I know I said I needed my filth a little less dirty...but this is ridiculous. Kino Lorber's Redemption Films imprint has released Exorcism (original title: L'éventreur de Notre-Dame...as well as Exorcisme et Messes Noires, Chains and Black Leather, El Sádico de Notre-Dame, Sexorcismes, and Demoniac, among fifteen more, probably), Jess Franco's 1975 hard/softcore/R-rated Exorcist knock-off (in name only, really) starring wife Lina Romay, Lynn Monteil, Catherine Lafferiere, Sam Maree, and Franco himself in the lead role. This particular version of Exorcism apparently is one of many that have been floating around since the movie premiered back in 1975, the various cuts marked by the level of hard or softcore porn inserted into the narrative. Maybe I'm numbed by the last Franco movie I recently watched, Female Vampire, but this particular edition of Exorcism seemed quite tame by Franco sex standards...and therefore we have to pay attention to the actual moviemaking...not always a good thing with a Franco movie. As a bonus, we get a further cleaned-up U.S. version of the movie called Demoniac, along with a couple of vintage trailers.
Writer/editor Raymond de Franval (Pierre Taylou) has a pretty sweet deal going. Editing The Dagger and Garter, a quasi S & M smut mag masquerading as a "special interest" publication, Raymond also has time to pimp out his hot secretary/girlfriend Anna (Lina Romay) to a local Parisian grotto where Anna and her girlfriend, blonde Rose (Nadine Pascal), put on sexualized black masses for the intellectually bored, contemptuously secular, vaguely bad-smelling horny French customers. The act is so popular that Raymond now gets offers from rich aristocrats like The Count and Countess (Claude Sendron and France Nicolas) to do "private showings," along with bonuses for full-on orgy options. And if that's not enough, he apparently has an "all access" pass to his girlfriend's girlfriend, as well. Of course, that much fun isn't going to go unpunished; regular contributor to The Dagger and Garter, Mathis Vogel (Jess Franco), will make sure of that. A defrocked priest, frog-eyed little troll Vogel writes all-too-real stories about demonic possessions, the Inquisition, and exorcisms, but now, he has his sights set on "saving" possessed Anna and the rest of her crowd...no matter how many people he has to kill.
Much more linear and "straight" than Female Vampire (which I reviewed here last week), one might think Exorcism would benefit from tighter, more accessible plotting than the average Franco outing. However, just the opposite is true; Exorcism is a fairly dull affair, stripped of its sex and devoid of a suitably intriguing, otherworldly atmosphere―two Franco hallmarks that at least make his movies interesting, even when they (frequently) fail. The Strange Eyes of Dr. Orloff, viewed "straight," may have been goofy as hell, but Franco―either through divine ineptitude or inspired lunacy―managed to created a tone that was compelling in its own right. Same with Female Vampire: after awhile, the movie didn't work, but Franco was getting at something that made it a cut above 95% of the grindhouse softcore efforts from that time period.
In Exorcism, however, the viewer is all at sea. Granted, half of the problem is probably related to the cut. Nudity is about all you're going to get here for this version of Exorcism, while the more "explicit" sex scenes involve not eroticism or simulated sex but violence―a turn-off for most viewers, I would imagine. The opening is a good example. Even though the "torture" black mass is obviously a performance, Franco distances us further by including a (real?) animal sacrifice of a dove, from which blood is smeared all over Romay and Pascal (remember Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet? Didn't work there, either...). Of course, if you subscribe to the view of Exorcism as Franco discussing the unhealthy attraction between religion, violence, and sex, as craved by bored intellectuals and the wealthy...well, okay...but as an intellectual argument (and a goofy, hackneyed one, at that) it's not explored in any fashion within the movie. And if we take Exorcism as more on-camera psycho-sexual therapy for Franco (which is supposed to simultaneously provide basic exploitation thrills for ticket buyers), it's the kind of therapy that gives "clichéd" a bad name. There was absolutely nothing new about Franco's character here, or the motivations for his obsessions/bloodlust (try watching Night of the Hunter just for starters...). We've seen this stuff a hundred times before.
So without a solid core of ideas here, and without the momentary distractions of erotic fantasy to mildly spark our interest, and without a tangible atmosphere of dread, or horror, or cold, impersonal sadism, or fevered religious mania, or anything...we're stuck watching Exorcism as a straight movie. Since we're talking about Franco, not the most technically skilled screenwriter ("He scares the pants off me!") or director, that leaves the viewer watching a fairly tacky, overly-familiar R-rated slasher flick that's frequently laughable in framing, pacing, scripting, and performance (particularly from Franco himself, who looks about as threatening as a French-fried Strother Martin...with a little bit of Mr. Toad thrown in for good measure). By the time Exorcism winds up with Franco introducing a ludicrous buddy cop subplot about a veteran investigator clashing with his college-educated subordinate, complete with a hilariously-staged car chase and final gundown that looks as if it was shot by a 10-year-old who watched too many episodes of Mannix, the viewer isn't stimulated. Or intrigued. Or turned-on. Or anxious. Or enlightened. Just...bored―a criminal, fatal mistake for an exploitation movie.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.