Anna, a nightclub stripper in Zagreb (Diana Lorys), embarks upon a tempestuous love affair with a beautiful blonde woman called Cincia (Collete Giacobine). Her growing dependency leads her into a twilight world where reality and dreams are indistinguishable and latent jealousies and insecurities are translated into disturbing, surrealistic imagery. But does Anna's nervy doctor (Paul Muller) know more than he's letting on? And who are the mysterious couple living in the house opposite (Andres Monales & Soledad Miranda), seemingly spying on the two women?
"Les Cauchemars Naissent La Nuit" was once believed lost by Franco aficionados until a print was recently discovered, resulting in a U.S. DVD release earlier in the year. Now the film makes its debut in the U.K. courtesy of those fine purveyors of hard gore, Screen Entertainment, as part of their Jess Franco collection.
The early seventies were an interesting time in the career of cinematic cult icon Jess Franco: throughout the previous decade, the maverick director had forged an indomitable path through the wilder regions of genre film making. Inspired by classic noir and the Universal horror greats, Franco took the traditional thematic and narrative templates of his favourite films and redrew them in his own often bizarre but always compelling and original hand. Although films such as his Gothic mad scientist movie "The Awful Doctor Orlof" (1964) were shot on relatively low budgets and featured simplistic, sometimes hackneyed plots, they were always beautifully made with some great photography and striking compositions. Franco was also able to introduce a subversive strain of bold sexuality into traditional horror and spy movie plot lines.
Eventually, Franco's influences came together to result in his early masterpiece: "Succubus"(1967). This languidly paced, dreamlike fantasy largely broke free of linear narrative structures and enabled Franco to explore his obsessions in total freedom while still retaining the artistic beauty of his previous best work. This film resulted in a productive collaboration with producer Harry Alan Towers. Towards the end of the sixties, Franco shot a huge number of tightly scheduled movies -- with Towers often writing the scripts -- and got to include a number of unlikely star names within his peculiar cinematic world: Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Shirley Eaton and George Sanders all found themselves commandeered into Franco's attempts to serve Towers' commercial instinct, while simultaneously fulfilling his own artistic obsessions! The Franco-Towers partnership resulted in several great movies, but also a lot of uninspired genre product which saw Franco firing on only one cylinder. After completing an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula with Towers producing, Franco struck out on his own with a noticeably different visual aesthetic, and a unique approach to film making which largely came to define him (both in positive and negative terms) in the minds of future audiences.
Franco had employed a few "tricks" during his time working in partnership with Towers: the tight schedules he had in which to shoot those films necessitated occasionally cutting a few corners; to that end, camera set-ups were kept to a minimum. Instead, Franco famously employed the services of the zoom lens to introduce some coverage and movement into the otherwise static scenes of these movies. Many of the Franco-Towers films were simply attempts to cash-in on the latest drive-in fad; unfortunately, that's exactly what they often looked like due to these time-saving devices! This was a period when the charges of amateurishness and sloppiness, often leveled at Franco today by "nonbelievers," may have had some validity -- since his corner-cutting often worked against his original intentions and flattened out the exuberant comic book appeal of the more genre-orientated works.
But after cutting loose from the constraints imposed on him by Towers, Franco actually began to use these very same time and money saving methods to the advantage of the micro-budgeted movies he was now forced into making. The use of the zoom lens for instance, now becomes a vital tool in the Franco arsenal -- used to convey an otherworldly, impressionistic tone with only the undressed locations the director had to work with. Films from this period, such as "Vampyros Lesbos;" "She Killed In Ecstasy;" "Eugenie De Sade" and "The Female Vampire" revel in a kind of existential texture of the moment -- where the images and music form a visual poetry of consciousness ... and of the unconscious. Many of the films from this period deal with themes of obsession and sexual dependency; the female form in Sapphic delirium is a particular favourite trope of the director -- and has been ever since. But the overwhelming impression created by these early soft-core examples from the Franco cannon is one of a romanticised fetishism for the doomed heroine -- often cast out of mainstream society (usually as a vampire or a morally uninhibited murderess) but always inviting and alluring to the very forces which would seek to destroy them.
