Monday, April 30, 2018

"These Dreamers Must Be Stopped!" - She Killed in Ecstasy (1971)

While some of your universe's critics appreciate the films of Jess Franco, an alarming number are still not convinced of his formidable skills as a director. In order to correct such misperceptions, I present one of Franco's finest films, She Killed in Ecstasy (1971), which somehow underwhelmed several of your most prominent critics.

For example, Jason M of Cinezilla calls the film "a shambles of a movie, almost completely lacking of suspense, filled with terrible zooms back and forth, poor editing, corny dialogue, really lame scenes of seduction and sex scenes that are about as erotic as taking the trash out." On, a reviewer writes that the film "sent me to sleep inside twenty minutes, probably as a defence mechanism against what may be the most hideous smooth jazz soundtrack ever used." Mitch from The Video Vacuum writes, "The film runs only 73 minutes, but it feels a lot longer than that as it suffers from some seriously slow scenes."

Let us counter these obviously vapid criticisms by looking at Mr. Franco's film--in which he takes on the role of actor as well as director--in depth...

The film begins in a laboratory filled with many, many fetuses in jars. These shots of lifeless humans are scored with an upbeat jazz song featuring the lyrics “Dee dee dee doo, dee dee dee dee doo.”

The laboratory appears to be inside of one of the most cubist houses on earth, a beautiful light green structure of boxy room on top of boxy room from which our heroine, Mrs. Johnson, flees as the shadow of the cameraman’s hair seems to follow her.

It seems Mrs. Johnson is mourning the loss of her lover of two years. She flashes back to a happier time when they were both alive. “You are inside me, my darling,” her voice says. “In me, you live on.” (Despite the implication, she is not in fact pregnant.)

Her flashback moves on to his fetus-filled laboratory. He gives her a tour, for which she wears the traditional laboratory-touring ensemble of silver lame bikini.

“This is the result of my research,” Dr. Johnson tells his wife, pointing out one of the fetuses. “At first I used animals, but in the final phase I used human embryos.” He has developed a way to make organisms resistant to cancer and other diseases by injecting hormones into fetuses. Mrs. Johnson (played by Soledad Miranda) is understandably delighted, though audience members might question why she has never heard about his experiments before, particularly since the lab appears to be just another room in their house.

A fateful meeting occurs in a condominium tower on the beach. In the meeting, Dr. Johnson’s research is reviewed by an ethics committee of four fellow scientists who stand in a black room stiffly looking forward. The head of the committee, Dr. Donen, played by director Jesus Franco himself, minces no words with his opening statement: “Your experiments are inhuman.”

The ethics committee members call Dr. Johnson a criminal and a charlatan. Emotions run high. “You are guilty, not me!” cries Dr. Johnson. “Only one thing counts: to help people, regardless of morals.”

Mr. Franco has the final word. “Enough of that! Take your papers and burn them!” He holds a pile of papers in front of his own face and tears them in half (with, it must be said, great difficulty).

In the next scene, Dr. Johnson returns to his laboratory, only to find it ransacked and Ms. Miranda lying on the floor. The ethics council, in an action befitting a typical scientific review body, has destroyed the lab. “I tried to stop them but they raged like madmen,” Ms. Miranda tells her husband. “There were lots of them. They really hate you. They shouted your name. They wanted to kill you.” (It goes without saying that anyone who has dealt with a university’s Institutional Review Board has had similar experiences.)

Understandably, Dr. Johnson takes both the rejection of the ethics council and the destruction of his lab hard. He calls himself an animal and stares into a mirrored table.

In the next room, Ms. Miranda calls one of the scientists. “My husband is raging like a madman,” she tells him over the telephone, which possibly reveals her character’s lack of imagination at this time, as she used the same words just minutes earlier to describe the scientists’ behavior. Unfortunately, the man on the other end of the phone is unsympathetic.

In voiceover, Ms. Miranda explains that she took her husband to their house on the island to get away. However, when she tries to seduce him in bed, he is horrified, still deranged from his professional rejection.

Director Franco moves on to a scientific conference, also in a condominium complex on the beach, where the ethics council describes their philosophy and the moral limits of biological research. One member of the council, played by Howard Vernon, summarizes the problems of the modern scientific community. At a podium in front of dozens of researchers, Mr. Vernon begins his emotional diatribe: “As doctors and humanists, we must strongly condemn those who contravene ethics, the laws of humanity. Under the guise of science, fanatical doctors all too often don’t even hesitate from committing criminal acts. These dreamers must be stopped.”

We realize Ms. Miranda is in the audience, attempting to identify those scientists responsible for her husband’s humiliation. Her mission is made quite easy by the speakers, who identify Dr. Johnson as a criminal and charlatan. Unable to listen to more, she storms out of the conference center, where she bumps into a police detective who tells her he might be able to solve the mystery of the lab’s vandalism, though he fails to indicate how, or even why, he will do this.

