Necronomicon - Geträumte Sünden
**/**** Image C+ Sound B- Extras B-
starring Janine Reynaud, Jack Taylor, Howard Vernon, Adrian Hoven
screenplay by Pier A. Caminnecci
directed by Jess Franco
by Alex Jackson Jess Franco's Succubus begins with heroine Lorna (Janine Reynaud) torturing and molesting a man chained to a stake while his similarly bound, bloodied, and partially-nude lover watches. The lover protests, so Lorna tortures her some until she passes out. She then goes to the man and plays with him a bit before skewering him with her ceremonial knife. The lights fade up and an audience applauds. The snuff scene was simulated. It's part of an act Lorna performs at a chic nightclub. This opening is the most eloquent and lucid scene in the film, for it establishes that director Jess Franco no longer has a responsibility to be eloquent and lucid. Succubus is going to be told subjectively through the perspective or Lorna, who is going schizophrenic (or something) and is increasingly unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Thus, whatever we see might actually be happening--and then again it might not be. We never really know.
Franco evidently believes that by labelling himself "avant-garde" or "surreal" he is absolved of any responsibility as an artist. To quote Danny Peary on El Topo (recasting a Pauline Kael quote on the same), that this film is beyond our comprehension does not make it profound. It's perhaps ludicrous to compare them (if not entirely unfair), but it occurred to me that the reason somebody like David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive) or Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut) can get away with these "am I awake or am I dreaming" games is because their films are about the co-existence of not reality and fantasy, but the banal and the fantastic. Ultimately, the terms "reality" and "fantasy" are arbitrary qualifiers, unnecessary baggage we bring to the film experience. (I can understand why Lynch encourages it, but it annoys the shit out of me when people try to explain what happens in Mulholland Drive.) This is probably why I'm able to watch a Lynch or Kubrick film without feeling jerked around like I did with Succubus. Since it's counterproductive to determine what level the film is working on, you can relax and take it like it is.
Succubus isn't mysterious as much as it is frustrating. Franco gives us a scene where Lorna talks to her psychiatrist. He asks her if she likes birds. She says they frighten her because of their feathers. She is attracted to pachyderms, knives, and pencils, however. Okay. Women are birds, right? I'm not just basing this on my knowledge of British slang in the '60s: Lorna's co-star in the snuff show says in a monologue that she is a bird and her feathers are the "child in men." And pachyderms, knives, and pencils--these are obvious phallic symbols. So at first it would appear that Lorna is suffering from a similar psychosis as Marie in High Tension. She has lesbian tendencies and represses and controls them by assuming the role of a male slasher who dominates his victims with phallic objects. Consider that Lorna attempts to seduce her boyfriend William Francis Mulligan (Jack Taylor) but is refuted. They end up simply sleeping side by side in the nude. Later in the film, a beautiful blonde fawns over Lorna and tries to convince her to make love. Lest she succumb, Lorna smashes the blonde's head with a ceramic elephant (an homage to A Clockwork Orange?) and then stabs her.
This psychosis is not self-directed. I don't think Lorna has any legitimate hang-ups about having sex with other women, but William sure seems to. When he rejects Lorna, it's not because she's trying to force a heterosexual orientation on herself and it doesn't fit, but simply because he's impotent. His inability to consummate his relationship with Lorna leaves him insecure, and when she steers herself towards other women, it's the ultimate affront to his manhood. And so he somehow programs Lorna to fear the chicks and loves the pricks, so to speak. This is largely supported by a scene where Lorna is dry-humped by a pack of women during an otherwise fashionably-boring bacchanal. Upon seeing this, William pulls her out and slaps her around, calling her a slut. Then they go home and successfully have sex. To be completely honest, I didn't figure much of this out until I saw the film a second time. The "birds and pachyderms" bit alerted me to the idea that Lorna was somehow sexually repressed, though I couldn't figure out how or why. The second time, knowing what I was looking for, I noticed when William slapped Lorna and worked to unravel its significance. Still, I'm not satisfied.
