Harvesting Cinematic Flowers Of Perversion [2019-03-19]
Stephen Thrower should need little or no introduction to fans of gory, sleazy & heady cult/ exploitation film fare- he’s written lengthy tomes on infamous Italian gory maestro Lucio Fulci (1999’s Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci). American Independent horror films from between the 1970’s & mid 1980’s (2007’s Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents), prolific euro sleaze/ horror director Jess Franco- The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco vol. one & two - 2015’s Murderous Passions & most recently it’s follow-up The Flowers Of Perversion- which see him covering in detail ever one of Franco’s 180 films. He’s also appeared on a whole host of cult horror/exploitation documentaries & DVD extra’s for the likes of Severin films, Arrow Video, Blue Underground & many others. Stephen kindly agreed to do a email interview with M[m]- his third for the site- discussing his new book, his passion for Jess Franco, and his recently active sonic project UnicaZürn
M[m]:First Off congratulations on Flowers of Perversion it really is a sight to be behold- full of so much researched detail, great stills & poster art-and of course you’re in-depth thoughts on each of the 128 films in this period. Compared to the first Vol, how quickly did it take shape & were there any major issues or problems in getting the book ready for press?
ST I actually set out in 2008 to write just the one book, so I started off working on the entire Franco filmography. However, it soon became obvious that it was going to be too big for one book, so I left the second half alone to concentrate on the first. I decided to cut the project at 1974, ending with Les Grandes Emmerdeuses. There were a couple of reasons for this: one, I knew that many people regard the 1970s as Franco’s peak period, so naturally I wanted both books to include films from that decade! The last thing you want is for Volume 1 to do well and Volume 2 to drop dead. Many of Jess’s films of the 1980s were never released abroad, so for a long time the only way to see them was on Spanish video, poor picture quality and of course without English subtitles. Consequently, these films did not enjoy the same exposure as the 1970s titles. Fortunately that’s all changing, with more of the 1980s titles being released in beautiful Blu-ray transfers. I think people can see more clearly now that Jess had a major spike of creativity in the 1980s, and the best of those films are as vital as the ones he made in the seventies. Another good reason to conclude Volume 1 at 1974 was because the period between 1975-1977 (the ‘Dietrich period’) presented a major challenge, in terms of understanding what was happening in Jess’s professional life. In 2014, thanks to Uwe Huber and Guiskard Oberparleiter, I was given access to fascinating documentation from Erwin Dietrich’s personal files. The more I read, the more complex and intriguing the picture became. I therefore held the Dietrich period back for Volume 2 so that I would have time to do it justice.
M[m]:In your introduction to the book you discuss the increase in the amount of recent Franco reissues- why do think the popularity in Franco’s work has grown & grown over the years? Really going way above & beyond most other cult & exploitation directors.
ST A variety of reasons, I think. Now that Franco's films are coming out on Blu-ray, people can see how genuinely beautiful and strange they are, and each new addition confirms his skill and artistry. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Jess’s bad reputation in fan circles was partly down to dreadful video releases, pan-and-scanned instead of widescreen, terrible prints, terrible video transfers, censored versions, etc. Also, some of his worst films were the ones most frequently released on video, whereas his best films were available only sporadically, or not at all. If you see three bad films by a director, you can perhaps be forgiven for imagining that this person has nothing to offer! Gradually, some of the best Franco films came out on DVD, which showed the breadth and quality of his talent. I also think that when sympathetic critics like Tim Lucas, Lucas Balbo and Alain Petit came along and began to make sense of Franco’s huge and tangled filmography, they made it easier for people to get a sense of the man behind the camera. Slowly, incrementally, an audience began to build. There’s a kind of critical mass that you reach with Jess, where your interest turns to obsession, a kind of mirror of the obsessional aspects of Franco himself. The sheer enormity of his filmography takes a hold of your imagination, and you want to see more and more. If you become obsessed with David Cronenberg, you reach an end-point fairly quickly, because he’s ‘only’ made twenty-odd films and they’re all quite easy to see. With Jess, your obsession has much more to play with – and much more to torment you!
M[m]:Also early on in the book you discuss that you enjoyed pretty much- every one of Franco’s nearing 200 films; but you say there are fifteen or so you wouldn’t want to revisit again- what are these, & briefly why wouldn’t you want to revisit them?
