‘Paroxismus’ (Italy?), ‘Black Angel’ (pre-release/script title), ‘To Fantasma tis Afroditis’ (“The Ghost of Venus”, Greece).
Beginning in about mid-1968, Jess Franco spent a couple of years on the payroll of maverick British producer Harry Alan Towers – a typically frantic period that saw the director signing his name (well, ONE OF his names) to a total of nine films. Whilst Towers’ production muscle succeeded in bringing bigger budgets and closer brushes with ‘respectability’ to Franco pictures though, the producer’s overbearing influence also often seemed to stifle Franco’s rogue creativity, leading to a body of work that can be broadly summarised as a load of old rubbish, a few missed opportunities, and at the top of the heap, two or three shining examples of Franco-genius where everything came together just as it should.(1)
And thankfully today, we’re looking at one of the latter. As was the case with most of his collaborations with Towers, Franco had a handful of slumming ‘name’ actors and a wide variety of international locations to work with here, but, unlike the confused literary adaptations and run of the mill genre exercises that comprised much of the rest of their joint output, 1969's ‘Venus In Furs’ gave the director a chance to funnel these attributes into a more personal project, delivering a commercially viable film that also allowed him to work through some of his characteristic obsessions with… well, a certain degree of freedom, at least.(2)
Often singled out as the Franco film that non-Franco fans are most likely to appreciate, and rated by many as his best work, ‘Venus..’ isn’t really a personal favourite of mine, but, taken on a purely technical level, it is certainly one of our hero’s more cohesive and accomplished efforts.
According to Franco, the seed for what eventually became ‘Venus In Furs’ was planted after a conversation he had at some point with the legendary jazz musician Chet Baker. Therein, Baker held forth about the strange stories & visions that unfolded in his mind whilst he was on-stage playing a solo, and, inspired by this idea, Franco hit upon the notion of making a film about a celebrated black trumpet player in the Miles Davis mould, who falls in love with a ghostly, white woman whilst lost in musical reverie.
As Franco tells it, Towers and the film’s potential American backers knocked hell out of this noble idea, insisting that audiences in the ‘States weren’t ready to accept a black, male protagonist, and so, reluctantly, Franco agreed to reverse the races of the two leads. Later claiming that this decision “tore the guts” out of his original vision, Jess nonetheless ploughed on with developing the project, which somewhere along the line got mixed up with the latest reiteration of his perpetual “avenging ghost of dead woman kills two blokes and a lady whilst falling in love with a living man” story, this time starring Towers’ number one lady, Maria Rohm.
In fact, the variation on that theme here veers so close to the narrative of the previous year’s Necronomicon that ‘Venus..’ practically becomes a slightly refined remake of that film. Seeing as how ‘Necronomicon’ was still doing brisk business in American theatres at the time under the name ‘Succubus’, the US backers were presumably not adverse to this development. ‘Venus..’ was eventually distributed by AIP in the ‘States, and all of Franco’s beloved jazz stuff – though still present – fell increasingly into the background as production went on.
To some extent, the art-house pretentions of ‘Necronomicon’ are revisited here along with the story - witness for instance the elegant “jet set party” in which members of the “Greek Riviera yachting crowd” appear frozen in statue-like still-life - whilst the ponderous beatnik narration of James Darren as the Chet Baker-esque trumpeter protagonist plays just as prominent a role in the English language version as the equivalent voiceovers did in the earlier film. Whilst still peppered with ridiculous nonsense though (“I tried not to remember why I had buried my horn..”), the narration here is nonetheless a lot weirder and funnier than the heavy-handed, self-aware blather of ‘Necronomicon’s English dub, with some pretty entertaining passages of soul-searching hep-cat jive going down, at times almost exactly replicating the loopy, first person drawl of a Bob Tralins-esque pulp novel.
James Darren has a bit of a “guy you get if you can’t get David Hemmings” kinda vibe about him, but he’s young and keen, and he actually emerges as one of Franco’s more engaging male protagonists, mixing lost-little-boy good looks and world-ravaged intensity to great effect. (And if Franco’s vision for the character perhaps didn’t stretch much beyond “BE LIKE CHET BAKER”, Darren certainly does his best to deliver.)
Initially, I thought that this mixed up horn player might be a bit of a one-off character in the Franco-verse, but actually of course, he fits right in: both as a more interesting successor to Jack Taylor’s character in ‘Necronomicon’, and as a direct forerunner of Taylor’s wondering poet in 1972’s ‘Female Vampire’, a film that in many ways is just as much a remake of ‘Venus..’ as ‘Venus..’ is a remake of ‘Necronomicon’ - a perfect example of how the cyclical logic of Franco’s ur-narrative blends and changes while the central riff plays on.
