Wednesday, 9 November 2022

Killer Barbys (1996)

Jess Franco kept making movies right up to the end of his life but in the 21st century his movies tended to be absolutely zero-budget and often shot on video, and more and more experimental. In 1996 however Franco was still making proper feature films. Killer Barbys (AKA Vampire Killer Barbys) is a real feature film (albeit shot on Super 16 film rather than 35mm).

Whether you enjoy this movie or not depends a lot on how you feel about the music. This is a horror movie but it’s also a punk rock movie with the soundtrack largely supplied by punk bands like the Killer Barbies. There’s a lot of punk music in this movie. If you hate that style of music you might have problems with the movie.

It’s worth pointing out that the band is called the Killer Barbies but the spelling of the title of the movie was changed to Killer Barbys to avoid problems with Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie dolls. The company apparently didn’t have an objection to the spelling of the band’s name (throughout the movie they’re the Killer Barbies and that’s the name on their tour bus) but they might have balked at the spelling when it came to the movie.

The Killer Barbies don’t just provide the background music. They are central characters in the film. The lineup of the band in the movie is however not the actual band lineup. The two founding members of the band, Silvia Superstar and Billy King, appear in the movie but other band members are played by actors. This is understandable. The band members such as Mario (Charlie S. Chaplin) play very roles in the plot and have to actual acting.

The movie opens with the kind of scene that you get in countless Franco movies. Franco loved nightclub scenes, they tend to be very important thematically in his movies as well as contributing essential mood and I don’t think any other director has ever done so many superb and atmospheric nightclub scenes. The difference here is that it’s not a jazz club but a punk rock club. But this is Jess Franco and he could make any nightclub scene effective.

The band that is performing is of course the Killer Barbies and after the gig they hit the road. Unfortunately their van breaks down but they get what seems to be a lucky break - a rather distinguished-looking old gentleman tells them that the castle of Countess Fledermaus is nearby and the countess would be happy to give them shelter for the night. They can get their van repaired in the morning. This is of course a classic horror movie setup and while this movie is many other things as well it’s clear that Franco intended it be a classic gothic horror movie.

He lays on the gothic atmosphere good and think and it works. The Killer Barbies have left the modern urban world of punk clubs and now they’re in gothic horror movie world. They’re very much fish out of water.

Three of the band members (including Flavia which is the name given to the character played by Silvia Superstar in the movie) enthusiastically take up the offer of accommodation for the night. The other two band members, Billy and Sharon (Los Angeles Barea) are too busy having sex in the back of the van even to notice that the van is no longer moving.

We know that bad things are going to happen because we’ve seen the countess. She looks like she’s more than a hundred years old, because she is more than a hundred years old. She looks like a corpse that is somehow still breathing. But her faithful servant Arkan (Aldo Sambrell) who is clearly in love with her isn’t worried. Thanks to the arrival of the band they now have an ample supply of fresh blood. The countess (who was a famous singer many many years earlier) can be restored to her youthful beauty. So this is a vampire movie of sorts. And the countess will indeed have her beauty restored.

The question of course is whether any of the Killer Barbies are going to get out of this alive.

Franco was not keen on gore but there is a fair bit of it in this movie. There is some nudity and sex but not as much as you might expect in a Franco film.

The plot is not wildly original but what matters in a Franco movie is what he does with it. And in this case he’s made an odd and interesting movie in which the clash between the world of the present and the world of the past is a major focus. There is of course also a clash between the living and the dead, or rather the undead. The extreme youth of the band members (Flavia claims to be nineteen) is therefore an appropriate touch.

There’s a very creepy retainer named Baltasar at the castle. He has two midgets whom he thinks of as his boys). They seem to be cannibals. They’re certainly quite insane. Arkan is insane as well but in a very different way. His insanity is his obsession with the countess (who has been driven both mad and evil by the loss of her youthful beauty). He combines insanity with dignity and devotion.

Everything takes place at night and if you go for shadows and fog you’ll be in bliss. As usual Franco has found some fine locations.

This movie is clearly inspired more by the the real-life Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory than by vampires. Báthory is alleged to have had hundreds of virgin girls killed so she could bathe in their blood and she was the subject of Hammer’s 1971 Countess Dracula as well as one of the segments of Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (1973). The countess is Killer Barbys is played by Mariangela Giordano, a fine actress who really puts her all into her performance. She was 59 years old at that time and she spends a good deal of her screen time naked (and looks remarkably good). She was an interesting casting choice, emphasising theme of the battle between age and youth and the countess’s determination not to let go of youth, and not to let go of her sexuality. She really is the standout performer in this movie.

Aldo Sambrell gives a surprisingly nuanced performance in a movie not noted for its nuance. Of the younger cast members Silvia Superstar is the most convincing and has definite screen presence and energy.

If you are not very familiar with Franco’s work (or totally unfamiliar with it) do not under any circumstances see this movie until you’ve seen at least a couple of dozen of his other movies. This film will give you a totally distorted and misleading impression of Franco as a film-maker. For one thing this is Franco in a jokey mood. He made plenty of very serious movies but this is not one of them. In Killer Barbys he’s spoofing gore movies and slasher movies. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek. This was also an attempt to re-establish his commercial credentials. It includes plenty of elements that should have worked commercially - the slasher film references, various pop culture references, the gore effects that are clearly intended to be amusing rather than shocking. And of course punk rock. It’s a kind of goofy punk comic-book take on the slasher genre.

A lot of Franco fans hate this movie and it certainly doesn’t compare to his great movies of the 60s, 70s and 80s. But if you accept that Franco really was intending this movie as a good-natured joke then it’s kind of fun. Worth a look for experienced Franco fans.

Redemption’s DVD offers a good transfer with an audio commentary by Troy Howarth.


Spartan said...

Far from his best, but Killer Barbys is perhaps one of my favorites in Franco's filmography. Haven't seen Killer Barbys vs. Dracula, though.

dfordoom said...

I haven't seen Killer Barbys vs. Dracula either. Seems like it's a movie that it is hard to get hold of.

Santi Pages said...

The origin of this movie is the explosion of power pop and punk rock bands singing in English in the Spanish scene in the mid 90s.
Killer Barbies were the flagship of one of the labels behind the phenomenon, Subterfuge Records, who I believe produced the film.
Their imagery and sensitivities were very close to those of Franco's so it was a natural alliance.
Thank you for the blog!

dfordoom said...

I'll definitely have to check out the Killer Barbies more fully.