearby castle. She goes about her vengeance poorly as other parties barge in, including Dr. Seward (Alberto Dalbes) and Inspector Tanner (Daniel White, Franco's composer), along with plenty of beautiful naked women. The centerpiece torture-by-whipping involves both male and female victims in full-frontal jiggle, and we're still a long way from the climactic "erotic rites".

Mastered from the original 35mm negative, The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein offers French and English soundtracks (with some different dialogue) and the Lucas commentary. He discusses differences from the more demure Spanish version, including its extra scenes involving a Gypsy girl played by Franco's future wife and muse Lina Romay. Lucas points out that until Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died, Jess Franco's movies were obsessed with mind-control and powerful, wealthy, privileged people taking over their victims' will, and this Frankenstein debauch has that in spades.

Similarly, the Von Klaus killer feels helplessly compelled by an ancestral spirit -- a possession, an atavistic manifestation, or the legacy of historical guilt, if you will. The credits claim it's based on a novel by "David Khune" (a Franco pseudonym) whose title translates to "The Hand of a Dead Man". (Since we're looking at a pianist's hands, this evokes the classic, oft-remade tale The Hands of Orlac.) Although watchable, this unrestored print has soundtrack noise and visual debris, including vertical scratches. There's a French soundtrack only, and the sole extra is a trailer with a couple of shots that aren't in the picture. The same is true of the The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein trailer.

5

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