This archetype of the questing male artist whose psychic sensitivity locks him into a doomed love/obsession scenario with the ever-present female ghost/revenger is of course Franco’s way to hook the audience into the idea that is the central thematic concern of all these films (and of all ‘Bride Wore Black’ type revenge stories in general, when ya think about it): the matter of blind, unalterable cosmic fate.
This ever-present theme is particularly strongly communicated by the key scene in ‘Venus In Furs’ that sees Maria Rohm’s Wanda murdered by a trio of jaded aristocrats (Klaus Kinski, Dennis Price and Italian pop cinema regular Margaret Lee, for anyone keeping score). The sequence plays out slowly and theatrically, almost like a fairytale, heavily emphasising the obsession with fate that seems to fixate Franco whenever he wheels out this story. He even throws in tinted ‘flash-forwards’ from Kinski’s pre-murder face to the later scene of his own demise, just to drive the point home: these sadists may think they're in control of their destiny, but whether they know it or not, they're already victims.
Perhaps more interesting though are the repercussions of the fact that James Darren’s character passively witnesses Wanda’s murder – not an aspect of the story I can remember being passed across to many of its other variations.
“Man it was a wild scene,” reflects the trumpeter’s voiceover, “but if they wanted to go that rough, that was their bag”. The notion that Darren’s character on some level enjoys witnessing Wanda’s degradation is raised at several points in the film, and the implication that this romantic ‘innocent’ is thus in some way party to the crimes of Kinski & co. certainly throws some interesting twists into the formula.
Certainly, the strange fate that awaits Darren at the film’s conclusion can most usefully be read as the result of his realising too late that he too has been one of Wanda’s victims all along, rather than the post-revenge love interest he naively assumed himself to be, whilst the implications of his taking pleasure from viewing a sexualised murder taking place, then subsequently believing himself free of guilt, also provides unsettling commentary on the nexus of sadism and voyeurism at the heart of Franco’s cinema, obliquely suggesting that there is a stern moral judgement waiting to be passed on filmmaker and viewer alike.
All of which sounds pretty high-minded I suppose, but, this being Franco, there are of course some glaring flaws that prevent ‘Venus In Furs’ from ever becoming the mythic Franco ‘masterpiece’ that you could screen for your Film Studies lecturer and expect to get away with it.
For one thing, the movie is full of totally pointless, Mondo-esque stock footage of the Rio Carnival (presumably shot when Franco was in South America making ‘The Girl From Rio’ and ‘The Blood of Fu Manchu’ for Towers the previous year). And for another, the a-cappella musical sting that plays after each of Wanda’s revenge murders (y’know, that “Venus in furs will be smiling” one) is just incredibly infuriating - so heavy-handed and inappropriate that it almost kills the effectiveness of those scenes stone-dead.(3)
And the numerous scenes between Darren and his ‘real life’ girlfriend Rita (played by singer Barbara McNair) are also a bit of a drag, to be honest. Presumably the last remaining vestiges of Franco’s original “black trumpeter falls in love with a blonde goddess” storyline, these segments seem to have been preserved long after whatever point they're trying to make vanished from the script. They are interesting in that they play closer to a straight relationship drama than anything you’d usually see in Franco film, but sadly they’re also quite dull, and the ‘love triangle’ aspect of the story never really gels, wasting valuable time with what one suspects is only a pale echo of Franco’s original vision.
Whilst ‘Venus In Furs’ has absolutely nothing to do with the Sacher-Masoch book of the same name (AIP insisted on the title for some reason, and Franco grudgingly obliged by having Maria Rohm wear furs in a few scenes), ironically it does to some extent reflect the director’s genuine interest in the works of the Marquis DeSade. The sex & sadism of Wanda’s murder scene in particular is amped up beyond anything else Franco had filmed up to this point in his career, and there's certainly a lot more waist-up nudity and (non-explicit) sex scenes here than I remember seeing in any of his earlier films, whilst the pain/pleasure dynamic of the whole thing is emphasised pretty strongly in Rohm’s grimly ambiguous performance.
Furthermore, it struck me whilst revisiting the film for this review that, between Rohm’s black bob wig, the occasional fetishisation of camera equipment and the extensive use of mirrors and fractured frames amid moments of elegant, stocking-fixated S&M, ‘Venus In Furs’ actually comes pretty close at times to replicating the style of renowned erotic comics genius Guido Crepax. (Despite the frequent stylistic cross-over between their work, I’m not aware that Franco ever admitted to admiring, or even being aware of, Crepax, so it is possible that the similarities are entirely coincidental; after all, they were basically both just horny devils with a good artistic eye and a thing for Louise Brooks haircuts, weren’t they?)