ST I don’t get any pleasure from Jess's sex-farces, so I’ll skip any further viewings of Elles font tout, Celestine, Les Chatouilleuses and El hotel de los ligues. I just don’t think he had what it takes to make an out-and-out comedy. His sense of humour is more sideways-on, if you know what I mean. His wit is something you catch at the corner of the eye, so when he tries to make a comedy head-on it just doesn’t seem to cut it. And several of the 1980s hardcores are tedious beyond words: Una rajita para dos, Para las nenas... leche calentita, El ojete de Lulú and Entre pitos anda el juego are probably the worst. In the video era, the worst examples, for me, are Helter Skelter, Las flores de la pasión and La cripta de las mujeres malditas: I think they’re intolerably lazy and boring and an insult to the viewer. Worst of all, I never want to see Killer Barbys again, nor its sequel Killer Barbys vs. Dracula, the latter of which contains some of the most embarrassing scenes Jess ever shot!
M[m]:Flowers of Perversion coverage begins around the period that Franco started working with infamous euro producer/director/ promoter Erwin Dietrich. Many of the films the pair did together went onto become sleazy euro classic- why do think there is longevity to these films? And what personally do you see as the best & worse films the pair created?
ST Jess worked for Erwin Dietrich as essentially a director-for-hire, but he had a lot of freedom when it came to the stories themselves. He was in serious financial difficulties at the time, and Dietrich helped him to get back on his feet, although that didn’t stop Jess from trying to sell international rights to Dietrich productions behind his back, or syphoning off money from one film to make another to sell to someone else! When Dietrich found out about these rather shady goings-on, at the end of 1975, he brought Franco to heel and exerted a tight grip on all the remaining productions. Having bailed Jess out of his financial woes, and forgiven him for his financial irregularities, Dietrich had a financial and I think an ethical hold on Jess, who buckled down and worked hard for him throughout 1976-1977. From Girls in the Night Traffic, made in February 1976, to Women in Cellblock 9 in the autumn of 1977, Jess shot twelve films, and every metre of footage ended up in the correct Dietrich production, with no sneaking off to shoot something for himself on the same budget! So Dietrich, in a sense, tamed Jess, but I think it generated a lot of internal tension, which perhaps accounts for the frequency of themes of imprisonment and sadomasochism during the Dietrich period!
ST For me, the best Franco films of the Dietrich era are Barbed Wire Dolls (aka Frauengefängnis), Ilsa the Wicked Warden (aka Greta –Haus ohne männer), Die Marquise von Sade (aka Das Bildnis der Doriana Gray) and Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun. The first two I like because they’re so shocking and outrageous, mixing extreme sadomasochistic imagery with very dark humour; Die Marquise von Sade I love because it’s totally dreamlike and personal and defiantly uncommercial; and Portuguese Nun because it’s so handsomely shot and beautifully acted. The weakest are the three studio-shot films: Girls in the Night Traffic, Weisse Haut auf schwarzen Schenkeln and In 80 Betten um die Welt. These were filmed in a three week period during March 1976, at a time when Jess was working under what amounted to creative house arrest; because of the way he’d behaved in 1975 he was forbidden to take a crew out on location, and in return for Dietrich bailing him out of trouble on an unfinished film (Mandinga) he shot three films, back to back, entirely at Dietrich’s Zürich studios. Location shooting was a massively important component of Jess’s artistic vision; deprived of it, he gave just a fraction of his potential, going through the motions. Girls isn’t too bad, considering the limitations, but the other two are pretty disposable.
M[m]:One of the key 1970s films covered in the book is Jack The Ripper- Franco’s more commercial & classy films. Featured in the lead role was, of course, controversial actor Klaus Kinski- who worked on four Franco films. Do you know if there where ever any plans for Kinski to appear in later films, and did the pair still remain friends after their the last film?
ST As far as I’m aware, Kinski always regarded Jess in a positive light. He gave interviews at the time of shooting Jack the Ripper in which he was very complementary and sympathetic to Jess’s way of working. Of course in his autobiography he described the film as shit, but then he had nothing positive to say about anything or anyone in that scurrilous book! I don’t think Jess could really have afforded Kinski in the 1980s, except perhaps for the late 1980s titles like Fall of the Eagles or Faceless. But I’m not aware of any contact between the two of them at that time.
M[m]:Of all the sub-genres in euro exploration the one that Franco returned to the most was Women In Prison films- do you think Franco particularly enjoyed making these, or was it just purely down to market pressures?
