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Monday, 23 April 2012

En Busca del Dragón Dorado (1983) ~ ‘Chasing the dragon with Jess Franco’

En Busca del Dragón Dorado (1983)

‘Chasing the dragon with Jess Franco’


Director: Jess Franco (as James P. Johnson)
Cast: Flavia Hervas, Ivana Mayans,
César Antonio Serrano (as Li Yung), Jess Franco

The Spanish director Jess Franco isn't exactly known for being a master of family-friendly film fare. His cinematic world centres mainly around the likes of: monsters and madness, vengeful lovers and the virgin dead, sapphic sex and Sadean sadism, mad scientists and nymphomaniac maids, female Tarzans, jungle zombies, campus killers, Portuguese nuns, wicked wardens, frisky Frankenstein monsters, sinister plastic surgeons, pesky boy pirates (ok, guess that one’s family-friendly!) and female vampires...(insert deep breath here) - all this and much more over the course of at least a couple of hundred movies that we seem to actually know about.

His films sometimes tackled depravity, horror and the nature of beauty (whether corruption or celebration of beauty – or at its most murderous and passionate) at every level, but his most shocking films were never nasty just for the sake of it; Franco's kind of sleaze was always shot through with some pathos, humour, tragedy or were stubbornly big of heart, even if that heart was sometimes hard to find on first glance. Maybe it was just there, perhaps, to numb the sometimes outrageous imagery or bizarre storylines with. But I like to think he meant it.

There was an art to Franco’s mish-mash of trash cinema too; a certain auteurship and experimental approach – a distinctive blending of image and sound, and it's little surprise he worked alongside such renowned directors as Orson Welles (on Chimes at Midnight in 1965) in his formative years, having spent a lifetime of a childhood watching movies in darkened rooms alone, or composing music – along with film, his other greatest passion.

Franco's films, of which there are a great many to choose from within nearly every genre of storytelling known to screenwriting-kind, and a few that are probably quite new and unknown – were once obscure, but now have big fat box-sets and special editions sold at HMV and Amazon devoted to this man’s mad work. How times have changed - and worldwide, Franco DVD releases have, in recent years, rushed themselves into the shops faster than a hyperactive zoom lens going in and out too fast due to an excess of elbow grease. This rapidly roving style is a trademark of Franco's film-making, sometimes derided - until you suddenly realise it all makes perfect sense, that his films are an extension of his own mind, and it's a mind that's never content to be static. Life does blur and merge and fade in and out of shot, and sometimes even sex in a Franco movie becomes a blur of image (so anti-the Hollywood way), or becomes a close-up too far; nothing stays the same and no scene stays dead - it's what the slightly elitist, so Franco would hate that, definition of 'auteur' was invented for.

Sure, Franco had his favourites, both themes and cast; and cast could become more a loyal little army of regulars who he used (kindly, mostly) like bait. There's little he wouldn't ask his favourite actors to do and Franco would often focus his camera’s attention-seeking gaze (like the murderer in Antonioni’s Blow-Up hooked-up to a caffeine drip) on a beautiful girl, never forget her – and turn many an unknown actress into his motion picture muse, lovingly casting that roving camera of his across her admirable body; have her terrorised by demons, indulge in all manner of psychedelic sleaze, film after film - like a lover hell-bent on showing off his latest coming attraction to those who liked to watch in darkened cinemas right across his beloved Spain and beyond.

Or he could treat these beauties like a scorned lover, sometimes – as if out for revenge. But Franco’s cast, mostly, remained loyal and many worked with him years after the moment he first cast them, from young age to middle age, and in the case of some – right up to death.

Sometimes he may have derided his cast – like Hitchcock did, but when he loved them, he never let them go. In the case of Lina Romay, his one true love, he stayed with her, as she did for him, for the rest of her life. But Romay was never faithful, deliberately not in front of the camera. Franco allowed her to indulge, sometimes, in real sex scenes that would still taunt film censors today, scenes that few directors, let alone real-life partners, would allow their cast to be subjected to in the (sort of) mainstream - and the mainstream is probably where Franco most likes to inflict his wild thoughts and filmic visions of ecstasy and tragedy, despite being seen as essentially an independent spirit. He wasn't a film snob though, and sought finance and backing from whoever was keen to offer it to him.

