Saturday, February 25, 2012

61. ESCLAVAS DEL CRIMEN (SLAVES OF CRIME, 1986)

This film, nearly his last gasp of 1980s playful ingenuity, represents Jess Franco's almost certainly unauthorized return to Sax Rohmer territory, long after his late 1960s work in the Fu Manchu and Sumuru film series. Set in the Far East, “a paradise of drugs and corruption” (a title card informs us), it stars Lina Romay -- who passed away last week at the age of 57 -- as Suee, the daughter of Fu Manchu (Fah Lo Suee in the novels), who controls all the vice in her part of the world from a hotel stronghold (apparently protected by a single nearly-nude woman in a G-string holding a machine gun) and who complements her work as a kingpin (queenpin?) of crime with exotic dancing in one of her many nightclubs-cum-opium dens.

The story attends her plan to exact great wealth from a rock trio known by the intentionally absurd name of Rocky & Simón – not to be confused with Simon and Garfunkel, as one of her acolytes does. The three members of the nominal duo – “the famous” Rocky Walters, Simon and Jessy – are abducted by members of Suee’s female army, wearing hallucinogen-tinged perfume that induces them, along with torture, into signing over the rights to their respective fortunes, after which they are killed. Neil Smith -- the son of Fu Manchu’s old adversary Sir Nayland Smith -- brings the story to a close, if not saves the day, by napalming Suee's headquarters from an AV8B Harrier jet. Though we hear Suee's voice promising “The world shall hear from me again… very soon!,” there were no more Suee adventures.

Its general outline prepares one for at least a moderate disaster but, as a pulp adventure filmed with little means, ESCLAVAS DEL CRIMEN overcomes such expectations as a curious and moderate success. Franco’s ability to conjure a semi-plausible Orient (in a WHITE SLAVES OF CHINATOWN kind of way) from Spanish locations is admirable, considering that he had nothing more to work with than some pagoda-like architecture in Valencia and the ornate exteriors and adornments of some Chinese restaurants. In keeping with the visual direction of his work at this time, the exteriors are composed in ways to accentuate their cubist, geometric formality – locations are devised by juxtaposing shots of unrelated buildings and structures -- and the characters are filmed largely in close-up, encouraging the viewer to insert them into those disparate locations mentally. The same geometric formations are carried over into the arrangements of Suee’s comparatively few number of followers onscreen, in a manner recalling Franco’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL approach to filming THE GIRL FROM RIO; in one set-up, Suee’s imperious approach is filmed through the inverted V of a woman’s legs, meeting in the crotch and achieving a militarized visual symbol of female power.

For much of the film, Franco films Suee in ways that hint at her malefic presence rather than show her plainly; he achieves this with back-lighting, silhouetted profiles, and in one particularly effective instance, he shows Lina Romay’s Kabuki-painted face peering through a pane of pebbled glass, which has the effect of turning her visage into an abstract, pointillized portrait of herself. In such moments, Lina becomes Suee to an extent she cannot on the strength of her makeup alone, whose crudity in truth inhibits an otherwise ambitious performance. Franco also makes careful use of his Rainbow 8x camera filter – memorably used in the delirium sequences of THE SEXUAL STORY OF O (1981) -- allowing directly lensed light sources to bloom with parabolas of color, infusing certain scenes with accents of magic and the hallucinatory.

It’s a reasonably well-acted, nicely photographed little film, but given the embarrassingly low means at its disposal, there are points where it could find no way around laughing at itself. At one point, we see a character -- through a distorting lens -- using the cheapest possible "grappling hook" to scale a wall; when the actor steps up to make the climb, he's revealed as tall enough to simply throw a leg over. The finale, too, was written far beyond the production's ability to depict it; it's concocted from stock footage of a Harrier jet flight, closeups of Neil Smith sitting inside a car wearing a headset, tilted and violently shaken handheld footage of a hotel exterior, shots of Suee screaming at a window, and cutaways to burning heaps of whatever. If we take the entire film in a parodic sense, which is not out of the question given the silly rock star abduction plot, the finale and other half-assed action scenes become an amusing poke at other films in this same genre that didn’t have the creative ingenuity to pull off effects they couldn’t afford.

No other information or roles can be found for cast member Maite Saury, whose name one can’t help noticing may be a pun on the expression “mighty sorry.”   

Viewed on Spanish DVD-R with Spanish subtitles.

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