Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Lorna the Exorcist (1974)

It’s been a very long wait indeed for Mondo Macabro’s release of Jess Franco’s Lorna the Exorcist (Les possédées du diable). There are no exorcists at all in this film but everyone was trying to cash in on the success of The Exorcist so the title probably seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t think this one quite makes it as first-rank Franco but it’s interesting and it’s undoubtedly the most perverse movie he has ever made (which is saying quite a lot when you think of Franco films like Barbed Wire Dolls).

While there aren’t any exorcists in sight there are demonic possessions. The title character is a kind of combination demon/witch/vampire and the movie has affinities with other Franco movies of that period.

The plot is relatively simple but it’s not exactly straightforward, being laced with ambiguities. Patrick Mariel (Guy Delorme) is a wealthy businessman whose past comes back to haunt him as the 18th birthday of his daughter Linda (Lina Romay) approaches.

Patrick’s wealth came to him suddenly, almost 19 years earlier. He was on the skids and desperate when he encountered the bizarre but fascinating Lorna (Pamela Stanford). Lorna brought him good luck immediately, and assured him that even more good luck could soon come his way if he would just agree to a very simple little deal. All he had to do was to make love to Lorna, then head straight back to his hotel room and make love to his wife. His wife (Marianne, played by Jacqueline Laurent) would conceive a child, a girl, but the child would be Lorna’s. Lorna would return on the girl’s 18th birthday. Patrick, his mind clouded by both sexual lust and greed, agrees to the pact.

Whether Patrick really understood the agreement or would have agreed is the first of the film’s ambiguities, but 18 years later he receives a phone call from Lorna. She wants him to honour their agreement. She has kept her part of the bargain, and whatever scepticism Patrick may feel about demonic pacts he has to admit that al the wealth and success that Lorna promised did come his way exactly when she said it would. But surely Lorna can’t be serious about intending to claim his daughter. Apart from his scepticism, at the time he made the pact a daughter was merely a hypothetical future possibility. Linda is now very real and he is devoted to her. Whatever peccadilloes he committed in the past he is now a loving husband and father. Lorna soon makes it clear she is very serious indeed.

While the supernatural elements drive the plot we are never quite certain if we are dealing with actual manifestations of the supernatural. Much of what happens could be explained as coincidence, or madness, or possibly some kind of hypnotic suggestion. As in Franco’s best movies there is no clear dividing line between the real and the not-real.

The amount and sex and nudity in this film is prodigious, but that’s more or less expected in a mid-70s Franco movie. What isn’t expected is the truly extraordinary degree of perversity. The atmosphere of the movie is deeply unhealthy in almost every imaginable way. And again, as in Franco’s best work, the perversity and the sex are the core of the film. This is no straightforward pact with the Devil. Sex, motherhood, fatherhood, questions of identity, of control, the psychological dimensions of both sex and the supernatural, all are thrown together into a very disturbing cocktail.

Some directors would find a theme that obsessed him and spend two or three years working on one film, trying to express that theme perfectly. Being a low-budget film-maker Franco could not do that but his approach was just as obsessive. He would return to a theme again and again, trying to express that theme perfectly by a proves of accumulation. For this reason it’s impossible to fully comprehend Franco as a film-maker until you’ve seen a lot of his movies, probably at least two dozen. Lorna the Exorcist has to be seen in the context of a cycle of Franco films from the late 60s to the mid-70s, a cycle that includes his most provocative, controversial and disturbing erotic horror movies such as the infamous Female Vampire and the even more infamous Doriana Gray.

Those who regard Franco as a talentless hack will find plenty of support for their view here. Even by Franco standards this one is technically slapdash. But those who regard Franco as a visionary genius will find just as much support here for their view. Some of Franco’s most personal films are technically slapdash, as if the more involved he was the less he cared about technical details. He’s rather like a painter who is so anxious to get his vision on canvas that he can’t stop to correct minor technical errors, or a writer so desperate to get his ideas on paper that he has no time to revise, he simply completes one book and moves straight on to the next one.

The setting contributes a great deal to this production. It was filmed in the bizarre ultra-modernist city of la Grand Motte in the Camargue in southern France, a spectacular seaside resort built from the ground up within the space of a few years from the early 60s to the early 70s. Along with Godard’s Alphaville and Jacques Tati's Playtime this is one of the most stunning and successful uses in cinema of modernist architecture and interior design to create an atmosphere of alienation.

The acting is remarkably good. The four main stars are all highly effective, plus there’s a brief but entertaining cameo by Howard Vernon as Lorna’s strongarm butler. Pamela Stanford plays Lorna in such a way that we would find it equally easy to see her as a witch or a madwoman. Lina Romay walks off with the acting honours however, imbuing Linda with an incredibly unsettling mix of innocence, depravity and newly awakened sexuality.

The print quality is variable but given the deplorable state of the source materials (no intact negative survives) Mondo Macabro has done a great job.

The more one thinks about this movie the more one is inclined to consider that it may in fact qualify as one of his major works. Definitely recommended. It’s typically Franco in being a heady mix of art, mind games and sexual perversity.

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