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The late Jesús ‘Jess’ Franco, who passed away on April 2nd of 2013, was among the most prolific filmmakers of all time. There are wonderfully weird diamonds mixed among the more than 200 films he directed, but there’s only maybe a dozen that even a cult film fan can appreciate. His value as an eccentric artist was all but lost in a sea of pornography (both the hardcore and softcore varieties) and a cursory brand of cheap exploitation that gives cheap exploitation a bad name. Unlike other smut-peddling ‘auteurs,’ like Aristide Massaccesi (aka: Joe D’Amato) and Jean Rollin, Franco didn’t really appreciate pure horror. His disinterest is readily apparent in most of his dull and listless genre films he released throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. His attempts at zombie ( Oasis of the Zombies, 1982), women in prison ( Women Behind Bars, 1975), and cannibal movies ( Mondo Cannibale, 1980) are among the worst the already junk-burdened subgenres have to offer. However, like his contemporaries, Franco was capable of making unique movies that endured beyond the constraints of his reputation as a purveyor of trash. (This introductory paragraph is taken from my review of Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos and  She Killed in Ecstasy)

Jess Franco Triple-Feature

Marquis de Sade’s Justine

(1968)
A nubile young virgin named Justine (Romina Power) is cast out of a French orphanage and thrust into a depraved world of prostitution, predatory lesbians, a fugitive murderess (Mercedes McCambridge), bondage, branding, and one supremely sadistic monk (Jack Palance). It’s a twisted tale of strange desires, perverse pleasures, and the ultimate corruption of innocence as told by the Marquis de Sade. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)

The late ‘60s/early ‘70s were arguably the peak of Franco’s career, at least in terms of his erotic output, which took a particularly surrealistic turn as censorship rules loosened throughout Europe. Released back-to-back-to-back with the more seminal Harry Alan Towers productions Venus in Furs and The Castle of Fu Manchu, Marquis de Sade’s Justine (released on US video as Deadly Sanctuary and aka Justine and Juliet) was one of Franco’s bigger international hits, thanks in large part to appearances from international stars Jack Palance, Mercedes McCambridge, Horst Frank, and Klaus Kinski, alongside Franco regulars Maria Rohm and Rosalba Neri. At 124 minutes, Justine is awfully long for a softcore sexploitation flick and might even be the longest movie Franco ever made (I don’t have the patience to check the runtimes of 203 movies, so I welcome corrections from readers). The length can be onerous, as Franco falters to his most tedious instincts. But the extra time also gives the director a chance to flaunt his most aggressive artistic abilities while still maintaining the epic scope of the story. I imagine a shorter film would cut the feverishly stylistic framing device in which Kinski portrays an imprisoned Marquis, who narrates the story between hallucinations.

The biggest problem is Romina Power’s dull central performance and this shortcoming was well known to Franco, who reportedly changed the script when he discovered a producer was forcing him to use the first-time actress (and underaged daughter of swashbuckling superstar Tyrone Power). Many of Franco’s erotic and exploitation movies are only as good as their lead actress. Maria Rohm, Janine Reynaud, and, of course, Soledad Miranda all managed to pull some of his weakest efforts out of a pit of mediocrity through sheer force of charisma, while Power manages to drag an otherwise visually strong production into the dirt. The all-star supporting cast often stands no chance against her vacuum. Still, her vapid quality sort of fits Franco’s illusory tone. It’s sometimes as if she is playing an unwilling audience surrogate who has wandered into an elaborate and perverse stage-play.

I should verify – for my records as much as for readers – that it is very easy to confuse Marquis de Sade’s Justine with Claude Pierson’s Justine de Sade (1972), which was released by Blue Underground on remastered DVD in 2007. In fact, if you look the two films up on imdb.com, you’ll see that the poster to Pierson’s picture is misattributed to both. Brief research reveals that the Marquis’ story was also adapted in 1969 by  George Cukor (including uncredited input from Joseph Strick) as Justine and in 1977 by German filmmaker Chris Boger as Cruel Passion (aka: Marquis de Sade’s Justine).

Marquis de Sade’s Justine was previously released by Blue Underground on anamorphic 1.66:1 DVD (that same transfer was re-released by Anchor Bay in the UK). Their new Blu-ray sports a 4K remaster was taken from the uncensored camera negative. The results are a delicate and ultra-clean 1.66:1, 1080p HD transfer that should please most Franco fans (Franco-philes?). By this time, Franco and cinematographer Manuel Merino had started experimenting with the kind of extreme focus and weird compositions they’d later perfect for Vampyros Lesbos, which makes Justine a particularly soft looking movie. Colour quality is extremely vivid, alternating between the relatively naturalistic hues seen on outdoor sets and the abstract, hyper-colourful hues seen during interiors. The colours and complex textured are supported by deep, yet delicate blacks, which show a wide range of gradient balance. My only caveat is that it seems that the disc’s producers couldn’t help themselves and have applied a shade too much DNR, likely in an effort to cut down on some of the film grain. On the other hand, Franco and Merino are pull focus so often that the occasionally blobby quality is inherent in the material. I also have to admit that these semi-smudgy details really aren’t noticeable when the film is in motion.

