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Savant has seen all of five Jesus Franco films (out of 180), and has to admit that he's not found much to his liking, even though the director's early gothic horror film, Gritos en la Noche had its good points. Succubus was described as his masterpiece, but after enthusiastically finding it I was wholly underwhelmed by its combination of ugly photography and laughable artistic pretensions. I realize there are plenty of fans who find an interesting alternate cinematic reality in watching multiple versions of Franco films. After each of his screenings, I've been left with a slimy feeling, that for all I know is the desired reaction with this director.
For Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion, I had to give the icky Iberian one more go. It was a featured review in the very first 1970 issue of Cinefantastque magazine, when serious criticism of fantastic films was a rare animal. Besides getting my first look at topics like These are the Damned and Japanese fantasy, I was intrigued to find out that horror could co-mingle with erotic themes. For all the die-hard Francophiles, Eugenie... has been an unseeable item for decades, and this very handsome release must mean a lot to them. If the final assessment of the film are less than positive, please take my prejudices into account.
Around 1969 and 1970, a score of movies suddenly sprang up adapting works by that jolly old kidder, the Marquis de Sade. Besides A.I.P.'s rather woeful biography, De Sade, the ability to distribute adult titles under the new MPAA 'X' rating caused a mini-explosion in higher-budget erotic filmmaking. Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion is by far the best-looking Franco film I've seen. Producer Harry Alan Towers has given it acceptable production values. 1 The attractive villa that serves as the main location is handsomely lit, and the attention given to each shot is very unusual for Franco - this is a good-looking film. Every once in a while there are out-of-focus shots; but in some cases they seem to be an attempt at stylization and not necessarily bad filmmaking.
In the passing years, Eugenie... has become less shocking in general than it would have been new. It's far more successful than the inept De Sade, with its silly sex scenes. It's also truer to the spirit of the Marquis, if he ever had one ... the Marquis' idea of shock was usually limited to repetitive and episodic descriptions of the usual sexual hijinks, with cruel murders interspersed as cynical spice, all purposely arranged to scandalize 18th century squares in denial that the human mind could conceive of such evil. Franco and Towers are actually more credible with their outrages than was the Marquis - a major aim of De Sade was to satirize the corruption of the French Royalty.
Everyone describes Eugenie as innocent, when it's clear that she begins the movie already very hot and bothered for her hostess. If she has no sexual experience, her virginity must be a technicality, as she's pretty darn eager. Mirvel supplies a really interesting drug, because it transforms Eugenie into a pliable sex toy, yet allows her to remember more or less what she did while unconscious. The hash she smokes the next day is an even more interesting kind of aphrodesiac, I guess.
St. Ange and Jack Taylor are sly and condescending, and so sinister in their politeness that even Goldilocks would be reaching for her pepper spray. The supposed 'corruption' of Eugenie is completely unconvincing - she remains a duped puppet. When she kills the first time it is out of fear, and the second time is just not fully explained. You don't get the idea that she's progressed to the point where she can 'replace' her hostess in the cult, and that turns out not to be the plan anyway. But the cult is going to have a tough time finding another ruthless and degenerate millionairess, who also happens to own her own island complete with deaf-mute and compliant servants.
Near the conclusion, there's some vague but impressive wandering of the nude Eugenie in the dawn-lit sand dunes of the island. But any attempt to assess the film on its content is rendered moot by the ending, which suddenly returns to the saucer landing in the sand pit, excuse me, the Madame repeating her initial phone call to Eugenie from the very first scene. It's the cyclical reality gag from Dead of Night, trotted out to make the straightforward narrative seem profound. Madame St. Ange has either just dreamed the entire weekend, the same way she conjures up visions of Christopher Lee reading from De Sade, while enjoying a pleasant read herself - or the reality of the movie is some kind of activity boiling in a circle of Hell. Either way, it's Bad Erotic Art Movie Night.
