” I tried not to remember why I buried my horn… ”
Fnarr fnarr. Two minutes or so into this, one of several British-funded films Franco made in the late 60s under the patronage of the notorious Harry Allan Towers, and we’ve already hit a double entendre. Start as you mean to go on, I say. “A guy like me without a horn is like a man without words..”
Yes, Franco did write the dialogue (spoken with, it has to be said, sheer conviction by the fine American actor James Darren) himself, and it shows- typical of a man already pushing 40 by that time making an attempt at ‘hipster’ speak. It happens: people tend to take until they’re well over 30 to reach their stride as a filmmaker, particularly in Europe, and often find that society has left them behind somewhat. But then again, as a lover of jazz since his teens, who sometimes made (and still occasionally makes) films under the name ‘Clifford Brown’ in tribute to the late trumpeter, he probably helped write the book on it- albeit in Spanish.
Maybe it’s the translation to English that causes the intentional hilarity, but whatever the reason, they keep on coming. Within the first ten minutes, Darren proceeds to hand us further pearls of wisdom, such as “When you don’t know where you’re at, I tell you man, life is like an ocean..” (do you think Ian Brown ever watched this?) and the all time classic, “How can you run from a dead person unless you’re dead yourself?” I don’t know, do enlighten me. Not only that, but it takes almost fifteen minutes before any actual dialogue between characters is spoken: having seen the dire DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN first, even though it came later chronologically, I found myself increasingly worried that we were in for another no-budget narrated scenario, stylistically somewhere betwixt HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES and BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, but thankfully we weren’t.
I shouldn’t be too unfair, though, because on one level, VENUS IN FURS is a great film. It looks beautiful, sounds great (with a soundtrack from Manfred Mann Chapter Three, how could it not?) and features all the requisite elements of a good ‘cult’ movie. But it also makes about as much sense as the breakdown of my last phone bill, promising much, but in the final instance delivering little except confusion, disconnection and a general feeling of “er, what happened?” And the old get-out clause of “It was the Sixties, they were all on drugs”, doesn’t hold water here, particularly as one can’t imagine a hard-line exploitation taskmaster like Towers tolerating such behaviour. Mind you, it’s the oldest rule in the business- never allow the producer on set, he might see what you’re actually filming….
There is a basic narrative structure. I think. Darren, in the role of jazz trumpeter Jimmy Logan (you can see why these films never caught on in Glasgow, there’s no way they’d have taken THAT seriously!!) is suffering from amnesia, but something tells him that he’s buried his instrument on the beach in Istanbul. Upon finding it, he also discovers a naked woman, Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm aka Mrs Allan Towers, also found in previous Franco Britsploiters such as JUSTINE and CASTLE OF FU MANCHU) washed ashore, and remembers a series of immediately preceding events which link them together, involving a party thrown by ‘the Riviera Greek Island Yachting Crowd’ (no, me neither) also attended by beautiful photographer Olga (Margaret Lee) billionaire playboy Ahmed (Klaus Kinski) and pervy art dealer Percival Kapp (Dennis Price).
At said party, the four (though not Darren himself) indulge in some BDSM games which seem to get seriously out of hand, resulting in Rohm’s death. Except that, as the film progresses, she doesn’t appear to be dead, reappearing at other parties with a red bowl-cut, turquoise stockings, heels and a fur coat (a combination which set my pulse racing, anyway) and stalking the protagonists. It’s therefore up to Darren, who doesn’t even seem able to tell what year it is or what country he’s in, to decipher the mystery. Unfortunately people keep dying or killing themselves, leading the police to think he and the supposedly departed Rohm are involved in something very suspicious.
Now, that almost makes sense. OK, I’m fully aware that not all great films have to be linear- Jodorowsky never made such a movie in his life, and, with SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, Argento plunged headlong into the idea of horror as art, where the plot of the film was less important than its visual impact. Fair play to them, as Van Morrison would have said. But with Franco, you get the feeling that this was not by design, but by accident- and not necessarily a happy one either. The question is, did he even know what the plot of VENUS was meant to be? If it’s supposed to resemble the disjointed landscape of a dream he had (and let’s be honest, what else would he dream of but naked women, jazz and bloodletting?) then I have to say it achieves its objective perfectly. Unfortunately, our patience is tried too often by the narrative’s constant jumping from scene to scene, from past to present and back again, with little or no warning.
Maybe it’s fact that VENUS IN FURS is a British film that makes this more of a problem. Cosmetically, it doesn’t look very British, with locations from Turkey to Brazil via what looks like Barcelona dropping in and out of the picture. But over 70 percent British it is (trust me, I’ve checked) and apparently most of its interiors were shot here, so it therefore qualifies every bit as much as DON’T LOOK NOW, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, SCREAM AND DIE or THE MILLION EYES OF SUMARU, another Towers- financed production. And British films in general, with a few notable exceptions such as Don Levy’s HEROSTRATUS or Richard Lester’s THE KNACK, tend to make sense. Then again, would you necessarily know VENUS was British unless you were a real enthusiast? Maybe not, but unless you were really into this stuff, would you be watching it at all? It didn’t get shown on Brit TV that often, even during the 1960-90 golden era of broadcasting. It’d be interesting to know what audiences made of it back then, but like most exploitation films of the era, it was primarily viewed (in the UK anyway) by men in macs, boho types, hippies and gay couples- most of whom are either dead now or have little recollection of it, nor of the other two completely unrelated productions from the late 1960s which bear the same title. These are films that were borne of a magical time, but only found their true audience after that time itself had long passed.