ST Jess’s first Women-in-Prison film, 99 Women (1968), was a significant American hit for him. I’m pretty sure this guided his hand later! Having said that, he quite clearly found the theme exciting: Barbed Wire Dolls (1975), Ilsa the Wicked Warden (1976), Women in Cellblock 9 (1977) and Sadomania (1980) are feverishly erotic films in which he unleashes some of his darkest fantasies. The thrill seems to have subsided by the mid-1980s though, because Furia en el tropico (1982) is a weary effort; Jess doesn’t seem at all excited by the possibilities. It’s notable too that he never made a Women-In-Prison film during his video productions of the 1990s or 2000s.
M[m]:As the book moves into the early 1980s it's truly astounding how many films Franco made in this period. Did this issue make it difficult when trying to chronological arranged the films for the book? And why do you think he made so many films during this period?
ST Yes, it was fiendishly difficult to pin down the correct production sequence. Even with Antonio Mayans (Jess’s regular actor and right-hand-man) and Juan Soler (lighting cameraman) helping me as much as they could, it was difficult. They couldn’t always remember, because back in the day they were often making several films at once! They would be prepping one film, shooting material for two others, and editing a fourth, all in the same two or three week period. Consequently the memories are superimposed on top of each other. I drew on many different clues and pointers to get the order right, and I dare say there are still a few small errors here and there. But I’m confident that my sequence is the most accurate available. The reason why Jess was so insanely productive in the 1980s is partially down to opportunity (his regular producers between 1980-1984, Golden Films International, basically said yes to anything Jess suggested), partly down to having a more stable and reliable set of collaborators (Antonio Mayans, Juan Soler, Lina Romay, José Llamas, Angel Ordiales), and partly down to diminishing financial returns which meant he needed more and more product to keep himself afloat.
M[m]:Also in the 1980s Franco started making full-on Hardcore films- from the book, I get the feeling he wasn’t particularly keen on all-out Hardcore- is that correct? And do you know if there were any of his hardcore films he was proud of?
ST Jess was quite conflicted about hardcore. During the 1970s, when censorship was being overthrown and films were becoming more and more explicit, he enjoyed shooting hardcore, in certain circumstances. Shooting explicit sex scenes in the 1970s, in his French films, he could view his work as part of a wave of cultural provocation, an attack on bourgeois norms, two fingers to the establishment. And on top of this, the films played in proper cinemas. But in the 1980s, when he was shooting hardcore in Spain, the had changed in his native country and hardcore was permitted under heavy restrictions, which basically took all the fun out of it. You could shoot and release a hardcore film, but it would only play in small venues exclusively designated for porno films. You couldn’t advertise, you couldn’t even have posters. The films were given a tightly controlled space to exist by the Spanish government, and that removed any sense of rebellion or provocation. Jess admitted to me that he only made those films for the money. For years he encouraged people to believe that Lina had directed them, mainly to give Lina some professional credits that might benefit her later. Neither Jess nor Lina hid this from me, and both of them admitted that they were not proud of the films themselves. They were not ashamed to make porn, but they regarded those particular films as disappointments.
M[m]:With the Ltd edition of Flowers of Perversion buyers get a second book The Sinister Case of Dr. Franco - I believe this 100 page hardback features a facsimile of documents left behind by Franco in a hotel in southern France- how did this come to light, and what can fans expect from the book?
ST Jess found himself in such dire financial trouble during production of Mandinga, in January 1976, that he did a ‘moonlight flit' from his hotel in the South of France. He and Lina Romay left owing a substantial sum of money to the hotel, as well as wages to the cast and crew. In order to get away without being asked to settle his bill, he left his luggage behind! In other words, he was living the life of a desperado, not unlike some of the characters in his recent crime films. A few months later, when Erwin Dietrich was sorting out Jess’s affairs, he settled the hotel bill and arranged for the suitcase to be returned to the offices of Elite Film in Zürich. Jess seems not to have cared about the case, because he left it behind again when he quit working for Dietrich and moved from Zürich back to France in 1978. Many years later, Dietrich gave the suitcase to his friend and film marketing manager Roman Güttinger, a dedicated collector of rare film memorabilia. Last year, when I was planning the special edition of Flowers of Perversion, Uwe Huber put me in touch with Roman, who very kindly gave me permission to reproduce the contents of the infamous suitcase! Hence, The Sinister Case of Dr. Franco. The book includes high quality scans of Jess’s handwritten or typewritten story outlines for eight unmade films (Blue Medea, Melodie en sex majeur, Juliette De Sade, Dracula Junior, Ejaculation, Los Desperados, Tarzana and Dunia, la novia eterna), plus ephemera concerning the production of finished films like Shining Sex, Midnight Party and Downtown, plus a handwritten story outline for one of Jess’s best known films, Female Vampire (here called Yacula). There are also some hand-drawn poster designs for other unmade Franco films. I’m very proud of it, I basically designed and produced it in about six weeks, the fastest turnaround of any book I’ve done!
