Venus in Furs is one of Jesus Franco's most accessible erotic horror movies, tame by today's standards but true to its self-contained little world of dreamlike reverie. Francophiles will find their dreams fulfilled by Blue Underground's mint picture and soundtrack elements, while the show will still be a hard sell to all but the most curious general audiences. Some quality cinematography and an exceptionally good jazz score keep a predictable sequence of events from inducing boredom. That, and an acceptable central performance from James Darren.
Here's a Jesus Franco film with a fighting chance of being a good picture, as its concept is scaled to its budget. Franco's regular Euro actors are augmented by a pair of interesting Yankee topliners, Darren and McNair, who are featured in a then- notable interracial romance.
Venus in Furs is the title of a kinky book that's been tried out as a feature more than once, but Franco's film was given that title only as a commercial gambit. In most scenes his female ghost-lamia character Wanda Reed indeed wears little more than a fur stole, and in one shot walks down some stairs dragging it behind her to directly evoke the title.
As in many Franco efforts carefully shot material blends uneasily with obvious padding, in this case many travelogue scenes of Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro. Generic tourist footage and Carnaval revelry doesn't necessarily intercut well with Franco's stylized setups, which for once are not filmed on the cheap. Franco's Necronomicon (Succubus) enjoys a vaunted reputation thanks to a positive response from Fritz Lang; but it looks tatty in comparison to Venus in Furs' crowded jazz clubs and private parties in swanky apartments.
The constant jazz score ties the show together and gives it a professional gloss lacking in some other Franco efforts. Mike Hugg and Manfred Mann (visible in a performance scene, along with director Franco on trombone and piano) provide a moody background, and in several scenes James Darren's trumpet playing appears to match the track behind him. Ms. McNair sings as well. It's an integrated music track that functions almost as effectively as the experimental music in Dementia/Daughter of Horror.
James Darren seems committed to his role as a musician stuck in a private limbo outside of time. I've only seen five or six Franco films but his is the best conventional performance in any of them. Maria Rohm is appropriately waxen as a ghostly messenger of death. Familiar Franco actors Margaret Lee, Dennis Price and Klaus Kinski make the necessary impressions in their isolated scenes. Venus in Furs splits its time between Darren's dazed memories, and Rohm's reappearances before her murderers to inspire heart attacks and suicides, etc. The pattern seems to be broken when the Turkish character played by Kinski becomes part of a flashback story about a prince tortured to death by a slave girl with whom he switches places for twenty-four hours. When we come out of the 'flashback', it's not entirely clear why the present-tense Kinski isn't still alive.
The most successful part of the film is its dream logic, which initially presents the Wanda Reed mystery as potentially solvable. Through literal repetition (repeated action from the same angle) and "echoed" repetition (similar events that align in a tell-tale pattern) we get a film where only a few "real" things appear to happen. Jimmy has a loving girlfriend (McNair, a beautiful actress less flatteringly filmed than Rohm or Lee) who eventually leaves him over his affair with Wanda. Wanda's murderers are themselves killed, apparently by her ghost. Wanda appears to live outside of time, existing as a breathing person before and after her death. Almost the first event is Jimmy finding her corpse on the beach, at which point he seriously considers that he might be dead as well. It's like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge married to an erotic Carnival (or Carnaval?) of Souls. It will be absorbing or tedious depending on one's tastes.
As for shocking material, the film actually has very little, just nudity and the usual whipping when Wanda is tortured by the trio of sadists. She also has a brief embrace with a woman at a party, which James Darren's character immediately breaks up. There are sexual situations but no sex scenes, as if producer Towers knew exactly what content would clear censors in his foreign sales campaign.
The only really obnoxious moment is Franco's use of the same quote from the Donne sonnet that precedes Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim: "I runne to Death/And Death meets me as fast/And all my pleasures are like yesterday." Venus in Furs may be about some notion of Death, but it has little or no resonance on a classical level.
Familiar Euro actor Pal Müller appears as a rich party host.
General audiences may be unmoved by Blue Underground's DVD of Venus in Furs but Jesus Franco fans will flip. The picture is nigh-perfect, with only a slight ride over splices noticeable as the film unspools. American money may have accounted for some unexpected frills, like opticals provided by the Howard Anderson company: Color filters are added to some scenes, others are triple-framed to slow them down (these have some unwelcome scratch and dirt flaws, as if they were duped from work picture) and one curious shot of club patrons applauding has an action "rock" in it that adds unexpectedly to the feeling of strangeness.
Franco appears in a lengthy interview (in French) where he explains how his artsy horror film had to cater to distributor demands in the same way that upscale films do. His planned casting was changed when having a black musician hero with a white girlfriend was nixed by his backers. Producer Harry Allan Towers apparently found the money for the film by pre-selling it in dozens of regional markets. In an audio-only interview, Maria Rohm reminisces about her experience working with Franco and says nice things about the actors who appeared with her. She's perfectly comfortable with her place in erotic horror history.
There is also a trailer, art and still galleries and a Jess Franco biography.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Venus in Furs rates: