An unapologetic, irreverent, energetic if erratic filmmaker, Jess Franco has long been considered by dark devotees a one man definition of exploitation. A highly skilled, individualistic visionary, his life has been as fantastic as his creations -- small wonder from a man who has made a career out of zoom-shots of Lina Romay's bush, cum-sucking vampires, violated virgins, and slutty specters seeking nourishment through various bodily fluids. Renowned as much by his devoted fans and followers as he is reviled by mainstream critics, his work both confuses and irritates, entertaining with over-the-top visual excess, fetish imagery, and nightmarish dream-logic. Sometimes there is no attempt at logic, and Franco defies the traditional narrative role of the storyteller, becoming instead a surrealistic painter of celluloid madness and dreamscapes, a deviant director of scathing emotions and even more painful imagery, scattering his nihilistic, amoral vision across beaten and bleeding flesh as generously as he populates cinematic stories of seduction and fanaticism with a contradictory ménage of suffering and joy.
Franco's more successful films are akin to terrorism, attacking us where we feel most safe, raising hell with cinematic conventions, challenging personal expectations, and obliterating established ideals of morality. Even in those few movies where his genius is replaced by lethargy, an uneven albeit intriguing sense of chaotic brilliance remains. Thankfully, his enthusiasm and subversive perception more often than not imbues excessively erotic, bold and bloody examples of 'grindhouse' with sensationalistic excess enjoyable to behold and surprisingly thoughtful subtext beneath all the blood, beasts, and breasts. In Exorcism, perhaps Franco's most accomplished intermingling of story and imagery - and certainly one of his more thematically serious works - Franco combines the sadistic sensationalism for which he is so known with a scathingly poignant condemnation of such culturally conscious taboo themes as a hypocritical social structure, organized religion, and personal fanaticism. In this fright-film of terror and titillation Franco paints within a seedy, sordid cesspool of fear and filth a critically wounding expose of subjective morality.
Starring as an excommunicated Catholic priest, kicked from the graces of the Church for the fanaticism of his beliefs and singularly venomous prejudices, Franco's character experiences an unwholesome epiphany when witnessing a series of staged Black Masses (lovingly detailed with theatrical human sacrifices). Believing that these decadent but essentially harmless aristocrats are indeed deadly Satanists bent on murder and spiritually evil, he determines to literally 'cut' Satan from their hearts, and begins to stalk and savagely murder the participants of the ritual. Meanwhile, his stories for a French Sex magazine become increasingly sadistic and violent, and no one dares walk the streets . . .
A bold, bawdy, unrepentantly morose attack against complacency and the self-satisfied world-view of the general audience, Exorcism is also an expose of the organic corruptness of conservatism, staring beneath the polite exterior of powers so often controlling society's values and approaches to both itself and the world around it. At the same time, and in the same disturbingly intimate manner, the movie dares to ask us who is worse -- Franco's avenging angel of death, murdering under false delusions, or the rich and respected deviants celebrating evil beneath false appearances? That neither extreme is championed, and all is left to molder with decaying flesh, is simply further evidence of Franco's refusal to 'play nice' by giving simplistic censors or self-satisfied audiences the morally simple fluff they desire. Franco boldly embodies the very spirit of filth, madness, and evil within the semblance of a writer who sees himself as a handmaid of the establishment and conventional Catholic Church.
Of course, despite the non-traditional lifestyles and sexual excess of the mock-Satanic Mass, Franco's redeemer is the true monster, hiding behind his imagined moral superiority to conceal his inner desire to torture and kill. Sex is one of the major pulses racing through this disturbing descent into depravity and decadence, both celebrating and attacking libertine excess. Sex is the trigger which sets loose the madness as well as the supposed 'evil' which the sanctified Church is known to publicly condemn if not sanctified by marriage; sex is, on the other hand, one of the more honest, less harmful impulses in the film.
See the bold, even brash contrast between a society of pleasure-loving men and women gratifying their animalistic lusts via the party game conventionalities of devil worship and Halloween-like symbolism, and the disturbingly real paranoia of the Church symbolism. What the secular mind takes for granted or enjoys, the Church - and its unacknowledged enforcer - warps into depravity, feeding off it like a sickness. And like a spreading illness, Franco wraps us in this skin of emotional vivisection, seeking not to entertain so much as to provoke. He succeeds at this admirably well, making the movie more of an experience than a simple viewing pleasure.
The story, deceivingly simplistic yet thematically rich in its suggestion of hypocrisy and personal culpability, also questions the nature of external appearances and their true internal substance. Perception itself - the very tool by which we both see and define the world around us and our own places in the larger scheme of things - is questioned by the mechanics of the plot and the disturbed, fragmented mind, nature, and faith of the Priest. It is no mistake that his spree of carnage ensues after he mistakes a play-act of Satanic ritual for the real thing, giving himself something outside himself to hate and repress - allowing him, in fact, to sanctify the act of murder just as the Church similarly sanctifies that other instinctual urge to mate by ritualizing and controlling it.
