Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Film Review: She Killed in Ecstacy

Believe it or not, there once was a time when Spain's trashmeister Jess Franco actually made good films. From around 1968 to 1975, he had decent budgets, great exotic locales for shooting, and a unique, almost psychedelic approach to cinematography and editing. Not to mention some seriously wacked-out soundtracks and many gorgeous (and even classy) actresses. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the trilogy of German-language films he shot in 1970 for bigshot producer Artur Brauner of CCC-Filmkunst Productions in West Germany. These three films, "The Devil Came from Akasava", "Vampyros Lesbos", and "She Killed in Ecstacy", all released in 1971, gave posthumous stardom to doomed Spanish beauty Soledad Miranda, Franco's first "muse", who died in a tragic car accident in August of 1970. Her mysterious allure, her ability to be classy, slutty, hippy-dippy, cruel, and romantic all at once gave her an onscreen presence Franco would never capture again (though he came close with the early films of Lina Romay, Miranda's official successor). Though "Vampyros Lesbos" is the most famous of the trilogy, in my opinion "She Killed in Ecstacy" is where the Franco/Miranda pairing jelled most intensely.

Much of "She Killed in Ecstacy" is narrated in a voiceover by Miranda, who plays the unnamed wife of experimental research scientist Doctor Johnson. In a series of flashbacks that are shown while Miranda stands on the edge of a cliff wearing a totally groovy outfit, her long brown hair blowing in the wind, we see her husband (played by Fred Williams, also in "The Devil...") being denounced and ultimately disbarred by a medical board of four doctors (all of the actors appear in all 3 movies, and one of them is played by Franco himself). His peers call him "insane", "immoral", "unethical" and, finally, "an animal", because he experimented on human fetuses (or something like that). Later they send some thugs to destroy his lab and rough up Soledad. Hubby goes totally insane, mumbling the words of the board over and over in a semi-catatonic state. His wife moves them to a deserted island off the coast, and they hole up in a huge fortess-like castle (where they got the money for this on a researcher's salary is never explained, but then again this is Franco). She tries to bring him around, but to no avail; while she is sleeping he slits his wrists. Her naked histrionics upon finding him in the bathroom are worth the price of admission alone. This marks the end of the flashbacks; from here on in it's all Miranda exacting her own special brand of revenge on those who destroyed her perfect marriage.

Before I go any further, I must mention that as in the other two films of the trilogy (most notably "Vampyros Lesbos"), the score is provided by Manfred Hubler and Sigfried Schwab; their psychedelic jazz gives the film a feel all it's own, and the music actually lends the movie more of an action film sensibility than that of a horror movie. Seeing Soledad chop guys up accompanied by a Funkadelicized jam is jarring to say the least. She first poses as a prostitute (looking great in a black cape and mesh stockings) in a local bar, luring Dr. Walker (Franco regular, and the original Dr. Orloff, Howard Vernon) up to his hotel room. There the great moralist turns out to be a spineless sexual masochist. Soledad does a bit of topless domination before pulling a stilleto out of her garter belt and slashing his throat. She then castrates him (off-screen). She leaves a note at the scene (inexplicably in English!) saying "1 animal is dead; 3 more will die". Unlike most Franco films, the pace is fairly quick and the running time short, so right away we see the sexy avenger in a bell bottomed tan pantsuit and blond bouiffant wig, posing as a rich and bored tourist at the spa where Dr. Crawford (the voluptuous Ewa Stromberg, Miranda's nemesis in "Vampyros Lesbos") is staying. She befriends the doctor, and they head upstairs for a drink. The uptight Dr. Crawford (of course) is really a horny lesbian, and the two go at it in an awkward coupling. While they are groping about, Franco inserts shots of Miranda and her husband making love to show us where her mind is actually at. At the moment of climax, Miranda picks up a zebra-striped pillow (this movie is groovy!) and smothers her lover. She killed in ecstacy indeed!

At this point the other two doctors have figured out what's going on, and go to the police chief, played by German TV legend Horst Tappert. He basically blows them off, saying "a dead guy can't kill anybody". All throughout the murders, we are also treated to some creepy scenes of Soledad lying in bed and cuddling her dead husband, promising revenge and that they will be together again soon. How she got his dead body there, and why it shows no sign of decay, is not explained, but again, this is Franco we're talking about. Logic totally breaks down in the death scene of the third doctor (Paul Muller of "Lesbos"); she pursues him in a church, and then outdoors as herself, before finally confronting him in a cafe. Suddenly they're in a hotel room and she has on a long blonde wig and sexy lingerie. Anyhow, they have the film's only real erotic moment, as he explores her small but perfect breasts and feels her up. Just as they get going, she comes up with a pair of scissors and emotionlessly stabs him in the back of the head. The blood running out of his mouth onto her naked thigh is a great shot.

Finally it's Franco's turn to die. He finds out about the 3rd murder and frantically races home, only to find his wife on the living room floor with her throat slashed. He passes out. When he wakes up, he is in Miranda's house, half-naked and tied to a chair. She enters the room dressed like Vampirella, brandishing a wicked-looking dagger. She then proceeds to give the greasy haired, sweaty Franco a lap dance, teasing him with the knife. Finally, she builds it up and starts slicing his chest and licking up the blood, eventually plunging the knife deep into his heart over and over. She then runs out to her car, where her husband's corpse is waiting in the passenger seat. Pursued by the police, who have been alerted God knows how, she drives for the cliff and over the edge they go. Sadly, Franco couldn't afford an explosion, so the climactic suicide and reunion of the doomed couple looks pretty damn cheap. Some pat words from the police chief, and "FIN".
Overall, this is one of Franco's best films, because he keeps the story simple, the shots are fairly normal (even his notorious zoom insanity is toned down), the music is great, the locations are beautiful, the gore is minimal (and thus not fake), and the pacing is not the usual snail's pace. Mostly, though, it's great because of Solidad Miranda. Her presence is astonishing; doomed, tragic, cold, and relentless. And of course hot, hot, hot.


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