Silence. A dingy, cavernous, dungeon: a naked woman has been spread-eagled and chained to a wooden board; a second naked woman is whipping her mercilessly, while a small audience watch impassively. The sound of a mournful organ with Spanish guitar accompaniment fades in.
The naked female torturer begins caressing her prisoner's heaving breasts with her whip. Eventually, she lays down the instrument and moves over to a table where she seizes a knife which is used to behead a captive dove. She collects the creature's warm blood in a goblet and smears it all over, both her own body, and that of the bound woman on the cross; then she forces the woman to drink some of the animal's blood before proceeding to tenderly kiss her victim until she responds in kind. The mute audience continue to idly watch the two women—until the captor produces a knife and brutally stabs her prisoner in the belly!
There is the sound of applause; the bound woman is untied by her 'murderer' and then suddenly springs back to life. Both women — laughing — hold hands and take a bow as the camera pans back to reveal the stage. The whole scene is part of a staged, sadomasochistic night-club routine, and signals that we have once-more entered the dark, mercurial world of European Horror's most notorious sleaze-merchant, Jesus "Jess" Franco!
This notable outing by the maestro of muck sees the man himself in particularly fine form, playing the film's lead character, Paul Vogel: an ex-priest, who's extreme heretical views have seen him excommunicated and shunned by the Catholic establishment. The embittered zealot has turned to venting his frustrations in the form of "erotic" stories full of sadism, torture and violence — which he writes for a Parisian S&M publication, "The Garter and Dagger". The editor, Raymond Franval (Pierre Taylou), is more than happy with the notoriety his magazine receives from publishing the work of an ex-priest; but he and his foxy secretary, Anne (Lina Romey) find the taciturn writer a bit of an oddball when he occasionally turns up at the office to deliver his latest manuscripts.
The haunted Vogel is, in fact, obsessed with Anne, whom he worships from afar; he rents a hotel room across the road from her apartment so he can spy on her and her lesbian lover. When he learns that Anne and Franval are involved in the organisation of a Black Mass, Vogel joins the proceedings and apparently witnesses a woman being tortured and murdered in front of an audience of well-to-do Parisian bourgeoisie. He doesn't realise that the whole thing is actually another staged event, organised to publicise the magazine! This is the final straw for a man who sees nothing but wanton immorality everywhere he looks in modern society; he is forced to take drastic action to save the souls of the lost. Curiously, this seems to involve kidnapping young women, subjecting them to bondage and torture—and then stabbing them to death! One can perhaps now see why Vogal's methods were considered a tad extreme by the Church authorities!
Eventually, the police start an investigation into these "ripper" murders, but Vogel's obsession with Anne, and his discovery of her "immoral" private life, lead him to kidnap the young woman and keep her tied up in his house where he can periodically torture her—all part of the process necessary for saving her soul of course! Will Inspector Tanner solve the case in time to save young Anna's body before Vogal can "cleanse" her soul of demonic possession?
"Exorcism" is another perfect marriage of the warped cinematic obsessions of Uncle Franco, and the blatant commercial sexploitation needs of the Paris-based production company, Eurocine. The combination of Franco's habit of re-editing different versions of his own films, combined with Eurocine's general practice of creating different edits for different markets—often adding scenes from other films and different directors—means that there are a bewildering array of versions around. There is the Eurocine edit (the version included on this Synapse disc), in which many scenes were shot in "clothed" and "unclothed" versions so that Eurocine could tailor the film to take account of the varying degrees of leniency regarding sexual imagery in different countries; then there is Franco's Hard-Core porn version (in which the director is supposed to have "performed" himself) entitled "Sexorcisms". Several years later, Franco shot some extra material, re-dubbed some of the dialogue, and created a new film with a different story called "The Ripper of Notre Dame" (this is actually Franco's preferred version of the material); this version was later cut and released abroad under the title "Demoniac".
For this release by Synapse, Eurocine have re-created the original 1974 edit by combing through all the different versions to procure all the necessary footage. The resulting transfer hasn't been digitally retouched though, so the image quality and colour tend to vary constantly throughout the film's runtime. Some of the best elements used suggest that the film originally had quite a lush look to it. Unfortunately, the colour varies, from extremely vivid to completely washed out (sometimes several times within one scene) and the same variation applies to the grain levels and sharpness of image. The complete Eurocine version also contains some "gore" inserts in one of the murder scenes (close-ups of organs being prized from the victims' body with a knife) which weren't actually filmed by Franco but added later by Eurocine.
Although cursed by a truly terrible English dub (so what's new!) and toe-curling dialogue, "Exorcism" still stands as one of Franco's more interesting efforts. The direction may well look rushed and amateurish at times, but—given the seedy subject matter, this actually helps to enhance the sleazy atmosphere of the film, which often feels like someone's kinky, home-made movie! What makes the film work is Franco's central performance; the whole film is built around him, and even though he has very little dialogue (apart from muttering religious gibberish over his victims' bodies), his somber, tormented presence constantly helps to prevent the movie sinking into a quagmire of cheesy performances from the other badly dubbed actors. His character haunts the movie like a ghost, seemingly able to gain access to any room and spy on any person who might be up to some kinky goings on! You can see the anguish on poor Vogel's face as the boundaries between his religious fervor and his lust for the flesh become more and more blurred; and Franco is frighteningly convincing when indulging in the many scenes of graphic sexual violence that his character feels himself driven too. Lina Romey was in her prime when this particular movie was made, and displays her usual wholehearted enthusiasm when it comes to performing the many sadomasochistic set-pieces the script requires her to enact; Monica Swinn's brief cameo provides the movie with another of it's more notable sequences. As the director himself would be the first to admit though, there are many things wrong with the film: from a truly comical orgy sequence to a ridiculously flat final act (although some Franco scholars will tell you that this is all part of his deliberate deconstruction of the movie "action sequence"). All in all though, I enjoyed this foray into Franco's weird mind—even if I did need a shower later on after wallowing in so much filth!
Synapse have treated the Franco fan to a great selection of extras with this release, the most notable of which is the director's only commentary track thus far. One Shot Productions' head man Kevin Collins sits in with Franco and proves himself extremely knowledgeable about the man's career. Unfortunately though, Franco's heavy accent is often almost impenetrable, and Collins and Franco often seem to have difficulty understanding each other as well! That said, this is still a worthwhile chance to hear Franco speak at length about his work.
Also included is an alternative "Clothed" opening sequence, a stills gallery, and a Theatrical trailer. You will also find a cool "Easter egg" situated in the 'Special Thanks' section of the disc. This is an 18 minute video interview with Franco, Lina Romey and Kevin Collins. Again -- the sound quality is poor, and Franco can be rather hard to understand but with perseverance all become clear—well ... almost. Finally, Tim Lucas provides some interesting liner notes on the film.
This disc is a cool, sleazy, must-have for the Euro Horror fan.