To review La Reina del Tabarín, Jess Franco’s 1960 musical, I had to watch both the Spanish and French versions of the film several times. La Reina del Tabarín is Franco’s least typical film, a painfully uninteresting romantic comedy with a singularly unsympathetic male lead. Yet I would gladly watch that film — either version, or both — over and over and over, if it meant I never had to watch Franco’s next film, Vampiresas 1930, ever ever again.
Like his previous film, Vampiresas 1930 was intended as a vehicle for Mikaela (Wood). In this film, she plays Dora, a major star of the silent screen; she’s a vampiresa in that her agent has decided she should play up the whole Theda Bara act and make herself as mysterious and sexy as possible. Privately, she’s fed up with her public image as a frail, ethereal creature, prone to fits of overwhelming emotion. What she really wants is a nice plate of cheese.
Yves Massard, Fernando from La Reina del Tabarín, plays a struggling musician named Tony. He and his friend Daniel (Tenemos 18 Años‘s Antonio Ozores) play jazz at a little Italian restaurant to make ends meet. One day, a young girl newly arrived in Paris stumbles into the restaurant — her name is Carolina (Lina Morgan), and she’s starving. She’s also really cute, so Tony and Daniel rush to offer her some of their own food. When customers come in, Tony and Daniel rush to the piano and break into a number; whereupon Carolina’s eyes light up. She runs to the unattended double-bass and begins playing along. She’s not only a jazz musician herself, she’s a darned good one.
Tony and Daniel take her back with them to their lodgings. They live in a sort of commune for out-of-work musicians, where jam sessions are always breaking out unexpectedly, and where the landlady doesn’t want a security deposit — she wants an audition. Well, everybody bursts into a number, and Carolina gets to singing and dancing like mad. She’s in.
Tony and Daniel’s other job, the one that really pays the bills, is as technicians on the movie sets. Daniel is a stuntman, whose duties include riding a car into an exploding building. Tony provides mood music for the actors during the shoots… particularly for Dora, who thinks he’s just dreamy. When Tony makes a special visit to Dora’s dressing room to speak to her, she’s thrilled. When she finds out he’s there to ask for help getting Carolina some work, she’s heartbroken… though in fact it’s Daniel who’s got a thing for Carolina. Dora manages to get Tony to agree to a date at her place…
… which strikes her agent as pure publicity gold: a handsome musician for the notorious vamp! The scandal sheets will love it! This leads to a halfway-amusing scene in which Tony shows up for his “date”, not realizing there are reporters stuffed in every closet, under every piece of furniture, and behind every screen.
Now then: I’d go on about the various turns of the plot, but it turns out there’s no point. The whole story comes to an abrupt halt when it’s suddenly announced that the Talking Pictures have arrived. The silent studios have all gone bankrupt, and everybody’s out of a job.
Some of you reading this synopsis may already be starting to clutch your heads in pain. No wonder: it’s obvious the first half of the flick is a heavy-handed “homage” (sic) to Singin’ in the Rain… with Yves Massard in the Donald O’Connor role, and Antonio Ozores — yes: bug-eyed, round-faced, Jerry-Lewis-meets-Peter-Lorre Antonio Ozores — in the Gene Kelly role.
It’s Ozores who gets to plunge into an exploding building, just like Gene Kelly:
Dora the vamp is actually costumed to look suspiciously like the character Olga Mara, who appears a couple of times in Stanley Donen’s film and has (as I recall) a single line.
Dora’s director is a carbon copy of Roscoe Dexter, the stressed-out director in Singin’ in the Rain.
Two other minor characters, the elderly impresario we meet in Mr. Radeck’s night club and his young blonde girlfriend, may also be patterned after Rita Moreno’s character “Zelda Zanders” and her boyfriend, the “eligible bachelor”.
