With the death of the right wing Spanish dictator, Generalissimo Franco—and the end of the repressive, conservative regime that accompanied his rule—his maverick film-making namesake, Jesus "Jess" Franco, was finally able to return home to direct his unique brand of sex-drenched Euro-horror on Spanish soil for the first time in decades. What's-more, in Emilio Larraga of Golden Films, Franco found a producer who didn't care what the director did as long as the film came in on time and within budget! A perfect arrangement for the idiosyncratic auteur who thrived on roughshod DIY dynamics and low budgets. "Mansion of the Living Dead" comes from near the beginning of this period in Franco's career and, for good reason, is sometimes mistaken for an entry in Spanish director Amando de Ossorio's "Blind Dead" series. In fact, it is part homage and part pastiche of Ossorio's much-loved quartet of films. "Mansion ..." is actually a 'pure' Jess Franco flick, despite the derivative nature of its horror elements. Since his first horror film, "The Awful Dr. Orlof", Franco had always taken established horror conventions and characters and recycled them in his own inimitable "horrotica" style; with this film, a long line of pseudonyms in the opening credits superficially disguise the fact that Franco is actually responsible for almost every aspect of the production; from the writing, the cinematography, the editing, the direction — even the eerie musical score of dreamlike monkish droning that can be heard periodically throughout! What better way to return to Spanish film-making than by adopting the tropes of one of Spain's only truly home-grown horror icons: the skeletal Knights Templar zombies of de Osssorio's "Tombs of the Blind Dead" and its three sequels.
Franco sets his mini opus in the sun-soaked Canary Islands, where four middle-aged strippers from Munich arrive for a wild holiday of sun, sea and sex. The director's opening shots establish a disquieting atmosphere of isolated dread: despite the golden Iberian sunlight, a moaning wind constantly whistles around the apparently abandoned hotel and idyllic sea-front, and the bell of a nearby convent toils constantly. The giggling friends soon realise that they are completely alone at the resort apart from the lone, strangely reticent hotel receptionist, Carlo (Antonio Mayans) and a gibbering, peeping tom hotel gardener! The large, empty, gleaming-blue outdoor swimming pool; the rows of unoccupied, anonymous hotel rooms and the forbidding maze of sparsely lit corridors connecting them; and the unending vistas of Spartan empty beach—are all captured by Franco's lingering, languid camerawork during the film's opening moments, setting up a strangely poignant air of loss and emptiness.
Into this deadening, antiseptic environment arrive our four flighty heroines with their inane banter and giggling cheerfulness! At first undaunted by the complete isolation and remoteness of their surroundings ("everybody's probably at the beach!"), the girls are separated into couples, and placed at opposite ends of the hotel's miles of murky corridor by the weird Carlo. Franco plays these initial scenes, where the four girls first arrive, like some sort of inane sex comedy — but the dialogue is too poor for this to really come off adequately. An offbeat tension between the actual dreamlike isolation of the hotel and the girls' excited, insistent expectations of wild sun-soaked times, is established very effectively, though; and when the other residents fail to emerge, the two couples soon turn to each-other for solace: indulging in desperately overwrought cunnilingus while holed-up, naked in their respective rooms! The sex in this film is shot with stark explicitness, almost bordering on hard core at times: Lina Romay's vagina must have had more close-ups in its time than many a b-movie star, and the actress (by this time, starting to put on weight and to lose the arresting looks that once made her nineteen-year-old '70s incarnation one of Euro-cinema's abiding cult icons) indulges in all manner of extended, frenzied nipple sucking and minge licking with animated gusto—as do her three co-starts! Meanwhile, Carlo turns out to be a mad, sex-crazed cross between Norman Bates and Mr. Rochester: as well as stalking the hotel corridors looking for rampant sex with the girls, he also keeps his own "mad-woman-in-the-attic" — a naked, starved, apparently mad, Eva Leon - chained-up by a sliver neck harness in one of the hotel rooms!
This strange paradise of soft porn languor is classic Franco, but when the director introduces his blind dead stand-ins—a motley collection of white-cowled figures in badly painted plastic skull masks or sloppy white face-paints—the whole carefully built up tone of morbid pornographic sultriness starts to disintegrate. Amando de Ossorio's original blind dead looked fantastic: rotting, skulking skeletons in filthy robes, clicking and scraping their way slowly towards their unwary prey. Franco's Templars don't appear to be blind and maybe aren't even dead. Instead of looking like they recently rose from some ancient, putrid sepulcher, Franco's zombie monks wear pristine white robes and appear to exist in an alternative reality within the confines of a deserted convent, situated just outside the beach resort.
It turns out that Carlos is helping the monks gain their prey by seducing women and taking them to the convent site to be gang banged by the un-dead ghouls! This, apparently, will help them find eternal rest — for only by taking the lives of enough women while engaged in carnal "sin" can the monks escape their eternal purgatory inside the convent! Admittedly, the director stages some effective scenes in the convent interiors with the monks waiting like wax dummies, in stillness and complete silence, for their victims to appear, whereupon they immediately spring into life — raping their unfortunate prey to the point of exhaustion before stabbing them to death in the genitals with a ceremonial dagger!
But every time the camera catches a glimpse of those lousy plastic masks, the atmosphere is ruined; a pity because—otherwise—this film sees Franco at his most metaphysically libidinous and compelling. The plot becomes a challenging, almost Lynchian, contortion of double identities and alternative realities mixing in strange and unfathomable ways, before collapsing in on itself in a heady cocktail of murder and sexual violence. Blind Dead fans will be outraged and disgusted with Franco's irreverent treatment of de Ossorio's creations; Franco fans will find this to be one of the director's most wanton exercises in that enjoyably depraved genre, now known as Horrotica -- if anything, only spoiled by the unnecessary intrusion of tacky monk "zombies".
Severin Films present this film looking stunning in a pristine widescreen print with the original Spanish language track and English subtitles (how come Blue Underground could never manage to provide the original language tracks?). The film comes with a fantastic twenty minute featurette in which both Franco and Lina Romay are interviewed: "The Mansion that Jess Built" sees Franco discuss his dislike of the zombie genre in general and of George Romero's work in particular, as well as the film's apparent connection to the works of 19th century Spanish author, Gustavo Adolfo Becquer (an author of whom I've never heard). Lina talks about sex in the movies and her relationship with the other actors in Franco's films; while the director chips in, claiming that he never put sex in his films in order to gain them a wider audience— if anything it limited their audience, he insists.
This nice disc from Severin Films is an essential addition to every Franco fan's ever-expanding library.