Mad genius Farkas (Jack Taylor) is really the elusive master criminal Doctor Mabuse who, as he explains to his twitchy ally Hermann (Friederich Joloff) has stolen some 'lunar rocks' from a space probe. Utilizing their radioactive properties Mabuse invents a low-budget death ray that, rather than waste money on fancy optical effects, prompts two security guards to simply fall unconscious so his minions: whip-wielding lesbian Leslie (Beni Cardoso) and hideously deformed Andros (Moises Augusto Rocha) can make off with some loot. Some time later sexy nightclub dancer Jenny Hering (Ewa Strömberg) watches from a window as Andros abducts a young woman as part of Mabuse's insane plan to create an army of remote-controlled zombies. Though the experiment goes awry and Mabuse has Andros dump the corpse, Jenny reports the incident to jolly, cowboy-attired Inspector Thomas (Fred Williams). Reluctantly spending time away from his new bride Wanda Orloff (Eva Garden), Inspector Thomas and his dishevelled sidekick Melou (Gustavo Re) stakeout the nightclub where Jenny is performing. Sure enough, Leslie pays a visit to lure Jenny back to Mabuse's lair.
One of the forgotten film franchises of the Sixties, the Dr. Mabuse series got off to a flying start with Fritz Lang's belated follow-up to his two seminal thrillers of the Thirties: The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). It was followed by a remake of Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1962) that begat a slew of sequels before the series reached its end in the hands of Spanish sleazemeister Jess Franco. In spite of Franco's reputation the sex and violence content is all but nonexistent in The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse as the film harks back to his early sexy gothic serials rather than the more overtly pornographic oddities he cranked out later on. Lively and visually arresting compared to most Franco films this still suffers from a plot that does not really go anywhere while the director pads things out with stumbling monster antics and quirky character interplay.
Still, at just an hour and five minutes this certainly does not wear out its welcome and strangely enough ranks among Franco's warmest and most amiable outings. Typically he devotes lengthy screen time to Jenny's nightclub act which while sexy (largely because she struts around in a black hat and lacy lingerie smoking filter-tip cigarettes purring “I'm a wild cat. I'm a tiger”) barely rates as any sort of performance. He also spends a lot of time detailing the amiable rapport between the distinctively oddball characters, each of whom proves chatty, charming yet not the least bit in a hurry to get the mad genius and his monster off the streets. While Mabuse experiments on captive women, inept Inspector Thomas wastes time getting each witness to tell him their entire life story. This results in rambling yet oddly watchable scenes wherein wacky supporting characters like Santos (Roberto Camardiel) the talkative tramp and flirty Jenny witter on at great length while in a sequence surprisingly prescient of the famous scene in Basic Instinct (1992), Thomas and Melou try to sneak a peek when she uncrosses her legs.
Chock full of the usual Franco suspects including the director himself who also composed the groovy jazz soundtrack, The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse does not give Spanish horror veteran Jack Taylor a whole lot to do besides grimace at blinking dials in his lab. There is some debate among Franco fans whether Farkas is actually Mabuse or merely an underling but like everything else in the film it barely matters. Pretty Vampyros Lesbos (1970) star Ewa Strömberg is genuinely endearing as vivacious Jenny who ends up another in Franco's long line of remote-controlled femmes fatale and another stalwart Fred Williams is oddly likeable as the admittedly ineffectual hero. An overlooked facet of Franco's oeuvre is how often he drew inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard, in particular Alphaville (1965). Taking his cue from that low-budget science fiction classic, Franco points his camera at Spain's modernist architecture and employs tilted angles and coloured gels to create an effective, quasi-futuristic atmosphere. The misty, amber sun-drenched countryside also enhances the unique mood. Yet for all the Godard allusions and aside from this being ostensibly an entry in a long-running franchise, deep down The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse really spins another variation on motifs Franco ran through in The Diabolical Dr. Z (1965), Attack of the Robots (1966) and The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962) (indeed the good doctor turns up here as Mabuse's scientific rival) and remade obsessively again and again. In a typically chaotic Franco finale the hero blunders about while the evil plot fails because the villains can't stop fighting among themselves. It is as nonsensical and oblique as one would expect yet remains an oddly endearing trip through Franco-land.
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.