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I haven't reviewed a Jess Franco movie in ages, and have instead taken occasional potshots at him as a cult figure who makes movies almost completely without value. When DVD first started titles like Succubus (Necronomicon) were eagerly awaited. I wanted to see Franco's erotic heroine described by the Hardy Encyclopedia of Horror as "an oneiric creature condensing desire and death into a single figure." Even after adjusting my attitude toward Franco's terrible camerawork, bankrupt visuals and sub-gutter exploitation instincts, I found Succubus a major waste of time. When I hear how Franco supposedly applies jazz concepts to filmmaking and how he is responsible for major parts of Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, I start to feel woozy. Franco's assembly of the remnants of Welles' Don Quixote is an unqualified abortion. Horror fandom seems hungry for more cult figures to worship, as most of the genre's greatest names are long gone now. Filling the gap, the prolific Jess Franco is in line for canonization.
Before going any further, let me say that if the reader is a fan of the Iberian wonder Jesús, Franco, Mondo Macabro's DVD release of 1973's Countess Perverse can't be more highly recommended. It's the best and cleanest transfer of any Jess Franco picture I've yet seen, in perfect condition. The camerawork is, dare I say it .... attractive.
This is the year of The Hunger Game, a death-hunt story with many forerunners in classic film. Jesús Franco's Countess Perverse is an unofficial gloss on Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game, except that the death hunt is limited to the last reel of screen time. The balance comes from Señor Franco's bottomless bag of Sadean themes, which amount to puerile softcore torture porn. As they say on Dragnet, the story has been changed but the names are the same. Countess Ivanna Zaroff and Count Rabor Zaroff (Alice Arno & Howard Vernon) have entreated/forced Tom and Moira (Robert Woods & Tania Busselier) into a truly heinous arrangement. In exchange for large sums of money, the couple procures beautiful young women for the Zaroff's sadistic pleasure. Tom and Moira invite young Silvia (Lina Romay) over for drinks and then invite her for some three-way sex. Before she knows it, Silvia's been delivered to the Zaroff's private island. The cannibalistic hosts feed Silvia a steak cut from one of their previous victims. The rest of the night is spent raping and otherwise abusing her. In the morning Sylvia is let loose on the island, like they prey in a fox hunt. Ivanna pursues, nude save for a medallion and her hunting bow.
Franco made a pile of films in 1973, a number of them for the producer of Countess Perverse. We're told that Franco put the hastily filmed show into rough cut shape and then shipped it to Paris, where all the finishing, including sound dubbing and music work was done without his participation. The moody music sounds like generic "tension" cues from Ennio Morricone, and the dubbing is quite clear. Franco veteran Howard Vernon performs his usual creep act, delivering at least a dozen 'ironic' dialogue lines indicating that poor Silvia hasn't a chance to escape humiliation, degradation and a tortured death. Relatively new Franco discovery (and his longest-lasting intimate associate) Lina Romay likewise plays her role in one of two modes -- willingly and un-willingly participating in the revels. At one point Silvia sees the Zaroffs in the act of sawing off the head of another, earlier victim: "Nobody appreciates how difficult this is", says Rabor. Silvia underreacts, then swoons onto the floor.
The slow opening sees Moira and Tom rescue a nude woman who washes up on the beach, alive. Her story of horrors at the hands of the Zaroffs explains the setup fairly efficiently. Explaining how Franco could make Countess Perverse so quickly is not difficult -- the story per se takes up perhaps 40% of the screen time. The rest can be divided between two kinds of material. Trips to and from Zaroff's island (which never seems far from a coastline dotted with Spanish beach villas) are covered by shots from an open boat pitching in the waves. The horizon leaps up and down like a bucking bronco. Add Franco's constant zooms as his camera imitates the action of a character searching the shoreline, and this footage is a real time waster.
