Sooner or later every film critic gets to review a movie by Jess Franco, the schlock porno-horror auteur whose prolific output matches that of most nations. By a stroke of luck, this writer gets to pop his Franco cherry with a topless jungle girl movie. Groovy. A plane crash-lands in the African jungle, with the survivors being a crazy explorer (Daniel White, Franco’s regular soundtrack composer) and his young daughter. Years later she grows into Liana (Katja Biernert), a teenage jungle babe worshipped by the Mabuto tribe as their white goddess, who clashes with naked witch Ubangla (Aline Mess) and her posse of skull-masked warriors.
Elsewhere, dying millionairess Hermione (sex starlet and Franco muse, Lina Romay) learns her long-lost daughter is alive and hires adventurers, Fred (Antonio Mayans) and Payton (Javier Maza) to bring Liana back home, accompanied by doddery Uncle Matthew (Olivier Mathot) and his scheming girlfriend Lita (Ana Stern), who unwisely ventures into the jungle wearing pink boots, hotpants and a skimpy top. However, despicable Fred is only interested in finding the fabled Mabuto treasure and plots to sell Liana into sex slavery. The expedition, led by macho, moustachioed guide Rafa (Albino Graziani) quickly turns disastrous as he and Fred get into a testosterone-measuring contest, Matthew lapses into alcoholism and Ubangla’s savage headhunters wreak gory havoc. Things get really bad when our loincloth Lolita coaxes Fred into giving her lessons in lovemaking, with predictably tragic results.
Franco has produced several accomplished films in his time, but is popularly thought of as a sexploitation hack and not without some justification. Slapdash and nonsensical, the crazy story runs on its own bizarre, dream-logic with plot threads that go nowhere and characters doing inexplicable things. Yet Diamonds of Kilimanjaro still exudes a peculiar fascination and not just because Katja Bienert is naked throughout the whole movie. Stock animal footage, Franco’s off-kilter mise-en-scene and weirdly lyrical softcore romance combine to make an oddly melancholy pulp adventure. Franco weaves in philosophical musings on greed, sex and morality, as Liana slowly discovers she, her father and the Mabutos live a mutually exploitive existence and love temporarily blinds our heroine to her duty as the white goddess.
Inspired by the Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956) movies hugely popular in Europe (and deserving a DVD release) for their pulp thrills and eroticism, Franco attempts to up the ante with some weak-kneed cannibal horror and rampant nudity. The jungle proves an aphrodisiac for these explorers, with Lita forever stripping off and seducing men, while Liana spends most of her time in treetops spying various sexy goings on. While she pouts prettily and evidently enjoys swinging from jungle vines, this isn’t Katja Bienert’s finest hour. She found fame in Germany’s popular Schoolgirl Report movies (at twelve years old!) and headlined well-regarded Franco fare: Eugenie (1980) and Naked Super-Witches of the Rio Amore (1980).
Legendary director of predominantly sex-and-horror-based material, Spanish-born Jesus Franco had as many as 200 directing credits to his name. Trained initially as a musician before studying film at the Sorbonne in Paris, Franco began directing in the late 50s. By using the same actors, sets and locations on many films, Franco has maintained an astonishing workrate, and while the quality of his work has sometimes suffered because of this, films such as Virgin Amongst the Living dead, Eugenie, Succubus and She Killed in Ecstasy remain distinctive slices of 60s/70s art-trash.
Most of his films have been released in multiple versions with wildly differing titles, while Franco himself has directed under a bewildering number of pseudonyms. Actors who have regularly appeared in his films include Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee and wife Lina Romay; fans should also look out for his name on the credits of Orson Welles' Chimes of Midnight, on which he worked as assistant director.