Film, for Franco, was for the people. That could be either arty trash and cerebral horror (especially witnessed in films that bled with Franco’s biggest thoughts such as his elegiac A Virgin Among The Living Dead in 1973 that was a far better meditation on the dead walking among the living than, say, the more mainstream The Others years later - or the deep-rooted, explicit musings on loneliness seen in Doriana Grey from 1976) or just dumbed down smut. But it was always populist art or smut, whatever he did - even when obscure and inaccessible. Although some of his films pushed boundaries that perhaps shouldn't be pushed and went too far - depending on your point of view.

Which gives perhaps the wrong impression, as in some Franco movies, not much happens at all - they can be sterile, safe and serene films, equally annoying to critics or film-goers as the more extreme ones he shot. Franco never played by any of the rules of the industry he worked in. This one man history of cinema started an entire working film industry in that sometimes frail-looking body of his. But like the rarer songs of ABBA when one plays on the radio – you know who it is singing the song straightaway, even if it’s not one you know. It’s the same with a Jess Franco movie. Clearly nobody else made films like he did, or perhaps they just didn’t want to.

Franco developed something of an obsession, a fascination, with the unreally beautiful actress Soledad Miranda in the early 70s that ended when this graceful, hypnotic soul tragically died young, at the age of 27 - killed in a car accident, shortly after being offered a big movie deal from a German producer that would have seen her fame soar even higher. Some say Franco never recovered from the news. The doe-eyed and effortlessly nubile Lina Romay, Franco's next obsession, flirted her way into his director's lens of vision soon after, and she became his star, of nearly every movie made from 1972 onwards – and his lover for the rest of her life. She died earlier this year, aged 57.

Just a few, but now seemingly far away, years ago, Lina Romay supported Jess Franco as he appeared in a wheelchair to collect the Spanish Goya award - a high honour for his lifetime of achievements in movie-making (and respectability of sorts at last). Despite the often lurid subject matter of many of his films that will perhaps deter some, the director has always remained a free spirited film-maker; has always zoomed the camera his own beloved, sometimes apparently random way, and blended his most beloved jazz or any other kind of music that perks his interest, into the filmic mix - in the same way David Lynch has often attempted to do in his movies, equally successfully, over the years. And Franco is still making movies with as much passion as ever, if far less frequently, today. In fact, his movies only seem to get more creative and wilder with the passing of years – more frustrating to film-critics and audiences than ever before. That – surely – is a good thing in a sterile world of by-the-numbers blockbusters and wretched remakes.

Franco is a director with clear vision and obsessions in terms of his favoured literary inspirations: the works of Edgar Allan Poe (who inspired the children’s film to be discussed here later - En Busca del Dragón Dorado), the Marquis de Sade, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and especially his own traditionally literary-gothic character of Dr. Orloff, played by one of Franco's male muses - Howard Vernon (and my god - the things Franco made that poor man do over the years). Orloff remains Franco's most personal character throughout a series of films featuring the mad doctor. But it’s probably the controversial works of The Marquis de Sade, often rewritten with some warmth, and loosely interpreted, that inspired him the most over the years with such films as: the experimental, modern-era Franco - Helter Skelter (2000); the languid and not as lurid as you’d expect Gemidos de Placer/ Cries of Pleasure (1983) and the masterful Eugenie (1970) that had Christopher Lee star as Dolmance, leader of the corruptible games on display, with Swedish sex symbol Marie Liljedahl in the title role, her sweet scorpion-stung pout set to stun.



Eugenie remains a heady vision of sun-drenched and decoratively ornate theatrical style and substance and remains one of Franco’s greatest films, also a fairly restrained one. De Sade wasn’t just a writer of unthinkable smut; some of his work is as gothic and ghostly as those writers with far better literary reputations, including Edgar Allan Poe. Franco seemed to understand this better than anyone, and focus on the gothic and ghostly aspect of the author’s work as often as he did the more predictable, controversial trappings – and he certainly did dabble in those murkier areas with relish as well.


Clearly, the mad, bad world of Jess Franco has changed dramatically across the decades, but his most outrageous and probably wildest films reached their creative eruption throughout the 70s and into the early 80s - where movie decadence was given the freedom of speech to suddenly spout and stage ever more lurid literary obscenity legally and indulge in themes that baited society with more venom and sting. But Franco was determined to be as difficult as he could throughout his career within the confines of cinematic expectations; every decade brought something fresh and new, even if, with his most recent movies, he has found something of a home with experimentation in video trickery, imagery and effects that has resulted in, to an extent, his films becoming more a visual wall of sound – a montage of ideas and music.