Harry Alan Towers' smartest deal was getting Christopher Lee to work two days on a movie that he didn't know was an 'adult' picture (Right, Chris, how about that naked broad splayed out for sacrifice ten feet to your right, in your very first scene?) Lee's reading voice is so commanding, he could make a recipe sound profound. Whenever he enters a scene, it just comes alive, like the cast is suddenly making a real movie. Lee very smartly underplays menace, and always moves ever-so-slowly ... he's pretty nightmarish. The main appearance of the 'pirate crew' of Sadists, with him as the ringleader, has the feel of a murderous La Dolce Vita. There are certainly moments in Eugenie... that come alive. Maria Rohm is effective enough, but there's almost no variety to her character. Her big surprise at the end seems rushed and muted, as if it had to be done quick to get Christoper on his plane back home. Creepy Jack Taylor is well cast: even when totally relaxed, his face has a natural look of wanton perversion, like certain actors we used to notice in Russ Meyer films ...
There's a lot of nudity, which stops being provocative as soon as Eugenie's body becomes a familiar sight. The sex scenes are restrained and tasteful for a Franco film. The single most active ingredient in the film's play for sophistication is the music score by Bruno Nicolai. It's varied and playful, with latin-inflected cocktail riffs rubbing up against electric guitars. Some eerie vocals remind of Morricone in Danger: Diabolik, but this great score has its own personality.
In 1970, the industry was in such a turmoil that Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion played in big theaters, even Grauman's Chinese, according to Franco, which is pretty impressive. Idiotic erotic tales like Peter Sarne's glossy, empty Joanna lept forward only to find instant obscurity, but after its first release, this fairly competent bit of nastiness disappeared from availabilty faster than you can say The Ghost Ship. Now the Franco fans can finally have their hero's masterpiece, resurrected from the past via DVD.
Blue Underground's DVD of Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion is nicely turned out, and puts the film in the best possible light. The widescreen anamorphic transfer is sharp and colorful and adaquately encoded, and even those suspicious out-of-focus scenes don't pick up much 'digital grain', as is typical in DVD. The only audio track supplied is a very clear English, but it looks to me like that's what the cast is speaking anyway. The dubbing is very good, amazingly good by Franco standards.
The nicely polished 17 minute documentary lets Franco, Lee and Towers have their say. Franco feigns a superior attitude to the crass American distributor Jerry Gross who wanted more male nudity and hardcore scenes. That would seem a rather cheeky statement by Franco, who one thinks would be the first person to add 'inserts' to harden his films for certain markets. Towers admits he hoodwinked Chris Lee, but the whole 'I didn't know it was an adult film' business was probably an invention for press attention, and plausible deniability for Lee's pride. Lee returned to work with Franco several times and has nothing but kind words for him. Ms. Liljedhal's interview is very strange - she barely discusses the film, and instead says rather disconcerting things about trouble with sadomasochistic elements in real life, that her daughter(s?) have suffered. It doesn't add up to anything very coherent.
There is also an extensive still and art gallery, and a good, balanced set of liner notes from #1 Bavaphile, #? Francophile Tim Lucas. I personally am mystified by the popularity of all things Jess Franco. Maybe in my next life, I'll get with the program. I've tried to be fair here.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion rates:
1. Working at Cannon in 1987, I cut a trailer for Harry Allan Towers' gawdawful version
of House of Usher, the one where Donald Pleasance drills a hole through a young girl's head. I don't remember reading
that scene in Poe, either. The most fun of the show was getting a very angry fancy voiceover talent to read Harry Dunn's
over-the-top narration script like Vincent Price on LSD: "If TERROR can have a FACE, and FEAR
can have a NAME, then HORROR can have a HOME! The HOUSE of USHER! I rode a few elevators
with the compact English gent but never spoke to him. He was doing a series of Dragonard movies at Cannon, trashy racist
Mandingo - slave revolt kinds of things with nudity and implied sex. They were filmed in South Africa, the latest country after
Spain to offer ridiculous monetary bonuses and tax breaks for foreign filmmakers. Towers and Cannon had some kind of scam going,
where to qualify for the government moola, a phantom American theatrical release of the films was organized. I am
convinced I was a rare crewmember on a Harry Alan Towers film - I actually got paid!