Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Succubus (1968): or, I Have Always Lived at the Castle

Travel back with me, won't you, to a much groovier time in a much groovier place. A place full of gorgeous medieval ruins, avant-garde modern architecture, and Aurora monster model kits; a place where you can step into any night club any day of the week and watch a naked girl doing cartwheels while reciting Beat poetry, a feathered monster spasming rhythmically on the floor, or a black jumpsuited femme fatale torturing her two crucified victims to death for your entertainment. A place where the men are men, the women are dangerous, the J&B flows like water and there's always the chance that your next cigarette--or kiss--may be your last.

The place is Lisbon. The time is 1968. The director is Jess Franco, and the film is Succubus (aka Necronomicon - Geträumte Sünden).

The credits roll over a montage of classical paintings in detail, each depicting joyous peasants and aristocrats in the grips of carnal lust. Fat men down tankards of ale, well-curved women dance, and a saucy rogue even tweaks the nipple of a not-at-all blushing chambermaid. As the gorgeous classical music gives way to more frenetic modern jazz, the subject matter of the paintings also changes--the racous revelries give way to demons and monsters, as scenes from Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights entwine with the previous landscapes of flesh. This sequence not only clues the viewer in to the projected arc of the coming flick, but also perhaps serves as Franco's notice that he's aiming a little higher here than he has up to now, or would in his future career, for that matter.

"Y'all ready for this?"

Next we're whisked to a dungeon scene in which a gorgeous and ruthless-looking dominatrix in a black motorcycle outfit has a half-naked man and woman bound to St. Andrew's crosses. Teasing her victims first with the whip and then with the blade, the femme fatale seduces and then stabs the man, carves a line on the woman's chest, and--deaf to her screams of pain or pleas for mercy--stabs her as well in an orgasmic climax of death. Of course a moment later the hitherto unseen crowd erupts into applause, proving yet again that the nightclubs in Jess Franco's world are much superior to those of our own.

It turns out the girl is Lorna Green (Janine Reynaud), the latest discovery of hotshot nightclub producer extraordinaire William Francis Mulligan (frequent Paul Naschy collaborator and conspicuous consumer of manscara Jack Taylor). Since they've only just met and he doesn't know a thing about her history, it's unclear just how William found Lorna or discovered her talent for sadomasochistic jazz ballet; but I guess in when you meet a hot Portuguese babe who can put asses in the seats and doesn't blink twice at your fetishistic eye makeup, you learn not to ask too many questions.

Back in their apartment Lorna is still keyed up after her performing success, and wants to get frisky with the producer--here Reynaud treats us all to a bump-and-grind burlesque routine, showing off her bewitching beauty and joie de vie, to say nothing of her delectable gams. "You don't understand," she croons to her boss, "I'm a witch, and irresistible!" William deflates that balloon, yawning in his smoking jacket and calling the dance "Old-fashioned and boring!" before turning in for the night. Not putting two and two together ("Liz-not-Jack eye-makeup" plus "not interested in smokin' HAWT girlfriend" equals...um...sleepy?), Lorna soon follows him to bed.

Though she wasn't as into the "Phantom of the Opera" role-playing scenario as William was, Lorna gamely played along.

Of course Lorna has her own demons to confront, and does so in a dream sequence that ranks among the most interesting and beautiful I've seen in a Euroflick of this vintage--and I flatter myself that I've seen quite a few. Lorna has a confrontational session with an unhelpful psychologist, then rushes to the Lisbon trolleys to get "back to the castle." Walking from the trolley across the plazas of Lisbon, she runs into a group of hooded monks who are reluctant to stand out of her way, their arms outspread like living crucifixes. The thoughts we hear in voice-over are disjointed and full of allusion--she remembers the tale of Pandora, though in Lorna's version of the myth, the girl opens the box of evils in order to revenge herself on all men. She also dreams a repeat of her sado-nightclub act, which in the context of vengeance on men takes on an added level of creepery.

A sound sleeper, Lorna continues to dream: back at the gorgeous Portuguese castle that is her dream home, she stands naked in front of a mirror while an elderly man plays piano behind her, musing about the goddess who gives men "either Love, or Death!" Soon she finds herself at a bar where all the waiters are nude Adonis-like men, where she meets Admiral Kapp (Howard Vernon, the original Dr. Orloff). They dance and engage in an odd game of word-association, which Lorna apparently loses; as penalty she has to make love to the lascivious old sailor. Penetration is a game two can play, however, and she kills the mood by stabbing the old man in the eye with a long hatpin! Thinking rightly that's enough REM for one night, she wakes up.