Franco’s most recent film, Paula-Paula (2010) took this cinematic journey of sound and visual intercourse to clear extremes, ensuring linear plotting and conventional film-making was far less important to the creative mix, than a surreal collage of thought and sound. Again, such a development in Franco’s work mirrors that of David Lynch who has also thrived in the cutting and copulating of sound and imagery in recent years, more so than in any conventional kind of movie-making. That Franco, working into his 80s, still thrives on such fevered and genuine experimentation, for better or worse, is surely something we have to hope stays with all of us over the years – a passion for whatever it is that we need to have a lifelong passion for.

Some of the greatest actors across the world have worked with Franco - Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee, for instance have been especially memorable, and loyal. Always films quite diverse in nature - but with common traits of sin, sensuality and a mostly sinister nature.

Some less well-known actors (at the time) were given birth or fresh blood to their careers by Franco who rewarded loyalty by providing the best possible movies to make their names in: Soledad Miranda’s vengeful portrayal of a woman scorned, astoundingly cruel and equally calm for She Killed In Ecstasy (one of the first rash of Franco films to make it to UK video shelves in the 90s) was a masterpiece of languid, lovely revenge while Howard Vernon’s tight-lipped performance as the title character in The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962) was so good he played the role again, many times over, in subsequent Orloff appearances down the years - even if these were often just in name, rather than official sequels as such.

The character of Orloff was almost like an obsessive nervous twitch of Franco’s that wouldn’t go away, you could almost claim the role was Franco’s alter ego, but there’s no reason to connect the two, and Franco appeared in enough of his own movies as ‘himself’, or as good as, to provide all kinds of guessing games over the years as to where the roles on screen became one with the man behind the lens.

Klaus Kinski was also a good friend to Franco, and appeared in some of Franco’s most memorable films – best of all, perhaps, was his wild-eyed, leering, convincingly deranged title role in Jack the Ripper (1976). The sight of Kinski gleefully ripping up the sets and cast around him and making the movie his own; slicing his way through a fairly straight take on the old tale luridly told - an untypically foggy Zurich, Switzerland standing in for a typically foggy London, England - is truly a delicious sight to behold!

Not all Franco’s best films starred better known names, he was also skilled at turning an unknown cast into stars, if only for a single movie at a time: Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1977) is as heartfelt as Ken Russell’s The Devils, and Franco's most dishearteningly beautiful movie, with young actress – probably just 16 when she shot this - Susan Hemingway’s slightly too-convincing traumas at the cruel hands of the corrupted leaders in a convent ensuring some BBFC cuts to the UK DVD release. Although at heart, and despite the understandable controversy surrounding it, including the provocation towards the Catholic Church - this is a movie that remains a simple love letter of a story, and if Oliver Reed in The Devils becomes Christ-like in fate at the end, here Hemingway’s Maria is as tragically destined as Joan of Arc.

But it was Lina Romay who remains the star of so many of Franco’s films, and also gave the performance of a lifetime in one of Franco’s better known movies in the UK; Female Vampire. This was a strong contender for Romay’s finest hour and a half; clasping hold of the role of a cloaked-up, but otherwise near-naked, forever isolated vampire with a fetish for thigh-high PVC boots and a less common but equally painful target for her fangs to find, seemed to be the role the actress was born to appear in - she also looks absolutely gorgeous here, if that’s not too drab a thing to say. Female Vampire is a film that - despite the lurid plotting and sultry, if often cleverly gloomy and grey visuals meant to reflect a lifetime of boredom being among the undead – comes across clearly more of a meditation on loneliness, as many of Franco’s movies are, once you get beneath the lack of clothing and equally lacking morals on gleeful display.


All of the Franco regulars gave his films their all, to the point where you wonder if the director had cast some kind of a spell on them. In Faceless (1987), Franco even dabbled with a movie far more acceptable to the Hollywood mainstream, with a rather too yucky-to-love thriller about a desperate and demented plastic surgeon removing beautiful faces to save the disfigured one of his own lover. Franco grafted in familiar face Telly Savalas to appear alongside his usual favourites, a cast that included: French adult movie star Brigitte Lahaie; Christopher Mitchum (son of Robert) and cult British actress Caroline Munro, as well, of course, as Howard Vernon as the good Dr. Orloff – something for everyone then, and a cast to die for, or at least to subject yourself to some rather disgusting plastic surgery for, some years before it became mainstream in that eternal quest for beauty.

