While playing jazz at a jet-set party in Istanbul, trumpet-player Jimmy (James Darren) witnesses the sex-murder of beautiful Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm), at the hands of three debonair degenerates: millionaire Ahmed (Klaus Kinski), lesbian fashion photographer Olga (Margaret Lee) and art collector Kapp (Dennis Price). Haunted by a reoccurring nightmare, in which he discovers Wanda’s naked corpse washed ashore, Jimmy retreats to Rio de Janeiro and a burgeoning relationship with black nightclub singer Rita (Barbara McNair), but cannot escape his fever dream. One night, playing a particularly delirious trumpet solo, Jimmy is stunned to see Wanda magically appear amidst the audience. Reborn as a blonde angel of death, naked save for her fur coat and slinky silk stockings, Wanda draws Jimmy into her eerie, twilight world as she proceeds to seduce and destroy her killers, one by one…
This was the last collaboration between idiosyncratic Euro-horror auteur Jess Franco and globe-hopping schlock producer Harry Allan Towers, and it’s one of their best. Originally titled Black Angel, changed at the behest of distributors American International Pictures, Venus in Furs has nothing to do with Count Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s kinky classic novel, which had a more faithful screen adaptation the same year from director Massimo Dallamano and starring lovely Laura Antonelli. Instead, Franco drew inspiration from a conversation he once had with jazz great Chet Baker and produced a kind of jazz fantasia, a meditation on his favourite themes of erotic excess, dreams, morbid desire, the intertwining of reality and fantasy as conjured by art.
Wanda Reed is an enigmatic apparition, inadvertently summoned by the potent combination of unconscious desire and music, someone deadly yet innocent of the murderous havoc she creates. A succubus with a strangely pure soul. The whole angel of death seducing and despatching her tormentors plot is something Franco first explored in The Diabolical Dr. Z (1965) a.k.a. Miss Muerte and would revisit continuously over the ensuing years, most notably with his muse Soledad Miranda in She Died in Ecstasy (1970) and Eugenie De Sade (1970). However, here Franco dials down the overt sadism and prurience of his porno-horrors without losing that morbidly erotic frisson. As played by the lustrous, golden-haired Maria Rohm, Wanda overwhelms her victims through sheer sensual presence alone, enhanced by Franco’s off-kilter angles and editing tricks and without recourse to gratuitous gore.
Often underrated on account she was Harry Allan Towers’ girlfriend and later wife, Rohm was an intelligent actress and acquits herself very elegantly in her near-silent role, although she was arguably even better in Franco’s excellent Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969) and showed her range as wide-eyed comic relief in his hit-and-miss The Girl from Rio (1968). Co-star James Darren, beloved by generations of kids as the lime green polo-necked star of The Time Tunnel, looks befuddled but appropriately so given his role, while Barbara McNair grounds the film (somewhat) as Jimmy’s earthly love interest. She also performs a handful of songs, including “Let’s Get Together” composed by the Sherman brothers of Jungle Book (1967) and Mary Poppins (1964) fame, which are part of the bewitching soundtrack written by Manfred Mann and Mike Hugg.
While not entirely perfect, with far too many cutaways to stock footage of the Rio carnival, psychedelically colour-tinted frames (imposed by A.I.P. See also: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971)) and a stream-of-consciousness style that either bewitches or annoys you, this remains a rare instance where Franco’s wayward directorial style perfectly suits the subject matter.
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.