Jesús “Jess” Franco – director of nearly 200 films, father of the 1960s Spanish horror boom and father of several generations of filmmakers – has died in Malaga of heart complications, at the age of 82.
I don’t think you could find a post-1970 horror filmmaker who doesn’t know Franco’s work or hasn’t been influenced by him. From The Awful Dr. Orloff and Vampyros Lesbos to The Mansion of the Living Dead, his work was outrageous, bloody, sexy, gory, creepy, and crossed just about every line imaginable – some that even today’s horror filmmakers wouldn’t dare put a toe over.
Making films in Spain in the 1960s wasn’t easy. Censorship rules imposed by the fascist government meant that horror films were rare. But some changes to policy (made in part to help Spain’s economy through foreign investment and international co-productions) allowed Franco to make his first horror picture, Gritos en la Noche, in 1961. This not only introduced the world to that sinister madman Dr. Orloff, who would kidnap and cut up women to his and the audience’s terror and delight, but also unveiled Franco’s particular brand of narrative, reconstructed from classic horror and gothic tales, combining terror and eroticism. His gaze has been called one of the sadistic male, but it is entirely self-aware and self-reflexive.
In his films, both men and women (such as in Miss Muerte/The Diabolical Dr. Z) are equally capable of the most vicious crimes and daring sex. While other horror filmmakers at the time kept sex in the background, with Franco it was front and centre – what Angel Sala (director of the Sitges Film Festival) calls a “bizarre and disturbing eroticism”. Franco himself would deny that he was being original; he saw his own work as merely one part of a great era. However, his work was considered highly dangerous by the Spanish Catholic Church, which likely only increased his popularity.
But between himself and fellow Spaniard Paul Naschy, they created the Spanish horror boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, though Franco was always modest about his work. Many great actors would work with him over the years, including Christopher Lee (with whom he worked on Count Dracula, which Lee has always said was his favourite of his Dracula films), Klaus Kinski and Jack Taylor. Once censorship ended in the late 1970s, Franco was free to get even more bizarre and bloody, and continued to make his particular brand of so-called ‘B’ horror and exploitation films, and even some soft-core porn, often under an alias, well into last year. He was also an accomplished musician, and wrote music for a number of his films. Really, his work is so prolific that it is impossible to sum up. Luckily, much of it is available on DVD, and several books have been published on him and his influence.
His wife and long-time collaborator Lina Romay passed away last year. I’d like to think that now they are making even more incredibly outrageous films on another plane of the universe.