LES DEMONS: Architecture of the Devil
Shot by Raoul Artigot, Jess Franco’s 1972 melding of historical melodrama, bloody torture scenes, extended erotic displays of nuns-in-heat, and witchcraft is an ambitious project constructed on a shoestring budget with all the merits and deficits of products created during the busy director’s early 1970s period. Obviously made to cash in on the success of Ken Russell’s 1971 THE DEVILS, a lavishly budgeted film in contrast featuring such international stars as Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed, LES DEMONS nonetheless makes a unique visual impression and looks forward to such major films as LORNA, THE EXORCIST (1974).
On the surface it’s a kind of remake of his 1970 Christopher Lee vehicle THE BLOODY JUDGE. But this is a more fantastical telling of the story of witch-burning Judge Jeffries. LES DEMONS doesn’t even pretend to seriously deal with the historical/political reality which existed in England during the 17th Century, which was the background of the Inquisition. Christopher Lee and Producer-co-writer Harry Alan Towers did make efforts toward authenticity in the 1970 film but Franco’s main concern here is in erotic-horrific displays of flesh and blood… and architecture.
Franco himself was writing the script this time “based on a novel by David Khunne” and that makes all the difference. Shot in Portugal, an anti-clerical/anti-General Francisco Franco can be read into the proceedings. Franco was obviously fascinated with the local period architecture and from the very first shots compulsively zooms into and out of images of stone crosses and the elaborate facades. What wonders what his DP was thinking. Religion and the breathtaking architecture are the ironic backdrops for the horrors which follow. In a world where religious certitude is aligned with political power anyone can be condemned as a witch or traitor at a moment’s notice. And religion is the other side of the mirror of superstition. The architecture is frozen rapture. This is visually expressed in these opening images and throughout. But what is behind these facades?
Franco’s insistent and aggressive use of the telezoom is often noted and criticized, but here it is used as a kind of aesthetic tool as well as an investigatory device. We are forced to look closely at these pretentious structures and displays of nudity to really see the ugly reality beneath. Sex is used as a power tool here, both by Jeffries and his cohort, Lady de Winter (Karin Field). Satan himself, or a well appointed demon, as uses sex to seduce and conquer Marguerite (Britt Nichols) as the camera zooms past the rape of the girl into the elaborate crucifix hanging on the wall. His appearance is similar to the way the supernatural entry of Lorna (Pamela Stanford) into Lina Romay’s bedroom is handled in LORNA, THE EXORCIST. Franco’s sex demons seem to float in through the walls of rooms and vanish just as quickly.
Meanwhile, Lord Jeffries sits at his desk, photographed with an extreme wide angle lens, calmly issuing more death/torture decrees. The film opens and closes with the torture of an old woman and then Marguerite, her daughter, in a dimly candlelit chamber which resembles a medieval church. Jeffries is positioned as the high priest of hypocrisy, pain and death. He takes time out to humiliate Marguerite’s sister (Anne Libert) with the ease of a sociopath.
Once again, Franco stages scenes of torture with an avid audience embedded in the mise-en-scene, as when Lady de Winter and Renfield (Alberto Dalbes) enjoy the torture of an innocent woman from an anteroom separated by iron bars from the main torture chamber. One thinks of the opening sado-erotic shows in NECRONOMICON (1967) and EXORCISM (1974), to name a few. The audience watching the film is immediately implicated along with the audience within the diegesis of the action. What are we watching? And why are we watching? The film ends with another witch created by the very power structures designed to repress and punish witchcraft. A vicious cycle which would have been appreciated by the Marquis De Sade.
One of approximately 10 films shot in the same year, including the “classic monster” trilogy of DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN, LA FILLE DE DRACULA, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN-LES DEMONS is a cut-rate but nonetheless personal and visually fascinating effort, enhanced by an anachronistic acid rock musical score which was later added by Robert De Nesle and sound editor Gerard Kikoine.
Appreciate the architecture, over which the beard “Clifford Brown” appears, enjoy the show… you may be next!
(C) Robert Monell, 2016