Back at their island, Ms. Miranda attempts to seduce her husband again, due to the fact that he is still lying on their bed in his swinging polyester outfit. When he fails to respond to her feminine wiles, she reacts with even more despair than her husband reacted to the destruction of his scientific career.

There is only one thing for Dr. Johnson to do. After his wife has cried herself to sleep due to lack of sex, he rushes to the bathroom and slits his wrists with a straight razor in a scene scored with upbeat jazz.

In voiceover, Ms. Miranda says, “How will I live without you? Tell me! I can’t do it without taking revenge on your killers. My revenge will be cruel.” In a beautiful sequence, Ms. Miranda, wearing a black dress and a crocheted purple cape, pilots a tiny motorboat from her island back to civilization as she initiates her mission of vengeance.

The film then follows Ms. Miranda as she stalks the four scientists she blames for her husband’s suicide. (Presumably, she discovers the identities of the guilty parties during the ethics conference at the beachside hotel, thought Mr. Franco does not make this aspect of the mission of vengeance clear.)

The first scientist to meet his fate is Howard Vernon’s Professor Walker. Ms. Miranda finds him in a hotel bar, where he is explaining his philosophy about corruption and immoral youth to a young woman, who leaves as soon as Mr. Vernon stops talking. Ms. Miranda catches Mr. Vernon’s eye. He buys her a drink, puts his arm around her, and invites her to his hotel room. “Would you like to come back for a drink?”

She replies, “That depends on how much you’re paying.”

“We can come to an arrangement,” he says. “I’m not stingy.”

After a series of zooms into and out of some scenery, Mr. Vernon shows Ms. Miranda his rather plain hotel room. He folds his jacket while she removes her dress, though she continues to wear her crocheted purple cape in bed.

Defying expectations, the ethics expert tells Ms. Miranda, “You have to degrade me. You must abuse me and swear at me.” Ms. Miranda, of course, does so immediately, slapping him and scratching his chest. Then she slits his throat and castrates him so expertly there is only a tiny sliver of blood on the knife she uses.

Conveniently, she also leaves a note on the body informing the other scientists that they are next.

The body is discovered by Jesus Franco’s Dr. Donen, who mails letters to the remaining two scientists, telling them to meet him at the seashore. They do so and Mr. Franco reveals that Mr. Vernon was killed last night—the timing of which also reveals the almost surreal efficiency of the local postal service. Additionally, he reveals that the threatening note on the body was signed simply “J.”

“J as in Johnson,” says Mr. Franco the actor.

“But Johnson is dead,” says his cohort, played by Paul Muller.

Again, surrealism comes into play, as there is no way the scientists could know that Dr. Johnson is dead because Ms. Miranda is keeping his body in their island mansion (as would anyone in her position).

Mr. Franco the director zooms from the beach to a barren, rocky island in the bay, perhaps emphasizing the desolate fate of the ethics council members.

Ms. Miranda’s next victim of vengeance is the female scientist played by Ewa Stromberg. Ms. Stromberg meets Ms. Miranda at another beachside hotel, where Ms. Miranda, in order to avoid being recognized, wears a trendy blonde Carol Brady wig.

Ms. Stromberg is instantly and playfully attracted to the bewigged Ms. Miranda. Ms. Stromberg tempts Ms. Miranda by telling her there are pink flamingoes on the other side of a rock far out in the ocean. Of course, Ms. Miranda is enchanted. The two women hold hands and run together to a mysterious hidden room in the hotel.

Franco the director zooms into another barren rock.

In the hidden hotel room, which is roughly the size of a warehouse, Ms. Miranda shows Ms. Stromberg her abstract, angular paintings, which Ms. Stromberg calls masculine. “This picture is like an image of myself,” Ms. Miranda tells her victim-to-be while the victim strokes her lips. “It appears hard but it is soft and warm.”

Franco the director then shoots the women kissing through a glass of sherry in a shot somewhat similar to fellow Spanish-speaker Rene Cardona Jr.’s shot through a tumbler in Night of 1,000 Cats (1972).

The women make love in the bedroom, and Ms. Miranda extracts her vengeance by suffocating Ms. Stromberg with a transparent, zebra-patterned plastic pillow.

After the murder, Ms. Miranda returns to her cubist house and speaks with the dead husband lying on her bed. “Talk to me, please!” she plead, but he is quite dead, and decay, represented by some small blemishes on his face, has begun to set in during the week or so she has left his body on their bed.

Ms. Miranda’s third victim is Paul Muller, whom Ms. Miranda meets in a church at a Catholic mass. He attempts to comfort her when she starts crying by rushing toward her and placing his hand on her shoulder. She tells him her husband is sick. He responds salaciously, “Is your husband as young as you?” Then he informed her, “Nowadays, nearly every disease can be cured. I’m a doctor. Maybe I can help him. Shall we go and see him?”

