Director: Jess Franco
Blue Underground

An unapologetic poet of perversion whose outrageous sensibilities and innovative if stylistically uneven visions opened new floodgates of decadence in cinema, Jess Franco inspires either love or hatred. Not content to disturb by simply imagery, Franco’s chief obsession in the 1970s was to mirror the hallucinatory nature of lewd surface symbols with fragmented, dream-logic narratives, both of which suggested a horrific relationship between reality and fantasy, art and life. Exposing a shadowy underworld of pain, pleasure, and madness, Franco, at his best, evokes terror and awe with a voyeuristic delight that other directors can‘t match.

Noted for his obvious love of the Outsider, and such non-traditional subjects as sexual freedom, psychosis, and obsessive worship of the subconscious, Franco attacks reality in his cinema with a unique mixture of brazen nerve and subversive atmosphere. His violent stories of love, lust, and death are surprisingly reflective of a greater philosophical inquiry. Crossing taboos of self-expression that at one time would have undoubtedly seen him hung, Franco’s leering lens is undeniably voyeuristic, capturing flesh as it is fondled, cut, and worshipped by characters whose fetishes and warped personas make them both victims and victimizers. Ambiguity runs through his shadow-shows of desire and decadence, a lifeline advancing his convoluted plots, and the major descriptive drive of characters. Just as known for his willingness to push the limits of subject matter as he is for stylistic ingenuity, Franco’s complex perception -- and willingness to challenge both himself and audiences with odd technological flourishes that mirror (and lend further substance to) the fragmented subtext of his grotesque nightmares -- have resulted in some of trash cinema’s most individualistic fare.

In a dreamscape of demons, possessed nuns, and characters who are just as haunted by their contradicting lusts and terrors as by the spectral or demonic, Franco is king. If he is just as often a court-jester, this is to be expected, for he’s an artist of the absurd. Just as easily guilty of crimes of self indulgence and pornographic banality as he is of unbridled art, Franco is rarely less than original, and never less than honest in his cinema of the body, the mind, and the obsessive binds that tie both together amidst gothic images of decay and the occult. This is nowhere more obvious, perhaps, than in SUCCUBUS, one of Franco’s most challenging films, and certainly one of the more complex. Challenging both the way we interpret the plot’s doubtful surface action and the way we perceive life itself, this disturbing film, thumbing its nose at logic, time, and space, also attacks its audience’s subjective value judgments. Franco insists in this wandering, misleading story -- one that never does reveal its entire nakedness for us to fondle -- that we face the fact that there are no facts.

A morbid masterpiece long sought after by Francophiles in a clean presentation, this 1969 freak-out of fiendishness spins its wonders like a dark, surreal dream. Capturing within its subject and presentation Franco’s already by then established intellectual curiosity, emotional intensity, and aesthetic dependence on close-ups and languid atmosphere, this reflection of sex and death is likewise a vivisection of moral ambiguity. Merging softly focused dream imagery with earthy nudity, S&G/B&D lounge acts, and murder most foul with hard intellectual questions of identity, guilt, and perception, "Necronomicon" (its other title) is an early piece of surrealism whose true subversive nature would have horrified the academics of his time.

Stripper Lorna Green (Janine Reynaud), works in an exclusive club, performing an S&M skit where we enjoy the sight of various folks suffering flagellation, crucifixion, and whipped to fake deaths amidst Jazz histrionics. Alluring to both men and women, no one realizes until its far too late that Lorna’s manager -- a cross between a suave ‘rogue’ of British Decadent Literature and a Faustus figure from Goethe’s imagination -- has thrown her into a world of twilight mystery, possibly transforming her into “a devil on earth.” Throwing into doubt Lorna’s sanity -- and general faith in perception -- Franco’s establishment of a dream-like universe where the interior emotions of characters dominate the external world, SUCCUBUS is an elegant yet savage rape of experience, refusing to reveal to either Lorna (or us!) what portions of the film are taking place in dream, in imagination, or in reality. Indeed, we’re unsure that there is a standard definition of reality!

As Lorna becomes implicated in a world where art imitates life, or life imitates art, she’s forced to wonder if she’s the psychotic femme fatal of her performance act or a victim of someone else’s mania. Creating a void where the supernatural and the psychological, the real and the imaginary, meet, mingle, and are each colored by the other, Franco crafts in SUCCUBUS an intellectually daring and emotionally profound statement on the ambiguity of existence. With gusto, he decorates an amoral if sexy universe with images of decay and youth, finding the subtle (and not so subtle) beauty and eroticism of the grave. Attacking the various possible natures of reality, Franco plays with life itself it this film, and therefore spills doubt into our shared conception of reality. His dream sequences play out like our most feverish dreams or worst anxieties; they may as well be our subconscious for all their simplistic effectiveness.

A lyrical death knell to beauty, sexuality, and the struggle for self in an amoral universe as haunted by demonic forces as by personal culpability, SUCCUBUS is a carnal catalogue of some of Franco’s chief obsessions: present is his voyeurism, female objectification, and penchant for the surreal. Just as obvious is an uneasy feeling that all is an illusion for isolated, alienated people attempting to fathom which events/characters exist in objective reality and which belong to the underworld -- a stage of being -- which in Franco’s eyes is rife with subversive sensation. A languid dream that questions itself and thereby forces us to analyze our own values, Franco’s greatest achievement is his ability to create a portrait of existence stronger than either reality or illusion. Here there be madness, friends, and I can think of no one better equipped to help us explore its seductive recesses than Mr. Franco.

Newly restored by Blue Underground, SUCCUBUS, previously available from Anchor Bay, looks quite good when compared to earlier incarnations (especially considering the condition of the negative). Remastered, the film is presented in an anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen. While haunted by grain, occasional blurry imagery, and minor print scratching, this is the best the film has looked, and while not as clean as one would expect with today‘s technology, the resulting flaws don‘t significantly hamper one’s enjoyment of Franco’s psychedelic freak-show. For the most part, colors are gorgeous. If on the soft side, they nevertheless draw attention to Franco’s imagery, suggesting a tapestry equal parts gothic and baroque. The English mono audio is competent, coming through clean and sharp, with some groovy toe-tapping Jazz.

The extras are few yet intriguing, including exclusive new interviews with director Franco and star Jack Taylor, as well as the film’s theatrical trailer. The first of these treats is “From Necronomican to Succubus,” wherein Franco discusses his dependence in the late 1960s on Spanish funding, and how he was forced to mount productions in Spain in exchange for production costs. It’s clear that Franco is proud of this film, both for its surrealistic structure and its thematic quality. His 22-minute talk is intimate and frank, detailing his working relationship with stars Janine Reynaud, Michel Lemoine, Jack Taylor, and Howard Vernon, as well as humorous reflections on critics who didn’t understand the film, and the inability of anyone to really understand much of anything. Easily one of the best Franco interviews Blue Underground has ever conducted with him, Franco depicts both himself and his movie in an honest, enthusiastic, yet not too serious light. The trailer, rough in shape, does a commendable job whetting one’s appetite for the sexual horror to come. Lastly, Jack Taylor’s interview, while not as engaging as Franco’s, is good natured and thorough, filling in some background information about the production. (William P. Simmons)