Director: Jess Franco
Blue Underground

An irreverent, energetic if erratic weaver of dark dreams and erotic nightmares, Jess Franco just as often painted skin white with cum as red with blood. One of the few directors embodying the distinct properties of the auteur, he brought to each of his several hundred films a unique sense of identity (if not taste or quality). Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him; his cinema can’t be confused with anyone else’s. Long considered a one man definition of exploitation, Franco’s creative urges range somewhere between the filthy and the beautiful, a word quite appropriate for some of his lush settings, languid dream-moments, and focus on surrealism. So rooted in our subconscious are his debacles of sex, death, and fatalistic philosophy (evidenced by such films as VENUS IN FURS, SUCCUBUS, and FEMALE VAMPIRE) that it’s easy to forget that Franco also has a humorous streak. Whereas his nightmarish fantasies and brutally realistic tortures are revered for their evocation of dread, his lighter hearted romps through sexuality and shlock are free from any philosophy. Fun and free spirited, Franco’s comedies are hybrids combining satire, goofiness, and sleaze with sci-fi and horror conventions. Such elements as these are in abundance in Blue Underground’s Red Lips Double Feature of TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS and KISS ME, MONSTER. The result? Nothing more than a good time, which is precisely what Franco was aiming for.

Renowned and reviled, Franco’s work irritates as often as it pleases. Entertaining with over-the-top visual excess, fetishistic imagery, and nightmarish dream-logic, he confuses audiences with the very same elements that make his work worthwhile. His more successful films are akin to an emotional form of terrorism, attacking us where we feel most safe, and raising hell with cinematic conventions. Whereas in his dramatic nightmares he obliterates established ideals of morality, in TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS he pokes fun at them, content to relax and let his splashy surface imagery take over. The emphasis here is on amusement, not pathos. Lacking the intensity and intelligence of his more subversive outings, and certainly not as successful as his psycho-thrillers or modern gothics, these chick-flicks of conspiracy and kidnapping, sexual shenanigans and camp, are hot-blooded romps through softcore senility. Released in the same year as SUCCUBUS, these portraits of nymphets, spy-games, and monsters were the Hope and Crosby/Abbott and Costello horror-spoofs of the psychedelic age. Frolics of nudity, perversion, murder, and delirious visuals, it’s amazing that these lightweight peep shows came out the same year as Franco’s most nihilistic effort. At the very least, this suggests that, even then, Franco’s diverse interests were mingling with commercial necessity and the driving blood of the market.

Owing more to such intrigue sensations as Mario Bava’s DIABOLIK than to the horror genre, TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS shows Franco defying the traditional narrative role of the storyteller, operating instead as a clown. The story presents us with two gal-pal detectives – Diana (Janine Reynaud) and Regina (Rosanna Yanni) -- code-name “Red Lips”, who struggle to locate models/dancers who are mysteriously abducted. When the likeliest suspects turn out to be a popular artist named Klaus Tiller (Adrian Hoven) and Morpho (Michel Lemoine), what we have is a sexed up Scooby Doo mystery filtered through the sensibilities of a gothic Austin Powers! Soon the girls find themselves submerged in deadpan danger as they attempt to earn their money, wrangle bad guys, and keep their skins (if not all their clothes) on. Making us laugh instead of shiver, this is definitely a different side of the king of sleaze. Also known as “Sadisterotica,” a misleading moniker that Franco himself didn’t approve of, this mindless yet undeniably entertaining time-waster is a visual hotbed of period specific imagery, mood, and sensibilities. Of interest to Franco completists and lovers of 1960s/1970s camp, it won‘t appeal to devotees of classic horror chills or fans in search of the poetic nightmares unearthed in SUCCUBUS.

TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS (aka SADIST EROTICA) is presented remastered from the original vault materials and presented 1.66:1 in anamorphic widescreen. Looking better than it deserves to, some soft colors and hazy picture elements irritate the viewer although it’s nothing too terrible. The English language audio is serviceable if not great, with occasional muddled dialogue and uneven music distribution.

Another celebration of witlessness and detection, this double feature’s next entry is KISS ME, MONSTER, yet another free-loin romp through genre clichés. While he certainly deserves no blame for trying to cash in on the success of the sex comedies and spy thrillers enjoying acclaim at the time, Franco isn’t as proficient at achieving humor as he is horror. Weaving elements of the European spy thriller with lackluster, uneven comedy (and enough lunacy to compete with Monty Python), KISS ME MONSTER is a surreal comedy-thriller that doesn‘t know if it’s playing its absurd plot straight or just goofing off. A parody, perhaps, of similar films, this grave-groove again focuses on the sex-kitten curves and acting ability of Janine Reynaud and Rosanna Yanni, this time starring as two striptease artists who share a room in a bungalow.