In horror terms, VENUS IN FURS is neither that graphic nor particularly scary: in exploitation terms, the nudity and sex more restrained and gently erotic than usual, though Franco would return to pure sleaze a year later with EUGENIE. It is very atmospheric, but it’s the heady atmosphere of Bohemian decadence which prevails most, far more in tune with the likes of PERFORMANCE, PRIVILEGE or even SMASHING TIME than typical genre efforts. True, such films, both horror and non-horror, form an oft-discussed and as yet nameless genre of their own, and while it would be nigh on impossible to market such a film in 2009, at least those of us who appreciate this stuff today have been able to formulate, with hindsight, some appreciation of what people then were trying to do. On the other hand, it’s now been shown that punters queued round the block to see legendary ‘flops’ like GOODBYE GEMINI and BOOM, so maybe people did understand after all. History, it would seem, is written by those with an agenda.
Performance-wise, Darren makes for a reasonably interesting male lead, and Rohm is smouldering sensuality incarnate (though Lee is more to my taste- I always did prefer British girls) but the show is stolen from under all their noses by the great American jazz singer Barbara McNair. In the role of the musician’s long suffering girlfriend Rita, she not only provides us with the one sympathetic focus in the whole movie, but gets to sing the fantastic title song. Backed by Mann, Hugg and several leading lights of the British jazz-rock scene, and cavorting in the most seductive of silver ball gowns, her voice ascends to heights others couldn’t even dream of, practically validating the entire film single-handed.
‘Guest stars’ Price and Kinski appear onscreen so infrequently, one could almost forget they were in the film at all, though the former’s demise makes for one of only two genuinely disquieting moments found throughout, the other involving a rather messy suicide. Obviously, as a horror writer (and fan) myself, I would never suggest that seeing ‘proper’ actors appear in exploitation flicks is in any way depressing or demeaning, but, knowing what we do of Price’s personal life, one can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness at watching the man who once played the organ of Canterbury Cathedral, and who delivered the classic couplet “I shot an arrow in the air, she fell to earth in Berkeley Square” reduced to largely dialogue-less cameos in which his sole function appears to be to fondle the breasts and thighs of exotic women. On the other hand, given the opportunity, some might see this as the apex of their career. Come to think of it, so might I….
It’s also interesting to realise that at the time, even though it had already been released some three years hence, absolutely no-one outside of New York was aware of the fact that the Velvet Underground had recorded a tune of the same name- the lyrics of which, ironically, are a lot closer to Sacher Masoch’s original text than anything contained within this picture’s 86-minute running time. Let’s be honest, Franco’s script has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the original novel (a fact he and Towers presumably played down during promotion) As has been pointed out, the dialogue leaves a little to be desired, but whatever else one says about the man, he most definitely had a singular vision which, when given the necessary budget, has been allowed to create moments of stunning visual beauty. Some of those are on display here- the crumbling castles, the swirling red and purple hues, the longform shots of Rohm walking barefoot across several plush carpets, all aided by Angelo Lotti’s undoubted photographic skills- but unfortunately, the effect is undermined by totally unexplained and random pink-and-blue filter shots or slow-motion sequences that do little or nothing to aid the story.
That’s assuming, of course, that anyone is still following the story past the first 30 minutes: in the end, I enjoyed the whole experience more by giving up and immersing myself in the psychedelic spectacle. Perhaps that’s what you’re supposed to do? Ironically, in the last 20 minutes this becomes harder to achieve as Franco introduces an almost conventional structure involving a police investigation and a chase scene worthy of Dragnet itself, complete with cheesy caper music, although upon entering a nearby churchyard, everything takes a turn for the nonsensical yet again. And while we’re on the subject, why would a dead person have to run away from the police anyway? Surely they’d just dematerialise. Unless they’re not dead, in which case….oh, and hang on, we’re back in Istanbul again. Or are we? I give up…
For all its faults, it’s still a film I ‘dig’ (hey, this jazzspeak must be catching on). The worrying thing is that it might just be Franco’s best, challenged only by FEMALE VAMPIRE, A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, THE BLOODY JUDGE and DORIANA GRAY: what’s even more worrying is that at time of writing, I own about 30 of the infernal things and am strangely compelled to watch more of them. Actually, that’s terrifying. The same also applies to my obsession with Butchers’ Films- I’d like to say there’s a world of difference between them, but closer examination may tell a different story. Excuse me for a moment, I think I feel the need to go and bury my horn again.