"Nightmares Come At Night" belongs at the beginning of this extremely creative period of Franco's career and proves to be up there with his very finest celluloid excursions into the erotic dreamscapes of his obsessive imagination; it will soon come to be seen as an absolutely essential addition to the Franco cannon by Francophiles -- immersing the viewer in a similar, surrealistic nightmare ambience to his classic "Virgin Among The Living Dead." The film is a bridge between classical early Franco and the new guerrilla film making style for which Franco was to become infamous. This is the period where the director was often shooting several movies at once without even the casts always being aware of what he was up to! With this film, Franco once again improvises around the themes of his classic "Succubus": again we find another somnambulistic heroine moving through hazy worlds of nightmares resulting in a crisis of identity. (I've mentioned this before, but it's amazing how reminiscent David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" is to some of Franco's films in its themes and approach; and now with even Quentin Tarantino getting in on the Franco appreciation club, the director may soon be getting even more mainstream attention than ever before!)
Diana Lorys plays the protagonist in question -- and this in itself is a huge reference back to Franco's past, for Lorys was the imperiled heroine of the director's horror debut: the expressionistic Gothic period piece "The Awful Doctor Orlof." Here, she gives a brave and emotional performance with Franco's more brazen approach to eroticism now requiring her to spend most of the film's running time in the nude! Sturdy support comes from Franco regulars Jack Taylor and Paul Muller, but the film will also be of interest to fans of the Portuguese-born cult starlet, Soledad Miranda. The actress became something of a muse for Franco during the early seventies, appearing in almost every one of the films he made at this time -- several of them classics. Although she had previously appeared in small roles in several earlier Franco films, it is this cluster that have really made her a cult icon with fans of Euro-shock cinema. The rediscovery of this once lost example from the beginning of this productive period of collaboration between the two, will be a joy to Miranda's small army of fans -- although they should be aware that she does only appear on screen for little more than three minutes in total! Appearing naked apart from a shawl and leather, thigh-length boots, Miranda justifies a rather pointless role with her febrile smouldering presence.
Opening with a series of stills from the film accompanied by one of Bruno Nicolai's most haunting refrains, we then enter the tortured nightmares of Diana Lorys’ cabaret stripper, Anna. Franco initially structures the film around dreamy, erotic images which accompany a voice-over from the main protagonist describing her experiences to the audience; but the film often switches narrative emphasis, with Anna sometimes describing episodes from her past life to other characters in the film, while at other points, her voice-over itself appears to be part of the stream-of-consciousness of a dream state. The narrative line becomes increasingly oblique then, until a sudden (and it has to be said rather unconvincing) "twist" at the end of the film which, superficially at least, explains everything. This also incorporates a subplot involving a jewel heist which appears incongruously inserted into the film and doesn't really seem to fit the overall mood of the piece.
The artificiality of this subplot may all be part of the game Franco is playing here though: at many points mirrors feature in Franco's dreamlike images; sometimes a series of mirrors are seen reflecting the images of the protagonists into infinity; at other points we find that an entire scene has been played out with the camera filming it reflected in a mirror -- only when the camera focuses on the mirror surface and the protagonists slide out of focus do we realise that things are not quite as they seem. The narrative might similarly be structured as a Russian doll series of stories; the explanation at the end of the film seems less and less convincing with repeat viewings and the pulpy jewel heist plot might actually be the least trustworthy aspect of the whole narrative rather than the key to unlocking events!
Either-way, the film is suffused with that special ambience all the best Franco films embody and many recurring visual motifs occur here -- not least the weird striptease/stage act, which occurs here bathed in orange-red on a set which looks like the red room from "Twin Peaks!" This is an essential piece of surrealistic Franco erotica which will get the juices of all Francophiles flowing!
Nightmares Come at Night comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Redemption Films and Kino/Lorber in an impressive transfer mastered from a very clean 35mm master print. While the image does suffer from the odd age spot and moments of excess grain, it’s quite an improvement over previous incarnations, with a crisp image, vibrant colours, and an impressive amount of fine detail mostly evident in close-ups. Paired with either the subtitled French track or the lesser English dub, this is the best the film has looked or sounded in any medium.
Bonus features include a fantastic commentary by renowned film critic and Francophile Tim Lucas, as well as a pair of short featurettes, including a 20 minute documentary on the making of the film entitled “Eugenie’s Nightmare of Sex and Charade”, as well as “Jess! What Are You Doing Now?”; a collection of interviews with Franco’s friends and colleagues. Also included is a visual essay on the HD mastering process, as well as trailers for other Redemption/Kino releases.
This is an essential film for Franco fans and an interesting place to start for Franco newbies. Redemption/Kino’s Blu-ray presentation is quite attractive, with a quality transfer and an intriguing and informative collection of extras. Recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!