Following ‘Necronomicon’s lead, ‘Venus In Furs’ continues Franco’s determination to frame his supernatural horror stories in a manner that completely rejects the clichés of ‘60s gothic horror film-making. As such, it is difficult to really think of ‘Venus..’ as being very “horror-y”, even though the violence is quite strong for the period and the weight of eternal doom hangs heavy over the characters.
The one exception to this rule is the scene of Wanda’s murder, which seems to knowingly wink in the direction of the gothic, taking place as it does in a candle-lit stone dungeon complete with an ornate wrought-iron grating through which Darren’s character observes the action, and a variable light source that seems to flash on and off every few seconds. Whether this is meant to represent some extremely unrealistic lightning, a swinging overhead light fixture (very noir) or simply some wild, non-diegetic stylistic quirk, I’m unsure, but it is certainly very effective, shading us from what we imagine to be fleeting moments of unseen brutality, even as the erotically-charged violence of the scenario is laid bare, setting the agenda for what is basically an inventive and unusual ‘ghost movie’ with suitably ghoulish aplomb.
Though it is not really ‘pulp cinema’ in the same sense as Franco’s pre-‘Necronomicon’ genre movies, ‘Venus..’ nonetheless perfectly epitomises the kind of “Mediterranean cocktail lounge erotic apocalypse” aesthetic that would go on to dominate his work for years to come, and that could easily have found itself replicated in some luridly jacketed airport best-seller later in the '70s.
Plus, you know – beatniks, hep-cat jive-talk, etc.
It would have been easy have go with 1 or 2 on this one, but instead I’m gonna give it…
‘Venus In Furs’ begins as only a Franco flick can, with shaky travelogue footage of Istanbul, and the shadow of a pair of hands resting against the glass of a hotel window overlooking the shimmering sea… by which point fans will have relaxed, safe in the knowledge that Uncle Jess is at the controls, whilst his detractors conversely will be preparing for the worst. Once the film gets going however, both camps may find themselves adjusting their expectations slightly...
For instance, whilst the flashback / flash-forward structure and general atmosphere of freaked out zaniness tend to render ‘Venus..’ a disorientating experience for those watching with one eye elsewhere, attentive viewers will soon cop to the fact that the film is actually a very linear and well-constructed example of Franco’s narrative technique, telling a simple story with circular thematic unity and barely any loose ends, and utilising a system of imagery that, by and large, remains coherent throughout.
Dig for example the way that characters involved in the central revenge narrative are repeatedly framed, tableau-like, against bright red walls. These shots are spread throughout the film, all leading up to a breath-taking concluding image of Maria Rohm stretched out & comatose on a tiled floor, coldly observed by her erstwhile victims as they lean against the walls of a deep red ‘ghost room’, the symbolism of which recalls the otherworldly terror-spaces of David Lynch’s films, as Wanda’s karma is demonstrated to have gone full circle; an idea that is powerfully conveyed without the use of any crude explanatory dialogue or join-the-dots exposition.
Also notable by its relative absence here is the kind of in-camera ‘experimentalism’ that characterised so many of Franco's films. A few of his trademark wobbly zooms and focus-blurring transition shots can still be found, but by and large I think, Towers kept Franco on a tight leash technically-speaking, and as a result most of the footage here is properly framed, in focus and professionally lit, leaving Jess to conjure his preferred atmosphere of psychedelic delirium through more conventional means of jagged angles, kaleidoscopic mirrors, jarring cuts, weird interior décor and wild music – all of which works excellently, elevating central sequences such as the murders of Price and Kinski to dizzying heights of sado-orgasmic revelry, whilst also no doubt earning the director a few box-ticks from viewers who lack patience with his usual diet of wandering zooms, incidental detail and fuzzed out extreme close-ups. (Interestingly, 'Venus..' also utilises a lot of slow-motion, tinted colours, solarized shots, and other post-production tricks that were presumably beyond the director's means as his budgets hit the poverty line and his workload multiplied over the next few years).
The film’s jazz elements also add greatly to its overall success I think. The notion that Franco “makes films like jazz” has become a bit of a truism amongst commentators on his work, but rarely did he make a film that reflects his love of music as directly as this one – indeed, you can see him right there during the film’s performance scenes, laying it down on trombone, bass and piano alongside James Darren (a genuine trumpet player) and members of Manfred Mann’s late ‘60s ensemble ‘Chapter 3’.
Mann and his long-time collaborator Mike Hugg were deep into their own twisted jazz groove by this point, and hiring them to provide the soundtrack to this movie was an inspired move, even if, as is par for the course in a Franco film, I’m uncertain how much of what we eventually hear during the film’s other scenes actually originated with the credited composers.(4) (The American print of the film under review here includes a bunch of fairly generic sounding orchestral library cues, and then there’s that damn ‘Venus in Furs’ jingle to account for too…).
