If you can't be considered an expert on a director until you've seen all of his or her movies, then there are probably fewer experts about director Jesus "Jess" Franco, who died earlier this week at the age of 82 after suffering a stroke, than any other filmmaker in history. Born in 1930, Franco made at least 200 exploitation films in his lifetime -- that we know of. But the prolific Spanish director worked constantly under a variety of aliases on an unending stream of projects, so the actual number of movies he made could be much, much higher.
I'm certainly no expert on Franco myself, but like every movie lover with an interest in strange, low-budget cinema, I've crossed his path, cinematically speaking, on numerous occasions. When I worked at Kim's Video, Franco's section of the store's Cult/Exploitation Wall was one of the most popular in the store -- his 1969 "adaptation" (adaptation with emphatic air quotes) of "Venus in Furs" was always coming in and going right back out.
Few directors ground the world of grindhouse cinema quite so hard or so emphatically as Franco. Here, I consult my Bible on all things grindhouse, Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford's indispensable "Sleazoid Express," for a description of Franco and his aesthetic:
"The king of the Deuce Eurosex movie was and is Jess Franco, Europe's most prolific exploitation director. To date, he's made literally hundreds of films in the horror, thriller, period piece, and women's prison genres, and his work has always had a relentless fetishistic slant. Franco's movies are a hodgepodge of quickly tossed-off pornography, American pulp fiction influences, and sadomasochsitic iconography."
And here's one more excerpt from their chapter on Franco, which assesses his talents as a director:
"Some Franco fans believe he is a genius, citing as proof his brief association with Orson Welles in making the penny-dreadful Shakespeare adaptation 'Chimes at Midnight' in the mid-1960s. One can more realistically see Franco as a talented, imaginative filmmaker who is self-aware enough to know he functions best in exploitation modes."
In a 2009 interview with The A.V. Club, Franco promised he would never quit the business he loved so dearly; "I will be retired," he told the publication's Sean O'Neal, "the day I die." True to his word, his last picture (that we know of), "Al Pereira Versus the Alligator Women," just opened in Spain last month.
Here are some notable remembrances of Franco from film critics and fans:
"And so ends -- or begins -- the most epic story in the history of fantastic cinema. The IMDb credits Franco with directing 199 features and the list is surely incomplete, lacking some titles altogether, not to mention variant editions and unreleased titles. Very often, he was also their writer and very often their cameraman, editor, dubber and a member of the cast. No one demonstrably loved making movies more than he."
"Not just 'not untalented,' but, in my estimation, a genuine artist."
"Franco, who often wrote his own scripts and also frequently doubled as his own producer, editor, composer, or cinematographer, made literally hundreds of features over the course of a career that spanned more than 50 years. (Like his American counterpart Roger Corman, he sometimes cut corners by incorporating footage from one shoot in a later production. However, he denied rumors that he ever had more than one movie going at the same time, telling The A.V. Club in 2009, 'This is impossible! I only have one head.')"
"The auteur steered the 1960s Spanish horror boom, and even in the face of fascist censorship, placed sex, blood and gore at the front and center of his motion pics."
"If I haven't become a full-on Francophile, I've at least developed an admiration for his dreamily discordant aesthetic. Franco didn't obsess over shots much - if ever - throughout his career, but he had a great eye for composition and could often get the moment he needed through innate skill. His editing style takes quite a bit of getting used to, but so does free jazz. Franco is usually more structured than that, but he'll still lose me for long stretches, where I'm not sure what's going on, how I'm supposed to feel, or, to be honest, whether I'm watching the same movie. The films often work best as experiences, and the best of those experiences (e.g. 'Vampyros Lesbos,' 'Venus in Furs,' and 'She Killed in Ecstasy') are euphoric."
"Fritz Lang ('M,' 'Scarlet Street,' 'The Big Heat') was reportedly a big fan of Franco’s surrealistic 'Succubus' (1968), referring to this portrayal of a nightclub stripper’s fantastical universe as a 'beautiful piece of cinema.' On the Spanish publication El Cultural, columnist Fran Perea found it impossible to resist the urge to repeat the old adage, 'If Jesús Franco didn’t exist, we would have to invent him.' Perea added: 'The history of Spanish cinema -- in fact, the history of cinema, period -- would have been much more tedious, sordid, and colorless" without Franco’s oeuvre."
"To love Franco was to play sleuth, sifting through titles, re-titles, alternate cuts, bootlegs, soft and hard versions (Franco was noted as being one of the pioneers of erotic horror, in some cases downright pornographic horror and fantasy depending on the country of release)."
If you've got a taste for exploitation and you're a Netflix subscriber, you can watch many Franco films at home right now, including "The Awful Dr. Orloff," "99 Women," and "Female Vampire" (viewer discretion is most certainly advised). Rest in peace, Jess Franco. I hope you're finally enjoying retirement, wherever you are.