Disturbing indeed is Franco's wedding of the two elements, suggesting brazenly the similarities between sex and death, pain and pleasure, perception and reality. The English language variant of a film that has seen more incarnations than a typical Italian thriller sports different titles, attempting to track down and analyze all the opposing prints of Franco's love song to lewd lunacy would take a slim book, not a simple review. Existing in various lengths, some reinsert hardcore action and withdraw story elements while others remove far too much sexuality and brutality for extra dialogue and straight narrative action. I don't quite know if there is any definitive version of the film, or if even the filmmaker would now recall, considering the ridiculous number of cuts and editions littering both the proper and gray markets. Some prints, such 1980's Demoniac, excised much of Franco's visual debauchery, while Sexorcisme, a sexually explicit version is offered in at least two different languages. What ensues, then, is the confusion if which versions offer the most authentic representation of Franco's vision, or which will perhaps better suit your mood.
While the smut maniac will happily fork over his cash for the money-shot wonders of the XXX versions filmed to cash in on the adult market (and to detract from the story's initial emphasis on psychological perversion, adding further sexual blatancy and chaos to the proceedings), I recommend this English version for those eager to fathom Franco's disturbing portrait of madness and obsession. Charting the bloody, subversive waters of the serial-killer mind - and attacking the ignorance/arrogance of the Church - Franco's Exorcism is a decidedly unfriendly film, a scathing knife wound that peels back the blisters of commonplace conventionality and fingers the exposed meat beneath. Killing women of a 'loose' nature, Franco's character seeks no friends, and will make none. The main character's madness is something to be feared and lamented, not celebrated. Franco takes a similar approach to the violence and sexual situations.
The graphic violence is repugnant and terrible to watch - the way real-life violence is. While clearly exploitative, Franco doesn't treat violence here in the designer nature of the Western Slasher film, which often enjoys its beautifully depicted dispatching. Revealing violence/death as the sordid, wasteful, senseless acts that they are, he foregoes glorifying them in candy-colored Faerie-Tale lighting or with the visual eye-candy joy of the Giallo. In Franco's hands violence is dirty - for both victim and victimizer. While the director's mixed graphic intensity yet non-glorifying approach to viscera will interest fans, of equal interest is Franco's admirable provocation of the Church, which is perhaps most viscously featured in his murder of Carole Riviere and Lina Romay with a rabidly delivered Roman Catholic mass! The most grotesque addition is a scene which shows him murdering The Countess (France Nicholas) on a hotel bed. This is accomplished by shots of Vogel slashing her open and fondling her internal organs. Also, this version also makes clear the Black Masses Vogel witnesses are staged events, the human "sacrifices" are not harmed but willing participants, the knives they use retractable blades; their blood, unlike Vogel's, is fake. Clearly showing that the beginning 'act' of the mock-Satanists is contrived, the knives props and the 'victims' indulging a sado-masochistic kink, this version of Exorcism rips away the ambiguity of Vogel's agenda. He is, quite simply, deliciously, a fanatic.
Both a celebration and condemnation of the voyeuristic tendencies, sexual/violent excess, and murder that it naturalistically captures on a gritty film canvas as void of bright colors as the narrative is of hope, Franco both excites and sickens his audience, daring us to enjoy the sensations of horror he arouses while asking us . . . why?! We, or rather our primitive instinctive natures towards violence and carnality, like characters in the film, are both victims and victimizers, enjoying and further continuing the cycle of violence that unfolds lovingly before us. In a brazen move of life-imitating-art-imitating life style of postmodernism -- years before such became a catchphrase -- Franco depicts in Vogel an author whose terrible accounts of torture and murder are actually self-confessions, purchased and enjoyed by a respectable class of aristocracy who are themselves the Satanic deviants who Vogel murders having confused their black mass 'art' for real debauchery.
A poet of the perverse not content to rehash or champion intellectually lazy intimations of conservative morality in either his films or his personal life, his movies reflect an adventurous, untraditional, horrifying yet fascinating - yes, even liberating - approach to life and the art/entertainment through which we see it. This film is a delirious blend of sex, violence, depravity, and style - an excess of style dripping off both the frame and the forms of lovely, bare, bleeding women.
While not without minor flaws in the credits and occasional lines and grain (no doubt from the master source itself), Synapse's presentation of Exorcism is nothing less than a dark marvel. Pleasing 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen emphasizes both the love and respect with which the company held Franco's filthy fear-fest. Picture definition is superb, lending richness and clearly defined texture to the sets and actors. Colors are rich and vibrant, drowning actors in carefully lit interior scenes and Gothic-like atmosphere. Audio is likewise clean and concise, bringing the screams into your living room (and the pain into your heart!). Extras, generous and comprehensive, establish a historical and cultural context which allows the movie to be better appreciated. These include an enjoyable alternate opening sequence, a minimal but appreciated stills gallery, theatrical trailer, informative liner notes, and, perhaps most surprising, an enticing commentary featuring Franco as he reflects on the production, story, actors, and surprising intimate details concerning how he approached varying scenes, and on his work in general. In short, Exorcism is a threat and a treat, as capable of making you detest yourself for enjoying the film even as you respect Franco for making it!
Review by William P Simmons
|Released by Synapse|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|