Anyway, regardless, the film’s jazz scenes are really cool, conveying a smoky, sweaty authenticity that captures the joy and swing of a weed-fuelled late night session via roving camera-work, snappy editing and some hot playing... and there are a lot of other good music moments to enjoy here too.
Barbara McNair’s best scene by far arrives when she delivers a great, ‘Stones-esque tough-ballad entitled either ‘Let’s Get Together’ or ‘I Got A Feeling’ (toss you a coin for it), whilst writhing around horizontally on a blue-tiled nightclub floor as the band rocks out behind her! (Fans will note that this is the closest ‘Venus In Furs’ gets to a kinky nightclub scene, which surely means it can’t POSSIBLY qualify as "the perfect Jess Franco film", right?). My favourite bit of music in ‘Venus..’ though has got to be the demonic, Bruno Nicolai-esque bass pulse that builds into a totally whacked out, atonal horn freakout whilst Dennis Price meets his demise – far out, man! (I'm guessing that one at least is a Mann/Hugg joint.)
Through use of this musical heavy weather and formalist visual beat-down, Franco’s original idea of a dream / reality disjuncture occurring in the mind of a wigged out jazz musician is actually still communicated pretty well by ‘Venus In Furs’, even as that notion becomes pretty marginalised within the script. With the precise points at which Darren’s external reality blurs into Wanda’s internal dream-space remaining, as they should, extremely unclear, we are left with a film that is as trippy as anything Franco made in the ‘70s whilst also as cohesive as anything made by... well, you know, a ‘normal’ film director. Win/win? You tell me.
One of Harry Alan Towers’ characteristically insane international co-productions, ‘Venus In Furs’ appears to have been filmed all over the place – Rome (in Carlo Ponti’s house!), Istanbul, Barcelona, Rio, maybe other places besides – but nonetheless, it somehow lacks the strong sense of place that pervades so many of Franco’s other productions.
Though some of it was undoubtedly shot by the man himself, the location-work in Istanbul and Rio feels very much like stock footage, crudely inserted around scenes shot on sets (actual SETS on a Franco film ferchrissake, what’s that all about?), and anonymous interiors that could have been filmed anywhere.
Occasional nice things do still stand out at times: a scene in which Darren and Rohm flee from the cops features a network of ancient, overhanging streets, presumably in Istanbul, that very much recalls the still-unidentified location that was put to such good use back in The Diabolical Dr. Z, and this actually leads on to a brief but snappily edited car chase(!) through some similarly colourful Turkish neightbourhoods.
For the most part though, as our dashing trumpeter himself puts it; “When you don’t know where you’re at, man, I tell ya, time is like the ocean..” - a statement that ironically makes a pretty good criticism of many of the less successful films Jess Franco turned in over the years.
Having basically said a lot of broadly positive things about ‘Venus In Furs’ above, I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to trying to express in words why the film leaves me a little cold. Whether viewed from within the Francoverse or outside it, it is certainly a richly accomplished and stylistically daring example of late ‘60s horror/exotica, with a great deal to recommend it, but… I dunno, man. Somehow it just feels a bit emotionally distant to me.
Maybe, speaking as a fan of Franco’s far more ragged and damaged ‘70s work, I just end up seeing this one as the equivalent of his shiny, well-produced major label album; it’s cool as far as it goes, and I can’t really fault it much, but… given the choice, you’ll always be more likely to find me chilling with the rough demos of the same material, or the weird drunken live album, if you get my drift.
(1) That may not sound like much of a compliment, but whatever your opinion of him, I think Jess Franco actually achieved a better hit rate than any of Towers’ other pet directors. Just try making it alive through a double bill of ‘Circus of Fear’ and ‘House of 1,000 Dolls’ if you want to get an idea of the sheer tedium involved in your average, non-Franco H.A.T. production.
(2) Whilst it was Towers’ influence that first brought them together, it is interesting to note that both Klaus Kinski and Dennis Price apparently found working with Franco sufficiently agreeable that they went on to collaborate with him again on some far cheaper productions during the ‘70s.
(3) Who the hell came up with this stupid jingle anyway, and how did it end up in the film..?! Given that Franco disapproved of the ‘Venus In Furs’ name and his claims he lost control of the final cut, it is reasonable to assume it wasn’t *his* fault, and it doesn’t really bear much resemblance to the rest of Mann & Hugg’s work on the movie either, so who knows…
(4) Check out Mann’s overlooked ‘Chapter Three’ LP, also from ’69, if you don’t believe me. It ain’t no ‘Quinn The Eskimo’, but it’s as fine a slice of moody, creeped out jazz-rock as you could possibly wish for, with some definite Italo-soundtrack overtones too. Recommended.