Saturday, October 24, 2015

HubrisWeen 2015, Day 19: She Killed In Ecstasy (1970)

It's a pretty well-known story that Jess Franco was obsessed with Soledad Miranda. I mean, it's tough to blame him, because Miranda was a hypnotic presence on film that somehow never quite got the recognition she deserved in her tragically short life. And Franco not only made seven films with her, but had big plans in place for her that might have meant true international stardom--and then a tragic car accident took her life, just on the edge of possible glory.

I've often said that I want the ability to visit alternate realities where minor changes have taken place, particularly in pop culture. Much as I love Patrick Stewart, I want to see the universe where Yaphet Kotto was Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then I might stop by the universe where Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio got their Godzilla script filmed in the 1990s.

And then I'd make a quick detour to the universe where Soledad Miranda didn't die. Did she have great stardom ahead of her, or was she merely destined to continue to be the force that kept Jess Franco closer to actual competence? Or would she have had the infamy of getting conked in the noggin by the camera after multiple close-ups of her naked body at the opening of Female Vampire instead of Lina Romay?

Sadly, my dimension hopping machine doesn't exist, so I don't know the answer. I do know, however, that she was the star of several of the few Franco films I've seen that actually hold together pretty well as films. And She Killed In Ecstasy definitely holds together pretty well, though it is most definitely still a Jess Franco film.

Your first immediate confirmation of this is definitely the hilariously inappropriate, and catchy as hell, theme music that accompanies the opening credits. You really wouldn't normally expect such a toe-tapping, upbeat song to play over footage of fetuses in jars. We then see the truly ethereal Soledad Miranda descending the stairs that lead to a truly bizarre mansion.

It turns out Lego is a surprisingly effective basis for your blueprints.
Miranda is here playing a character only credited as "Mrs. Johnson," and she definitely seems a bit distraught at present. She stares out at the ocean as, in voiceover, she talks about how her love was taken from her after only two years of happy bliss.She flashes back to her wedding to Dr. Johnson (Fred Williams), where thy both silently stare at the altar in a church. They look more drugged than happy here, but then her voiceover ends as we see them at home as she greets him in the most outlandish skimpy outfit I think I've ever seen and they embrace and kiss passionately. Here, he asks if she is happy and replies that she is incredibly happy.

They sit on the couch and he tells her that in a week he'll hear the decision of the Medical Council. He declares them all "bigots," but with the kind of Hubris that makes someone decide to review a movie a day for 26 days, he asserts that they'll have to approve his plans. She assures him not to get too hasty, so he decides to show her his research. Like all good movie scientists, he has a lab in his house.

This is her "lounging around the house" outfit.
He explains he started with animals before moving up to human embryos. (Though what we see are, again, fetuses and not embryos) He basically used hormones and injections to develop human organisms that are more resistant to disease and the decline of age. Basically, he's created super-humans. Like a good spouse, she does a lot of smiling and nodding to pretend she cares about his work.

And then they make love. No, not in the lab, this is in their bedroom. Her voiceover returns to explain how passionate their love was, how it merged them together as one. Alas, his jopes for the future all rested in the hands of a few people. ...and then the jaunty them returns as we see footage of a city on gorgeous coastline, with lots of beachfront.

Dr. Johnson is summoned before the Medical Council, which consists of Prof. Jonathan Walker (Howard Vernon, unsurprisingly), Dr. Crawford (Ewa Stromberg), Dr. Franklin Huston (Paul Muller), and Dr. Donen (Jess Franco, himself). I love the way this shot is framed, with all the council members seated--Houston and Crawford staring forward, while Walker calls Dr. Johnson forward and then Donen hands him a document. It's very surreal, oddly gorgeous, and somehow perfectly captures the anxiety you feel in this kind of scenario.

As their voices echo, the various doctors take turns condemning Dr. Johnson's experiments as inhuman and denouncing him as a criminal. Walker even says that he has violated the Hippocratic Oath and should no longer be allowed to practice medicine. Dr. Johnson objects that he was just trying to help humankind. It falls to Crawford, intriguingly, to condemn him for denying human embryos as chance at life. Johnson is ordered to stop his experiments and burn his notes.

Returning home, accompanied by grossly inappropriate music, Dr. Johnson finds his wife lying on the floor of his lab with a bloody gash on her eyebrow. The Council sent goons to destroy everything and she was helpless to stop them--though all she knows about the pople who wrecked his lab is that they were raging madmen who hated her husband. He leads her out of the room and she tells him not to worry about her but about his experiments. That was...not a helpful thing to say, because he then stares at his wrecked lab and begins to spiral into madness.