The original mono English soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Franco-philes may be upset that there are no alternate language audio tracks, but I assume that the English dub – and all language tracks were dubbed, because a lot of the film appears to have been shot without sound – was the director’s preferred version. Besides, the majority of the cast is clearly speaking English, though not always with their own voices (nice accents, though). The track is plenty clean and crisp, however, the fact that so much of the audio was added in post means that the basic volume levels and fidelity are pretty low. The score is supplied by repeat Ennio Morricone collaborator Bruno Nicolai, who was coming off a number of Italian westerns and thrillers at the time. It is spectacularly baroque and adds substantial intrigue to the dialogue-free melodrama.

Blue Underground’s mostly new extras include:
  • The Perils And Pleasures Of Justine (20:00, SD) – This legacy featurette, which appeared on BU’s DVD, features interviews with Franco and producer Harry Alan Towers, who discuss their working relationship and the film’s production. It was the most expensive and complex film the duo made and there were, of course, substantial censorship issues. Franco also takes some time to complain about his actors (Power was an idiot, Palance was completely drunk, et cetera), which is always amusing.
  • Stephen Thrower on Justine (17:30, HD) – A new interview with the always knowledgeable and amiable author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco. Thrower isn’t only a top source on all things Franco, but he’s the type of critic that can make the reader/viewer appreciate the unusual touches that make the director’s films so interesting, despite their numerous shortcomings. During this educational featurette, he also runs down the differences between De Sade’s book and the final film.
  • French trailer
  • Poster & still gallery
  • Bonus CD featuring the Marquis de Sade’s Justine original motion picture soundtrack


 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature


Jess Franco Triple-Feature

Eugenie....The Story of Her Journey into Perversion

(1970)
An innocent young woman named Eugenie (Marie Liljedahl) is taken to an island paradise where she is initiated into a world of pleasure and pain controlled by the sinister Dolmance (Christopher Lee). But when she surrenders to her own forbidden fantasies, Eugenie becomes trapped in a frenzy of drugs, sadomasochism and murder. Can a frightened girl in the grip of carnal perversion find sanctuary in the orgies of the depraved? (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)

Sometimes considered a lesser Franco/Towers production than Marquis de Sade’s Justine, Eugenie...The Story of Her Journey into Perversion (aka: Eugenie and De Sade 70) was definitely a companion piece. The director’s second De Sade adaptation in as many years, casual fans (like myself) tend to frame it as one of six movies Franco made with Christopher Lee between 1967 and 1970 (they would work together twice more in the late ‘80s). However, unlike the Fu Manchu movies and The Bloody Judge, Lee is cast late and was not by any means a central character in Eugenie. He also is said to have found the film “distasteful” (“When I had left Spain that day, everyone behind me had taken their clothes off!”) and asked for his name to be removed from the credits. It was not.

There are key similarities between Marquis de Sade’s Justine and Eugenie…, specifically the de Sade basis, the taboo-pushing sex scenes (which are quite tame by modern standards), and the surrealistic bookend sequences, where Lee plays narrator. But Eugenie… is also an utterly modern movie, not a stagey period piece. It takes place over a much shorter time period, moves at a much brisker pace, and runs a much tighter 92 minutes. Lee’s actual screen-time here is very brief, leaving a strong cast of the director’s favourites to pick up the slack. Of the three films discussed on this page, Eugenie… is the most in-keeping with what we expect from Franco during the ‘60s and very early ‘70s, including enigmatic and illusory performances from Marie Liljedahl (a much better ‘innocent’ lead than Power), Alice Arno (who later appeared in Erotikill and A Virgin Among the Living Dead, both 1973), Soledad Miranda (in a role so small that I couldn’t place her), Maria Rohm (possibly her best work for Franco), and Jack Taylor (who appears to have been the inspiration for Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of Sebastian Shaw in X-Men: First Class). Franco reportedly reused props and locations from Mel Welles’ Las Isla de la Muerte (aka: Island of the Doomed, 1967), which explains how he could afford the extremely chic apartment settings. In a way, Eugenie… is just as much about the sex appeal of late-’60s fashion and fads than the sex appeal of, well, sex (the tops of the buildings clearly evoke nipples during various shots). This sets it nicely in line with the Italian giallo tradition at the time, which was often just as sexually explicit and even more obsessed with the machinations of bedspreads and decorative curtains.

