Let me state straight away: I did not know Jess Franco personally. Nevertheless, his passing in April 2013 was like a bereavement for me. Let me explain why.
Hungry for unusual movies in London in the early 1970s, I noticed some interesting productions being screened from time to time in the less prestigious (which sometimes meant ‘soft porn’) cinemas in London’s West End around Piccadilly Circus. Those cinemas are all long gone, killed off by the invention of the home videocassette. I miss the days when you could go and see a Jess Franco or Lucio Fulci film on the bigscreen. DVD isn’t quite the same experience.
The films were credited to people like ‘Clifford Brown’ – who the hell was he?…he sounded English but the films were clearly foreign, badly dubbed into English. They were full of sex and horror. As Monty Python once said in another context, all the things that make for a smashing film! Some were pure softcore sex with some gorgeous women, others were pure horror. I remember being impressed by one called The Demons, which seemed like a cross between Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General and Ken Russell’s The Devils. A bit cheaply-made, but fascinating.
I made a mental note to go and see any films credited to Clifford Brown, but they were few and far between in London. Just as interesting was a movie I read about by a guy called J. P. Johnson. Who the f… was he? What was going on here?
Sometimes I found these by scouring the publication Time Out, which in those days was a very informative magazine for film fans. I recall when I visited Ian Ogilvy in a flat he was borrowing from his friend actor Simon Williams, he had a copy of Time Out he had been reading, so it was influential even in the film industry itself. All that has been lost now that the magazine has become a free giveaway with no important critics and that whole cinematic culture is dead.
And Time Out had been an early champion of the films of Michael Reeves, as was mentioned to me by actor Nicky Henson, though I knew that already. Their critic was David Pirie, whose classic book A Heritage Of Horror (Gordon Fraser, out of print) inspired me to write about Michael Reeves. Unfortunately, he regarded my biography of Michael as such a load of shit, it appears, that he refused even to mention it by name in the revised edition of his book (published by I. B. Tauris), which saddened me quite a lot, particularly as his publishers used my acknowledgement of my inspiration to help sell his book.
Still, it is not as bad as a blogger on a horror film forum who hated not only the book but my name, even though it is my real name. I have always been ‘John B.’ It seems he thought the ‘B.’ was an affectation, but the fact is that my father was also ‘John’ and to avoid opening each other’s post when I was growing up, I adopted my middle initial. Later, I was Publications Editor at the National Book League in Albemarle Street in London, with an office facing the venerable publishers of Byron, John Murray, and the postman started delivering their mail to me and vice versa, so I had to distinguish myself from them.
I considered replying to the blogger to inform him of the reasons for my temerity in using my own name, but there was an Jose Benazeraf movie I had to catch, I think it was Naked Sex. Now readers, don’t get the wrong idea about me, I wasn’t a smut hound. I went to the Benazeraf movie because I was interested in one of its stars, Natalie Zieger.
She had worked in a couple of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s arty movies, so I had a respectable reason for going…though the movie was hardly very respectable itself, but confirmed the status of Benazeraf as the Jean-Luc Godard of soft porn.
Back to Jess Franco. I went to the South of France with some pals from university in about 1975, we had no money and slept on the beach in Nice, but I did raise the funds to buy a Belgian horror film magazine written in French and in which even my rudimentary French was able to identify that J. P. Johnson and Clifford Brown were a gentleman called Jesus Franco. I was aware of a filmmaker called Jess Franco and heard he was called ‘Jess’ to give no religious offence. Now I had a name to work with!
On holiday in Hamburg in 1983, I bought a new book called Pioniere Und Prominente Des Modernen Sexfilms (Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, Munich 1983). Oh dear, you are going to think I was a smut hound. Will you believe me when I say this pioneering work by Leo Phelix and Rolf Thissen devoted whole chapters to such great filmmakers as Jose Benazeraf, Walerian Borowczyk, Jess Franco, Just Jaeckin, Radley Metzger, Russ Meyer and Nagisa Oshima? Though I must admit I bought it in the Reeperbahn! Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more. ‘Nuff said…
This was an epochal moment in my film buff’s career, as this book gave a detailed filmography for Franco, which revealed to me for the first time that, using the pseudonym ‘David Khunne’, Franco had written the story for my favourite film, Brett Halsey’s Espionage in Lisbon. It is still my favourite movie of all time, not sure why. I even went to hunt out the film’s locations in Portugal and stayed at the Estoril-Sol Hotel, which is featured prominently, though it cost a bomb. Tragically, it was demolished in 2007, but even the architect of the horrible block of flats that replaced it had doubts about the wisdom of demolishing such an iconic example of 1960s Portuguese architecture. There is a heart-breaking video on YouTube, “The end of the Hotel Estoril-Sol“.
Anyway, the revelation was, Jess Franco was David Khunne!! Years later, I discovered that David Khunne had allegedly been a pen name of Franco’s (though no evidence of the claimed pulp novels has been found). Clifford Brown, another pseudonym, was a famous jazz musician and Franco, himself a musician, was paying tribute to him by…er…stealing his name. James P. Johnson was also a jazzer. Franco now became an iconic figure in my life and I tried to see any movie of his that I could. With the advent of home video, many more Franco titles became easier to see. Though there were still many movies that existed for me only as still photos in horror film magazines, often featuring nude scenes of Franco’s beautiful actress partner, Lina Romay…
I noticed with Franco that the same kind of scenes kept recurring in his films. Jazzy singers in nightclubs, nudity, hints of sado-masochism, vampires, lesbians, blood…and none of the films were really great in and of themselves, but it was the cumulative effect of watching loads of them that proved mesmerising. I recall critic Tim Lucas writing that with Franco, you kind of have to see the whole body of work to appreciate the unique universe that he created and I can relate to that.