The majority of the sidebar action is the content that the exploitation crowd has come to see, the sex scenes. These are brightly lit threesomes, with various kinds of (simulated?) action that could presumably be toned down for a soft release version or ratcheted up with insert shots for a harder effect. The victim Silvia looks unhappy but never really distraught. Little if anything about the sex scenes relates directly to the film's horror content. Along with shots in which Silvia is strapped upright and whipped, the actual bondage and torture is laughably unconvincing. Franco has a habit of letting his camera wander and drift in scenes, even if it doesn't find anything of particular meaning. You can bet that he'll zoom in to survey every nude figure that happens to be available. The sex scenes repeatedly zoom into female crotches, as if the camera were on automatic pilot.
More down time is eaten up by stage waits. This pristine uncut copy of Countess Perverse is directed in such a loose fashion that only a couple of dialogue scenes are really essential. Continuity is very literal. As in an old PRC or Monogram picture, scenes begin with people in place and end before they move, to avoid time-consuming blocking and continuity issues. At least Countess Perverse doesn't claim an oneiric intention to excuse its random padding.
Franco is obviously inspired by the Zaroff's fascinating eccentric beach house, the best thing in the movie. The lonely building's weird exterior has a crazy cantilevered appearance, and the lush interior spaces are fashioned in rich, dark wood. Seen in this fine transfer, some of these shots are impressive in themselves -- although Franco of course pads the action by making us watch his characters walk all the way up the stone steps to the Zaroff house, or descend all the way down a fascinating set of interior stairs. Don't get your hopes up, however. As one victim ascends the steps from the sunny beach, her voiceover tells us that she's impressed to find the eerie island completely uninhabited. Just as these words are heard a casual beach stroller walks by in the background.
If Jess Franco had any aptitude for action or tension his final death hunt might have been a truly perverse mini-classic scene. Not every movie presents a statuesque unclothed Diana figure stalking her prey. Stripped nude, Silvia runs for her life while the determined Ivanna tiptoes along with her widdle bow and arrow. Ms. Romay is not particularly panicked. Alice Arno shoots her arrow like a Kindergartner -- we expect to see a rubber suction cup on the arrow's end. The action doesn't convince, and it's over so quickly that we don't get a chance to feel anything about it. After a little more mayhem (no spoilers here) Howard Vernon observes the cynical finale.
I invite readers to dismiss my protests over Countess Perverse should they feel differently about Franco pictures. Although I consider Franco a pornographer with annoying pretensions, I'm not automatically averse to fantasy filmmaking that merges with pornography. I must say that the Joe Sarno movies I've seen are of a higher level of interest, even when they're almost straight pornography -- his early wife-swapping thrillers have real character tension and are actually sexy. I've seen about a dozen Franco films now, which I understand leaves only a couple of hundred to go. His Harry Allan Towers- produced "epics" are terrible, and his Sadean horrors are a bad imitation of art filmmaking. More power to those fans that enjoy the world of Jess Franco.
I've reviewed Mondo Macabro's DVD of Countess Perverse because it's the best-looking piece of Euro-trash I've yet seen transferred to disc. Someone has done good work with this. Color, sharpness and definition are excellent and the image is very clean. The packaging mentions an anamorphic transfer but what we get is a flat 1:33 image, which is okay by me. Most of the scenes would look better matted off wider but I saw at least a dozen shots that might suffer. Were they perhaps blown up? The French soundtrack is also clear and Mondo Macabro's removable English subtitles are easy to follow.
Video interviews give us actor Robert Woods talking about his experiences with Jess Franco. Although the actor was worried about working in a porn film he seems perfectly happy in his two or three full frontal shots. Critic Steven Thrower's video interview is not particularly well shot, but he has a lot of information to impart about the film and Franco. A text extra tells us that Countess Perverse was not distributed in the U.S.. I recommend Nathaniel Thompson's concise review at his excellent website Mondo Digital. Nathaniel has the complete background on the various versions of this show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Countess Perverse rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.