Just as it is easy to confuse Marquis de Sade’s Justine with Justine de Sade, it is also easy to confuse Eugenie...The Story of Her Journey into Perversion with Franco’s 1970 film Eugenie de Sade (aka: Eugenia and Eugenie, Sex Happening). Both films are loosely based on Marquis de Sade stories (perhaps the same story?) and were released sequentially. Eugenie de Sade is also less surreal and confined to a much smaller solitary location. It was like being invited to an upper-crust cocktail party where political snobs occasionally have sex. Eugenie… has a bit of that, especially considering the delightfully impenetrable dialogue. Characters constantly opine on and on about nothing in particular.

Again, Blue Underground originally released Eugenie… on anamorphic DVD (it was recycled onto an Anchor Bay UK release) and have rescanned the original uncensored camera negative at 4K for this Blu-ray 1080p, 2.35:1 re-release. The results are more or less the same as the Justine disc, including a slight over-abundance of DNR that isn’t really noticeable while the footage is in motion. It’s a grittier transfer, which can affect clarity a bit, but it also leads to a more natural and finely textured image. This time, many of the issues with fuzzy details, foggy black levels, and chromatic aberration are the fault of focus-pulling and lighting/exposure miscalculations. Given Franco’s penchant for dreamy visuals, it is nearly impossible to tell what is an accident and what was an intended artefact. Colours are crisp without any major upticks in noise and few bleeding problems. This transfer has a bit more edge enhancement than Justine did, possibly due to the darker overall appearance of returning cinematographer Merino’s photography, and there are one or two instances where sharpness takes a sudden dip, leading me to believe that the material BU was working with had some ‘holes’ in it.

The DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack also follows the lead set by the Justine disc. Once again, there is only an English option, because the vast majority of the cast is clearly speaking the language. A great deal of the sound seems to have been recorded on set this time, though much of the dialogue still has that artificial ‘added in post’ quality to it (another example of ADR is the guitar playing – the guitarist is strumming real chords that don’t correlate with the music they are producing). There are a few outdoor shots where the set-recorded sound leads to some fuzz and a shallower sound floor, but, in general, there’s quite a bit of natural depth. Bruno Nicolai’s music includes some baroque conversations, but is generally a jazzier affair, from vocal and organ-driven sex themes and samba-esque traveling music. Specs state that German composer Hans Günther Leonhardt also contributed some themes without taking credit, which possibly explains some of the vast differences in style.

Blue Underground’s mostly new extras include:
  • Perversion Stories[/i] (17:30, SD) – This featurette, which was originally part of BU’s DVD release, includes Interviews with Franco, Towers, and stars Marie Liljedahl and Christopher Lee. Franco and Towers (who obviously recorded these interviews at the same time as the Marquis de Sade’s Justine interviews) describe the production process. Liljedahl and Lee mostly express disappointment in the film itself, but also seem to find the subject amusing. In fact, both of them have very nice things to say about Franco himself.
  • Stephen Thrower on Eugenie (18:10, HD) – Lucas returns to put another Franco movie into historical and critical context. Again, his words are enough to possibly turn non-fans on to what makes these movies special.
  • Trailer
  • Poster & still gallery
  • Bonus CD featuring the Eugenie...The Story of Her Journey into Perversion original motion picture soundtrack


 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature


Jess Franco Triple-Feature

Count Dracula

(1970)
The last of Franco/Lee collaborations (at least until they reunited for Dark Mission in 1987 and The Fall of Eagles in 1990) was set to be the duo’s masterpiece. Franco and Harry Alan Towers’ publicly stated that Count Dracula (aka: Nachts, Wenn Dracula Erwacht and Il conte Dracula, among others) would be the “most faithful adaptation” of Bram Stoker’s original novel. This assertion helped convince Lee to join the project, despite publicly expressing disappointment over the last four Dracula movies he appeared in for Hammer Films (one of which, Scars of Dracula, was actually produced the same year as Franco’s movie). There are too many damn Dracula movies for me to verify that this was the most faithful adaptation at the time, but it seems to have more in common with the book than any pre- Bram Stoker’s Dracula movie (the Coppola one from 1992), sometimes to the disadvantage of the film’s pacing as this is a very long 97 minutes.

