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She Killed in Ecstasy (1971)
When someone asks me about Jesus (Jess) Franco, the two movies I recommend they go out and pick up are Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed In Ecstasy. Franco is a very uneven director and while I've viewed and enjoyed the majority of his output, I realize that I'm in the minority. Both of the aforementioned films are completely accessible and truly show what a creative genius Franco could be when he is at the top of his form. Both also star the lovely and quite talented Soledad Miranda (who would star in two other Franco releases), and she is certainly the main reason to watch both films.
She Killed In Ecstasy is a remake of sorts to Jess Franco's 1965 film, The Diabolical Dr. Z, a simple look at obsession and revenge driving the protagonist mad. The film starts out with the credits rolling over images of fetuses in jars in some sort of medical setting while crazy acid jazz plays, and then we are greeted with a wonderful visual of a woman (Soledad Miranda) walking down a long flight of stairs to the sea. We are then treated to a flashback wherein we see the woman happily married to a research scientist, Dr. Johnson (Fred Williams) who is experimenting with fetuses by injecting them with animal hormones (in order to make a stronger and better life for humans). The happy couple makes love while we hear the woman talk of their love, and her hopes that soon her husband will be realized for the medical genius he is. However the latter is not to be, for the next morning her husband is labeled a charlatan, blasphemer, criminal and his medical license is revoked. When Dr. Johnson returns home he finds his wife has been assaulted and his laboratory destroyed, and this quickly sends him down a spiral of madness, which leads to his suicide. Mrs. Johnson is crushed by the death of her dreams and only love, and decides to take revenge by destroying the medical board and her sanity in the process.
While all the performances in the film are good, Soledad Miranda is truly the star of this film. Her performance as the emotionally unstable wife is superbly done. The powerful emotions she brings to the screen simply can't be denied; you experience her heartbreak, her utter desolation at the loss of her husband and find yourself rooting for her to exact her revenge. One wonders what further brilliant performances she may have given the world if she hadn't died shortly after filming. Soledad plays the role so convincingly that we experience her slowly unraveling hold on reality. After one killing, she returns to her chateau and curls up in a ball on the couch and becomes nigh catatonic while looking at her dead husband's corpse and reminiscing upon the times they made love. The inner turmoil of the protagonist's world is so beautifully portrayed by Miranda in this scene that it resonates with you long after the final credits roll.
Besides the wonderful acting, Jess Franco's direction is amazingly well executed. Overall, his style here would best be described as highly stylized minimalism. Often reviewers will discuss Franco's overuse of the zoom, and I personally feel this does the director a great disservice. Franco's use of the zoom is purely an aesthetic choice, and also an economical one given his budgets. Franco sets up the shots around his use of the zoom lens, so that it becomes a salient technique that is used across his vast body of work. Franco manages to stylistically handle each killing in its own unique way, but perhaps the best-done seduction/death scene is the lesbian scene (no surprise here) involving Soledad Miranda and Ewa Stromberg as Dr.Crawford. The scene starts out in a medium-long shot and we watch the entire seduction take place from this distance, and given the lighting it looks as if two silhouettes are intertwining. Once the kissing starts Franco zooms in and out on various parts of the two bodies, in a wonderful juxtaposition of shot length. For the killing, however Dr. Crawford is smothered with an inflatable pillow and we see her gasping for breath in a close up through the pillow itself; this is truly inventive handling of what could have been a very straightforward scene.
Nicely complementing the wonderful direction are the editing and cinematography. During the killings a wonderful associative editing technique is done, the killings are cross cut with scenes of Mrs. Johnson making love to her husband. This associative editing is used throughout the film to a great effect. Manuel Marino does an astounding job of having the lighting design reflect the mood of the scene, with some scenes being strongly black lit, some being lit for high contrast, and other scenes capturing the wonderful landscape of the city by the shore in which the film takes place.
On a final note the soundtrack overall is very kitschy psychedelic jazz by Hubler and Schwab, but this is nicely commented by a hauntingly beautiful composition by Bruno Nicolai. The Nicolai piece is used to great effect during the aforementioned scene when she has the breakdown and curls up in a ball on the couch staring forlornly at her dead husband.
For fans of Jess Franco and Soledad Miranda, this film is a must see, and quite probably a must own. But for those of you out there who are a bit hesitant to give Jess Franco a try, read my Vampyros Lesbos review, and then choose one of these two fine films (or both) and begin your foray into the strange cinematic world of a truly underappreciated writer/director.