Here’s the trouble: Franco’s movie so far has been a painfully ordinary romantic comedy. Singing’ in the Rain, on the other hand, is not only one of the best movies ever made, it’s one of the best movies about movies ever made. It’s a spectacular exercise in pure cinema — one that delights in its artificiality, while at the same time commenting on the artificiality of the movies (my favorite line in a movie stuffed full of favorite lines is given to R.F., the producer, just after Gene Kelly’s Don has finished pitching the “Broadway Melody” number [“Gotta dance!”]. We’ve just been treated to a show-stopping, 13-minute production number of such stunning virtuosity that it’s hard to believe any movie could contain it. Just after this incredible sequence, Don turns to the producer and asks him what he thinks of the idea. R.F. replies, “I can’t quite visualize it…”)
Cinema — love of the cinema, passion for the cinema, understanding of the cinema — is woven into the fabric of Singing’ in the Rain from beginning to end. The plot device of the coming of the Talking Pictures is central to its story. In Vampiresas 1930, on the other hand, the advent of the Talkies comes as a complete shock. It’s introduced by newspaper headlines. Sure, newspaper headlines had heralded the triumph of The Jazz Singer in Singin’ in the Rain, but the bad news had been built up to gradually (not as though we didn’t know what was going to happen). Nor did ruin come to the characters right away, the way it seems to do in Vampiresas…. Far from building up a sense of comic foreboding, as Donen and Kelly did, and examining the change’s impact on the characters, Vampiresas… only shows up newspaper clippings. One states that 24 silent stars have all killed themselves in despair. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Now, you can’t really blame Franco for the disparity between Vampiresas… and the movie it depends on for its first half. The story and screenplay were the
fault — ahem, work of Pío Ballasteros, with dialogue provided by Franco. Who was Ballasteros? I have no idea; I do know, however, that the film was made at Estudios Ballasteros, so you can read into that anything you want.
But when we come to the second half of the flick, I am willing to assign plenty of blame to anybody who had anything to do with it.
You may have noticed I mentioned the name “Radeck” very briefly in my description above. In Franco’s films, “Radeck” is the name of the villain — the name first turns up in 1960’s Labios Rojos, and would continue to signify the Bad Guy all the way through Franco’s career. There’s been no room for a stock Bad Guy in the movie so far, just as there was no place for one in Singin’ in the Rain. That’s about to change: earlier, Daniel and Carolina had gone out for a night on the town, and while dancing in Radeck’s night club, had become so carried away by the music that they’d jumped onstage and given an impromptu performance with the band. We’re given the impression they’re about to be discovered by an elderly producer, who (just as in La Reina del Tabarín) just happens to be in the audience. That’s not what happens. The real point of the sequence is to introduce Radeck and his associates… the photography changes style drastically when we meet Radeck, becoming all noirish and Wellesian.
Radeck’s nightclub is really a front for his nefarious activities. When one of his underlings tries to double-cross him and rob the club, Radeck sneaks up on him and shoots him dead. Radeck and his girlfriend dump the body in a Paris park, but they neglect to remove the stolen money from the corpse. The next morning, when the starving Dora and her friends sit alone in the park, the stolen money blows across the park. Dora and the others find the money just as a passing policeman finds the body… and soon the four friends are on the run, under suspicion of murder.
Yeah, I know… it sounds like the scriptwriter ran out of ideas halfway through, and decided to throw in a chase scene. If only it were so innocuous. In fact, either Ballasteros or Franco had seen (and been impressed by) Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, which had come out a year or so before. In Wilder’s film, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis played musicians on the lam, who disguised themselves as women and joined up with an all-girl band. Because of its cross-dressing theme (and Joe E. Brown’s infamous final line), Some Like It Hot had been held up by the Spanish censors, who did not allow it to be released in Spain until 1963. Perhaps Ballasteros and Franco thought they could subvert the censors by turning the second half of their movie into a near-remake of Wilder’s film. Perhaps they thought they could rip off Wilder, and nobody would notice… since the original film hadn’t been released yet to a local audience. Whatever their motivation may have been, rip off Wilder is exactly what they did; and if the thought of Yves Massard and Antonio Ozores in drag scares you, you’ve only scratched the surface of the horror in store.
To give you a better idea of what’s to come, the French title of Vampiresas 1930 is Some Like It Black. And they’re not talking about coffee.