I believe Count Dracula’s budget was comparable to that of Marquis de Sade’s Justine, but its production design and general visual quality is a step down, at times closer to the bargain-basement Z-product Franco would direct in the following decades. The sets and costumes are anachronistic and vary in quality from shot to shot, sometimes as if Franco was cobbling footage from two or three very different adaptations. His inconsistent style follows suit, swaying wildly from stationary sequences that look like filmed stage plays all the way to lively and expressionistic images that are worthy of his work in Vampyros Lesbos. The cast is another impressive haul of Franco favourites and other recognizable faces, including Lee (of course), Klaus Kinski (who steals the show in a few brief appearances as Renfield), Maria Rohm, Herbert Lom, Paul Muller, and a fresh-faced Soledad Miranda. Miranda had made previous appearances in Franco films, but Count Dracula solidified her relationship with the director. The duo made their biggest mark on erotic horror with Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy (both 1971), then collaborated two more times for The Devil Came from Akasava (also 1971) and Eugenie de Sade (1970), before her untimely passing. Also note that, despite his expressions of chagrin, Lee still played Dracula two more times for Hammer in Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).

Count Dracula has been released on DVD several times in several different regions, including a North American release from Dark Sky Films. Every version, including this brand new 1080p Blu-ray from Severin Films, has been framed at 1.33:1, which is verified as being Franco’s preferred aspect ratio. This is a mostly strong transfer that suffers from only minor print damage artefacts, aside from one particularly pulsy and scratched-up sequence around the 22-minute mark. I assume that this was a scene that was deleted from the better prints Severin was working from. There are, yet again, signs of what appears to be DNR, but these soft textures, bandy gradations, and overpowered white levels are more likely the result of an iffy telecine scan: a common issue for Eurotrash scans, specifically from Italy (though this appears to be a scan of the French version). I’m not sure how much of the softness here can be blamed on iffy mastering, what can be blamed on the quality of the original materials and what can be blamed on Franco and Merino’s ultra-blurry photography (a second cinematographer, Luciano Trasatti, is also credited). The fog-drenched night sequences feature strong blacks and steely blues, but even 1080p video is no match for the blotchy qualities of the images. Stage-lit interiors act as a better sample of this transfer’s strengths. The Blue Underground discs are more vivid than this, but Count Dracula is also a more coolly-tinted feature. Skin tones and clothing hues appear accurate, so I assume that the less vibrant lavender highlights are, too.

The original mono English sound is presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0. As in the case of the other films, a significant amount of the footage (perhaps all of it) was dubbed in post and the cast appears to be speaking English. Besides, who would want to purposefully listen to a dubbed Christopher Lee? The single channel treatment creates some crowding issues, but rarely at the risk of clarity. Nicolai returns with a big, brash gothic score that gives the soundtrack a surprisingly hefty, high-volume workout. There are a handful of moments, often during the softer string motifs, in which the sound dips a tad and stutters a bit, but these are the exception, not the rule.

Severin’s largely new extras include:
  • Commentary by actress Maria Rohm, moderated by David Del Valle – Vincent Price biographer and all-around expert on horror personalities from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s makes another commentary track appearance alongside co-star and long-time Franco collaborator (and Harry Alan Towers’ widow) Rohm. Like many of Del Valle’s best tracks, this one mixes the author’s interview with the actress and loads of factoids about the cast and crew. Rhom is on the ball, too, easily recalling a number of behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
  • Cuadecuc, Vampir (1:06:20, HD) – This feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary is likely the strangest film of its kind that I’ve ever seen. Directed by Pere Portabella, a filmmaker-turned-politician (he was elected during Spain’s first democratic elections in the late ‘70s and helped draft the country’s constitution), it includes raw, monochromatic 16mm footage recorded on set and treated to create the absolute harshest divide imaginable between the black and white tones. There is no recorded audio, so Portabella uses abstract analogue noise and music to fill the soundtrack. It’s actually very similar to the industrial asides in David Lynch’s movies or E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten (1990). It’s not exactly entertaining, but certainly an interesting addition to this collection.
  • Beloved Count (26:20, SD) – This interview featurette with Franco (in broken English with no subtitles) originally appeared on Dark Sky’s DVD release. In it, the director runs down the entire production in a slightly scattershot fashion.
  • A Conversation with Jack Taylor (10:00, HD) – The actor discusses the bulk of his career with Franco and has very nice things to say about just about every member of Count Dracula’s cast & crew.
  • Handsome Harker (26:10, HD) – Actor Fred Williams, who plays the lead, is quite charming in this extended interview about his time on the film.
  • Stake Holders (7:30, HD) – Here, French director Christophe Gans ( Brotherhood of the Wolf, Silent Hill) excitedly expresses his appreciation of Count Dracula.
  • Christopher Lee reads Bram Stoker's Dracula (84:00, SD) – The entire book ‘on-tape,’ including minor sound effects and some music, as read by the actor and set to posters and stills from Franco’s movie. This is another holdover from the Dark Sky disc.
  • Alternate title sequences from Germany, France, Italy, and Spain
  • German trailer


Count Dracula is listed as 'uncut,' but it is apparently missing the same seventeen opening seconds that were absent from other DVDs (read a description of the differences here).

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

 Jess Franco Triple-Feature

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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