This has been a very extended dream sequence (10 or 15 minutes, by my estimate), but if Franco's ever filmed a stronger fifteen consecutive minutes, it'd be quite a feat. The soft-focus signifying the dream world is a bit distracting, but the strong primary colors, the gorgeous flat planes of sky and sea with the ancient castle in the background, the odd but implacable forward motion of Lorna's dream logic, leading inexorably to murder and her awakening--it's wonderful, just masterful filmmaking.

Admiral Kapp liked his martinis very well shaken indeed.

Finding herself alone in bed (seriously, Jack, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?), she dresses and goes downstairs to find Will auditioning a new act with a few friends over to watch. One of the crowd thinks he knows her--"Don't you remember? Those nights we spent together?" But she doesn't remember him--in fact, as we'll learn, she has trouble remembering anything about her past. This becomes even more troubling when, stepping out for a walk, she and Will happen upon a funeral in progress, and the guest of honor is Admiral Kapp himself, still with the hatpin sticking out of his eye socket!

From here out it's hard for Lorna to discern the difference between waking and dreaming, but in her defense, I think I'd have the same problem in late-60s Lisbon. For instance, Will and Lorna attend a party thrown by a rich investor friend of his, and the entertainment is a dwarf in a tuxedo conducting classical music and playing chase with a transvestite in a swan shirt! People read, make out and speak in non sequiturs while Lorna and Will drink J&B and watch it all go down. Later the host and his dwarf serve LSD-laced sugar cubes to the guests--as if that were necessary--and Lorna starts to freak out when she's surrounded by a pack of partygoers who think they're dogs. It's all fun and games later, though, when all start kissing her instead of biting. In a gesture of goodwill, they grab a shy blonde who's been eyeing Lorna all night and place her bodily on top of the supine, tripping model, leading to a short makeout session before Will remembers he's supposed to get jealous and demands they leave.

And this is REAL WORLD stuff.

"Dwarf in tuxedo conducting classical music from the coffee table" plus...

..."Bottle of J&B" plus "Drug-Addled Lounging Lesbians"!
It's the Eurotrash trifecta!

Will becomes very concerned about what he sees as Lorna's refusal to tell him about her past, though it's clear that even she can't remember where she came from or what she did before that opening scene. When Will finally blows up and threatens to leave her, she cries in exasperation, "Stop asking questions...take me as I am!"

The dream-world and real life finally collide when Lorna and her forced-lesbian lover from the party wind up at an abandoned chateau, just like the one from her dream, which is now full of mannequins wearing ornate costumes that represent famous women of the past. "Do you really live here?" the girl asks. "I have always lived here," Lorna replies.) Crossing the boundary between experience and dream freely now, Lorna and the girl engage in phantasmagorical lesbian sex in a gorgeous, borderline-surreal scene. Lorna sees her shy, blonde lover transformed into a mannequin, and in terror tries to bash the dummy's head in. Concussed and frightened, the girl tries to escape, only to be hemmed in by the now-ambulatory dummies before Lorna stabs her to death. Awakening from her fever dream later, Lorna finds the girl's body at her feet, and must now admit to the fact that she's a somnambulent psycho.

Having had enough, Will flees to Berlin to start up a new nightclub and try to forget Lorna. Desperately in love (and probably not wishing to stick around until the Lisbon cops show up), Lorna follows, leading to a strange denouement in Berlin that may or may not explain what's been happening and why.

We've all had mornings like this, am I right?

As I mentioned before, this movie is abso-fucking-lutely GORGEOUS. The colors, the locations, the women, the odd avant-garde symbolism--it doesn't always (or even often) make sense, but the emotional weight of the visuals easily overwhelms the need for narrative logic for a powerful viewing experience. Freed from Spanish censors and budgetary concerns for the first time in his career (iit was a German co-production, hence the Berlin-set ending), Franco really explores the space, producing what strikes me as a much more ambitious and personal work than he'd been able to attempt up to that point. While at times the mythical allusions and non sequitur philosophy spouted by the characters may seem pretentiously "arty," it's all so damn strange and beautiful I didn't really mind.

Franco was very fortunate to find Janine Reynaud to play his lead (she was the wife of one of his co-producers), because without the mature beauty and strangely ageless naivete she brings to the role, I don't think it really would have worked. For my money Reynaud is as mesmerizing and ethereal as any of Franco's famous femmes. Jack Taylor also does well here as the self-centered playboy, and the other actors who populate Franco's dream tableaus are always interesting to look at, if nothing else. The jazz/classical soundtrack composed by Friedrich Gulda is also among the best in Franco's filmography.

