Written by: Pier A. Caminnecci
Directed by: Jess Franco
Starring: Janine Reynaud, Jack Taylor and Adrian Hoven
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďWhat about horror films?"
"They're my weakness."
"They're my weakness."
Even though Jess Franco had directed about fifteen films before Succubus, itís still arguable that the 1968 film serves as a harbinger for his career as itís typically regarded. If The Awful Dr. Orloff and The Diabolical Doctor Z act as preludes, then Succubus is the overture that introduces the themes and aesthetics that Franco would obsess over as he moved into the 1970s. A flitting, erotic daydream fuelled by a nightmarish sense of displacement, Succubus finds Franco exploring all corners of depravity and transgressive subculture. Lesbianism, S&M, and bizarre fetishism take the stage--as they often would for Franco--in a film that not only blurs the line between fantasy and reality, but also between conventional narrative and obfuscating abstraction. Arguably, it represents Franco at his most energetic and contemptuous towards filmmaking and societal conventions.
Such disdain is on display early with an opening gambit that heíd actually recycle a decade later in Exorcism. Engulfed in darkness, a woman named Lorna (Janine Reynaud) tortures and flagellates helpless, crucified victims before the whole scene is revealed to be a skit put on for a crowd of gawking degenerates. The switcheroo is a hint that nothing is as it seems; initially, Lorna seems to be in league with her boyfriend-manager (Jack Taylor) who employs her in these sultry stage shows. However, sheís also pursued by a more mysterious presence (Michael Lemoine) whose sinister overtures may be Mephistophelian in nature; observing from a distance, he hovers over the proceedings as Lorna finds herself slipping into alternate, nightmarish realities where she may actually be a demonic seductress whose acts cross the line into reality.
A jazzy, jangly Franco offering, itís fair to say that Succubus is thoroughly confusing in its blatant disregard for traditional storytelling approaches. Little can be gleaned from the kernel of reality weíre offered--we can safely assume that Lorna is indeed the member of a grand guignol theater troupe, but, beyond that, Franco prefers to challenge viewers with a film that floats among a dreamy haze of unreality. Succubus often mimics the feeling of being trapped in dreams within dreams; whenever it looks to emerge and shake off its nightmarish leanings, it melts into another delirious set piece. Some echo each other--for example, when Lorna stabs a man during one of her nightly fantasy, a corpse bearing a similar injury turns up the next day; however, Succubus largely unfolds like free-floating, scattered jazz fugues.
Whether or not Lorna actually is an ancient demon seems to be irrelevant; instead, Franco seeks unity in the filmís fever dream aesthetic, and he largely succeeds. Sometimes, the horror here is in being lost in a reality thatís constantly refracted like a series of funhouse mirrors. While the on-screen violence would have been notable at the time, itís tepid compared to later Franco offerings, but it joins an orgy of explicit eroticism that makes Succubus a trip down a rabbit hole of weirdness and perversion thatís signature Franco. Its unrelenting indulgence in this and other societal transgressions would certainly have been shocking, and the film is a nice document of 60s counter-culture and art house cinema. If Orloff was inspired by Eyes Without a Face, then Succubus feels like a reaction to the French New Wave, if not in style then in spirit. Catalogs of authors, musicians, and other artists are reeled off, often with absurd, reductive word associative commentary that actually doesnít say much, so perhaps itís all a piss take. The only genuine sequence of this sort comes when a psychologist plumbs the depths of Lornaís psyche for her thoughts on classic horror monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula, characters we know are revered by Franco.
If Succubus marks Francoís first foray into completely untamed filmmaking (a result of hooking up with producer Adrian Hoven), itís a pretty remarkable debut for a style that would prove distinctive during the next decade. In fact, itís among the best-directed films Franco ever made. Most Franco films are a little coarse, and Succubus has its rough spots in the form of some anemic production values and those ever-present zooms that the director is so fond of; however, the film also unusually elegant and even poetic in spots. The most obvious visual flourish is a soft focus haze that permeates the filmís more hallucinogenic sequences and supposedly demarcate them as Lornaís daydreams and nightmare, though this distinction diminishes as the film progresses (a dinner scene where Lorna engages in a pseudo-orgy with guests acting like dogs seems to be "reality," but who knows). Smaller visuals, such as the way bare trees shade a conversation about the emptiness of love, are also prevalent and reveal Francoís capacity for subtlety, something heíd hardly be lauded for given the reputation heíd soon develop.
It also wouldnít be a Jess Franco film without a sultry woman at the center. Franco was still a couple years away from meeting soul mate Lina Romay, so fashion model Janine Reynaud carries this one. Her presence is similar to Romayís because sheís altogether fascinating to behold; not only is she an alluring beauty, but sheís also an odd, impenetrable vagary that slyly oscillates between fatale and victim, a crucial element that makes Succubus even more bizarre and slippery. The Italians would especially take this sort of film and really run with it during this period when Argento and his ilk would put examine feminine madness, but Succubus is somewhere beyond that since it presents an entire world gone mad. Reality and unreality commingle to form a postmodern pastiche where the presence of sex and death are the only true certainty in an amoral wasteland. The function of each, however, may be perverted along with everything else.
By the end of the film, itís difficult to say just what Lorna has endured, but itís safe to say Succubus excels as a collection of sequences. A weird killer mannequin sequence, a vaguely drawn conspiracy, and various sundry encounters are just the cusp of the rabbit hole here. Succubus is truly challenging and possibly even a little frustrating, but thereís little denying its mood and visuals. Blue Underground did the film justice with a nice release, which includes a solid transfer thatís a bit grainy but faithful to the filmís grungy, art house look. The filmís trailer and interviews with Franco and Taylor fill out the sparse but interesting special features. Gorgeous, subversive, and altogether striking, this is pure Franco, for better or worse. Wherever you fall on that spectrum will likely determine your reception of the film, but itís certainly a good place to start for the budding Franco-phile. Buy it!
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