I was even more interested in Franco when he directed the great Brett Halsey in a movie, Esmeralda Bay, though it took me ages to find that, I had to go to Paris and haunt the video stores around Clichy. (Oh, come on, I don’t mean the X-rated video stores…though duty forced me to check those for Franco titles, too, as Jess had moved into hard core porn for a while.)
And then it happened, at long last. In 1996, I met and spoke to Jess Franco! He was guest of honour at Eurofest, an all-night horror film festival at the Everyman, Hampstead. Lina Romay accompanied him. He was due to be interviewed on stage after a screening of the amazing German uncut version of their perhaps best-known film, Female Vampire. I had not realised Jess would hang around for the whole event and there would be lots of chances to get autographs, so I went up to him as soon as he arrived with my enormous UK quad poster of Espionage in Lisbon. He had to think for a minute before he remembered he had written the story, though the film was directed by Tulio Demicheli and the script written by Jose Bayonas, Juan Cobos and Monica Felt, names that meant little to me but meant something in the Spanish and Italian film industries. He chatted to me about the film (see my book Brett Halsey: Art or Instinct in the Movies) and then, as I had tackled him in a corridor where there was nowhere for him to put the poster to sign it, Lina Romay turned around and with a grin proferred her back for Franco to lean on and my poster was signed on the back of the lovely Lina Romay!
Even more exciting for me, he signed it “David Khunne (or J. Franco)”. It is one of my most precious possessions, alongside the Yugoslav poster of the same film signed by Brett Halsey.
It was so odd then, a little while later, to watch a graphic close-up masturbation scene performed by Lina, an admitted exhibitionist, in the German cut of Female Vampire. Slightly odder to speak to her afterwards, though she was friendly, as if everything were normal. I told her I thought it was a beautiful film and she seemed genuinely pleased and thanked me. I told her I knew Jess was very busy but I would love to write to him with some questions about Espionage in Lisbon and Esmeralda Bay. (Asked about directing Brett Halsey in the latter after missing out on doing so in the former, Franco only commented “And Fernando!”, a reference to the fact that Fernando Rey was also in both films.) Lina herself had edited Esmeralda Bay and played a small role. Could she give me an address to write to? She seemed to recognise I was a serious researcher and gave me their address in Madrid. (Brett Halsey later told me he had an address for Franco in Paris, of course Franco worked in France too.)
I dutifully wrote to Madrid with a number of questions, including the UK edition of my Michael Reeves book (Franco had told me he admired Reeves), hoping that would encourage him to reply. Things then got strange.
After some time, I got a letter from Madrid. The writer, one ‘J. Franco’, said he had received my letter but said he was an engineer and he had nothing to do with the cinema and “these people” had impersonated him, even registering at his address for voting purposes and he was reporting the matter to the police. I was so shocked to have been drawn into a criminal act, I did not keep the letter. I wish I had. Because after some time of thinking about it, I began to think that Jess Franco, a known practical joker, was having a laugh with me and just trying to dissuade me from writing to him again. I didn’t. I laugh about it now.
I once told this story to Brett Halsey and he said I should get a job as a film journalist…but…let me tell you another time my one and only experience of that at the cruel hands of Cap’n Bob, the tycoon Robert Maxwell, purloiner of his employees’ pensions.
And although I don’t have that spoof letter from Jess, I did find and keep a questionnaire he filled out at the Hampstead event. All those attending were given a questionnaire to fill out. Jess had been sitting down on his own for a while and when he got up and left, I found his responses on the table by his seat. He had left it there instead of handing it in as requested. At first I wondered if it was really his or if someone had filled it out as a joke, but I am now persuaded that it is indeed his own work. Unfortunately he did not sign it, so that I could compare his signature with the autographs he gave out, but the letter ‘F’ is similar to his signature and only Franco would know who Manuel Camacho was.
1-Shot had recently published a monograph on Lina Romay, to which Jess had contributed a short Foreword. Killer Barbys was Franco’s new film, which was why he would have liked to see it screened at the Festival and Manuel Camacho was the film’s producer.
His choice of Traci Lords, ex-porn star, as a future guest and the surprising choice of favourite horror film say a lot about his preferences. The other answers show his cynical sense of humour, often testified to by colleagues. And if Jess did not seem to enjoy attending the event – though he seemed quite happy signing autographs – it may partly have been because he was heckled during his interview by a drunken young man who objected when Jess said there was no real British film industry: “Jess, we love your CRAZY SHIT, but don’t say that!”)
Incidentally, Lina Romay was on stage with Jess and was asked if there were any other directors she aspired to work for. In all seriousness, she cited Steven Spielberg, which led to some guffaws from the audience, but she did not see any humour and said “Why not?” As if Spielberg would hire an actress mainly known for hard and soft porn! And yet I suspect that Lina Romay, who predeceased Jess in February 2012 at only 57 years of age, will have a more secure niche in film history for her beauty and outrageous exhibitionism than most so-called legitimate screen actresses. Every film she appeared in became worth seeing at least once simply because of her presence.
In recent years, new books on Jess Franco have appeared and many of his films have been released on DVD and now on Blu-Ray. There has even been a ‘Jess Franco Collection’ series of DVDs. Some of his films can be bought cheaply. I much liked Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun
starring one of his favourite performers, William Berger, and a girl whose nudity caused censorship problems as it appears she was underage when making the film. Typical Jess Franco…we won’t see his like again. Bless you, Jess Franco, wherever you are.