There are two unfortunate givens for those like myself who work the unforgiving cult cinema beat on the internet. One is that you will eventually have to review Zombie Lake. The other is that you will eventually have to review a film by Jess Franco. While the first of those trials I have happily put long behind me, the other still looms ominously on the horizon. You see, because Franco only wrote the screenplay for Zombie Lake -- and because acceptance of that fact requires that you also sign off on the idea that Zombie Lake had a screenplay at all -- you can’t count fulfillment of the first given as a twofer.
Of course, this also means that, as it is with Zombie Lake, an awful lot of people have written about Jess Franco films on the internet. And because the internet is known to conduct snark at a rate and volume twice that of praise, a loud plurality of that writing is pretty negative. This makes the prospect of addressing one of his films all the more a subject of dread for those of us yet to cross the threshold. Yet, for me, I sensed the time had come when my contribution to the inaugural M.O.S.S. Roundtable -- an examination of the lofty cinematic tradition of grown adults running around in skull masks and skeleton suits -- came due. With my usual investigatory rigor, I ran searches of the terms “skull” and “skeleton” on Netflix and voila!: Franco’s 1976 thriller Night of the Skull (aka La Noche de los Asesinos) leapt out at me like… well, like a scary Halloween skeleton, of the type, perhaps, that you might buy at Walgreens.
Of course, it has to be said that Franco has his share of fans along with his detractors. And for them I think part of his appeal is the same juvenile impulsiveness that makes his films so hit or miss. As a director, Franco follows his muse wherever it takes him, no matter how well that serves the goal of making a film that is coherent or even watchable. And when the inspiration isn’t there, he has no problem with handling things in the most perfunctory and slapdash manner possible. (Also, as Keith has pointed out, Franco is a notorious lone wolf, which removes from the equation any equal collaborators who might rein in his more imprudent tendencies.) These indications of a personal artistic vision make it difficult to dismiss Franco as a hack, even if the term “auteur” rolls no more easily off the tongue where he’s concerned. And it can’t be denied that his approach often bears some interesting results, albeit ones that frequently have to be sifted from a surrounding preponderance of narrative flotsam.
As for Night of the Skull, it’s a mystery, which on first consideration would not seem like the best fit for Franco’s elliptical style. But when one considers the flaky internal logic and dreamlike atmosphere of the typical Italian giallo, there’s room for optimism that things might work out okay for those of us obligated to watch it. However, Night of the Skull, while boasting some gialli-like elements, is in fact more of a gothic mystery in the “old dark house” vein, which renders thing a little dicier. For starters, the Victorian setting largely prohibits those jazzy flourishes that are so often the saving grace of a Franco film, such as his signature psychedelic nightclub sequences.
What Night of the Skull does have, though -- and which makes it ideal for my purposes –- is a guy running around in a skull mask who is both heavily featured and central to the film’s plot. This gentleman is our killer, who is offing his victims in accordance with a passage, detailing the punitive nature of the four elements, which is found in a made up tome called “The Book of the Apocalypse”. These thematic murders require quite a stretch in some cases, one that Franco doesn’t really seem bothered to make. For instance, one victim, tied up on a rock by the seaside, writhes around for a bit before expiring unconvincingly. Later she is said to have been “killed by the force of the wind”, even though it didn’t appear to be all that windy at the time and, barring being strapped to a jet engine or the wind bearing large chunks of architecture as in a tornado, that can’t actually happen.
All of the aforementioned murders are filmed in dim lighting and are virtually bloodless, which is one of Night of the Skull's primary disappointments. On top of that, the sex and nudity is near non-existent, even though the ever-willing Lina Romay, Franco’s partner and muse, is on hand in a central role. Instead, the director languorously rolls out a “greedy heirs get theirs” drama that is, despite some unexpected turns, pretty pedestrian. We start out with the murder of Marian family patriarch Lord Archibald (Angel Menendez), which is followed by the inevitable gathering of the deceased’s assorted scheming and ungrateful siblings, spouses and offspring for the reading of the will.
Among this group we have most of the usual suspects, including a couple of twitchy servants (Luis Barboo and Yelena Samarina), a dissolute black sheep cousin (William Berger) and the alcoholic second wife (Maribel Hidalgo) who is hated by all and sundry. In a more unusual turn, there are also among the bereaved a his-and-hers set of adult illegitimate children (Lina Romay and Antonio Mayans), who, previously unknown to each other, begin an affair that is only by a later plot twist (spoiler!) revealed to be not incestuous, even though that comes too late to prevent the “ick” factor from setting in. Once the blood begins to tastefully and moderately spill, we also have the arrival on the scene of Major Oliver Brooks (Alberto Dalbes), a renowned Scotland Yard inspector whose jurisdictional authority is a bit suspect given that the film is putatively set in Louisiana -- and more obviously shot in Spain.
Night of the Skull’s credits claim as its inspiration John Willard’s The Cat and the Canary, while in turn mistakenly crediting that famous stage play to Edgar Allan Poe (other sources suggest that Franco was inspired by a book by Edgar Wallace, which sounds a little closer to the mark). Whatever its patrimony, the story manages to be both complex and internally consistent -- with a resolution that, if not too surprising, at least makes sense – and if that’s all you ask from your mysteries, you’ll be happy. As for its direction, looking on the plus side, Franco does a professional job of laying out all of the various plot mechanics in a coherent and linear fashion. On the negative side, a coherent and linear Jess Franco, in my experience, is a Jess Franco who’s not all that invested, and hence the film lacks the unpredictable digressions and directorial quirks that might have otherwise made it less sleepy viewing.
I’ll admit that it’s a little disappointing that, having resigned myself to riding the wave of Franco’s insanity, I came upon him in such a restrained mood with this film. Yet it’s just such unpredictable dips and lapses, set alongside the manic peaks and detours, that have earned him his reputation as the frustrating and maddening director that he is. Consistency is one thing, but it perhaps speaks more highly of Franco that, whenever one dips blindly into his massive 180 film filmography, one truly doesn’t know what they’re going to come up with. In the case of Night of the Skull, what one comes up with is a fairly boring and conventional film, but the fact that that in itself is somehow shocking speaks volumes.