As for setting; a Jess Franco movie is equally likely to be set in the steamy jungle (but probably more likely to actually be shot in a cast member's overgrown back garden) as it is the bedroom of a suburban flat in Madrid. Or to be set in a sweaty, barely-clothed prison as it is in a wonderfully sun-drenched villa by a glittering blue sea. One thing that Franco may lack in many of his movies is a budget of some - or any - kind (though when he did get the finance and proper backing the production values could be high). If the budget was lacking, the shooting of films shared cast, plot and actors, and a number of new films were made from the old; rather like reusing the leftover turkey carvings from Christmas Day to make a curry on Boxing Day - and some tatty fritters the day after that.

Without special effects in the budget to lavish his films with, Franco would instead find beauty and style in: sunlight, sky, a leaf on a tree - or a single wave in the ocean. He would cleverly obscure the lack of a decent set by shooting the action through a distorted wine glass instead or reveal the cast through reflections in mirrors; indulge in extreme close-ups and languid long shots (often in the same take) - perhaps developing a unique directing style to distract from the bare bones setting of the location to hand.

While lavish films such as Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun are draped with rich poignancy and beauty, there are others that deviate from the usual heady Franco fetishes, such as the Jules Verne-inspired Fifteen Year Old Captain (1974), a surprisingly low-key and old-fashioned family adventure outing for the director shooting in a decade that reached his most decadent heights; treading perhaps slightly less certain water in-between the bigger, more memorable - some might say ‘more exciting’ works, such as 1973's A Virgin Among The Living Dead, and 1974's cult kinky sex comedy; Celestine, an All Round Maid (UK title, Celestine – A Maid For Everyone), based (but uncredited) on the novel ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ by Octave Mirbeau. Celestine is a film that remains something of a rare one worldwide, and much sought after on VHS by collectors and fans of Franco in the UK, having last had a video release here some thirty years ago.


By the mid-1980s, Franco's films were all over the place in terms of the obsessions and genres being explored, even more so than usual. He seemed to be trying to find his way again, exciting a career that had once blossomed with the sometimes blackest of petals laced through with that blood red-lipped exoticism and sometimes quite elegant, sometimes quite unspeakable, part-trashy, part-arty eroticism that he had trademarked as his own, right across the 70's.

The quite bonkers El Sexo Esta Loco/ Sex is Crazy from 1981 saw a casting call of bizarre aliens performing for a muted audience in a seedy, bizarre nightclub, and had the cast play dual roles of either performer or slightly sozzled, relaxed audience member. Franco appears as himself, or maybe he’s actually playing the role of a director (it’s hard to say) of this whole crazy-from-outer-space freak show, rather like Fellini had done in 1963's 8 ½ and Jean-Luc Goddard in Le Mepris from the same year.

The resulting mish-mash movie-making of Sex is Crazy is essential viewing for Franco fans, as it's like a peek behind the scenes of Franco's life and mind, where reality and fiction bleed into one (the 'aliens' are probably just members of the club pretending to be aliens, not at all expected to be convincingly other-worldly, and the whole idea feels subversive and even excitingly dangerous like many of Franco's best movies can). This is sex, comedy and seediness consumed with a cognac and a fine cigar, a pause to stop and watch and think along with Franco himself, and the film probably sets the tone for the next few years in Franco's career when he goes on to mark the start of the 80s (a less decadent time, more controlled and frizzy in all kinds of ways compared to the sleaze and hard-nosed edginess of the exploitation films of the 70s) with a new set of often quite untameable ideas, alongside brief moments of calm, of which Sex is Crazy was just the graze on a knee – like a warning shot – of what was to follow.

To find his way at the start of this new decade, Franco feverishly explores his favourite themes of stylised sex, personal entrapment and wild experimentation of sight and sound like never before; like a safety catch fully clicked in place, shooting on safe ground in a way – because wild experimentation for Franco is always safer territory than sticking with convention. He was alternating these clearly more personal outings with newer dabblings in film genres that he'd never fully explored before - experiments too perhaps, but of a safer kind – and not always that far removed from what we were already used to anyway.



The sleek slasher, Bloody Moon (1981) is a straight horror, the supernatural elements toned down, and the film could easily be whored homage to the straight blood and black-gloved killings of Italian ‘giallo’ films, where a single killer stalks and keeps his identity hidden. The film is effective in its shock value and in the seedy, often shocking, but carefully-staged killings, reminding perhaps of Bava's A Bay of Blood - that as good as invented the slasher genre single-handedly, a decade earlier. The year after Bloody Moon, an Italian director also presented the world with one of the most definitive ‘giallo’ thrillers ever made; Dario Argento's brutish, beautiful Tenebrae, that surely does link back to A Bay of Blood directly, but it’s the Hollywood horror-go-round that’s grabbed Franco most for his one; 1980’s Friday the 13th especially, as well as 1978’s Halloween. Franco’s jumping on the stalk and stab bandwagon is a lot of fun. In a way, I wish he’d made more.