He hears their voices condemning him echoing in his head and goes into a rage. Desperate, Mrs. Johnson calls Dr. Huston for help. Huston, based on her reaction, refuses to help. Through voiceover, she then explains that she took her husband away to their island house--the weird mansion from the opening--in the hopes that it might calm his nerves. Well, I suppose lying in a near-catatonic state on their bed is better than screaming and smashing things. When she tries to talk to him, he just rants at the ceiling.

Meanwhile, Huston walks in a bit late to a medical conference, where Walker is presently standing at a podium and loudly denouncing those who violate the laws of ethics and humanity. Mrs. Johnson is in the audience already, watching him with a stone face that somehow communicates nothing but murderous rage. Huston notices her as soon as he comes in, From the stage, Crawford notices her as well. When Donen takes over the podium and says that everyone in attendance knows what case they're discussing and then mentions that Dr. Johnson will no longer be allowed to practice medicine for as long as he lives, Mrs. Johnson storms out. Huston then just takes her seat, the jerk.

"Oh, these TED Talks make me so angry!"
On her way out, the enraged Mrs. Johnson encounters the unnamed Inspector (Horst Tappert), who cheerfully asks if she remembers him from when her husband's lab was broken into. She angrily tells him to find the men who ruined her husband's life and he smiles and says he just might do that. Whether before or after he manages to finds his ass with two hands and a flashlight is not made clear. As she storms off the Inspector then goes in to the "we hate Dr. Johnson" conference and sits down in front of Dr. Huston, and casually calls him by name after asking if he can smoke.

The words of his accusers echo in Dr. Johnson's mind as his wife returns to his side. She tries to kiss him and embrace him, to return him to himself--but he's too far gone. She breaks down in despair after failing to get him aroused, which somehow involves writhing on the bed beside him with her breasts exposed while sobbing. Unfortunately, the next day the voices finally snap Dr. Johnson out of his catatonia--but instead, they just inspire him to rush into the bathroom and, to the tune of music more appropriate for a silly action sequence, take a straight razor to his wrists.

Mrs. Johnson wakes up naked and alone and then, to somewhat more appropriate music,rushes into the bathroom to find her husband lying dead beside the bathtub. Her voiceover returns as we are placed back at the beginning of the film, with her asking how she can live without it him. "I can't do it without taking revenge on your killers," she decides. We see her standing in a boat that;'s floating toward shore, all dressed in black, as she talks about how cruel her revenge shall be. The imagery rather makes me think of Charon, which was probably unintentional.

In the bar of a fancy hotel, Walker--who appears to be cosplaying as Colonel Mustard--talks to his companion about how the best hope for mankind lies with the young, while Johnson sits nearby smoking her cigarette and listening to his conversation. Walker is actually condemning the younger generation, with their drugs, their protests, and their selfie sticks. Near as I can tell, Walker's companion was a reporter and after she departs he walks over to Johnson and asks if they've met. When she says no to every possible place he lists that they could have met, he begins to put the moves on her.

It doesn't take long before she has him inviting her to his hotel room, and agreeing to pay her whatever price she likes,  And then they're off to his cozy and comfortable hotel, And then we see the absolutely hideous shade of yellow the hotel chose for the bedspread in his blindingly white room, God, the 1970s got off to a roaring start on being ugly, didn't they? At any rate, she's a bit too sexually aggressive for his taste at first--so he orders her to undress for him next to the hideous yellow curtains. Then he quickly undresses and hops under the covers, naked.

He tells her that he needs her to degrade him in order to get off, and oh boy is she ever willing to oblige him on that. The verbal abuse and slapping gets him going right quick--but he probably could have done without the dagger to the throat and genitals. Exit Walker. We sort of get full frontal Howard Vernon in the next shot, but his crotch is obscured by blood. Johnson leaves a note on his body as a calling card. Meanwhile, Donen, in the room across the hall, gets up from reading and opens the door in time to see Johnson as she closes the room door behind her and flees. Donen, curious, goes into Walker's room and finds the body.

The next scene is Huston and Crawford meeting each other on a beach. It turns out Donen summoned them there with a letter--and he promptly appears to discuss Walker's death. The murder is news to his companions. Donen describes seeing a woman who was "dark-haired" and "vulgar," and he decides was definitely a prostitute. He describes finding the body, with throat cut and penis severed. Donen called the police, but first he took the note--which reads, "This was the first. There'll be three more. -J."

Donen has already made the "J for Johnson" connection, but Huston objects that Johnson is dead. I'm not sure how he knows that, given what we'll later see, but he does. Yet he somehow doesn't make the "Johnson had a wife" connection here, or if he does we cut away first to see Crawford back in the lounge of her hotel. She then notices an attractive woman with a blonde bob reading John le Carre's A Small Town In Germany. Crawford walks over to the somehow familiar woman and asks if she's English. No, she's just reading an English book. Crawford excuses herself and goes outside, staring lustfully at the blonde.

