Saturday, 15 March 2008

Love is a vampire: A hymn to Euro-sleaze

There's really no "official" name for it: the genre of exploitation film produced all across Europe during the late 1960s and early 70s, one emphasizing horror and the erotic, and bearing the recognizable hallmarks of lesbianism, vampirism and an all-pervasive aura of druggy solipsism. Given this absence of a handy eponym, the term "Euro-sleaze" will do us quite nicely for now.
The Euro-sleaze canon is dominated by the work of a few directors long regarded as hacks, ultra-prolific journeymen whose output was wildly variable. The names of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, José Bénazéraf and Bruno Gantillon now appear well overdue some respect. A critical revaluation has been afforded to the great Italian horror director Dario Argento, whose influence can now be seen in the work of artists such as Mike Kelley and Mike Nelson. Similarly, these auteurs of the damned might also be granted a second look by curious viewers desiring the strange and the wonderful.
The only attempt at a Euro-sleaze critical response, itself long out of print, has been Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs released in 1994. This romp through the genre's murky past was once the sole frame of reference for a contemporary audience, until the arrival of websites such as Severed Cinema and individual reviews on Amazon allowed a new generation of fans to take on the role of learned guides for sleaze neophytes.
My own initiation to these films came a few years ago with the soundtrack to Jess Franco's Vampyros Lesbos, a beguiling confection of camp easy listening and mournful psychedelia. Confirming its cult appeal, the album was later remixed by contemporary electronic artists including Two Lone Swordsmen. Intrigued, I then set about viewing a few of the films themselves. What immediately strikes is the cavalier approach to narrative employed by Franco, with storylines being picked up and dropped like so much confetti onto the cutting room floor. The plot makes no sense. When it does, there is often so little development that the film just becomes a series of slo-mo somnambulist tableaux, with beautiful women stood around naked enacting some absurd ritual or other.
In his helpful Amazon reviews of various DVD releases, Johnny Guitar praises Franco for delivering intensity "of a kind David Lynch could never reach with his designer-perversity for yuppies". The comparison with Lynch is telling. There is frequently a tone of defiance in the lauding of cinema so often dismissed as trash, but the Lynchian interest in sex and surrealism, the non-linear narrative and the sensitive direction of glamourous female leads is all present and correct. For those with the patience to sit through a moderate amount of dull, seemingly inconsequential nonsense, the prospect of the divinely gorgeous Soledad Miranda languidly drawing on a cigarette as she plots seduction and murder will be more than enough compensation.

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