Although Franco's films often featured all kinds of deranged killers, more often than not – unlike the big Hollywood psychopaths out there - they had some kind of historical setting to run free within or a surreal supernatural element to toy with. Franco’s ‘bad’ protagonists usually borrowed elements from Franco’s own, personal, reoccurring checklist of favourite things: 'the mad doctor'; the 'crazed surgeon'; the 'vengeful wife' – all necessary evils for Franco to stitch their crimes up with, although often the line between hero or villain stayed blurred. Bloody Moon, though, is an 80's slasher pure and simple, and stands out as a rare stripped-down outing into the fairly mainstream - if still very violent - kind of horror film-making that the new decade revelled in. Franco was on the crest of a wave of commercial success, but quickly turned away from the genre.

The gloriously seedy and sinister - and still controversial – Franco classic, The Story of Linda (1981) otherwise known by the more lurid and ridiculous (but surely great sounding) title; ‘Naked Super Witches of the Rio Amore’, followed Bloody Moon, and this time the setting for sleaze is a decadent hotel, not a club full of oddball aliens – a hotel that's a facade for a garish, kinky and quirky kind of high-class brothel, where girls are brought against their will, and forced to perform for leering punters. Whether that's a comment on the target audience of some of Franco's more salacious films, or a representation of the unique fantasies that Franco often seems to be sharing with us throughout his career is open to question; but such a recurring theme was made clearer to us a few years previously, in that pivotal movie Sex is Crazy, where it seemed to be Franco's friends alone who watch the live alien cabaret like a bunch of chilled-out and boozy deviates in the middle of an especially seedy half-asleep siesta, all of them just about hanging on to late 70’s cool - such personal involvement of friends and family in a Franco movie is always a possibility. Here in 'Linda' the punters are fictionalized and less freeform, but no less human at times.

The Story of Linda remains a rampantly original study of oppressive desire where sex is redeeming and natural, even sort of innocent - or plain ugly, bullying and restraining. It's a heady, unnerving mix (and the film remains an experience of some considerable sleaziness) but a few years later was followed up with the even more unique, and probably more restrained (despite the story’s source) Gemidos de Placer/ Cries of Pleasure (1983); a languid, Marquis De Sade-based tale of a man inviting a young lover to his shadow-lit and prison-like house while his wife is away, and then awaiting her return (from a psychiatric hospital, rather helpfully for the husband’s plan to work) - eager to taunt her when she gets back with his far more nubile, nymphomatic catch of the day, a role played, of course, by Lina Romay. The chances of a relapse into madness for his wife seem high, but life is never that easy in a Franco movie. If there’s a bed, people will get on.

Cries of Pleasure is a subdued, depressing masterpiece of a movie; restrained yet unbridled in its portrayal of twisted, rule-squashing love and desire; the camera watching proceedings like a stalking creature lurking in the shadows in shame. The films around this period of Franco's career, relish in darkness and depravity, decay, unnatural humour, and a certain amount of self-referencing and dreamlike presentation of subject matter. It's the film outpourings at times of a man having the most stylish, fevered of breakdowns, struggling to find his footing again, but creating certain masterpieces of van Gough-like beauty as he recovers.

While the early 80s, for Franco, were a little bit hit and miss because of his feverish experimentation in uncharted seas, they did also prove that he was still fully inspired and creative as an auteur to the point where the films could almost became too personal to him to shoot - and for us to watch. Some of these more personal films were clearly among the best of his career, but they also risked danger of meaning less to some viewers as a result of their painfully revealing, insular nature, reaching a conclusion of sorts with both Cries of Pleasure and Sex is Crazy. Going back to the latter movie, the title alone of Sex is Crazy could almost be Franco’s personal cry for help; was he getting fed up with the constant need to shock and show the same sexual comings and occasional goings that had especially dominated his 70s output - maybe he now wanted more mainstream success of some kind? The floorshow in Sex is Crazy, despite the wild alien-themed routines on offer, showed the audience looking kind of bored. Not for us, it’s important to add. But was Jess Franco worrying this could be happening?