You see, the four fugitives need to find some way to sneak out of Paris to avoid the police. While Dora and Tony are waiting to speak to their agent, they overhear a phone conversation with Radeck: it seems he’s hired an all-black jazz band to play at his Club Negresco in Nice (you see where this is going, don’t you?). Tony, Dora, Daniel and Carolina rush off to the train station, where they meet the jazz band disembarking. Since the players don’t speak much French, they’re very happy when these four friendly Parisians offer to help them find their connecting train to Nice. They don’t notice that the “helpful” quartet has really put them on a train for… Siberia. Ha. Ha. Ha.
With the actual band out of the way, this means that not only Dora, Tony, Daniel and Carolina, but the entire population of the musicians’ boarding house are free to dress up in drag and blackface, and go down to Nice to take their place.
Ladies and gentlemen, behold the result:
No, no… take a good long look; I insist:
Bear in mind we’re really only halfway through the picture. We have a good long time to suffer through this miserable indignity. To pad out the plot, it turns out that the Club Negresco is actually Radeck’s front for a major counterfeiting operation. Our terribly convincing and not-at-all offensive pseudo-black musicians have gone from one criminal mess straight into another.
Clearly this movie presents a lot of problems for a modern audience. But one of the problems it ran into early on stemmed from its origin as a vehicle for Mikaela. The trouble was, Vampiresas 1930 also featured the cinema debut of the gamine-ish Lina Morgan, who was an established stage actress and a natural physical comedienne. Miss Morgan wiped Mikaela off the screen with her every appearance. Take, for example, one of Mikaela’s big emotional numbers at the musicians’ boarding house: there she is, singing her heart out in a loving close-up… and over her left shoulder is Morgan, pretending to play the double-bass, making Harpo Marx faces and stealing the show. I guarantee that not a single eye in the theater was watching Mikaela while that scene went on. Mikaela’s career stalled after Vampiresas 1930, but Morgan’s was only beginning.
If Franco’s film had ended halfway through, Vampiresas 1930 might have made a good intro for Morgan. Unfortunately, once she starts doing Harpo Marx in blackface, her performance goes from charmingly eccentric to horrifying. Her “ethnic” schtick becomes so broad that it brings to mind every ghastly minstrel-show stereotype. Her antics are highlighted by the fact that nobody else seems to be trying in the least to do anything with their roles in disguise. All together, the band’s stage show performances are certainly unique: you can’t bear to watch them, but you can’t look away, either.
The nadir comes when the band is caught onstage after discovering the counterfeiting plan. Their way offstage is blocked by gun-wielding thugs, so they have to keep repeating and repeating and repeating the same tepid number (“Lara-Lara”, written by Franco himself) while they mosey en-masse through the crowd from one exit to the next. By this point, Massard’s shoe-polish makeup is already starting to rub off; the fact that the piano continues to play on the soundtrack even after Massard’s got up to join the others is a relatively minor problem by comparison.
Vampiresas 1930 is (so far) my single least favorite Jess Franco film. Admittedly, there are a whole raft of mid-eighties Franco flicks I haven’t seen yet; but since Vampiresas… contains so few of the (ahem) qualities we associate with a Jess Franco film, I find it unlikely that any of his more characteristic work will inspire such loathing. The Spanish DVD doesn’t help anything by cropping the frame to the wrong aspect ratio.
At the very end of the film, I kept waiting for the members of the real jazz band to come back from their inadvertent trip to Siberia and beat the living shit out of the principal cast. Alas, that’s not what happens… but it’s a beautiful dream.
While they were in Nice filming the latter half of Vampiresas…, Franco took the producer Sergio Newman to see Terence Fisher’s Brides of Dracula. Franco later claimed he loathed the Hammer horror films. “Terence Fisher is one of the worst film-makers that ever was,” said the director of Lulu’s Talking Asshole (Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco [Balbo/Blumenstock/Kessler], p. 244). But at the time, Franco seemed to find the Hammer films’ approach inspirational: if only their lurid, explicit approach to horror could be extended to the erotic implications of the stories, then, maybe, there’d be something worth watching…
Out of that experience in Nice emerged Franco’s first horror film, and his best-known film of any kind: Gritos en la Noche (“Screams in the Night”, aka “The Awful Dr. Orlof”).
