As I browsed their Cult Video section, I noticed a title I didn't recognize: Night of the Skull. Curious, I took the movie off the rack. The cover was suitably lurid, with a hooded skeleton, a screaming woman and a man bursting into flames. But there, over the title, were the words that guaranteed I had to buy the disc:
"A Jess Franco Film."
Oh, yeah. Like many cult film devotees, I've spent a good deal of time poring over Franco's filmography — mentally checking off the titles I've seen; making an internal list of the other entries, both infamous and obscure, that I wanted to track down; and generally absorbing lots of other information about Franco's oeuvre. But in all the times I'd gone over that enormous list, this particular film had made no impression. None. I had no idea what it might be, or under how many alternative titles it had been released. You may call me crazy if you like, but I believe there's no feeling in the world quite like the lady-and-the-tiger prospect of watching a Franco film with absolutely no preparation.
I think the last time I'd watched a Franco film "cold" was when I'd sat through Lust for Frankenstein a few years ago (first I watched the U.S. version; and then, in stunned disbelief, I watched the European version included as an extra on the DVD, just to see if perhaps this had been some sort of bad joke. We'll speak no more of that experience). Still, in spite of (or maybe because of) the agonies of the past, I ended up giving fifteen bucks to a big-box chain store — The Man, in other words — so I could watch a Franco movie that very evening. I am aware of the irony.
Say what you want about Jess Franco — and everybody does — but he's nothing if not surprising. It's true, the surprises often come in the form of horrible disappointments, but at least they're still surprises... and on those rare occasions when he does something really ingenious, the shock is all the greater.
Now then: the shocking thing about this particular film is... that it's not particularly shocking at all. In fact, it shows Franco exercising remarkable self-control. For the most part, it's free of the irritating tricks we associate with a Franco film: the restless, meaningless pans; the constant zooms; the sudden jump-cuts that ruin the rhythm of the scene; the seemingly-improvised plots that go nowhere... There isn't even very much nudity. Instead, we have a film that seems on the surface to be little more than a conventional mystery, a period piece with a vaguely Gothic feel to it. Except for a few moments at the very beginning, when Franco cuts away to show us a dangling skeleton that otherwise doesn't appear in the movie, both the plot and the filming style stay remarkably linear, and focused in, um, almost every sense of the word.
Appearances, though, are deceiving. Franco isn't the kind of director who would take much satisfaction in doing a routine film in a routine way. In this case, Franco seems to have deliberately limited his filming style, in order to thumb his nose at the krimi subgenre in a subtler way than usual. It's typical in a murder mystery for the characters and situations to be different from what they seem to be... but only in a Jess Franco mystery would things be quite this different.
The misdirection starts when the opening credits tell us the film is based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. The story is "The Cat and the Canary", which naturally isn't by Poe at all. If you've ever seen one of the numerous film versions of that creaky old play, you'll remember it involves an old dark house, a mysterious will, an innocent girl who stands to inherit a fortune, and a gang of suspicious relatives who may or may not be scheming to get their hands on the money. Franco spends the first part of his movie convincing us he's doing a straightforward adaptation of the story.
Lord Marian, an Englishman living in voluntary exile on the rocky cliffs of Louisiana [sic], is obsessing over some words in the Book of the Apocalypse — something about death coming by earth, wind, fire and water — when a hooded figure attacks him. Lord Marian dies a suitably horrible death: he is buried alive, with only his bound hands sticking up from the ground. His (second) wife finds the body, and the police are quickly summoned. Nobody has any idea who would have killed Lord Marian — could it have been the butler, who is afraid of lightning? Or could it have been the butler's slightly sinister wife? Or might it have been his other servant, Rita, who is actually his illegitimate daughter? Rita is certainly the one with the strongest motive: although she was a blood relative, she had been forced to live as a virtual slave in her father's house; some nights her stepmother would creep into her room with a whip and "discipline" her.
Rita's motive for murder becomes even stronger when Lord Marian's will is read. It turns out that in a fit of remorse, Lord Marian declared in his will that the much-abused Rita should inherit nearly everything. A roomful of hostile eyes turn on poor Rita...