So Franco was dabbling in film genres he'd never dabbled in before, and re-evaluating his obsessions like never before. The increasingly uneven nature of the films on display throughout the 80s are a feature of Franco's entire career, not a big deal, but here, it's suddenly harder to figure out for sure whether the big random, scattershot approach to all kinds of unexpected genre embracing is a loss - or a genuine embrace – of creative direction. If only because some of the films he was making were, even for a director as eclectic as this one; very un-Franco like. It’s not surprising then, that a swerve dive towards less adult content, and even quite childish adventures, was coming our way.


The Treasure of the White Goddess (1983), reflects a slight calming down in Franco’s tormented approach to film-making, and is a film that remains a good companion piece of sorts to En Busca del Dragon Dorado, the full-on kids flick that was released the same year - though not at first glance all that obviously so.

Clearly, The Treasure of the White Goddess (also known as Diamonds of Kilimandjaro) was a low budget take on the big screen Tarzan epics of old, as well as a homage to the pouty female ‘Tarzana’ movies that found a natural home in Eurosleaze cinema (the West German-shot Liane, Jungle Goddess from 1956 proving especially enduring over the years).
It was a young Katja Bienert who starred here as Diana, a girl lost to the African jungle as a child, but now more grown-up and swinging through the trees in the iconic Tarzan hand-me-down loincloth of old, evading treasure-hunting explorers hired by her mother who were ruggedly looking both for her - as well as that rather more urgent, but no more alluring, shiny gold stuff.
It's an addictive performance from Bienert who clearly dominates the film with her wide grin, athletic strut and sultry swing as the jungle queen, despite her clearly young age here. Bienert herself has been quoted as saying (in an online interview with cult film journalist Mike Haberfelner at that the Tarzan stuff didn’t come naturally to her at all: ‘Mostly I was frightened acting like a female Tarzan, so I was thankful that he (Franco) added some scenes where I looked seductive or was fighting with my hunters – anything, but with my feet on the ground!’.

Bienert’s ‘female Tarzan’ role is one not all that dissimilar from Brooke Shields’s ‘female Robinson Crusoe’ role, in the glossier exotic-setting of The Blue Lagoon, released just a year earlier, and an actress cited by Bienert as an influence at that time.

The Treasure of the White Goddess was as close as Franco could get to those old-fashioned Saturday morning adventure serials, or, if you want to think big, which the budget here doesn't really allow, to an Indiana Jones kind of movie – and Raiders of the Lost Ark had been released to cinemas just a few years earlier. Rarely ever fully-clothed romps on treasure islands or luridly-lensed jungle adventuring became something of a revitalised obsession for Franco in future movies, all the way up to 1999’s Broken Dolls where a man and his family living an idyllic life on a lonely island are threatened with the progress of a modern world. Slightly Lear-like in nature, of Franco’s later movies, this was clearly one of his best – and like all his best movies, also the most personal.
If it wasn't for the odd tease of nudity and violence, Treasure of the White Goddess/ Diamonds of Kilimandjaro would be something of an old-fashioned mishmash of traditional jungle thrills. It's less salacious than it probably should have been - the film was toned down by French production company Eurocine to try to bypass French censors who weren't happy with Franco's version. Scenes were reshot by another director, and some final film versions released have some doubt as to who shot what. Release dates and filming dates are also, as a result, a little lucid. But it's Franco's project at heart, and his Jane that’s swings through the trees with this wild Tarzan of a plot. The rugged male antihero role is taken on here by actor Antonio Mayans (also known as Robert Foster) who plays adventurer Fred (which doesn’t sound the most adventurous of names, admittedly) saved from certain death by our jungle-girl Diana (which doesn’t sound the most jungle-girl of names either) who he also falls in love with by the time the end credits roll - as you’d probably expect.

Mayans was another of Franco's male muses, appearing in a vast number of his films over the years. It’s claimed the actor would take his entire family along to the Franco film shoots with him, including the family dog and his two young daughters; Flavia and Ivana, who were eventually given something to do by Franco, when he cast them in a film which - perhaps with a certain sigh of relief - turned out to be the quite unexpected and unusually cute (for Franco) children's adventure movie - En Busca Del Dragon Dorado (1983).