Gritos en la Noche opens in the very early 20th century, as a series of abductions is terrorizing the town of Hartog. Young girls are disappearing off the streets at random, never to be seen again. In fact, they’re being abducted by the awful Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon), a former prison surgeon who needs young bodies for his medical experiments. His dirty work is done by his blind, disfigured, zombie-like servant Morpho, a psychopath rescued from prison at the expense of his mind; Morpho subdues his victims by tearing out their throats with his teeth. Orlof’s goal is to restore his daughter Melissa to life. She had been burnt in a fire, and now languishes in a coma, her once-beautiful face scarred beyond recognition.
On the trail of the disappearances is a policeman called Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin). Tanner has some good ideas: for example, he is seen to virtually invent the facial composite during the course of the movie (though I think the practice was already in use by that time). But overall, he’s a bit of a blockhead. Most of the real detective-work in the movie is done by Tanner’s fiancée, the danseuse Wanda Brodsky, with some help from a clever, sharp-eyed beggar named Jeannot.
Orlof’s method is to woo young girls with champagne and jewelry, convince them to go off with him, and then leave them to Morpho. Unfortunately for him, one of his victims loses the necklace he gave her in the struggle; when the beggar Jeannot finds it and sells it to a jeweler, its unique design is recognized by a policeman who was among the last to see the girl alive. While Tanner struggles to figure out what to do with this information, Orlof and Wanda encounter each other. Orlof is enthralled, because Wanda is the living image of his daughter Melissa (the two women are both played by Diana Lorys). Wanda, however, recognizes Orlof from Tanner’s attempt at creating an Identikit, and realizes that he must be the monster. Without telling Tanner what she’s up to, Wanda disguises herself as a prostitute and starts visiting the bars where she last saw Orlof. She hopes she’ll be able to attract his attention again, so she can get close to him and find out what he’s really up to…
But poor Wanda hasn’t bargained on the existence of the half-human Morpho, and soon finds herself in over her head. She’s able to send a last-minute emergency message to Tanner, but the Inspector (dunderhead that he is) thinks it’s just another false lead and refuses even to read it… until it’s nearly too late. While he dithers, Wanda attempts to escape, and discovers the hideous truth behind Orlof’s experiments. In the meantime, Orlof makes a bad mistake in his dealings with his ex-lover and assistant, Arne (Perla Cristal), which may spell doom for all of them…
Gritos en la Noche exists in two main versions: the better-known international version, which contains some notorious footage of bare breasts, and the version made for release within Franco’s conservative Spain. The Spanish version, while missing the nudity, is actually longer than the international version, and holds together slightly better. The brief nudity has drawn all sorts of notice in books and articles on Franco, but it’s really pretty uninteresting today: there’s a scene in which Dr. Orlof draws a scalpel between the breasts of his victim on the operating table, and a second scene in which the lust-crazed Morpho tears the dress off the heroine. The first of these scenes never made much sense to me: why (other than for giggles) is he working on her chest, when he is supposed to be cutting off her face? The footage has also been shoehorned in, in a very sloppy way that doesn’t match the surrounding sequences. The second of these scenes was shot using a stand-in, since Diana Lorys refused to do it herself. So neither of these famous moments is really integral to the film. (Nice boobies, though!)
In the Spanish cut, the opening credits extend into the first scene as far as the moment in which the drunk girl, soon to be a victim of Morpho, peers at herself in a mirror. This explains the weird disconnect between the action and the music — wonderful, avant-garde improvisation involving keyboards, percussion and slide whistle… Because the credits are missing, the action and the music seem totally at odds with each other in the international version… and this gives the opening an eerily-appropriate feeling of malaise. Thus the Spanish cut has a slightly more conventional feel, though it’s well worth tracking down as a valid and enjoyable alternative version.
Orlof and his blind henchman Morpho are lifted from the old Béla Lugosi film, The Dark Eyes of London. Lugosi had played a dual role of Dr. Orloff (with two “f”s) and kindly Professor Dearborn; though the movie was based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, the name “Orloff” did not appear in the book (in which the villain’s real name was Judd… “The Awful Dr. Judd” just doesn’t have the same ring to it). Lugosi’s Orloff had been aided by his lumbering, disfigured henchman “Blind Jake”, who’d ended up turning on his master in much the same way Morpho ends up turning on his.
