Much like the Velvet Underground song, this Jess Franco exploitation film has almost nothing to do with the well-known novel from which it stole its title. But Judge Brett Cullum liked it anyhow.
A coat that covers paradise uncovers hell!
Venus in Furs is also known as Paroxismus, or even Black Angel. The director, Jess Franco (Vampyros Lesbos and over 200 European shock cinema pieces), is also known as Jesus Franco, J. Franco, Robert Griffin, Manfred Gregor, David Khune, Jesus Manera, Lulu Laverne, or Betty Carter (with many more where that came from—over eighty known assumed names so far). The movie is a masterpiece of horror combined with exploitation and erotica. So if that sounds like your bag, you will love this. If moody, trippy horror films with gratuitous nudity are something you hate, then run for the hills. There are only two reactions to Venus in Furs: "Wow!" or "Whoa!" One critic from The San Francisco Examiner called it "trippy as hell" and "like a Marvel Team-up between Ranier Werner Fassbinder and Russ Meyers set loose in the Hammer Studios." My thoughts exactly.
Facts of the Case
A jazz trumpeter named Jimmy (James Darren, "Moondoggie" from the Gidget series) finds a beautiful corpse washed up on a beach in Turkey. He recognizes the woman as Wanda Reed (a striking Maria Rohm, The Blood of Fu Manchu, 99 Women), a young socialite he saw brutally gang raped, tortured, and murdered at a high society party about a year prior. He runs away to Rio to forget, and buries himself in music and the arms of a very attractive black soul singer named Rita (Barbara McNair, General Hospital). But one night Wanda appears at a party he is playing, seemingly alive and as beautiful as ever. He falls in love with her, and becomes completely obsessed and mystified simultaneously. Bodies begin piling up, and it seems her attackers are now falling victim to Wanda's revenge. Who is she? Why is Jimmy drawn to her?
If you are into erotic European horror, Venus in Furs is a shining example of a Jess Franco classic. Other people are going to think it's a Twilight Zone episode with tits thrown in for good measure. Frankly, I'm a Franco fan, and I loved every trippy minute of this movie. Maria Rohm has never looked better, James Darren is sexy and cool, and Barbara McNair sings the hell out of a couple of songs and breaks your heart. The three leads are great, and the supporting cast is even more impressive. You've got Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu in Venice, over 130 movies of all grades and taste) as millionaire playboy Ahmed, who leads the group that kills Wanda. Also starring as sadistic grist for the mill are Margaret Lee (an exploitation queen with many credits in Franco films, including Ghosts), and another Franco veteran, Dennis Price (Lady Godiva Rides Again, Vampyros Lesbos). Kinski, Lee, and Price don't have many lines, but they are there for their sheer physicality and ability to play sadistic, seductive, and nuts all at once.
The title is misleading, because the movie has nothing to do with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's literary masterpiece Venus in Furs. Franco was asked to adapt the book, but instead he made this movie and fooled an investor by giving it the same title so he could get funding. Venus in Furs does include a pretty cruel woman named Wanda who wears fur and panties with nothing else, but that's the only ingredient in common with its literary companion. The story is all Franco—he actually wanted to make the lead a black trumpeter (modeled after Miles Davis) who falls for a white "goddess." His investors warned him that this would never play well in America, so the equation was flipped to a Chet Baker white trumpeter with a black mistress (more acceptable in America). James Darren was thrust upon him as the lead; even Franco had doubts whether the Gidget alum could pull off such a dark and stormy role. What Franco didn't know was that Darren had been friends with Chet Baker, and could play the trumpet well enough to effectively imitate him. Franco actually thinks the end product is a little too surreal for his taste, but he seems quite correctly proud of what he created.
Venus in Furs is one of those films that creates a mood more than it delivers a clear narrative. If style over substance annoys you, then you're in the wrong movie. It's charmingly dated in dialogue, and moves from exotic locales such as Turkey and Rio for pretty much no good reason. If you liked The Hunger or David Lynch's films, you'll find Venus in Furs a lot of fun along the lines of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It's chock-full of wonderful images: Barbara McNair singing on a tiled floor, Maria Rohm seductively caressing a Venus statue, and Klaus Kinski tied to a hook being whipped. The film has some purposefully psychedelic passages where colors and focus swirl around the camera in extraordinary ways. A lot of people dismiss this movie as merely a competent exploitation film, but it has enough technical proficiency to be considered a good film with an assured director behind it. Franco is actually restrained here, and avoids his usually annoying reliance on zoom shots and overtly pornographic sexuality in favor of beautifully composed pictures and subtly romanticized sex scenes.
Another aspect that makes Venus in Furs work so well is the music. Manfred Mann did the score; it's amazingly jazzy and fits the bill nicely. Jess Franco shows up in the picture as part of Manfred's band at certain points (he's an instrumentalist himself). Darren plays all of his own trumpet solos, and he does a quite remarkable job of it. Who knew Moondoggie was a hep cat with a horn? Barbara McNair gets to sing two songs in a club-like setting, and I enjoyed both of her performances as much as seeing Darren's prowess. The music is a character all its own in Venus in Furs—and it probably turns in the best performance.
Blue Underground is one of those companies I wish would release everything. They know how to treat classic cult films with extreme loving care. The transfer here is very clear, with little softness and remarkably true colors. The print is scratched and dirty (especially in the opening sequences), but that's the only flaw in an otherwise stunning transfer. The sound mix is in Dolby Digital mono, which scared me at first. The movie relies so much on music I thought it might be degraded by a mono mix, but it is surprisingly robust for what it is. There's no hissing, and it almost sounded like a really good stereo mix. Included is a video interview with Jess Franco that runs about twenty minutes. He talks about his style and what he wanted out of Venus in Furs in a pretty solid session. There is an audio interview with Maria Rohm that runs eleven minutes, and includes a nice slide show of many photographs that accompanies the audio. She prefers to be remembered as she was, and therefore refused to appear on camera. She talks about her career as a Franco star, and it's quite charming. We also get a still gallery, trailers, and a DVD-ROM feature: a column about Franco from Video Watchdog.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I watched this with a friend who fell asleep at one point, woke up, and said "Screw this lesbian vampire crap. I'm out of here." A lot of people are going to react that way. Franco is a director who divides people into two camps almost immediately. There are the die-hards who love him, and the hordes who would like to burn all his films and forget they existed. I say that's the mark of a great artist, and extreme reactions are par for the course. But you may not like this movie at all. It's definitely not for all tastes. Now if Franco sounds like something you might like, then Venus in Furs is the perfect flick to test your tolerance. But be warned—this movie doesn't make tons of sense, often digresses into strange dream tangents, and isn't something that lends itself to a family/friends movie night in the slightest.
It's not for everyone's taste, but I found tons of things to enjoy inside Venus in Furs. It's trippy, well executed, and has great music for a European horror movie with lesbian overtones. Kinky in all the right places, but never outrightly pornographic, Venus in Furs is a classy exploitation flick. Definitely one of Jess Franco's best efforts out of the hundreds of movies he made. Blue Underground gives the film a remarkable transfer matched with some insightful extras that continues to extend their reputation as the greatest thing to happen to cult movies since midnight screenings.
Maria Rohm, Jess Franco, and all those involved with Venus in Furs are guilty of making a psychotic, giddy headtrip with a sadistic psychedelic sensibility. I've never enjoyed a "pseudo"-lesbian succubus jazz horror film quite so much. Blue Underground deserves high praise for treating movies we secretly love in all the right ways.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Jesus in Furs -- an interview with Jess Franco
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