Crawford finally is able to use the sight of red flamingos to summon the blonde Johnson outside. And sure enough, Crawford is quickly putting the moves on Johnson, who invites Crawford up to the house she's staying at to share some of her books with her. Soon they're splitting a bottle of sherry and Crawford is admiring Johnson's abstract paintings. Crawford says that Johnson's style is "very masculine", whatever the fuck that means. Before you know it, Crawford is using the discussion of paintings ("The shapes are so...hard") to seduce Johnson.

"Show me a Georgia O'Keefe, baby, and I'm putty in your hands."
When the subtle approach seems to be getting nowhere, Crawford finally just slides her hand right into Johnson's pants. Is this your first rodeo, doc? As the two women kiss, Johnson briefly flashes back to a happier memory of kissing her husband--and then she disengages from Crawford and directs her toward the bed. The two undress each other--with Crawford hilariously struggling to get Johnson's pants off over her shoes, because God forbid the shoes come off first! Though they do still come off after the pants, which just makes it that much sillier.

Humorously, Crawford's heels stay on as the two naked women passionately kiss on the bed. This goes on just long enough to titillate everyone watching. Unfortunately, Crawford is too overcome with lust to notice Johnson reaching for the hideous inflatable zebra pillow next to the bed. The Johnson strikes, in one quick motion grabbing the pillow and pressing it down on the surprised Crawford's face. The pillow is mostly transparent, so we get to watch her face through it as she is smothered.

Death by tacky room decor! Johnson makes sure Crawford is dead and then literally pins a note, in English, to Crawford's naked chest that reads, 'You Are The Second Pig - J."

Then it's back to Johnson's home, where her shirtless (naked?) husband's corpse lies on the bed. Well, that's gotta be smelling lovely by now. Did she whisk his body back home after the funeral? Was there a funeral or did she just announce his death in the papers? At any rate, she assures her husband's corpse that nobody will disturb his sleep now. She tells him that she has killed two of his tormentors and asks if he is happy now, and breaks into tears when he won't answer.

"Please, come back to me as a sexy ghost. I've played 'Unchained Melody' on a loop for nine hours!"
Cut to a church service, where Johnson is there in a new wig. It might even be the church she was married in, but the point is that Huston is there in the congregation. She pays a tithe and light s a candle before walking out, seemingly overcome with emotion. Huston follows her to see if she is okay, and we get a really well-done tracking zoom in to them outside the church. Johnson tells Huston to leave her alone as she cries, and indeed she says it's the church she was married in. She says her husband is very ill and she doesn't know how to help him, which somehow is Huston's cue to put the moves on her by assuring her that nearly every disease can be cured nowadays. (In 1970?!) When he tells her his name, she sobs aloud and runs away.

At dinner with Donen, Huston tells him that he thinks the young woman he saw was the widow Johnson. After all, why would she run at the sound of his name? Denon tries to deny it--and then Johnson sits down, undisguised, at the table next to them and looks over at them with a simply delightful smirk. Donen recognizes her, but can't place her and tells Huston to wait at the table while he goes to ask the waiter who she is--but she's no longer there.

Well, Huston does the "sensible" thing and goes to the Inspector, who is naturally working the case of their colleagues' killings. Huston explains he thinks he and Donen are next since they rejected the research of Dr. Johnson. The Inspector helpfully replies that no one is going to die and besides, Johnson is dead and it's not his job to hunt ghosts. The Inspector is, in fact, so unconcerned about the plight of Huston that the man has to demand protection. The Inspector sighs and says they'll offer him protection, but only once he's in serious danger.

Danger like Johnson showing up in the hotel lobby to watch Huston menacingly, perhaps? The excellent use of a mirror is somewhat upstaged here by the fly that lands on Huston's forehead when he runs up to her to demand she leave him alone. She innocently asks him for a light and then he rushes out of the hotel. She pursues him slowly outside, like a gorgeous slasher villain. She finally catches up to him in a restaurant and has the terrified man light her cigarette. He tries to flee again, but she follows him up an exterior staircase. Finally, he ends up in the safety of his hotel room,..

...only for the lights to come on and reveal that she is stretched out on his bed, dressed only in lingerie and another blonde wig. Man, I'd like to see Jason Voorhees top that. Huston, hilariously, forgets his terror when she starts beckoning him closer. He admits to her he is scared, but she just asks if she looks like a killer to him. Well, he doesn't require much convincing to get into bed with her. As he kisses her neck, she again flashes back to her husband in happier times. Then, as he kisses down her hip and unhooks her garter, she remembers her husband's corpse.

Huston doesn't see the pair of scissors she pulls from under the pillow. She buries the scissors in his neck, and he drools blood all over her hip as he dies. She then shoves him off, pulls his trousers down, and then goes to town stabbing his crotch with the scissors.