Melissa and her disfigured face are clearly derived from Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (“Eyes Without a Face”, 1960), the hugely influential art-horror film that inspired a decade of European rip-offs. Franco would return to Franju’s original many times throughout his career, most notably in his 1987 film Faceless. The Awful Dr. Orlof is sort-of an anti-Franju film, since Les Yeux Sans Visage was specifically intended to avoid all the exploitative elements and horror-movie clichés that Franco’s film wallows in.
Orlof is Franco’s most famous film, but it’s not his best. The screenplay is crammed with terrible expository dialogue — which is unfortunate, considering how effectively Franco uses visual cues alone to convey Morpho’s ability to hunt by sound. Inspector Tanner’s investigations slow the movie to a crawl whenever he’s on screen; and no matter how clever his “Identikit” idea may be, it’s hard to believe that anyone would really be identified through the terrible drawings that result.
The actual horror elements of the movie work much better. The black and white photography lends everything a dank and decadent atmosphere (Franco’s use of light and shadow in his black and white films is very effective; he would not make another film in color until 1967!). The scenes of Morpho hunting his prey through an empty house are certainly disturbing, but there are quiet, subtle moments as well: when Howard Vernon’s Orlof sits considering his prospective victim, he’s captured in half-shadow, while the eyes of the girl he’s watching are fully illuminated. Vernon thus appears so dark by comparison to the girl, yet is so clearly visible, that he almost seems to be a living negative image (which is appropriate).
Vernon himself was an inspired choice for the sinister doctor. Born Mario Lippert, this Swiss-American actor had played important roles in films by Jean-Pierrre Melville, and could have gone on to a career making Important Films. He didn’t want a career like that, though. He preferred the unusual, the unexpected and the outré… which is why he got along so well with Franco, and continued to make films with him for most of the rest of his life. Vernon approached his roles in Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer and the Franco-scripted Zombie Lake with equal commitment and enthusiasm, and that’s the attitude that endeared him not only to Franco, but to legions of bad movie fans everywhere.
Still, even the horror aspect of the movie makes very little sense. There’s no reason why poor Melissa’s state should hinge on the condition of her face. There’s also no real explanation for the fact that once Orlof dies, Melissa dies, too. It’s absurd, but in this case the absurdity constitutes the core of the movie. The two are entwined in a sick, quasi-incestuous, quasi-necrophiliac sort of relationship; Melissa’s ailment might be more charitably described as poetic rather than clinical. Orlof and Melissa are two of Franco’s most important recurring characters. Various Melissas return throughout the Franco filmography, and in his bizarre tarot deck the “Melissa” card tends to suggest both innocence and doom. In The Secret of Doctor Orloff (two “f”s), a Melissa must lead her zombified father to his final death; in Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, Melissa is the blind bird-woman “daughter” created by Howard Vernon’s Cagliostro as an answer to Frankenstein’s male creation.
As for Orlof, he represents the first appearance of the Bad Father in a Franco film. Names recur often in Franco’s movies: Orlof(f), Radeck, Kalman, Al Pereira… sometimes these names have a symbolic significance (or at least, they assume this significance over time): for example, “Linda” is usually the innocent to be corrupted; “Lorna” often represents the corrupting influence. Other names and roles are taken from their literary sources: de Sade’s Eugénie, Justine and Juliette make repeated appearances throughout his filmography. But the Bad Father is different… actually, it’s one of the few elements in any of Franco’s movies that seems to go deeper than the surface. With Gritos…, such an early movie, we can’t tell yet what deeper significance the Bad Father may have. We’re still mostly in monster movie territory. But we’ll be revisiting the Bad Father many times as we go through Franco’s output. I have yet to decide if the depth of the image is real or apparent… but then again that’s exactly why I’m watching so many Franco films in chronological order.
Lastly, if there’s one truly awful thing about Dr. Orlof, it’s the English dubbing on the international version. I have the old Image Entertainment DVD, on which the viewing options are either English or French with no subtitles. Fortunately, my dimly-remembered high school French is quite enough to carry me through the French version. The English dialogue is so bad it’s unlistenable.
PS — the terrible opera seen briefly in La Reina del Tabarín is identified in Gritos en la Noche as Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Faust. Meyerbeer never wrote an opera based on Faust. He did wrote a very similar opera called Robert le Diable… but this ain’t it.