Friday, February 04, 2011


Original Title: L’éventreur de Notre-Dame
Directed by: Jess Franco
France/Spain/Belgium (1974) 1979
93min, Thriller/Sexploitation
Distributed by: Extreme - WorldWideCinema

Jess Franco gets a lot of undeserved critique for making quick and dirty movies – technically too - and amongst the movies that get the most complaints are the Eurocine movies. It’s no understatement he made more “lesser” movies than “better” movies with Eurocine – but at the same time it’s also the studio that produced some of Jess Franco’s absolute finest moments. Such as the magnificently sleazy, depraved and violent Exorcism or The Sadist of Notre Dame or Demoniac depending on which version you actually get to see. This is one of Franco’s wildest, darkest and strangest movies, and a shocking, disturbing and outstanding tour de force of Jess Franco cinema.

Pulp author Paul Vogel – or Mathis depending on which version you are watching [Franco] is writes seedy, sensationalistic crime stories for The Dagger and Garter Weekly. His latest short, The Torture Chambers of the Inquisition, tells the exploits of a sadist who Vogel claims to be based on a real character, hence the absolutely authentic details - which the readers love! Office clerk Anne [Lina Romay], who also participates in the opening nightclub performance, works in the Venus Publications offices too. The meeting ends on a sour note, when Anne and boyfriend Raymond (or Pierre depending on which version you are watching) [Pierre Taylou] candidly without knowing he’s still in the hallway, mock Vogel.

Vogel stalks Anne and her friend Maria [Monica Swinn] going as far as renting an adjourning apartment with a view right into the two young women’s room. From his, room with a view, he get’s his voyeuristic kicks whilst oogling the two women and their lesbian lovemaking. It’s classic Franco voyeurism and wonderfully shot from an adjourning location, creating frames within the frame and presenting a metaphorical space between Vogel and his “prey” - a space soon to be closed.

Next Franco establishes the complexity of the Vogel character. He’s not only a man who gets pleasure from his voyeurism, he’s also driven by the compulsion to cleanse the women he watches, and he has to make someone pay for the sins. Vogel rushes down to the local bar, picks up a barmaid and after sloppily making out with her – or rather having a minor breakdown on top of her naked body – Vogel proclaims that he’s must exorcise the devil out of her… which obviously means she’s gonna’ die! It gives a dimension to the character, which may come as a surprise for haters, but it is there and it’s a fascinating character with more depth than most the generic shite produced today. I’ll get back to the complex character of Vogel in a moment.
This is where a subplot concerning Satanism, black magic and occult rituals is started off and then runs throughout the rest of the movie. The barmaid tells Vogel of a satanic cult that have invited her to a Black Mass, and Vogel is shoved gently towards the brink. It’s an interesting subplot and a useful one as the Satanism and occult obviously contrasts against the many religious paraphernalia and recurrent praying of Vogel’s world. As we know all about Vogel’s religious morale and mission to clean out Satanism and sin, it becomes a conscious provocation and we know that he will have to react to it. It builds an inner tension within the Vogel character, which soon will need a reaction.

Vogel sneaks around the grounds of a mansion and witnesses the Black Mass invoking a brilliant clash within the character. We already know he’s on a one man mission to clear the world of sin and sinners, so stumbling upon a cult of Satanists who not only perform a ritualistic sacrifice, but also where participants freely start sessions of heavy petting and later end up in one huge sweaty snake pit of carnal frenzy, is an absolute point of no return for Vogel. The cultists must die, and obviously he starts with the high priestess and her husband, one of the most violent and haunting moments of the movie.

There’s bitter irony to be found here. As we have understood the black Mass to be merely another act, we realise that Vogel’s “exorcism/sacrifices” of the cultists is unjustified. There is no real threat to “our/Vogel’s” religious foundation; hence the sacrifices are merely murders. His misinterpretation of the ritual, leads him into an accelerated frenzy of disgust. He commits his gory assassination of the Countess [Francine Nicolas] and the blood remains are what lead the cops to take their manhunt for a sadistic killer whose methods - according to one young detective - are identical to that of the exorcism ritual of the early inquisition. It’s another obvious religious reference, but also the jump-start of an investigation plot. But instead of going the traditional way, Franco mind-fucks us. We know all about Vogel and his mission, and at the same time Inspector Tanner [Olivier Mathot] and cohorts are not too sympathetically portrayed. It’s as if Franco is manipulating the audience into empathising with Vogel instead of rooting for the police force, as we know the “sadist”, have an insight into his complex character and compared to the inefficient police grasping at straws, Vogel is the most effective character.

As the second act introduces the “antagonistic force” of the police – yes they can be an antagonistic force, after all they are out to bust the leading character, Vogel, who in this case is a classic anti-hero type just like Dracula. Think about it, I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, vampire movies have a complicated problem, as the vampire; i.e. the classic monster – most often becomes the one we root for… the protagonist. It’s the same here, it’s Vogel we want to see more of and we want to see his sleazy killings go on for ever… well at least till he starts pawing Romay, then we will have had enough.

