“A double serving of Classic Franco!” screams the press release accompanying Barbed Wire Dolls, which along with Love Camp are the latest two releases in Anchor Bay UK’s The Jess Franco Collection, a series of twelve restorations struck from the original masters held by famed Swiss producer of exploitation films Edwin C Dietrich who bankrolled much of Franco’s output in the 1970s.
Inspired by the antics of the female members of the notorious Bader Meinhof gang, the commercially astute Dietrich asked Franco to come up with a women in prison film brimming with scenes of torture and floggings, the type of stuff that the makers of the new breed of commercial hardcore pornography were not allowed to include. Barbed Wire Dolls was that film, shot for free in a deserted military fort in Antibes the South of France with a cast of no more than seven, it focuses on the plight of Maria De Guerra (played by Franco’s real-life paramour Lina Romay) a young girl who is jailed for killing her father (all of you keen amateur psychoanalysts will be interested to note the role is taken by Franco) whilst fighting off his attempts at incestuous rape. Once incarcerated she becomes the play-thing of the sadistic wardress (Monica Swinn, another Franco favourite with a face only a mother could love) who sports a monocle, hot-pants and riding crop! Tortured whilst stripped and tied face-down to an old bed-frame through which an electric current is conducted Maria plans her escape, but the ending is not necessarily a happy one.
In Love Camp, the fourth and final chicks-in-chains films Franco made with deitrich following the commercial success of Barbed Wire Dolls, the women-in-prison have been acquired by guerrilla fighters to work as prostitutes for the pleasure of the troops and are overseen by another sadistic lesbian wardress. Also a firm believer in the need for discipline she treats the girls to regular floggings and deflowers any virgins with her crop in preparation for conjugal visits from the randy freedom fighters, normally with the only witnesses her parrots, which incessantly skwak “You dirty bitch, you dirty bitch.” After one such girl is brutalised by the wardress as her whip, one of her less than sympathetic cell-mates enquires “Did she run you through with a sword?” before attempting to seduce her. Leader of the guerrilla force carefully selects certain girls for hammock-swinging sex sessions, in which his initially unwilling partners switch from glassy-eyed resignation to orgasmic enthusiasm, and when he falls in love with one of the girls, a love triangle with the evil wardress is formed. In case you hadn’t already guessed, Love Camp is not the height of good taste and political correctness. This time Monica Swinn appears on the other side of the bars as a prisoner, but with this exception, none of Franco’s regulars appear.
For hardcore exploitation fans only, Franco’s films tend to polarise opinion and with their outrageous sadism, wall to wall nudity and scant regard for technical considerations such as ensuring the camera is in focus, you either love them or hate them. Franco’s disdain the normal rules of film-making can be disconcerting for the first-time viewer, and producers as Dietrich reveals in an interview contained on the extras where he recalls seeing Barbed Wire Dolls for the first time and considering it unreleasable. At one point during the Franco/Romay rape scene in Barbed Wire Dolls, they replicate slow-motion (the real thing being too expensive for a film with such a low-budget) by moving extremely slowly and pulling ridiculously exaggerated facial expressions. If their recreation wasn’t already unconvincing enough, background props such as a lamp-shade that has been knocked during their struggle is left to swing in normal time! In Love Camp, as the wardress addresses one of the prisoners, Franco chooses to represent the prisoner solely by her breast, which is in the foreground of the shot, out of focus and dominating the corner of the screen. Your reaction to this sort of approach to film-making will tell you if you have it in you to be a Franco aficionado. First revived and championed in the late 80s by Texan Craig Ledbetter through his Xeroxed newsletter European Trash Cinema, the cult of Franco has steadily gathered a hardcore following, and his somewhat slap-dash and low-budget approach to film-making are now compared to a jazz solo or as fore-runners to the Dogma 95 art movement. Any gathering of Franco fans soon resembles the bonding scene on the Orca in Jaws, where instead of comparing shark-bite scars they boast about how many of his films they have watched.
Picture quality is first rate, and as the extras demonstrate in a featurette a huge amount of care and diligence went into restoring the films, ensuring they have never looked so good. Generally the extras are pretty generic across both discs and I imagine across the entire Franco Collection, which is somewhat disappointing, with the best feature a frustratingly short documentary (only appearing on the Barbed Wire Dolls DVD) which has interviews with Dietrich, Franco and Romay, giving a fascinating insight into their relationships, as well as the exploitation film industry of the time. Why can’t it have been longer? Both discs contain trailers for other films in the series, cast and crew biographies, production stills and posters. Real care has gone into these discs and the quality is something of a revelation, so I would suggest that Francophiles ditch their eight-generation grainy bootlegs and upgrade to these new releases immediately. For the rest of us, the phrase “You can’t polish a turd” springs to mind.
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.