Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hooray for Jess Franco

By Steve Evans
Today we peek into the peculiar world of director Jess Franco, whose "Red Lips" double feature, Two Undercover Angels and Kiss Me Monster, are available in a decent two-disc set from the cult-minded folks at Blue Underground.

In a career spanning nearly half a century, Franco still specializes in deranged horror films, heavy on the gratuitous nudity. But it was the horse teeth behind those titular Red Lips that freaked me out, man. Even the advertising materials for his films induce head-scratching:

“"How to Create an Army of Young Lovers” — from the Kiss Me Monster poster.

So what exactly are we dealing with?
Here’s a deuce of psychedelic spy-spoof flicks from the prolific Franco, the notorious Spanish director of exploitation schlock, who shot his pictures on a typical budget of about three dollars. Here, bad dubbing, pitiful acting, and some bizarre go-go dancing combine with a bit of nudity to turn this 1969 double feature into a low-rent guilty pleasure. Good luck making sense of it all.

And now for a bit of plot
Two Undercover Angels marks the first appearance of the Red Lips Detective Agency, a couple of strippers who moonlight as secret agents (Janine Reynaud, who also starred in Franco's Succubus, and Rosanna Yanni, an Argentinean “beauty” whose acting résumé includes gaps of up to 19 years between films). Reynaud is the brains of the operation; Yanni acts as though she must remind herself to breathe regularly.

While the gals try on garish, revealing costumes and prance around in front of a mirror, the police investigate a series of baffling disappearances. Young women are kidnapped from bridal shops and boutiques, later dragged to a gothic art gallery where a photographer snaps pictures of the women suffering various tortures.

The Red Lips gals transform into undercover angels to infiltrate the art gallery and solve the murders, which are being committed by a Neanderthal-like monster. Before they crack the case, the angels will frolic at several nightclubs, remove their clothes, and dodge almost-certain death by bomb, blow dart, and bad vibes.

In our second feature, Kiss Me Monster (which would have worked better as the title of the first feature), Reynaud and Yanni reprise their roles as detective-strippers who work for an Interpol-like organization, having apparently abandoned their detective agency from the previous picture. The girls are awakened in the dead of night by a young man with a delivery. Before he can explain why he’s banging on their door at all hours, the man drops dead with a knife buried in his back. The Red Lips ladies take the only reasonable course of action: They dump the body in the ocean (huh?), then go off to a strip club to do their routine.

The mystery of the midnight delivery has something to do with a secret sect called the Abilene, weird cats who dress up in red choir robes and black hoods like extras from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Reynaud and Yanni forge allegiances with various oddballs, some of whom betray the gals in their quest to uncover the great Whatsit in the delivered box (shades of the great film noir Kiss Me Deadly).

Ultimately Reynaud and Yanni seem as eager to disrobe as they are to crack the case. A less-than-suspenseful shootout leads to a perfunctory ending as the Red Lips duo drive off with the mystery box. Shhh! It contains the secret of human cloning. Golly! None of this is satisfactorily explained, or why it even matters, but it makes no difference as Franco evidently ran out of film. The girls’ laughter fills the soundtrack just as their horse-like mouths fill the screen in a freeze-frame. Black out.

Historical Context, Esoterica & Trivia
Two Undercover Angels was also released as Sadisterotica. The second half of this double feature was sometimes shown as Bésame Monstruo (literally, Kiss Me Monster in Spanish) as well as Castle of the Doomed, although no castles are featured in the film. Director Jess Franco’s films were routinely re-released multiple times under different titles, so fans of Eurotrash cinema often ran the risk of paying twice to see the same movie. Caveat emptor, baby.

Under any title, all we’ve got are a couple of cheesy, sleazy Franco flicks that point in the direction he was headed (Grand Guignol gore and sex), but wouldn’t actually get there until a few months later when censorship standards were greatly relaxed in the late 1960s. At that point, the crazed director would cut loose with everything his feverish imagination could devise. But in these films, Franco's idea of a shocking gore effect is to intercut a silly torture scene with three seconds of apparent documentary footage of a surgical procedure. It’s like watching an amateur flick spliced together with clips from medical school instructional films. The final effect is laugh-out-loud goofy. Franco’s later work would feature full-bore weirdness, spiced up with enough nudity and violence to get his films banned in certain parts of the world, notably his native country, Spain.

As cheesecake curiosities, Reynaud and Yanni are most alluring from the neck down. But when either woman smiles or laughs, her face transforms into Francis the Talking Mule. Whinny, snort; like if Gary Busey and Julia Roberts hooked up to produce a love child. The first time Reynaud cracked a smile scared the immortal hell out of me. As for their modest thespian abilities, I have been cruel enough already and will opine no more....

Thoughts on the DVD
The digital transfers are clean and artifact-free, but betray the age of the source materials, which are scratched and spotted with blemishes. Mono audio is clear but unremarkable. Minor complaint: I would rather hear the actors speaking Italian and Spanish with English subtitles onscreen, than endure this ridiculous dubbing, which is more of a distraction than an enhancement of these admittedly guilty pleasures. Extras on the two-disc set include a trailer for each film as well as a pair of film-specific interviews with Franco. His comments veer from insightful to quite possibly insane, and are easily more entertaining than the movies under discussion.

Both films feature some great jazz by uncredited musicians and a lot of far-out go-go dancing. In the interviews on this set, Franco talks a big game about the ambition of his cinematic vision, but the director betrays any artistic intentions he may have had with lingering closeups of undulating breasts and buttocks. The art is all in his mind; it sure as hell isn’t onscreen.

Franco devotees might perceive these films as a turning point in his career, the moment where he began to push the envelope of gothic horror into the realm of sexual sadism and exploitative erotica that would become his stock in trade. Enthusiasts might find this fascinating; I found it a bore.

Franco (above, left), who turns 80 this year in May, has directed at least 200 films and possibly as many more under various pseudonyms. That’s a movie every two months for more than 40 years, so give the guy credit for longevity. Cursory research also reveals he has acted in more than 80 pictures, edited half that many, produced another 21 films, served as cinematographer on nearly two dozen, and composed the music for at least 60. These stats alone make him one of the most prolific individuals in the history of cinema, and although his films can often be quite entertaining (if only by accident) that does not necessarily make him any good.

Still, Franco’s peculiar take on the world can be fascinating at times (check out Venus in Furs from ’69; the best film he ever made). The Red Lips double feature is not one of those times.

I wouldn't kiss those Red Lips; lord knows where they've been.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. "I wouldn't kiss those Red Lips; lord knows where they've been"

    LOL..what a great comment and also a great read! Your review makes one want to rush right out and buy the set just to see what all the hoopla is about.


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