But now, with the "Cat and the Canary" plot set firmly into place, it's time for Franco to shift gears completely. Enter Inspector Brook from Scotland Yard. What is Scotland Yard doing in Louisiana, and at such a convenient time? Brook explains to the local police that he'd had his eye on Lord Marian's dealings, and had expected something like this to happen. Furthermore, he's come with a solicitor from London to reveal that Lord Marian had another will... one which disinherits Rita completely and divides the estate among a new set of grasping relatives (who arrive even more conveniently).
At this point, both cat and canary are tossed out the window (meow! tweet! splat!), and a whole new story begins to take shape. This new plot is at least peripherally concerned with the cloaked figure in the cheap rubber skull mask, who kills the prospective heirs one by one in accordance with that passage in the Apocalypse. But the betrayals and turnarounds come fast and furious from this point on, and most of them come from Franco himself. For instance, one of the would-be heirs realizes from a painting that the man everybody thought was Lord Marian was, in fact, an impostor. No sooner does he realize this when he is killed... by somebody we recognize. So we have a dead Lord who wasn't really a Lord... which means his illegitimate daughter isn't really a Marian at all. This comes as quite a relief to the real Lord Marian's real son. Once the young Lord Marian and Rita realize they're not related, they fall into each others' arms.
Now, in addition to the Lord who wasn't a Lord, we have two young people that we thought — and they thought — were brother and sister, who are now groping each other feverishly. "It's all right," grins Franco off-camera; "They're not really doing anything... unhealthy!" Funny how we don't quite believe him. Franco also has a good dead-pan chuckle over the Bad Mother who whips Rita: "But she's not really her mother," he whispers — but he knows we know the difference is purely cosmetic. We also have several murderers who turn out not to be the murderer (again, we imagine Franco taunting us: "You didn't think the butler did it, did you?"). Franco even casts some suspicion on his detective, who it's hinted may not be the real detective at all (though this is still more misdirection, though with an unexpected twist of its own). In fact, there are so many deceptions and false appearances that the guy in the skull mask almost seems like a distraction. And believe it or not, I'm not spoiling anything by revealing all this, because in the end none of it matters... not least because, in one jaw-dropping moment when the film isn't even half over, Franco pulls the most unexpected double-cross of all: he drops a heavy hint that gives away the real killer's identity.
Not that it was that difficult to guess.
The Bad Family, particularly the Bad Father, is typically at the heart of Franco's horror films. A Virgin Among the Living Dead is probably the ultimate Franco expression of family corruption, and it's a little startling to see how many echoes of that wild, earlier film there are in this one. Here, though, the action is played utterly straight, and even though there are moments when you're sure Franco's poker-face is about to slip — the bedroom whipping scene, for example, or the abortive séance and its consequences — the expected crisis never happens. What we're left with is a movie that looks astonishingly competent for a Jess Franco production. In fact, it looks so much like a normal movie that it's easy to miss the hints of sleaze that are percolating just under the surface.
Noche de los asesinos features Franco's beloved Lina Romay (as Rita) in a prominent rôle. The shock here is that she keeps her clothes on (for the most part) — and what's more, Franco has given her a lot of screen time, decent lighting, and actual dialogue. Without a lot of nudity or sexy shenanigans to distract us, we can see that she's really not a bad actress. Franco himself has a small part as the English solicitor. When we're first introduced to him, he's sprawled out on a couch, asleep — no doubt this is Franco the actor making fun of Franco the director and his self-imposed restraint.
With Night of the Skull, Franco seems to prove that he was capable of making a "normal" narrative film, mostly free from his usual mannerisms. However, it's a little difficult to see why he wanted to do so. On the one hand, his fans don't go to his movies to see him behaving himself. On the other hand, the film's story is too hackneyed — Dino Tavella's awful 1964 Monster of Venice is probably the last word on skull-faced Edgar Wallace villains — and its satire too understated to win any praise from his critics.
Then again, this is Jess Franco we're talking about. Sometimes the most revolutionary thing an artist can do is return for a moment to the tradition he's broken with, if for no other reason than to show his detractors that he truly knows what he's rebelling against.