Just come along with me

It's fun to listen to Franco talk about the production in the 22 minute interview included on the DVD--the old man just always seems to be having the time of his life, and that attitude is infectious. (He claims that Succubus was the first movie in which he realized that a film "doesn't have to make sense in order to be successful," a lesson he clearly never forgot.) A shorter interview with Jack Taylor in Berlin shows a different and appealing side of the man for those used to his typically stiff 70s performances.

I've said before that I find Franco's work to be very hit and miss, but Succubus proves that when he hits, he hits HARD. If the infamous flesh- and fever dream-peddler ever made a more beautiful, sumptuous, affecting film, brother, I'd like to see it. 3+ thumbs.

Some more great images from Franco's Succubus:


Tenebrous Kate said...

You know, if Jess Franco wasn't such a *prolific* filmmaker, I think viewers would be less surprised to see his name attached to a movie like "Succubus." It's kind of like when folks write off Rollin because they caught "Zombie Lake" on VHS during the 1980s--it's simply not a fair cop.

You're SO right about Janine Reynaud's superb film presence here. She's got a bit of a Dyanne Thorne vibe about her (am I allowed to mention Ms. Thorne and Mr. Franco in the same comment after the "Wicked Warden" film?) in her buxom, mature, "harsh bird" appeal.

A wonderful companion to "Succubus" is "Venus in Furs," another strongly jazz-influenced/structured film with an also-awesome soundtrack (the main theme from that film has never gotten out of my brain!).

Semi-related thought of the moment: the Groovy Years of Cinema were a hell of a time to be named "Lorna," weren't they?

The Duke of DVD said...

Wait, wait, wait... there's a dwarf in a tux, conducting music whilst Euro-lesbians (the Duke's favorite flavor!) make-out nearby?

Dearest Vicar, have one of your trusty manservants dispatched via calash at once, straight to my estates, bearing a copy of this movie. I must watch it with the evening bath.

Fantastic review, as always. Reynaud is such a babe.

Jenn said...

Oh baby! How have I missed this debaucherous Franco outing thus far? A tuxedoed dwarf? Alcohol? Sexy lesbians? It's like Franco's speakin' just to me. He caught my eye across the dance floor and this was the result.

CRwM said...

You had me at the Shirley Jackson reference, you sly dog.

I can't stand Jess Franco and even I want to see this movie now!

The Headless Werewolf said...

Great review! I saw this a few years ago and found it a little too pretentious for a Franco movie, but maybe I watched it with the wrong attitude. Will revisit again soon!

Al Bruno III said...

This isn't the kind of movies I usually seek out but it sounds pretty interesting.

Of course by now I think that dwarves have become standard hallucination/dream fodder. I wonder what little people see when they're tripping?

Fred said...

I remember reading about this in the Psychontric Encyclopedia and Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of Horror Movies (anyone else remember books?) and I knew I had to see it. Finally bought a decent dupe on VHS back in '88 and was hooked. This is still one of my all-time favorite Francos. The original title translates as Necronomican: Dreamt Sins, which makes some sense (I got that from my old law school roomate who speaks about a dozen languages). One of the best surreal films I've ever seen.

I don't if Howard Vernon's nightclub with the naked bartenders was any influence on Studio 54 (Steve Rubbell is long gone and Ian Schrager ain't talking). But I'm pretty sure that Johnny Ola told Jack Taylor and Jess about where to see lovely Lorna do her S&M act.

Word verification: mantea (a favorite beverage served at Howard Vernon's nude bartender nightclub).

Erin said...

This movie does sound worth watching for the WTF factor, is it a good intro to Franco?

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks everyone for the comments!

@Erin--Franco made so many films, where you "should" start really depends on your interests. I like SUCCUBUS a lot, and it would be a good movie to start with if your tastes run to the arty and groovy, I think. If horror's more your thing, the Dr. Orloff series or VAMPYROS LESBOS or perhaps FACELESS would be my suggested jumping-in points. But as Tenebrous Kate rightly points out, Franco made so many movies, and a good many of them are bad by any standard, so caveat dvdplayer.

And here is an excellent blog devoted entirely to Franco's work, which might help you get a better idea:

I'm in a Jess Franco State of Mind

Happy hunting!

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