Exorcism (1975) – By Roger Carpenter

A group of bored socialites put on sadomasochistic sex shows for rich theater-goers. They decide to recreate a black mass as part of their show, but unbeknownst to them, a defrocked priest sees the show and is not only convinced the black mass is real, but decides to start his own person inquisition in order to exorcise the demons from the socialites and save their souls. Jess Franco himself plays the priest in the film along with co-stars Monica Swinn and Franco’s real-life wife Lina Romay.

As with many of Franco’s films, multiple versions were made for various overseas markets, and with additional cuts being required in various countries along with several retitlings of the film, it can sometimes be next to impossible to piece together the director’s original version. For example, in France, where pornography was all the rage at the time, XXX inserts were added while alternate clothed sequences were filmed for an R-rated American version. The film we have here is yet another version, a softcore sex version for use in various European markets, and Franco’s preferred version of the film.

As previously mentioned, Franco plays the priest who was excommunicated due to his strict religious beliefs and intolerance for what he viewed as heresy. But as is typical with Franco, who is known to hate organized religion, there are multiple layers to his religious characters. It is clear that the priest is also a pervert and probably suffers severe guilt for his personal transgressions. At one point it is even mentioned that the church investigated him for questionable conduct with minors. He has a penchant for sadomasochistic sex and voyeurism, sneaking in to watch the S&M shows put on by the socialites. This is where he becomes convinced the black masses being portrayed are real, but the real psychotic break occurs when he comes into contact with the lovely Anna (Lina Romay), with whom he quickly becomes obsessed. He kidnaps her and subjects her to his idea of a cruel exorcism as Anna’s friends and the police frantically search for her in a race against time.

Franco has his share of rabid fans as well as harsh critics. Consistently working with the most microscopic of budgets as well as the thinnest of scripts, it is both a testament to Franco that he’s managed to make a living as well as to obtain global distribution for so many of his films and a knock against him for the sheer output of his obviously shoestring-budgeted films. His detractors complain his scripts are either nonexistent or at best incoherent and his ubiquitous use of the zoom is sometimes headache-inducing while his fans simply moan that he is misunderstood. Regardless of how one feels about Franco, Exorcism stands out as one of his better works. While the reasoning behind the priest’s psychotic break that leads him to become a murderer is perhaps a little thin, the storyline is coherent and easily followed. Unlike Kino Lorber’s other Franco release this month, Female Vampire, Franco apparently had enough money for an actual score, so the same 15-second refrain isn’t played in a loop like it is in Female Vampire. And, at least for this picture, Franco put his zoom lens away to film in a more conventional manner.

But lest you think Franco does a complete about-face, viewers can rest easy: the film is still filled with Franco’s beautiful European scenery, crazy costuming (he has a real penchant in many of his films for S&M wardrobes), and plenty of kinky softcore sex, including a protracted orgy scene that occurs immediately after one of the fake black masses. And there is ample flesh on display as well, with Monica Swinn, Catherine Laferriere, Nadine Pascal, and Romay all parading around totally nude throughout the entire film. As a bonus there is one gruesome scene involving the removal of one girl’s heart by the priest that is surprisingly gory for Franco, who most often uses splashes of red paint across a limb or torso to signify violence.

And for those who unilaterally dismiss Franco as talentless and having a lack of vision, I present two pieces of evidence to contradict this idea: first, well before the Catholic church suffered public humiliation with the discovery that literally dozens of priests were in fact pedophiles, Franco makes his priest a pedophile in the film; and secondly, for those that think Halloween and Friday the 13th pioneered the idea of sex equaling death on film, Exorcism again trumps these films. Each murdered character is portrayed as a lascivious whore who thinks nothing of the S&M games they play and each end up murdered, a victim of the depraved priest’s attempts at saving their souls.

For viewers who haven’t had a chance to sample Jess Franco, Exorcism would be a good place to begin. The film itself isn’t in the best of condition and is probably sourced from the older Synapse version which used several incomplete film elements to piece the definitive uncut version back together again, so there are some frame skips and color changes; otherwise the film is in very good shape. Besides, these minor flaws are a small price to pay to see Franco’s original vision for the first time since the mid-seventies. The standard DVD or Blu-Ray also comes with a collection of Franco and Rollin trailers and as a special bonus, the U.S. cut of Exorcism, entitled Demoniac, is included. It is interesting to see that most of the sex and all of the violence are completely removed while alternate versions of previously nude sequences are now filmed with clothed characters, allowing the cinephile a bird’s-eye view of Franco’s manipulation of various film markets.

The film is now available through the teaming of Redemption and Kino Lorber. For more information, see http://www.kinolorber.com/video.php?id=1342.