She runs away, and Mr. Muller has lunch with Mr. Franco, revealing his suspicions that the young woman was Dr. Johnson’s wife. Surprisingly, Ms. Miranda, wearing a slightly different wig, sits down at a table next to the two scientists. “The girl looks familiar,” says Mr. Franco, while Mr. Müller looks at Mr. Franco in disbelief, as if it is obvious that Mr. Miranda is in fact Ms. Miranda.

Of course, Mr. Müller rushes to the incompetent detective to share his suspicion that his life is in danger. The detective, like Mr. Müller, also knows that Dr. Johnson is dead somehow. “It’s not my job to hunt ghosts,” says the detective. “I’ve got enough work with the living.”

“But you must do something!” says Mr. Müller, demanding police protection.

“We’ll see,” replies the detective casually.

(However, we find out later that the police are competent enough to determine that Ms. Stromberg was murdered with a pillow even though her body has been moved far from the murder scene.)

When Mr. Müller returns to his hotel, he sits in the lobby to read a newspaper. Here, Mr. Franco visually echoes his love of jazz music by improvising with the camera, framing Mr. Müller on the couch and Ms. Miranda in a mirror, and improvisationally zooming in on both of them; the cameraperson clearly not making up his or her mind about whom to zoom in on until the last second. Eventually, the cameraperson decides to focus on Ms. Miranda, but then reconsiders and focuses on Mr. Müller.

The sequence is quite striking, with multiple (and only slightly headache-inducing) zooms in and out, until the focus blurs to transition to the next sequence.

The following sequence is equally striking and more surreal, as Ms. Miranda follows Mr. Müller to an oceanside restaurant/bar, and she seems to somehow float through a massive circular window to join her victim-to-be at the bar.

Mr. Müller runs from Ms. Miranda, climbing a series of staircases and entering a dark room, only to find when the lights are turned on that somehow Ms. Miranda has preceded him into the room, stripped down to her underwear, and, perhaps most shockingly, changed into yet another wig.

“You’re scared of a woman?” Ms. Miranda asks.

“Yes. Very scared. Very,” he replies honestly.

Before he allows her to seduce him, he says, “You are the devil.”

As the two make love, Mr. Franco cuts back and forth between their embrace and that of Ms. Miranda and Dr. Johnson; she fantasizes she is with her late, slightly decaying husband.

Ms. Miranda plunges scissors into the back of Mr. Muller’s head. For good measure, she stabs his crotch repeatedly with the same scissors.

After killing Mr. Müller, in another striking shot, Ms. Miranda sits on a sofa and stares wildly toward the camera for several minutes.

She follows this by making love to her deceased husband in their bed.

Of course, Jess Franco’s scientist character is the last victim standing. He leaves his hotel and returns home (a home which is apparently a few blocks from the seaside hotel), only to find his wife dead on the floor of the foyer. “My wife! Why did my wife have to die too?” he says, and then he faints.

In the perverse finale, we watch Jess Franco tied to a chair while Soledad Miranda rises from a bed wearing only her purple crocheted shawl. Then she cuts him with a knife (though the wound disappears quickly).

“You must suffer like him!” she says. “Like him!” She slaps him, then stabs him over and over in the crotch. (It must be noted that the film did not show her husband either being slapped or stabbed in the genitals by the ethics council.)

In the end, Ms. Miranda drives away with her husband’s surprisingly attractive corpse. “My love,” she says, “we will be reanimated in death.” So she drives the car down what appears to be a fairly shallow hill, which kills the two instantly.

The police detective immediately arrives at the scene. “A dead man was held responsible for these crimes,” he says. “Mrs. Johnson was a normal woman if not for her husbands death. She wouldn’t have committed these crimes.”

The end.

She Killed in Ecstasy is a variation on Cornell Woolrich's novel The Bride Wore Black, famously adapted by Francois Truffaut in 1968, three years before the release of Mr. Franco's film. Given this fact, perhaps the only failing of Mr. Franco's film is the fact that the bride, Ms. Miranda, rarely wears black. In fact, most of the time she wears nothing at all, though she is often seen in her distinctive purple crocheted shawl. Perhaps those reviewers who consistently denigrate Mr. Franco's work as a director would be more satisfied if the bride did, in fact, wear black more often.

Outside of Ms. Miranda's wardrobe, the most striking quality of She Killed in Ecstasy is Mr. Franco's much-noted use of camera zooms, which impart an energy to the film that keeps the viewer constantly off balance. This is most notable in the hotel lobby scene in which Ms. Miranda stalks Paul Muller, and in which the camera operator clearly vacillates between framing Mr. Muller and framing Ms. Miranda (choosing correctly at the end of the shot). However, the zooms are so omnipresent in the film that the camera operator almost becomes one of the main characters. In tribute to the camera operator (perhaps Mr. Franco himself), I now present a few of the marvelous zooms in the film, starting with the classic shot in the hotel lobby.

You are quite welcome.