R.I.P. Jess Franco

Spanish filmmaker Jesus “Jess” Franco—a towering figure in the world of grindhouse cinema, and one of the most prolific movie directors who has ever lived—has died at the age of 82. Franco, who often wrote his own scripts and also frequently doubled as his own producer, editor, composer, or cinematographer, made literally hundreds of features over the course of a career that spanned more than 50 years. (Like his American counterpart Roger Corman, he sometimes cut corners by incorporating footage from one shoot in a later production. However, he denied rumors that he ever had more than one movie going at the same time, telling The A.V. Club in 2009, “This is impossible! I only have one head.”) 

Franco, who started out in the movie business by writing the scores for such films as Comicos (1954) and Historias De Madrid (1958) before making his own feature directing debut in 1959 with We Are 18 Years Old, had begun playing and writing music as a child, though he finally chose a career as a director over one as a jazz trumpeter because he figured the pay would be better. He certainly never had need to worry about whether music would have resulted in more steady work. Franco turned out so many movies that he wound up using pseudonyms—some 50 of them—so that his high productivity rate would not appear unseemly. In a bow to the special place jazz had in his heart, the aliases he slapped on some of his pictures include “Clifford Brown,” “James P. Johnson,” and “Betty Carter.”

Franco enjoyed his first international success in 1962 with his fifth feature, the horror film The Awful Dr. Orloff, a grindhouse riff on 1960’s Eyes Without A Face. His other notable films in that decade included The Diabolical Dr. Z (1964); the S&M-flavored thriller Necronomicon, A.K.A. Succubus (1967); The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1967) and The Castle Of Fu Manchu (1968), starring Christopher Lee as the Asian super-villain; The Girl From Rio (1968), a spy spoof starring Goldfinger’s Shirley Eaton and, toward the end of his life and career, George Sanders; Venus In Furs (1968), featuring Klaus Kinski and a title lifted from Sacher Masoch; and a loose adaptation of a Marquis de Sade novel, Justine (1969), also starring Kinski. 

In 1970, Franco moved to France to escape the censorship limitations imposed on Spanish filmmakers by the other Franco, the dictator who finally died in 1975. He continued to turn out reams of horror movies, women-in-prison flicks, cannibal torture epics, slasher films and zombie pictures, as well as hardcore sex films. More than a hundred of these featured his longtime muse Lina Romay, who took her own stage name from a Mexican singer who’d performed with Xavier Cugat’s band. While still in her teens, she made her film debut in Franco’s The Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein (1972), and was soon taking larger roles in such Franco movies as Female Vampire (1973), Barbed Wire Dolls (1976), the Ilsa-has-risen-from-the-grave vehicle Wanda The Wicked Warden (1977), and Marquise De Sade (1976), as well as many of the director’s X-rated porn flicks. Romay and Franco were a couple for decades before finally marrying in 2008. She died of cancer last year.

In his 2009 interview with The A.V. Club, Franco was characteristically humble—even dismissive—about his life’s work. “I don’t like my movies. I prefer John Ford’s movies,” Franco said. However, when pressed, he allowed that “if you’re curious about which film I would save from a fire,” the likeliest candidates would be Necronomicon, Venus In Furs, and The Diabolical Dr. Z. Still, he summed up his career thusly: “I don’t think I’ve done anything important or magnificent. I’m a worker, and the thing I prefer in my life is cinema. When I’m working in cinema, I’m happy. And that’s all, you know?” 

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