Following this suave manipulation, Franco moves into the final act, the one that will take us though to the climax. It obviously see’s Vogel “peeping” on Anne, committing even more murders, whilst Anne and friends all become increasingly paranoid and worried about the killer stalking Paris. It’s all a build of anticipation, as we kind of already know where it’s all going. Vogel has to encounter Anne and when he does it pure ecstatic Franco concentrate.

Having kidnapped Anna, Vogel rants about how she’s too is possessed by the devil, but at the same time he loves her and waits for the right moment to rid her of Satan’s evil influence. With his object of desire finally in his possession, he can’t just kill her off in cold blood, instead he keeps her chained to his cupboard and toys with her instead, and after all he is the Sadist of Notre Dame.

The culmination comes after Vogel is confronted by Raymond and Maria who put forward “proof” that Vogel is the killer, as the feel he knows too much about the killings, and it shines though in his pulpy writing. It’s no chance happening, it’s planted earlier on in the movie and it’s a fantastic beat that delivers. They further provoke him with the fact that they are going to have another black mass later that night. Again it’s a provocation that leads somewhere and it has consequences in the climax, a climax that rushes forth like a runaway train.

Opening in a fashion that is true Franco cinema - We take the voyeuristic gaze into a sexual torture scene where one woman dominates a second – and as the scene reaches its climax; the camera cuts away to show a room full of swanky audience members. Franco sets us down right in the middle of the audience, creating the illusion that we are one of them. It’s a trait that returns quite a lot in Franco’s movies.

We’re used to seeing Franco in bit parts in his movies, and we’re used to seeing him play shady, freaky and oddball characters too. But Mattis Vogel is almost a concentrate of all the characters he’s portrayed though the years. It’s a performance that is outstanding. Vogel is a fascinating character. He has some serious skeletons in his baggage, which are let out in portions along the narrative. The first hint at his background comes early on when Anne asks if it is true that he once used to be a priest. He writes explicit crime novels with a sadomasochistic angle, but he’s also a man of the clergy. It gives dimension to the character. As does the conflict in kneeling affront of his bible, praying to God and putting on his priest garbs only to turn around and savagely murdering the prostitute he picked up at the club. It’s also here his profound beliefs come to surface for the first time. It’s also where he exposes his secret of once being expelled from the church due to his extreme ways of dealing with sin and sinners… he’s not even a real priest anymore, and not accepted by his kind, he’s an outsider.

I usually claim that there’s one crown jewel of storytelling when it comes to creating a fascinating character, and the one thing that motivates their actions harder than anything else is guilt! Yes, guilt. It’s obviously Vogel’s catholic guilt that drives and motivates him to kill the women. The guilt over his voyeurism becomes such a burden that he must redeem himself, and what better than sacrificing the satanic sinners of the devil’s cult to God!

Exorcism is all about voyeurism, life, death and religion – the art of killing in the name of God - i.e., which I feel is an obvious General Franco metaphor if there ever was one. The cinematography by Raymond Heil is outstanding. There are quite a few shots that just linger on in long shots. Being accustomed to the effectiveness of Franco’s zoom I was on several occasions waiting for it to bust forth and catch a close up, but it didn’t it just hung out in the back of the room. Really impressive and completely unexpected. Not forgetting the entire kidnapping of Anne sequence, which definitely is amongst the finest ever seen in a Franco movie. Lighting, composition, pacing and even the editing bring it together unlike any other moment. This could be the one single moment that could define the greatness of Exorcism.

Exorcism has a great score by André Bénichou and long time Franco collaborator Daniel White - who originated from Yorkshire, England. Adding that to the mix, makes this a fantastic movie - Exorcism, one of Jess Franco’s most violent, sleazy and hands down most complex movies, a magnificent piece of trash cinema when its at its best.

16x9 Widescreen

Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, English or French dialogue, Dutch subtitles.

A really spartan release, and it’s painfully obvious that I’m going to have to start digging into my pockets and get the Synapse releases as I’m guessing they are completely uninterested in sending review samples of several year old releases to some bloke in the wrong region… This disc has noting to offer as far as extras go, not even a trailer. Just imagine what you could have done with "alternate versions" clips on this movie.


Alex B. said...

This is a very precious movie.
By the way, you picked some of my favourite shots as screengrabs.
Gee, I own 3 different DVD's of Exorcism and am currently hunting for the Sexorcismes version...a beautiful film.

CiNEZiLLA said...

Yes Alex. This is a very precious movie! It's one of those that I keep finding that i return to every couple of years or so. Franco really make it all worth while here. He fucking own's this one. I think I need to upgrade my fave Franco flicks with better version.



Toxaemia said...

Awesome review for one of my favorite Franco films!

The visuals are amazing.
(But I did kinda think that the ending was a little..meh :P )

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