Friday, November 6, 2009

Jess Franco's Dracula's Daughter (1972)

In 1972, Jess Franco was in a period referred to by the authors of essential tome, Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco, as "The Peak Years: 1970-1973." Of the fifty to sixty films that I've seen from Franco, these years hold some of my favorites. This span also sees the end of the Spanish film maker's creative collaboration with producer Harry Alan Towers and with gorgeous actress, Soledad Miranda; this period also predates Franco's collaboration with German producer Erwin C. Dietrich; and finally, these years would see the beginning of a lifelong collaboration with actress, Lina Romay. Although she doesn't seem to grab as much attention as Maria Rohm, Miranda, or Romay, Britt Nichols would make a handful of films with Franco during this period. Around the time of his formal yet decadent The Demons (1972) and poetic and affecting A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), Franco and Nichols would make Dracula's Daughter (1972).
Atop a seaside cliff sits ruined Castle Karlstein where legendary Count Dracula once resided. The notorious nobleman lives today only in legend, but the Karlstein family lives on. However, not long for some: the Baroness Karlstein (Carmen Carbonell) is ill and perturbed. Her granddaughter Luisa (Britt Nichols) arrives to see her. The Baroness makes a near-deathbed confession: the original Count Karlstein was a vampire; and although the Castle has been abandoned for many years, his corpse still resides within. The Baroness tells Luisa to take the key to the crypt and go. Perhaps the recent murder of a young woman whose body is found at the shore in the shadow of the Castle is the source of the Baroness's immediacy.
While Luisa takes a leisurely stroll to the crypt, the rest of the seaside town's inhabitants begin speculation and investigation of the recent murder. Journalist Charlie (Fernando Bilbao) asks Inspector Ptuschko (Alberto Dalbés) for information on the murders at the local inn. Ptuschko doesn't have much yet; but innkeeper, Cyril Jefferson (Franco) believes the Castle has more to do with the murder than cast a shadow over the sea. Luisa stays in town with Count Karlstein (Daniel J. White) and her cousin, Karine (Anne Libert), after she has visited the crypt.
The authors of Obsession write, "Despite a captivatingly unreal atmosphere, La Fille de Dracula is too chaotically thrown together to really hold an audience, which probably explains why the film was only released theatrically in France and Belgium." This chaos results from "some obscure reason Franco decided to shoot about a third of the scenes in tight close-up, with the result that the erotic scenes become artistic, a sort of mosaic of areas of flesh, which works against the voyeurism that is so characteristic of him." Later the authors add, "After Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein, Franco was hardly likely to control his imagination."
Dracula's Daughter comes from what I informally call Franco's "right side of the brain" group of films: less of an emphasis on narrative structure and more of an emphasis on the rendition of the images and atmosphere. Like a lot of Franco's cinema, Dracula's Daughter appears shot on a low-budget with few (yet powerful and atmospheric) locations and as the Obsession authors note, on sets from another film. The narrative is carried by a redundant mystery: the Inspector, the journalist, and Cyril are hunting for clues to the killer, but the viewer is well aware from the beginning who's the perpetrator. There is an unexpected twist to the mystery but it is only revelatory to the characters and not to the viewer. Franco needed some narrative for his wild images, like a jazz trumpeter using a standard tune to allow him to riff. I don't even think Franco hides this sentiment: from the beginning with the opening imagery of the castle shadowing the seashore, where the first victim is found, with the accompanying voice-over narration about the legend of Dracula in Castle Karlstein, I believe Franco assumed the viewer would make the associational link between vampires and victims.
The poetic power of Dracula's Daughter resides in the juxtaposition of its voyeuristic sequences. The murder victims are shot from the p.o.v. of a literal voyeur: the first victim is coldly and statically shot as she undresses to then bathe. The camera from behind the threshold of a cracked door continues to watch as she bathes only then to descend upon her for the kill. The subsequent murder of a cabaret dancer is shot similarly. These scenes of female nudity are no doubt designed to titillate, yet Franco creates an unsettling and sinister atmosphere with the images. The murder of the cabaret dancer is even more jarring, because of her previous scene, where she was dancing nude to a jovial group of onlookers. The two scenes of her undressing create total opposite emotions in the viewer, arousal and repulsion, respectively, despite both scenes' attempts to titillate.
Juxtaposed to the literal voyeuristic sequences are two love scenes with Nichols' Luisa and Libert's Karine. These scenes are shot "objectively" and are filmed, as the Obsession authors allude, in Franco's "characteristically voyeuristic" style: stationary camera on tripod, panning left or right, or hand held, slowly-moving, wide to medium shots, with intense use of zoom, whose speed ranges from slowly to quickly, to sometimes very intimate close-ups on the actresses' bodies. This style is almost like Franco attempting to match his camera with the movements of his roving and discursive eye. Luisa and Karine's first lovemaking scene follows after Luisa has visited the crypt and met the Count (Howard Vernon). Now infected, Luisa's seduction of Karine is a vampiric one and a feeding. All appearances, however, give way to a very erotic love scene with cross cuts of Count Karlstein (Daniel J. White, who wrote the music with Franco) playing the piano with the beautiful score segueing the two. Both Nichols and Libert are, to put it mildly, strikingly beautiful and Franco's camera doesn't hide it: the soft light gives a soft feel to their skin which accompanies their soft caresses, as their loose hair brushes against each other, lightly. Franco brilliantly ends the first lovemaking scene with a zoom shoot to a close up on Libert's fingers, slightly coiling after Luisa's feeding.Whatever chaos results from Dracula's Daughter is the result of Franco's poetic imagination. The emotions and imagery clash as the narrative fades away. Franco's cinema is often a haunting experience.

All objective facts and the quotes are taken from Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco.


Neil Fulwood said...

Ah, those languid Jess Franco girl-girl love scenes ....

*takes bromide pill*

*runs cold shower*

Hans A. said...

Thnx Neil for reading and commenting. As you can tell from my review, Franco cast a spell on me as well.