Jess Franco! A name to strike fear into the heart of any true cinephile. He’s been called Spain’s answer to Ed Wood and manages to live down to that billing extremely well and yet, for lovers of trash cinema there’s often much to enjoy in a Franco film. With titles like Swedish Nympho Slaves and Diary of a Nymphomaniac you’re not really expecting another Citizen Kane. And how can you not want to see Killer Barbys vs. Dracula?
This second release in Tartan’s Jess Franco Double Bill series pairs a couple of lesser-known offerings from the schlockmeister’s 70s heyday, First up is Devil’s Island Lovers from 1974. One of Franco’s preoccupations, particularly in the 70s, was with imprisoned women. Caged Women (aka Barbed Wire Dolls in the US), Women Behind Bars and Ilsa, the Wicked Warden all came from his fevered mind. Devil’s Island Lovers is one of his earliest entries in the genre.
A fictional island’s corrupt governor who lusts after the girl, Beatriz, frames her and her lover for murder. The plot doesn’t really make a lot of sense, it’s just there to get the girl into the prison, although it takes almost half an hour to get there. The main reason for this is the flashback nature of the narrative; it’s told from the perspective of the couple's lawyer as his investigations begin to uncover what happened to the young lovers.
Once we get to the prison you’d be forgiven for expecting a bit of nudity (or even a lot) and some lesbian action, probably featuring a dominatrix warden. You would be forgiven but you’d also be disappointed. For a Franco film, at least in this, the Spanish version, it’s remarkably tame. It’s also pretty dull and that’s a word you wouldn’t normally expect to hear describing a Franco film.
There isn’t really a lot you can say about the performances since everyone is dubbed into Spanish. Ivan Reitman’s wife Geneviève Robert makes her second appearance in a Franco film (the first was Dracula vs. Frankenstein) as Beatriz and it was obviously enough to put her off acting for almost 20 years (she didn’t make another film until Dave in ’93.) Dennis Price plays the lawyer and it’s sad seeing a once-respected British actor (he starred in Kind Hearts and Coronets ) reduced to doing something like this to pay the bills. He died of cirrhosis of the liver before the films release, a sad end to a career that encompassed great heights and, in working with Mr Franco, the ultimate low.
Is there anything to recommend the film? Well there is an incredibly catchy score from Bruno Nicolai who was the musical director on Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly . I was humming it for days after. Still that’s not really a good enough reason to put yourself through this.
Night of the Assassins was made in 1976 and is Franco’s version of the Edgar Allen Poe story The Cat and the Canary . It’s a tale of intrigue and murder set in Louisiana.
When Lord Archibald is murdered, his relatives gather for the reading of the will but one by one a mysterious masked killer picks them off and a second, completely different, will is discovered. Was the real Archibald murdered? Why are there two wills? Who is the killer? Don’t expect any logical answers from dear old Jess. What you do get is a pretty creepy atmosphere and a nonsensical but fun murder mystery although like the previous film it lacks the directors usual kinky sex and violence.
Franco has his own little stock company of actors and several make an appearance here. Lina Romay first worked with him on Daughter of Dracula in 1972 and she can’t seem to get enough as she’s still working with him, appearing in last years Snakewoman . Alberto Dalbés and Antonio Mayans are also regular collaborators but it would be stretching credibility to say anyone gives a good performance. Competent is about the nicest thing you could say without risking perjury.
Both films are presented in Anamorphic 2.35:1, their correct aspect ratio. Neither looks particularly great, with a soft image and little detail but given the ultra-cheap nature of the films, this is probably the best they are going to look.
The only audio option is Spanish mono. It does the job and is probably the best Tartan could do with the available elements. At least they haven’t gone the Anchor Bay route and done a pointless Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS remix.
You get the choice of English or English Hard of Hearing.
On the Devil’s Island Lovers disc we get about 30 minutes of alternate footage that was shot for the French version. All the nudity, kinky sex and violence missing from the Spanish version is here including a hilarious torture scene featuring two naked women chained to a wall and having a tennis ball bounced off their butts.
It’s a pity Tartan didn’t release the French version but from the look of the footage (it’s taken from videotape) a decent print wasn’t available.
Night of the Assassins only extra is an alternate credit sequence that adds nothing to the film.
So one bad and boring film redeemed somewhat by the deleted footage and one mediocre but still enjoyable whodunit. If you’re a Francophile there is almost certainly something here for you, if you’re not…well there’s always Citizen Kane.