In High Tension, Marie was physically transformed into a misogynistic truck driver whenever she went a-killin'. In Succubus, a malevolent hypnotist intent on making Lorna "a disciple that mirrors my own image" controls her externally. Hardly a comparable avatar for the masculine rapist/slasher mentality. All the men in Succubus look alike, and part of the problem with my first viewing was that I had trouble differentiating William from the hypnotist. Perhaps that's the point. In light of the fact that male impotence is the motivation behind Lorna's bondage, I wonder if Franco is trying to marginalize and diminish the significance of the male threat while underlining the arbitrary nature of the patriarchal concentration of power.
What kind of people would go to a snuff show, anyway? Why, we would! The introduction, after all, is meant to confuse us into thinking we are watching the real movie. This type of self-hatred is meant to excuse Janine Reynaud's copious nudity, which presumably had to be included in the film to ensure distribution. She was once apparently completely uninhibited, yet her experiences with William have transformed her sexuality into a means of objectification. Franco is going to deliver the nude scenes as promised and then guilt-trip us for wanting to see them.
But whether or not I'm right about Succubus (and I'll be the first to admit that I'm probably overreaching), the film is unnecessarily dense and gloomily unromantic. It's not a movie for people who like movies. In making his killer a misogynistic truck driver, High Tension director Alexandre Aja effectively expunged the obvious sadomasochistic rape mentality and somewhat-less-obvious classism (Michael Myers (mentally insane), Jason Voorhees ("cognitively impaired"), and even Freddy Krueger (a victim of child abuse) are all essentially outsiders rejected or let down by the social institutions they attempt to infiltrate) that comprise the foundation of the slasher genre. High Tension is in part a deconstruction of the genre, but it also respected the conventions that account for slasher movies being not only sociologically valuable, but also simple, nasty fun. Such respect is apparently beneath Franco. The film's pseudo-feminist moralism dissolves away the latticework that makes the slasher genre tick, leaving behind one big, non-sensical puddle of goo. It probably goes without saying that it's a lot more work than it's finally worth.
Granted, if you don't take any of this seriously, I suppose you could have some fun with it. Succubus is garbage, but it's garbage circa 1968. At times it suggests a straight-faced copy of a Jean-Luc Godard film, where the characters play word-association games involving philosophers and pop icons. A man says "unconsciousness" to Lorna and she replies, "Marquis De Sade." (Jess Franco sure loves the Marquis De Sade.) "Justine." "Love." "Religion." "Gomorrah." Later, her therapist tries to get a rise out of her by saying, "Marilyn Monroe is dead," and, "Hegel and Nietzsche will never be shown." William meets a girl who tells him the Rolling Stones are antiquated. He replies that films are outmoded because they are made months before they come out. She says that's not true of Lang and Godard: she discovers something new in each consecutive viewing of their films. Perhaps the best phrase to describe Succubus is "camp for post-structuralists." Not that I'm any more clear as to what the hell that means, either.
Blue Underground's pillarboxed, 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Succubus was unfortunately sourced from an overexposed and faded source print seemingly immune to digital finessing. The accompanying Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is OK, though applause is heavy with crackle. Extras-wise, "From Necronomicon to Succubus" is a substantive twenty-two minute interview with Franco about the origin, production, and publicity surrounding the film. Necronomicon is Franco's original, preferred title for Succubus and he supposedly based the film on the mythical book of the same name--a portion of which he claims to have read at the University of Vienna. At the end of the piece he says that nobody understands the film, but that Godard says that's fine as a movie doesn't need to be understood in order to be successful. "Back in Berlin" (7 mins.) takes actor Jack Taylor back to Berlin where Succubus was shot for an interview regarding his experience making it. Taylor says he always works hard in his films even though he knows they are trashy and that Succubus is better than most of Franco's stuff because Franco had a producer for a change. During the credits, he amusingly complains about the atmospheric candles sitting next to him. A theatrical trailer hopefully offering "First there was La Dolce Vita, then Boccacio '70, and now... Succubus" rounds out the platter. Originally published: August 20, 2007.