Although I’ve seen a lot of Jess Franco films until recently my viewing had been entirely confined to his 1960s and 1970s movies. Of late I’ve been tentatively delving into his 80s output. While I’m very much a fan of his earlier work I had fairly low expectations of these later works. OK, it’s not in the same league as films like Vampyros Lesbos or Eugénie de Sade, but Mansion of the Living Dead (La mansión de los muertos vivientes) was a fair bit better than I’d expected.
Four topless waitresses book a bargain holiday at a Mediterranean resort hotel. The hotel turns out to be curiously deserted. In fact there’s virtually nobody around anywhere, apart from an eccentric gardener and the ever so slightly sinister hotel manager (the fact that he’s named Carlos Savonarola should certainly have caused them some unease). The girls were hoping there’d be lots of men to provide them with the sort of entertainment they were craving, but since there’s a noticeable lack of men they decide to make their own fun (this is a Franco film, so the resultant lesbian couplings should not come as any great shock). At this stage the movie seems more like a 70s sex comedy (with Lina Romay camping it up as a very ditzy blonde named Candy) than a horror flick, but that’s about to change. The first sign that perhaps the situation at the resort is even weirder than at first appeared comes when the girls are sunbathing and a meat cleaver is thrown at them from a window. It misses them, but it does rather ruin their afternoon.
One of the women subsequently disappears, and another finds herself confronting a group of rather unsettling monks, monks who were agents of the Inquisition but now claim to be Cathar heretics and who worship darkness and evil. They may also be dead. Whatever life they possess is certainly not natural. Candy makes a few discoveries of her own, including a woman kept chained in one of the rooms, a woman involved with the resort manager in what evidently started as consensual S&M sex games but became something a little more dangerous. She now hates Carlos, but she still loves him as well. Carlos has meanwhile become preoccupied by the idea that Candy is actually the witch Irina they had burned several centuries earlier, a fact that becomes of crucial importance.
The movie is often regarded as a kind of tribute to Armando De Ossorio’s popular Blind Dead series involving blind zombie Templars but the resemblance is superficial at best. The erotic elements start out being fairly standard Franco softcore hijinks but they do develop into a vital part of the plot since the monks are obsessed with sins, particularly sins of the carnal variety. It seems more than likely that this obsession had led them into madness, madness that culminated in certain events involving Irina/Candy. The link between sexual and religious obsession is made quite clear.
Although working as usual on a very limited budget Franco uses the setting (a hotel in the Canary Islands) to create quite an effective atmosphere of isolation, desolation and subtle menace. The use of lighting in the many shots of long completely deserted corridors works especially well. And once Lina Romay switches from ditzy to crazy those enormous eyes of hers become very scary indeed.
It’s the usual mixture of sex, sleaze and horror that one expects from Uncle Jess. If you don’t like sex and sleaze and lots of nudity with your horror then you’re not going to be watching a Jess Franco movie in the first place. It lacks the extreme trippiness of his best work, but it’s still an effective piece of contemporary gothic horror and it’s worth a look.