Jess Franco, 1973
Starring: Britt Nichols, Anne Libert, Howard Vernon, Karin Field
Redemption and Images’ latest Blu-ray release, Les demons aka The Demons (1973), is a welcome addition to their growing catalog of Jess Franco films, which include Nightmares Come at Night, The Awful Dr. Orloff, A Virgin Among the Living Dead, and more. Though it is one of the late, beloved Spanish director’s more obscure entries, The Demons is a welcome addition to any Franco fan’s collection, as it finally presents the complete, uncensored version of the film for the first time in the U.S.
The film opens with the torture of a witch, who is later burned at the stake and curses those responsible for her demise. The plot is convoluted, but it focuses on two orphaned sisters, now adults living in a convent. The blonde and innocent Margaret (Britt Nichols) disapproves of her sister Kathleen (Anne Libert), who masturbates and has sex dreams. A local aristocrat, the Lady De Winter (Karin Field) convinces the convent that Kathleen is a witch and is possessed by the Devil. As such, she must torture her for her confession with the help of her right-hand man, Thomas Renfield (Alberto Dalbés). Renfield quickly falls in love with Kathleen and allows her to escape. Enraged, Lady De Winter insists that Inquisitor Lord Justice Jeffreys ( Cihangir Gaffari) punish Renfield, but he gives the man a chance to bring Kathleen back. Instead, he runs off with Kathleen and the two are eventually caught, imprisoned, and nearly tortured to death.
It turns out that the two girls are the daughters of the witch burned at the stake years ago. The innocent Margaret is visited by the Devil while still in the convent and is raped by him. Now possessed by his diabolical will, she is determined to get revenge on anyone who has punished her sister or mother. She pays a visit to the home of Lady De Winter and quickly worms her way into the Lady’s good graces, which kicks off an orgy of sex and death.
While Franco may have been riding the coattails of Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils, The Demons is fortunately not a direct rip off of that film. Early on, it seems like it’s going to be a fairly straightforward nunsploitation film, but dramatically veers from that path into more traditional witch-hunting territory with torture, exploitation, political machinations, and plenty of sex. It actually pairs up more closely with films like Witchfinder General, Franco’s The Bloody Judge, and Mark of the Devil. The Devils notwithstanding, this is probably the most erotic witch-hunting film of the period and puts far more of an emphasis on sex than it does on violence.
As with many of Franco’s other films, there is also a nod to his love of the female revenge film. As with She Killed in Ecstasy, Venus in Furs, and many others, Margaret spends much of the film seducing and then killing anyone she plans to get revenge on, including Lady De Winter. In a somewhat bizarre move, she kills them and then plants a supernatural kiss, so that her victims smoke and dissolve to just a skeleton. Franco never bothers explaining this.
Admittedly, this does have much more of a straightforward plot than a lot of Franco’s other films from the same period with far fewer nonsequitors in the plot. There is an excessive amount of soft-core sex and female masturbation scenes that seem to go on forever, not necessarily helped by the constant use of the zoom lens. As far as gore or violence, the torture scenes are pretty lackluster. The majority of the effects go towards Margaret’s supernatural kisses, which are seemingly thrown in for good measure
This is a period piece really at face value only. The historical accuracy is laughable, particularly where the costumes are concerned. There’s a dash of political intrigue that focuses on William of Orange’s rebellion and subsequent British invasion, but this gets little more than a mention. The real strength of this production is in the acting. Franco regular Anne Libert (A Virgin Among the Living Dead) is lovely as the wanton Kathleen, though she is quickly overshadowed by the incredibly sexy Britt Nichols (The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein), who costars as her murderous sister. Karin Field (The Mad Butcher, Web of the Spider) is lovely and gleefully malevolent as the sadistic Lady De Winter, one of the film’s most compelling characters.
The strong and interesting roles essentially all went to the female characters. Franco regular Howard Vernon (Zombie Lake, Bob le Flambeur) is delightful in a small role, though both he and Cihangir Gaffari (Bloodsport) as the handsome, though callous Inquisitor are essentially wasted. Other Franco regular Luis Barboo (Conan the Barbarian, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale) and Alberto Dalbés (A Quiet Place to Kill, Cut-Throats Nine) also put in nice performances.
Redemption’s latest Jess Franco release is certainly a more obscure entry, but it looks fantastic. The 1080p HD transfer with as aspect ratio of 2.25:1 is one of Franco’s cleanest looking prints and was transferred from the original 35mm negative. It has certainly aged better than recent releases like Nightmares Come at Night, and suffers from none of the age damage and speckling present in some of his other films from the period. The only real flaw is that the print can occasionally look soft and a bit fuzzy, but I think is more an issue with the cinematography than with the transfer.
The linear PCM 2.0 audio track sounds decent with clear audio and effects, though it is a little underwhelming. The inclusion of the original French audio track is certainly a bonus. There are optional English subtitles included, as well as a German language track. One way Franco’s stamp found its way into the film is with the wild, jazzy soundtrack, with prog rock stylings totally out of place in a medieval period piece. Composed by Jean-Berbard Raiteux (Diary of a Nymphomaniac), there are some frenzied bongos during the sex and masturbation scenes that make it clear this is most definitely a Franco film.
There aren’t an abundance of extras with this release, but Redemption did provide a nice, 16-minute interview with Jess Franco, some deleted scenes, and a handful of trailers. It really would have been nice to have a commentary track, particularly one placing this film both within the witch-hunting and nunsploitation subgenres that were so popular during this ‘70s.
Perhaps because it is one of the most atypical Jess Franco films of the ‘70s, The Demons will likely appeal to a fairly wide range of horror fans. Though this lacks the more surreal, nonsensical, and dreamlike elements of films like A Virgin Among the Living Dead and Nightmares Come at Night, it is a must-see for Franco fans. Anyone interested in witch-hunting films and nunsploitation will also find a lot to love. The film’s arrival on Blu-ray uncut and with the original French language track more than makes up for a lack of special features, and the release comes recommended. Hopefully Redemption and Image will keep up the good work and continue moving through Franco’s catalogue.