As a period of experimentation for Franco, En Busca Del Dragon Dorado has the role of being his first fully-fledged movie shot primarily for children to enjoy. There's no official DVD release yet, but the film is available on tape where it had a release in Spain some years back. The plot is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe (The Golden Beetle) which does widen the film's appeal to fans of horror or fantasy cinema of all ages, and stars Antonio Mayan's daughter Flavia as, yep - 'Flavia' a local girl living somewhere in East Asia (but all clearly filmed in Spain of course with mostly Spanish, not Asian, actors) who gets involved with kung fu-fighting crooks searching for an ancient lost treasure. 


Flavia helps another girl, Ojos, whose mother owned the magical treasure map and has now been killed by the aforementioned bad guys in the film's only scene of fairly realistic violence. Ojos is played by Flavia's real life sister, Ivana. Both girls play their roles as you'd expect; with wide-eyed enjoyment and the cute-factor is undeniable. Jess Franco himself even appears as some kind of mystical Oriental Fu Manchu-like figure. This was an era, still inspired by the knock-on effect of Enter the Dragon in 1972 and the still popular Fu Manchu movies that stretched all the way back to the early 20s, when pretending to be Chinese, or 'Oriental' - even when you weren't - was still mostly acceptable and widespread in the film world. Christopher Lee had already appeared as Fu Manchu for director Jess Franco in a couple of movies filmed in the late 60s: The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu and Peter Sellers had provided his own unique take on the character in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu in 1980 (as 'Fred' Manchu - no relation to adventurer Fred from Franco’s Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, I don’t think) and both actors had worn the evil old Fu Manchu make-up proudly while being perfectly stereotypical, but not very convincingly 'Oriental', in their roles - twirly of moustache and enigmatic of inscrutable eye.

Of course, even the Fu Manchu novels written by Sax Rohmer, the first in the series appearing in the first half of the 20th Century, ran into some problems upon publication for their so-called 'Yellow Peril' theme - a phrase coined at a time when China was seen by some American media and religious groups as a ready and invading enemy fired by expansionism. The idea quickly spread to the world of fiction, if it wasn’t there already. While most famously finding a home in the dastardly plots of Fu Manchu, characters of ‘Yellow Peril’ (a phrase thought to have been first coined in artwork by Kaiser Wilhelm II when a fear of a perceived threat from Japan and China, resulted in his own painting of this dastardly danger with the ‘Yellow Peril’ title) were everywhere.

Jess Franco's brief role in En Busca del Dragón Dorado comes traditionally complete with the Oriental old man make-up. Appearing briefly at the start of the movie only, this wizened kindly mystic (and Franco may well just be taking some time out from all the sex and sleaze in most of his other movies to do this, as he looks half asleep here – hopefully purposefully!), sitting alone by the shore, conjures up a bizarre individual to protect the children holding onto the mystical map and to support their quest to find the treasure and save it falling into the wrong hands.

The hero conjured up by Franco, isn’t exactly a Superman, Batman or even much of a Bruce Lee. He’s a Kung Fu-kicking human eagle type played by a local Filipino lad by the name of César Antonio Serrano and who - according to a story told on the essential Franco blog ‘I'M IN A JESS FRANCO STATE OF MIND’ run by Franco obsessive Robert Monell - was found working in a local disco by actor Antonio Mayans himself. The poor boy thought the offer of a role was a joke and tried to Kung Fu kick Mayans playfully in response, before realising this was a real job offer, and no doubt quickly signing the contract! So we have Mayans to thank for the hero of this movie being a first-time actor with no previous experience plucked from his night job as a disco doorman, quickly dragged back to a waiting Jess Franco, and soon screeching and pouting his way into the bright sunlight of a film set as a mystical bird-boy conjured-up to protect two little girls on their magical adventure to find the dragon’s gold.

I suspect this screeching bird-boy didn’t so much keep the girls safe as half scare them (and us) to death every time he appeared! It was to be César’s only movie role. But he remains memorable, and by a stroke of genius, Franco even added to the authenticity of the boy's starring role as Samura (‘starring’ as in 'top billed', even though he doesn't actually appear in the movie that much – but oh boy when he does this lad really makes an impact!) by renaming the young actor ‘Li Young’. While Bruce Lee this boy ain't, you can't fault the lad for effort. Franco too goes by a pen name for this movie - as director James P. Johnson, but then Franco called himself by many pen names over his career, so often in fact, than biographers are still unsure to this day of exactly how many movies the man actually made – as equally unsure, it's often said, as Franco himself!


