James Darren (of TJ Hooker fame!) plays Jimmy Logan, a melancholy jazz trumpeter who comes across the once lovely corpse of a woman named Wanda (Maria Rohm of many a Franco film including The Bloody Judge and 99 Women) that has washed upon the shore of the beach he is walking on. Jimmy remembers the woman from a posh high society party he was at not too long ago, where he saw he viciously killed by three assailants named Olga (Margaret Lee of the sleazy Giallo, Slaughter Hotel), Ahmed (Klaus Kinski of Nosferatu) and Percival (Dennis Price of Ten Little Indians).
Shortly after he finds the body in the surf, Jimmy is visited by a flesh and blood woman who looks to be an exact clone of Wanda herself. Confused, he's hesitant to get to know her despite her obvious advances towards him, but as time goes on he becomes obsessed with her much to the dismay of his mistress, Rita (variety show regular, Barbara McNair), who fronts one of the lounge acts he plays trumpet in at night.
Soon, Wanda and Jimmy fall fast in love and begin a tumultuous affair that results in Rita leaving Jimmy when she realizes that she cannot compare to Wanda. But during her free time, Wanda (or at least the woman who may or may not in fact be Wanda) has been tracking down and seductively avenging her own death.
Regarded by many fans and also by the director himself as Franco's finest hour (I still think Vampyro's Lesbos is better but hey, there's no accounting for taste sometimes), Venus In Furs is a fantastic psycho-sexual thriller that just drips with tripped out atmosphere and sixties Euro-pop sensibilities. While it lacks the overtly blatant and sometimes pornographic sexuality of many of Franco's other films, there's no mistaking even a minute or two into the movie that yes, we are still in his world. Things may be toned down compared to a lot of his other, better known work, but in this case less is more. The movie leaves a lot to the viewers imagination and while it was given an X rating upon its original release, there really isn't anything in the film to warrant it. Wanda's murder scene has some S&M overtones to it, when she's whipped before her throat is cut by Kinski's sadistic Ahmed, but that's as nasty as the movie ever gets – the rest is pure atmosphere, and pure ambience.
Rohm is simply spellbinding in the female lead, looking as exciting clothed as she does in the nude and playing the role, which is one without a lot of dialogue, very nonchalantly and with some degree of cold, sexual menace to her character. Likewise, James Darren does a good job of portraying his confusion and his sadness as he struggles with betraying Rita as well as the difficulty but undeniable wanting to accept Wanda into his life and into his bedroom in spite of the strange air that surrounds her and the fact that she may very well be dead – he really can't figure it all out. Klaus Kinski really only has a supporting role in the film, but he makes the most out of it and uses his truly bizarre screen presence to some rather disturbing effect. At times, the veins in his forehead look like they're about to pop, and his eyes are bugged out like a chihuahua pretty much everytime he's on screen. In short, he's great as the sadistic pervert in this film. Dennis Price, again, in a supporting role, does a pretty good job as the elderly pervert, and his death scene is probably the eeriest part of the film. Margaret Lee is gorgeous and believable as the bitchy fashion photographer with a taste for female flesh. She certainly looks the part, and her time on screen with Rohm successfully generates some genuine heat.
From the Rollin-esque scenes of empty desolate beaches to the fantastic jazz score from Manfred Man, Venus In Furs just works. Franco paints the picture in delirious hues of red, green and blue and adds his little touches all over the film (watch for him in a small cameo role) but he does it with a whole lot more style here than many of his detractors probably realize he has. The constant zooms and out of focus camera work present in some of his efforts are a non-issue here, and when his camera does leer over his female subjects, such as when Rita is sprawled across the floor of the nightclub singing (evoking a similar scene from The Diabolical Dr. Z) it doesn't so much exploit the material as it does suck you into the film.
The anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen transfer is quite nice. The colors look great, and considering how important a part they play in the look and feel of the film it is to Blue Underground's credit that they did such a fantastic job in that department. The reds especially look very rich and quite vibrant but there's no bleeding at all, the color scheme stays distinct. While some scenes exhibit some grain and some minor print damage (this is quite noticeable during the opening and in some of the Rio/Carnival stock footage inserts), for the most part the movie is in very nice shape and there's a surprisingly high level of detail present in this transfer. Flesh tones look nice and natural, black levels are deep and don't pixilate or get murky at all, and aside from some really minor edge enhancement, there's not a whole lot to complain about here.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono sound mix is fine. Many of the performers did their own dubbing for the film, so the voices sound pretty natural when compared to a lot of other Euro-cult films from the same era. The jazzy Manfred Man score bounces through the front channel nicely but doesn't over power the dialogue or the ever important narration in the film, both of which stay very clear. There are no problems with hiss or distortion at all, everything sounds very nice and very clean and even a little bit robust in this mix, which surprised me considering the low budget origins and age of the film.
The biggest and best of the supplements on this release is Jesus In Furs, a twenty minute video interview with director Jess Franco. Reasonably amicable here, Franco talks about his casting decisions, the influences that various jazz players had on the film, as well as what he does and doesn't like about the final version of the movie. He gives his thoughts on the surrealist aspects of the movie, as well as Towers' involvement in the movie, and where the title for the film came from.
There is also an audio interview with Maria Rohm here, which plays overtop of a nice gallery of pictures of the actress. This segment runs for approximately twelve minutes, and in the interview Rohm (who doesn't appear on camera because she wants her fans to remember her the way she was) discusses her work on Venus In Furs as well as some of the other movies that she made with Franco.
Rounding out the extra features are two nice still galleries, a trailer for Venus In Furs and a very interesting piece on Jess Franco written by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog fame (this feature is DVD-Rom accessible only).
Venus In Furs is a fantastic film from Jess Franco that's been long overdue on DVD. Blue Underground steps up and does the title justice with great audio and video quality and some interesting extra features. Highly Recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.