On the first half of the best day of my life, Monday September 28, I
traveled with 20 some-odd other Fantastic Fest folks – filmmakers,
journalists and fest staff – to shoot machine guns the likes of which
your average citizen will never so much as touch. It was a total blast,
and you can read about my adventure here.



That was a long day, and I was tired when the van finally pulled back
up to the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar in Austin, Texas. Just coming
to the Drafthouse puts some life in you – this is silly, but every time
I come here I feel like I’m coming home – but what really put a spring
in my step was the fact that I was about to meet Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco,
one of the greatest directors of exploitation films in the history of
cinema.



If you don’t know Franco, you’re in for a treat. Franco is one of the
most prolific filmmakers in history, releasing hundreds of films under
various names, and his output swings wildly from the tawdry to the
transcendent. Franco’s an indisputable genius – no less an authority
than Orson Welles used to work with Franco often, including on films
like Chimes at Midnight. Franco in fact completed Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote in
1992 (Fantastic Fest programmer Lars Nilsen sagely noted that in many
ways Franco was the Sancho Panza to Welles’ Quixote). But Franco’s
interests also lean towards the… extreme. He made his name in extreme
erotic horror films, especially movies featuring copious amounts of
S&M. But even in his filthiest work (and it gets filthy),
Franco retains a distinct and beautiful artistic sensibility. Without a
doubt Franco’s films are the best looking sexploitation movies of all
time.



The geniuses at Fantastic Fest decided to bring Franco in to receive
the first Fantastic Fest lifetime achievement award, and the aged
filmmaker flew in from Spain along with his frequent star and constant
life companion, Lina Romay. This has been a big year for the 79-year
old and wheelchair-bound Franco; besides getting an honorary sword (!)
from Fantastic Fest, he got a lifetime honor from the Goyas, the
Spanish Oscars. To celebrate the master’s arrival in Austin, Fantastic
Fest played four of his classics: Eugenie: Story of Her Journey Into Perversion, Venus in Furs, Succubus and The Bare-Breasted Countess. Because of my schedule I was only able to see Venus in Furs at
the festival, but I was psyched – it’s one of Franco’s best, and it’s
one of his tamer films, without much of the explicit sadomasochism
you’ll find in films like Barbed Wire Dolls. And it’s a
film I never quite understood; I was hoping that maybe seeing it on the
big screen would open up some of the film’s mysteries to me.



No such luck! The thing with Franco is that narrative is really a
tertiary concern. He’s very interested in atmosphere and cinematography
first, and then in fetish and sexuality. Third comes story, so when you
sit down for a Franco film, you shouldn’t be looking for it to exactly
make a ton of sense. 1969’s Venus in Furs makes almost
none, but it’s absolutely gorgeous and intriguing for every second of
its 86 minutes. The film opens with a jazz trumpeter on a beach in
Istanbul, finding the corpse of a beautiful woman he had seen at a
party he played the night before (the woman is played by Maria Rohm, a
Franco regular for a period in the 60s and 70s). The musician had
followed as she went into a room where she was beaten by two men and a
woman (one of the men being Klaus Kinski, apparently playing a Turk.
Weird). The musician peeped on the beating but left just before Kinski
murdered her.



The musician takes off for Rio (represented by copious amounts of stock
Carnivale footage) where he gets a gig and a girl. But then Maria Rohm
walks into a party where he’s playing. This woman – dead or not? –
becomes his obsession and he begins an affair with her. Then she starts
appearing to the people who killed her, and they begin dying. And then
it wraps up in a scene that makes no fucking sense but is really
awesome and psychedelic and wonderful.



The print of Venus in Furs was great, but the highlight
of the night was Franco doing a Q&A. I had seen Franco earlier at
the Highball, the bowling alley/bar/karaoke joint owned by Fantastic
Fest’s Tim League (and the official hang out of the festival), but had
been scared to approach the old guy as he enjoyed a drink and a smoke.
I knew from Lars, who had been dealing with Franco, that the master was
a sweetheart (I also learned that Franco and Romay really enjoy the TV
show Numbers. If you have seen a Franco film this will
blow you away), but it was still too much for me. I had never even
imagined I would lay eyes on Franco. In fact, I had thought he was dead
until this year.



The Q&A was stellar. Franco talks at length, and his accent can be
difficult to understand, but he’s still sharp. He talked a lot about
working with Welles, and about reconstructing Don Quixote.
It’s impressive that Lars could throw a movie title at Franco and he
would remember it – the IMDB lists 190 titles he directed.



After the screening I found Franco and Romay out on the Drafthouse’s
smoking patio, getting ready to hit the Highball for one last drink
before going to bed. Sheepishly I walked up to him with the special
poster that Mondotees had printed for the event and I asked them both
for their autographs, something I have done maybe a half dozen times in
the course of my career (which now is about eight years long. Jesus
(not Franco)). Both were incredibly gracious and I walked away giddy as
a schoolboy.



Between the guns and the Franco Monday was already a great day. But in
my future I still had something new and scary looming – I would strap
on head gear, a cup and boxing gloves and take out some aggression in
the square circle for a boxing match.


Lars Nilsen presents the Lifetime Achievement Sword to Jess Franco.

Photo by Steve Rogers. All Rights Reserved, etc etc yadda yadda. Ie, it’s his pic and not mine!