M[m]:Any news on the follow-up to Nightmare USA, or the reissue of your first Franco book Murderous Passions?
ST I started work on a follow-up to Nightmare USA before Christmas, and I expect to work on it solidly for the rest of this year. The reissue of Murderous Passions is due in the summer of 2019.
M[m]:Will there be any new material in the reissue of Murderous Passions?
ST Some factual corrections, but the big change is visual. The book will be in full colour this time (except for the b/w films of course!).
M[m]:Could you give us a hint to what we can expect to be covered in the follow up to Nightmare USA? And any title ideas yet?
ST No title as yet, but the book will include chapters on S.F. Brownrigg (Don’t Look in the Basement, Keep My Grave Open, Don’t Open the Door, Scum of the Earth), Harry Kerwin (God’s Bloody Acre), Harry Preston (Honeymoon Horror), Richard Blackburn (Lemora), Meir Zarchi (I Spit On Your Grave), and the career of Texas Chainsaw special effects creator and director of Mongrel, Robert Burns. Plus I’ll be taking a much closer look this time at the XXX sex/horror films of the 1970s.
M[m]:I heard you’d recently did some extras on an up-coming Andy Milligan boxset for Severin- can you tell us anything more about what extras you’ve done & what films will be covered on the set?
ST I can’t say anything just yet I’m afraid. But it’s going to be a very special release!
M[m]:I’ve recently seen mention of your new project UnicaZürn, which will be having it’s new release shortly put out on Touch. Can you tell us a little bit about how/ when this project came about, and what can people expect sonically?
ST UnicaZürn is a project I’ve been doing for quite a while, on and off, but in recent years I’ve been spending a lot more time on it. We released two earlier albums (“Temporal Bends” and "Dark Earth Distillery”) but our first album for Touch (“Transpandorem”) came out in 2016. The group is principally me (on keyboards and reeds) and my close friend David Knight (synthesiser and guitar). Dave previously wrote and recorded with Danielle Dax, Lydia Lunch and Shock-Headed Peters. For live shows we also work with the multi-talented David Smith of Guapo (who played in Cyclobe too) and occasionally Danielle Dax on vocals and treatments. Dave Knight and I have been working together for years, initially as part of the improvisation group The Amal Gamal Ensemble. UnicaZürn incorporates some aspects of improvisation too, but it’s carefully honed and edited and polished in the studio. We love analogue synthesisers, German experimental rock, progressive rock, free jazz and electro-acoustic music, and we combine these warring influences into something that has its own identity. We’re fond of long-form pieces, extended trips, and I see what we do as having strong psychedelic qualities, with underlying tension and a sense of the uncanny. We’re about to release an extremely limited edition album called “Omegapavilion”, each disc individually lathe cut and engraved on transparent vinyl, in a silver silkscreened sleeve. In April we release our second album for Touch, “Sensudestricto”. I think it’s probably the strongest and most immediately accessible album we’ve made so far.
M[m]:You recently did a live show in London with UnicaZürn- any plans for more live performance after the new albums out? And if so what can people expect from your live performance?
ST We’ll be playing Iklectik in London on the 28th of April, as a launch event for the new album. We play as a three piece, with Dave Smith on percussion, myself on keyboards and sax, and Dave Knight on guitar and synthesisers. We’ll perform most of the new album, and a few choice pieces from the back catalogue.
M[m]:Any news on new Cyclobe, or any other sonic project?
ST There’s another Cyclobe album to be finished and released, but it’s a way off yet.
Thanks, once again, to Stephen for his time & efforts doing the interview with us. The Flowers Of Perversion is out now on Strange Attractor Press, and both special & normal editions can be brought directly from here. And UnicaZürn new album Sensudestricto will be released on Touch in April
Photo credits: Main front page picture- Stephen in Aarhus (Denmark) for UnicaZürn show. Photo by David Knight. Menu picture-Cyclobe soundcheck at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2012. Photo by Ruth Bayer. First in interview pictue- Presenting a lecture on Franco at the Horse Hospital in 2015. Photo by Virginie Sélavy.
Second in interview picture- Pilgrimage to the Palácio Conde Castro Guimarães, in Cascais (central location for Jess Franco’s A Virgin Among the Living Dead, The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein and Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun). Photo by José Pacheco. Third in interview picture- UnicaZürn live in London, 7 June 2016. Photo by Ruth Bayer.