Europe In The Raw: Sex & Horror From Abroad, Part 1deadhorse13
The Fantastique. A French term for a genre of literature and cinema that blends sex and horror. Two great tastes that taste great together, right? Our perceptions of the world are filtered through our sensations, and two of the most acute are undoubtedly arousal and fear. Horror has long tapped into these most primal of instincts to both entertain and provoke by exploring the darker recesses of our imagination, our fevered dreams, our deviant fantasies and hidden desires. What sets apart the fantastique specifically, is its non-linear approach to structure and narrative. The Europeans excelled in this arena, and in the permissive atmosphere of the 1960’s and 70’s were able to craft some of the most unusual and perverse pictures ever seen. Compared to their overseas counterparts they don’t follow “the rules”, being too bizarre or incomprehensible for mass consumption, but the true horror aficionado can find much of interest. Certain images will never escape the mind. I will warn you, with many of these offerings you cannot be impatient or overly critical. Additionally, if you hold an aversion to subtitles, bad dubbing, zoom lenses, low budget effects, or gratuitous flesh and pubic pantomime then you might want to steer clear. But if you’re a little adventurous, have a craving for the peculiar or off-beat, or maybe just feeling downright naughty – then I highly suggest you take the road less traveled, and take a gander at our kinky continental cousins.
Befittingly, the French are the prime purveyors of the fantastique with director Jean Rollin at its helm. He uses vampires almost exclusively as a framing device for his macabre imagery. Scripts were not provided for the actors, and scenes were regularly improvised. Performance relies on Expressionism, which can often border on the ludicrous; while his scantily clad leads often seem devoid of any emotion at all. His films are sparse in dialogue but rich in gothic atmosphere, giving them a surreal quality that is undeniable. Rollin makes extensive use of his spectacular locations and beautiful women, painting peculiar postcards of eerie eroticism. His dreamscapes have a way of creeping under your skin like a long quiet stroll through a darkened graveyard. Requiem For A Vampire (1971) is robust in the strange; The Grapes Of Death (1978) makes its mark as the first French gore film, and is one of his more accessible features; he would take more care to characterization in films like Fascination (1979), with the smoldering Brigitte Lahaie cutting a formidable femme fatale; while The Living Dead Girl (1982) might be his most coherent work narratively speaking. Rob Zombie obviously digs it :)
Former painter Walerian Borowczyk, better known for controversial dramas bordering on the pornographic, would dabble in the format. Borowczyk’s artistic sensibilities are strongly present in his visually suggestive tableaus. The ‘Elizabeth Bathory’ episode in 1974’s Immoral Tales is a beautific bloodbath; The Beast (1975) would spin a graphic telling of the Beauty and the Beast legend which remained banned for years; Behind Convent Walls (1978) is as “classy” a nunsploitation film as you’re likely to find; and Borowczyk would lewdify another legend in Dr. Jekyll And His Women (1981), with a cast that includes the always arresting Udo Kier and Patrick Magee. Borowczyk put the verse in subversive.
Jess Franco, Jesus Franco, Jess Frank, Clifford Brown (!) Any way you spell it, welcome to Strangesville, population: you. This prolific director takes his inspiration from traditional horror and pulp literature, but makes something entirely his own. Influenced by jazz music, Franco’s flicks likewise ebb and flow to a discordant rhythm which takes getting used to. By the 1970’s he was known to crank out 6 or more films a year in varying genres, with varying budgets, to varying degrees of success. Sex is normally the catalyst in his labyrinth of lechery, and he was not afraid to depict it graphically. Franco kept the censors’ scissors busy all over the globe, and his films carry as many aliases as the man himself. Calling the director uneven at best is fair; however, when he gets into a groove, you can’t help but be carried away by the outlandish arrangement. His influential debut The Awful Dr. Orlof (1961) is an early favorite that pushed envelopes; Succubus (1967) is a visual delight for any fetishist; Count Dracula (1970) clings close to Stoker’s vision, and genre icons Lee, Lom and Kinski help to make it one of his more penetrable features; Vampyros Lesbos (1971) weaves perverse poetry; Female Vampire (1973) literally aims for the crotch; Ilsa, The Wicked Warden (1978) easily out-sleazes any women-in-prison flicks that came before it; while the engaging Faceless (1988) proved he hadn’t strayed far from his roots. It is unfortunate that two of his better known titles, A Virgin Among The Living Dead (1973) and Bloody Moon (1981) are so horribly inept, undoubtedly keeping the curious away from delving deeper into his diverse catalog.
José Larraz will be the last profile on provocative pioneers. His background in comics gave his films a unique visual perspective. Paying closer attention to detail than some of his aforementioned counterparts, Larraz still relies as much on mood and atmosphere as performance. Scenery, architecture and lighting are integral to his storytelling, and his camera boldly plays with these elements. Whirlpool (1969) is his absorbing but tempered debut thriller; Deviation (1971) got a little dirtier; Scream And Die aka The House That Vanished (1973) is a lurid little shocker; the enigmatic mystery of Symptoms (1974) was well received at Cannes, and could be considered his masterpiece; while Vampyres (1974) was heralded by Playboy as an erotic horror classic, and with the amount of flesh and fluid on display, I must concur. He also gave us The Violation Of The Bitch aka The Coming Of Sin (1978), an unpredictable feast for the eyes that closely resembles a bawdy comic strip. This exploitation flick should be a rite of passage for any lover of unusual cinema. Larraz would return to sex and horror in 1981 with Black Candles, but by then the man and the mixture had lost much of its potency.
There are a myriad of other European directors that made remarkable waves in both terror and eroticism. Names like José Mojica Marins, Harry Kümel, Jorge Grau, León Klimovsky and Armando de Ossorio to name just a few - and don’t even get me started on those Italians! Before I drag any of those waters for a possible Part 2, I’d like to know if this boat’s going to float. Has anybody seen any of these oddities, and if so, what did you think? More importantly, for those of you out there oblivious, have I perked anyone’s interest in watching these “so bad, they’re good” films? I assure you they’ll give you something to talk about around the water cooler. They still have water coolers, don’t they?