Because Franco wields the camera with characteristic idiosyncrasy, there is still enough eye candy to make the viewing experience pleasurable, but the story, its basic themes, and a lack of any attempt at subtext can’t help but drag the film down. It doesn’t help that a majority of the comedy is far from funny, and dated even when it was new. As the gals follow the mystery to a tropical island, Franco gives a nod to the gothic by throwing in a castle that hides an appropriately mad scientist! While far from a return to the glory-gory days of Dr. Orloff’s noir-like photography and medical obsessions, this bit of imagery lends further interest to a somewhat spiraling narrative. Creating a setting filled with artifacts from the late 1960s, from shag carpeting to clothes that make the Partridge Family look cool, these chicks-turned-freelance detectives decide to investigate the meanings of a mysterious message that they discover in a song! While this element is rather neat, reminding one of a plot device that a more adventurous Giallo might employ, the result for the most part is all flash, little substance. Chances are, though, that you won’t care, since Franco makes even the flimsiest of plot lines, like the flimsiest of clothes, enjoyable to see through.

Far from fantastic, KISS ME, MONSTER isn’t a complete failure. It boasts something of the strange expressionism that decorate Franco’s more substantial horror films. A strange hybrid of pseudo science fiction, horror, and sexploitation, it attempts to create a new sub-genre. In fact, its self-referential style was years ahead of Craven or Fulci. Unfortunately, in its attempts to do everything, the movie falters, unable to focus on any one sensation long enough for the viewer to care for either its characters of themes. Then again, Franco doesn’t appear to be interested in much beyond popular escapism -- no bad thing, and something that he shows sufficient skill at. Grounded more enjoyably in the symbols of horror and science fiction than its sister production, KISS ME MONSTER is far more entertaining than it has any right to.

When you set down to a Franco film, you know you’re in for something different. Something unique. Something that will stand out and thumb its nose at convention. Franco’s excursions into sex, death, and madness have became legendary in a time when the horror genre has proved itself more concerned with courting the opinion of housewives and crusading politicians than fear. While these two features aren’t seriously horrific, nor indicative of Franco’s best work, either in theme or style, they do highlight Franco’s determined individualism, suggesting in their good natured eccentricity a uniquely warped vision comparable to the oddball theatrics of his terror tales. At their best, these features of bathing beauties tracking down larger-than-life villains are reminiscent in plot, style, and pacing to the serials and cliffhangers of old, spiced up with fleshy exoticism and danger. At their worst, they are still more enticing -- and more earnest in their desire to entertain -- than a majority of today’s insipid storytelling. The acting ranges from laughable to standard, with only Reynaud and Yanni standing out (and most often as objects of desire than as honest-to-god characters). The real characters, of course, are the adventurous sequences on proud display, with Franco focusing more on lewd slapstick, not characterization.

While the image is hampered throughout with a bit of soft imagery and speckling, the picture quality of KISS ME, MONSTER is really rather good considering past editions. Looking rather good, the color and framing are attractive in this colorfully packaged, economical two-disc set. Remastered from original negative material, this entry comes in at a clean 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. While KISS ME, MONSTER has a clearer image than UNDERCOVER ANGELS, both are preferable to what’s been available in the past. The mono English audio is fairly consistent, free from background interference or hissing.

Extras for TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS include the theatrical trailer, which captures the nonsense and enjoyable deadpan of the feature, and “The Case of the Red Lips,” another thorough Blue Underground interview with Franco, wherein he discusses his primary inspiration for the film, his memories of this distinct period in his life, and the stress of mounting the production. Among the issues discussed by the laid back, always entertaining gent are his beliefs that cinema should be devoted to escapism, not socially significant art, the importance of wardrobe in establishing character, and his fondness for Janine Reynaud. Also of interest is his discussion of director George Marshall. KISS ME, MONSTER is also graced with an entertaining trailer from yesteryear, in rough but nostalgic shape, and another, even more intriguing chat with Franco. “Jess’s Tangents” features the director in prime piss-and-vinegar condition, ready to take on the world, and not shy about airing his contempt for censorship and hypocrisy - the very same impulses that his films battle. Among the subjects covered are his harassment by the Catholic church, the restriction of the Franco government, and how he dealt with it all. LSD and porn are also discussed, and Franco’s distinction between artistic smut and porn -- namely a matter of taste or lack thereof -- is far more intelligent and elegant than a judge who, when once asked what constituted porn, answered: “I know it when I see it!” (William P. Simmons)