Jesus died today. Jesus Franco, that is, otherwise known as Jess, but just as often known as Clifford Brown, David Khune and Frank Hollmann, among some of the other pseudonyms the Spanish director used in wild a career that lasted over half a century and yielded more than 200 films. He was 82.
Franco’s jaw-dropping workload is a big part of his story. An utterly unique filmmaker and a true anarchist, he happily toiled in the eurosleaze market for low rent producers like Erwin C. Dietrich and Robert De Nesle, often shooting more than one film at a time without telling anyone, including a loyal company of actors.
Consequently, building a true Jess Franco filmography is almost impossible. A movie like his hypnotic 1973 masterpiece Female Vampire exists in at least three known versions, edited for different markets to produce hardcore, softcore, and no-core variants. I thought La Comtesse Perverse (1973) was a minor (and not very good) sex film until a restored and totally different cut surfaced last year. Turns out it was one of his very best.
Dismissed as an insane hack for most of his career, the rehabilitation of Franco's reputation really began when Lucas Balbo and Peter Blumenstock published their revisionist study of his work, Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco, in 1993. The argument, as they saw it, was that someone so prolific and so offensive to middle class sensibilities must have some merit.
In reality, there are moments even inside the worst and most indifferently produced Jess Franco film—White Cannibal Queen (1980) and Oasis of the Zombies (1981) are considered to be the nadir—that point to a kind of demented genius, whether it’s a striking composition here or a quixotic in-joke there (a scene in Barbed Wire Dolls  in which Franco and his star Lina Romay ludicrously act in slow motion comes to mind).
In the ’60s, Franco made his name with beautifully shot, atmospheric horror films like Gritos en la Noche (1961) and Miss Muerte (1966). He was quite capable of meeting the standards of conventional filmmaking, but even then Franco was pushing the boundaries of surgical horror and erotica—and upsetting the censor.
Gradually, with movies like Venus in Furs (1968) and Vampyros Lesbos (1969), Franco found a jazzier, more intuitive groove—no doubt because he was a jazz musician. This became fundamental to understanding his work. When critics (and genre fans) complained that Franco’s ’70 movies—his peak as far as I’m concerned—suffered from sloppy camerawork, haphazard editing, or bizarre narrative choices, they failed to realize that Franco was thinning the membrane between the artist and his art. His attack on form was uncompromising. You either got it or you didn’t.
In tandem with Franco’s insatiable need to make movies was his fixation on violence, perverse sex, and women. In contrast to his peers in the grindhouse universe, Franco loved his leading ladies, invariably making them the centre of his films. His male characters were typically cruel or weak. His women were potent, mysterious, and powerful.
Indeed, it’s impossible to separate the director from two of his actors—Soledad Miranda, who died at 27 after collaborating with Franco on a number of movies, including possibly his best, Eugenie De Sade (1970), and finally Lina Romay, his partner and star for an amazing 38 years.
When Romay passed away last year from cancer at a tragically young 57, we all wondered if the increasingly frail auteur would be far behind. The idea of a Jess Franco film without his uninhibited muse in front of the camera seemed wrong. When Jess Franco suffered a stroke on Wednesday of last week, it was the day after the Barcelona premiere of Al Pereira vs the Alligator Women, his first film since Lina’s death.