A hymn to Euro-sleaze
There’s really no proper name for it; that genre of exploitation film produced all across Europe during the late 1960s and early 70s, one emphasising horror and the erotic, bearing the recognisable hallmarks of lesbianism, vampirism and an all-pervasive aura of druggy solipsism. Given this absence of a handy eponym, the term “Euro-sleaze” will do us quite nicely for now.
The Euro-sleaze canon is dominated by the work of a few directors long regarded as hacks, ultra-prolific journeymen whose output was wildly variable. The names of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, José Bénazéraf and Bruno Gantillon now appear well overdue some respect. A critical revaluation has been afforded to the great Italian horror director Dario Argento, whose influence can now be seen in the work of artists such as Mike Kelley and Mike Nelson. Similarly, these auteurs of the damned might also be granted a second look by curious viewers desiring the strange and the wonderful.
The only attempt at any Euro-sleaze critical response, itself long out of print, has been Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956- 1984 by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, released in 1994. This romp through the genre’s murky past was once the sole frame of reference for a contemporary audience, until the arrival of websites such as Severed Cinema and individual reviews on Amazon allowed an older generation of fans to take on the role of learned guides for sleaze neophytes.
My own initiation to these films came in 1995 with the soundtrack to Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, a beguiling confection of camp easy listening and mournful psychedelia. Confirming its cult appeal, the album was later remixed by contemporary electronic artists including Two Lone Swordsmen. Upon viewing the films themselves, what immediately strikes is the cavalier approach to narrative employed by Franco, with storylines being picked up and dropped like so much confetti onto the cutting room floor. The plot makes no sense. When it does, there is often so little development that the film just becomes a series of slo-mo somnambulist tableaux, usually with beautiful nymphets stood around naked enacting some absurd ritual or other. During these odd games, sex is something that is felt as a possession that brings with it not passion but rather a mute, drowsy torpor.
In his helpful Amazon reviews of various DVD releases, ‘Johnny Guitar’ praises Franco for delivering intensity “of a kind David Lynch could never reach with his designer-perversity for yuppies”. The comparison with Lynch is telling. There is frequently a tone of defiance in the lauding of cinema so often dismissed as trash, and the Lynchian interest in sex and surrealism, the non-linear narrative and the sensitive direction of glamorous female leads is all present and correct. Similarly, a Brechtian alienation technique might also be cited by anyone looking to justify shockingly wooden standards of acting. Even then there is really enough that is special and unique here to make any such apologies unnecessary. For those with the patience to sit through a moderate amount of dull, seemingly inconsequential nonsense, reward awaits. The prospect of a bafflingly incongruous dream sequence, or of the divinely gorgeous Soledad Miranda languidly drawing on a cigarette as she plots seduction and murder; surely all of this is justification enough.