Jesus "Jess" Franco is a director that's sort of a secret amongst serious horror film fans. If you're the type of casual fan of the genre who thinks that "Friday the 13th," "Halloween," and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" are the best films the horror industry ever made, you have never heard of Jess Franco. If you think the "Leprechaun" franchise constitutes the apogee of the horror genre, you have never heard of Jess Franco. If you think collecting Wes Craven and John Carpenter films are as far as you need to go to balance out your DVD collection, you have never heard of Jess Franco. I don't mean to give the impression that Franco is the best directorial talent ever seen in the field, because he definitely isn't, but I have found that knowledge about some of this man's films is one of the best ways to distinguish the novices from the veterans. His most highly regarded--at least in some quarters--film remains "Vampyros Lesbos," a fascinating take on the age-old vampire legend. Then there is Franco's take on the Marquis de Sade's Justine, which doesn't exactly classify as a horror film as much as it does your typical Eurosleaze trash. Read on...
"Justine" (let's just call it that instead of putting de Sade's name in front of it; I'm feeling lazy tonight) stars Romina Power as the titular character, a young, naïve waif cast out into the decadent world of 18th century France. It all starts when Justine and her dissolute sister Juliette (Maria Rohm) must fend for themselves after being thrown out of an orphanage. The two head straight for Paris and a local harridan hotel where Juliette fits right in as the main attraction. Justine doesn't make the cut, however, and heads out into the world to find her own niche. What follows is a series of slightly bawdy and often boring romps involving all levels of French society. Justine first obtains employment at a small inn thanks to the grizzled owner Du Harpin (Akim Tamiroff!) only to find herself back on the street after rebuffing the overtures of a seedy nobleman. She then ends up in prison where she meets a tough, streetwise goon by the name of Madame Dusbois (Mercedes McCambridge!!) who has a date with the executioner she's planning on skipping. In between the woman's enormously hammy cackling, we learn that she needs Justine's help to escape her fate. They get away, and Justine falls in briefly with Dusbois's gang of ugly French thugs.
All is not lost, however, as Justine manages to escape from these vagabonds only to fall into a dismal situation involving the Marquise de Bressac (Slyva Koseina) and her good for nothing hubby. A murder plot and a lot of inherited wealth leads to a situation in which Justine decides to do the "right" thing by spilling the beans to the clueless Marquise. Oops. Hubby still gets what he wants but learns in the process that Justine's big mouth might have ruined his plans. Result? A big 'M' (for murderess) branded on Justine's chest in what is probably the film's best sleazy scene. What follows is rather tame by comparison, although I should mention none other than Jack Palance shows up as Antonin, the head loony of some crazed sect of debauched nut jobs. The film screeches to a halt as Justine, her morality in tatters and on her last leg emotionally and physically, somehow manages to find a personal savior who could care less about her soiled reputation. At least I think that's what happened. Oh, I almost forgot: none other than Klaus Kinski turns up as the Marquis de Sade himself, but doesn't do much except pace about in a prison cell and write down Justine's various adventures.
"Justine" is one of Franco's better efforts even though it ultimately disappoints in the sleaze department. The budget is bigger, the stars are recognizable and surprising to see in a Jess Franco film, and the musical score sounds wonderful. What went wrong? A lot. Considering the Marquis de Sade is one of history's most lecherous individuals, the movie is strictly for the milk and cookies crowd. Sure, a few whippings and some gratuitous nudity pop up from time to time, but such scenes are generally uninspired and tame compared to the stuff you'll experience in the Marquis's writings. Even more alarming are the performances. Akim Tamiroff in a Jess Franco film? Wow! Quite a drop from "Touch of Evil" to this, wouldn't you say? Mercedes McCambridge also should have known better; she's awful and grating in her part. As for Jack Palance, well, if you've seen "The Shape of Things to Come" you have a good idea of how far Jackie will go to prop up his faltering career. He lurches and screeches through his part jacked up on wine (according to the interview with Franco on the disc) and generally embarrasses himself at every opportunity. Still, despite all its flaws, I liked "Justine" for the mere fact that it's a quite watchable bad movie. I love bad movies.
Extras on the disc include the aforementioned interview with Franco, one of the better ones I've seen, in which he discusses working with Kinski (they got along) to dealing with Palance's penchant for drink to his extreme dislike of Romina Power. A trailer, poster and still galleries, and a Franco bio also find their way into the supplements section. If you're looking for a truly disturbing and sleazy cinematic adaptation of de Sade, I recommend Pasolini's "Salo." Those looking for a gigglefest and de Sade lite would do well to give this one a spin.