Then comes the sequence this film is best known for, since it ends up on every poster or video cover art the film has--as Johnson sits naked on a couch, curled up in almost a fetal position as she flashes back to the happier times she had with her husband (which, side from their wedding, all involve sex), sees his corpse, and also seems to maybe be wracked with guilt about all the lives she's taken. This concludes with her going into the bedroom and...trying to have sex with her husband's corpse. In fairness, I could see how the fact his throat is pulsating would confuse her.

Cut to Donen arriving home to find his wife lying in the foyer with her throat cut. Johnson then casually comes down the stairs as he grieves, wondering aloud why his wife had to die, too. He then helpfully collapses from the shock so Johsnon can easily capture him.

Meanwhile, the Inspector is with a coroner in one of the least coroner-like offices I've ever seen. (The picture window is a particularly odd feature) He is informed, then, that another body is being brough tup--with horrible stab wounds all over it. The Inspector declares that he believes the murders to be the work of the same killer, and then mentions than only Dr. Huston remains alive so they must hurry to save him. Since the messy stab wounds describes Huston's death, I'm left to wonder if this scene was put in the wrong place, the actor said the wrong name, or if we're just meant to think the Inspector is that incompetent.

At any rate, poor Donen is currently shirtless and tied to a chair in the apartment that Crawford met her doom in. Johnson approaches him, half-naked, and tells him he must suffer the way her husband did. And then she makes him suffer by dragging a dagger across his chest that very obviously squirts stage blood. After cutting him several times, she says that after he dies her husband can finally rest in peace--and so she stabs him to death.

"Dear Penthouse; I never thought this would happen to me..."
Johnson then rushes to her car, where her husband's corpse is in the passenger seat. She assures him the doctors who ruined him are all dead now and that the two of them will be reunited--in death. Then she drives off a...slightly steep hill. She screams as she does so, which would seem to indicate that she wasn't fully committed to this plan. And, yes, it's a tad bit uncomfortable that one of Soledad Miranda's last roles has her dying in a car accident.

The Inspector shows up at the scene of the crash, too late to do anything. His underlings inform him that both Johnsons are in the car, and both are dead. The Inspector then muses that the murders were blamed on a dead man (no, they weren't) and he believes that to be true (what?!) because Mrs. Johnson was just a normal woman until her husband's death drove her to murder. Okay, sure, but how does that put the blame for the murders on her dead husband, again? At any rate, The End.

Which stage of the grieving process is rampant nudism, again?
As far as Jess Franco films go, this one is astoundingly straight forward. The plot mostly makes linear sense, the amount of utterly inexplicable moments are kept to a minimum, and there is not a single nightclub scene to be found!

However, there is no question that this is a Franco film. As usual, there is the odd mix of the incredibly competent--like some seriously beautiful shot compositions--and the hilariously ill-advised. As I have mentioned before, there is hardly a single scene where the music is not glaringly inappropriate. Listening to this film;s soundtrack, thanks to Severin's recent release of it, I became convinced that the world needs to hire filmmakers to listen to Jess Franco soundtracks out of context and write movies that actually match them. I want to see how far afield of the actual film they end up.

That said, the incongruity of the soundtrack oddly works for the film. At least, if you can dig what Franco is laying down, and not everyone can. Understandably so.

I mean, certainly the film has flaws--beyond the obvious fact that Franco is notorious for making odd choices as a director. For one, it's hard to say, in my opinion, that the film's title is not a might bit misleading. I mean, sure, she seduces her victims before killing them--but the title implies she kills them during sex or gets off on killing them, neither of which is technically true. The film also kind of has a hard time deciding who we're supposed to sympathize with. I honestly can't tell if we're supposed to root for Johnson to get her revenge or not, and not in a deliberate sense like how The Abominable Dr. Phibes knew we'd root for Phibes even as it reminded us that his victims had done nothing wrong. Here, we get zero sense of whether Dr. Johnson is actually trying to make the world a better place or is just the mad scientist he's accused of being, and we have no idea if the Medical Council who ruined him were right to do so or were just vindictive assholes.

However, I find that's a minor issue when the rest of the film is so enjoyable and it's not at all surprising that the reason She Killed In Ecstasy succeeds as well as it does is all due to Soledad Miranda. Not only is she gorgeous as all hell, she is able to deliver some genuine acting to the film even among the melodrama that Franco encourages in all of his cast. It really is a shame her life was tragically cut short when it was.

This film is definitely not for everyone, but I love it. It has a great performance from Soledad Miranda, a delightfully zany score, and all the sleaze you could ask for. To me, that's more than enough.

And I simply cannot recommend the Blu-ray from Severin enough. It looks gorgeous and comes with a wealth of extras--including a soundtrack CD featuring this film's score and that of two other Franco films. Seriously, if you love this film or Franco in general, it belongs in your collection.

Today's review brought to you by the letter S! Hit the banner above to see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for S!

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