En Busca Del Dragon Dorado isn’t Franco’s best work, but is a relatively obscure, rarely seen movie that remains a real oddity in his long career and a real departure too for the prolific director by being his only true-hued kids-flick. You can count others, such as A Captain of Fifteen Years, as coming close, but this one is Franco ‘doing a Disney’: cute kids; mystical bird guys; choppy Kung Fu scenes - and hidden treasure. There are perhaps a few too many scenes where the two little girls fall asleep in the middle of nowhere only to be nearly attacked by the ruthless treasure hunters as they lie there sleeping and then get saved by Samura the squawking bird-boy, who materialises out of the ether to shriek wildly and pose spiritually like a bird (and frankly quite hilariously so to be honest) then kick the bad guys to probable certain slow motion (years before The Matrix) death. The girls yawn and wake up and look surprised at the dead bodies scattered all around them. This happens multiple times. And I've just realised that maybe this isn't such a kid’s movie after all. Not unless your child is seriously twisted and warped. I think I'd be rather scared of any young person who cites En Busca del Dragón Dorado as their favourite movie, or the bird-boy as their favourite character. But a little bit proud of them too!

The whole mad adventure ends up in a cave where the golden dragon part of the film's title makes an appearance (if not the actual dragon, golden or otherwise) - and quite effective the spooky old cave is too. No, it's clearly not a very wild vision of Jess Francoian flamboyance for a finale, not in any sense of the thought, but it is what it is: a cool cave with treasure in it that glows gold and the perfect place to have yet another final King Fu contest between bird-boy and the (not a chance, have they really?) bad guys. This isn't out of keeping with the rest of the movie; the fantastical elements are kept restrained throughout. Maybe, of course, due to the usual budget restraints but more likely because this is a Franco project that's clearly just 'a bit on the side' for the guy - a dalliance, but still shot with serious intent, and some quirkiness and style. In terms of the kind of personal movies that Franco mainly shot, discussed earlier – this film for a friend’s children to launch their careers in, or just spend some downtime in, is about as personal as it gets.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the ending of En Busca del Dragón Dorado turns out to be quite melancholic, as the bird-boy gets to find some kind of inner peace, rather than stay an outsider; a boy endlessly drifting in and out of reality – actually finding some kind of friendship and purpose at the end of this whole quest, other than just spending a lifetime being a product of Jess Franco's wise old oriental man's imagination and squawking a bit annoyingly at bad guys for the rest of his life.

Like all Jess Franco movies, you go away from this movie with some pretty memorable - and some pretty strange - images seared forever into your brain. For a film that is really just Franco taking time out to film a home movie for his actor pal, Antonio Mayans, and his two little girls – it’s surprisingly endearing. The wide openness of the wilderness the girls trample through, the meditative appearances of the bird-boy (even though it is a little annoying and grotesque at times) and the very natural performances of the two, twinkly-eyed girls as they encounter death (the fate of Ojos’s mother is shot in peeked glances, as if, correctly, through a child's eyes) and magical discovery (the cave itself is like a vision of barely finalised imagination, slightly distanced from reality, almost as if imagined by a child - it's actual existence almost like a ‘by the way’), all work well. There's also a good few moderately tense moments, such as when one of the girls falls down a deep pit into a lonely cave, thinking she is trapped in there forever, until the bird-boy comes to her rescue. Which is either lucky or not, depending on your point of view.

I don't know whether Jess Franco intended En Busca del Dragón Dorado to be symbolic of the abundance of a child’s imagination and adventurous dreams, or a meditation on fantastic fiction and a love poem to the work of Edgar Allan Poe - or just a quick note to self. But there could be a clue in the voice of the bird-boy, which remains so much a vital, obsessive part of this movie, and does give a forced reminder of flight and freedom; values Franco fully endorsed and flew with throughout his career. Or maybe this is a film simply meant and shot as a cheap and cheerful slice of childish fun. I do know that I won't forget it very easily, and you can't say that about most films made for children today, at a time where cheap 3D animation is a poor excuse for a work of some certain love, and of some certain heart. I can't imagine any modern-day director taking time out to film a movie in a genre that he doesn't really ‘do’, just to keep the children of his favourite actor amused between other movies shoots. Like the voice of a boy with the soul of an eagle, I went away from watching En Busca del Dragón Dorado, realising that childhood in the movies isn't just about the biggest explosions, the best 3D, the coolest Kung Fu – it’s about being free.

In memory of Jesús Franco Manera, 1930 - 2013.
My manner of thinking, so you say, cannot be approved. Do you suppose I care? A poor fool indeed is he who adopts a manner of thinking for others! ” ~ Marquis de Sade

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

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