Written by: Henri Bral de Boitselier, Jess Franco, James C. Garner, and Marius Lesoeur
Directed by: Jess Franco
Starring: Lina Romay, Catherine LafferiŤre, and Jess Franco
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďWe must know evil to be able to fight it."
Like most (all?) of Jess Francoís movies, L'ťventreur de Notre-Dame carries a multitude of titles, no doubt because distributors worldwide were attempting to cash in on whatever was hot at the time. As this was released in 1975, most of its re-branded titles featured a play on exorcisms, which was misguided in a couple of ways. Obviously, the particular cycle kicked off by The Exorcist was in full-force, so capitalizing on that would seem correct; however, nothing about Exorcism (which is the name Synapseís DVD release settled on) conjures up what youíd expect from movies centering on possessions and exorcisms.
Technically, there is a priest (Franco himself, looking like a sleazier, more insane version of Peter Lorre) at the center, but heís not exorcising any literal demons, nor is he using the power of Christ to compel them out. Instead, this defrocked psychopath is stalking erotic stage depictions of black masses (for which he writes the material!), and he ends up gutting both the participants and the attendants. The local police are, of course, baffled--they joke that Torquemada is their killer, which isnít entirely wrong since Father Vogel is carrying out his own personal inquisition.
Francoís films often straddled the line between smut and art, and Exorcism is no different, but, in this case, the erotica at least serves a thematic purpose. This is not to say it isnít as gratuitous as ever--the film opens with a droning sequence that features Lina Romay (nude and splayed on a torture rack) being flogged by another naked woman before this is finally revealed to just be one of those stage shows. You can almost feel Franco winking at the audience here--not only is this gratuitous, but itís also a gratuitous setup to a joke. Of course, thereís more where that came from, such as an extended orgy scene that seems to last as long as the actual Spanish Inquisitions did; in fact, it drones on for so long that youíre almost on Father Vogelís side, and you just want him to show up and start stabbing people.
This excessiveness is obviously nothing new for Franco veterans; if there is a legitimate criticism to be made about most of his films, itís that he had no filter in terms of cutting and length. In the case of Exorcism, though, Iím somewhat reminded of the excessiveness of Salo, particularly when looking at the sea of nude, frolicking bodies; however, Franco flips that filmís theme on its head here, as Exorcism isnít a condemnation immorality and depravity, but rather, a condemnation of misguided censure. Franco isnít concerned with revealing the corruption of fascist power through amorality like Pasolini; instead, heís very much siding with the perverts and the degenerates here, who are simply partaking in what Franco likely considers to be harmless smut shows.
Thereís an obvious meta-fictional level here, one thatís made all the more ironic by Franco taking on the role of those who probably leveled these sorts criticism at his own work. Exorcism isnít exactly an intentionally funny film, but it borders on some absurd satire, as Franco takes religious righteousness to its most extreme levels by having a priest tear the hearts out of sinners--but not before he watches them engage in their perverse acts from afar, of course. Hypocrisy is firmly in the crosshairs here--Father Vogel is certainly rocking one of the worst cases of Catholic guilt youíll ever see; not only is he profiteering off of these sex shows, but heís also (of course) revealed to be a pedophile, so there is an obvious absurdity to this guyís judgment of the immoral. The scariest thing is how relevant all of this still is; while the religious right certainly hurled their daggers at Franco (and other artists at the time), those daggers are still being tossed, not only at art, but also towards other acts deemed immoral by a moral majority.
Exoricsm is headier than most Franco films Iíve seen; this doesnít mean that it escapes the usual production trappings of a Franco film--it still feels like itís been shot underwater, and its film stock seems to have been trod through the mud. Scenes do drone on and on, and youíd often mistake it for having the budget of a porno, but itís an aesthetic thatís purely Franco. Heís one of cinemaís great trash auteurs, a guy who trades in both sleaze and art, and Exorcism is one of those times where it just all comes together brilliantly. I would be remiss to not further comment upon Lina Monay, Francoís wife and muse who recently passed away; he always had a strange way of showing his affection for her, as she was often on the receiving end of bizarre sexual encounters (including one involving a dog in Sadomania). In Exorcism, he not only has her flogged in the opening scene, but she also becomes Father Vogelís main object of desire, and Monayís slightly innocent quality makes her a perfect representation of everything this disgraced priest loathes. She is innocence corrupted, and one gathers a strange infatuation on his part when he kidnaps her and keeps her tied up.
Exorcism is obviously a rough film--itís smutty, violent, and it seems to be flimsily put together. However, itís an unexpectedly effective slasher movie when you get right down to it--the deaths are grisly, and the killer is beyond intriguing, both of which qualify as huge wins when youíre discussing this sub-genre. That it goes a bit farther and becomes a denunciation of moral hypocrisy makes it even more impressive. Exorcism received special edition treatment from Synapse, who presents the 94 minute restored ďproducerís version,Ē and said restoration is pretty impressive; the filmís inherent roughness is kept intact, so there are some scratches and imperfections, but I think most would agree that Franco movies wouldnít be the same any other way. The audio presented here is a terrifically bad English dub track, and youíll also get the first ever commentary track Franco ever recorded; additionally, youíll find an alternate opening sequence, a still gallery, a trailer, liner notes from Tim Lucas, and the cover is even reversible. Jess Franco has made nearly 200 movies in his life, and hereís one that deserves a spot on your shelf. Buy it!
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