Although often thought of as a director of adult films and low-rent sleaze, Spanish exploitation filmmaker Jesús Franco did on occasion stumble across some provocative and surprisingly challenging material. I'm not talking about high-caliber, inspired art, or the sort of stuff that could blow your mind, but rather, he sometimes hit on intriguing ideas worthy of consideration and discussion. And they often had to do with our cultural stigma about sex or what people choose to do behind closed doors and in the privacy of their bedrooms. Essentially, for every piece of low-budget, exhibitionist trash with lurid zoom-ins of the naughty bits, Franco did manage to squeeze out some pretty good movies from time to time.
1975's erotica 'Exorcism' (aka 'The Sadist of Notre Dame') is one of Franco's rarities, a diamond in the rough type from his extensive catalog of exploitation films. By all standards, the movie is the typical tasteless epicurean display of smut we'd expect from Franco, even featuring his muse Lina Romay as one of the main attractions. He funnily excuses the extent of nudity shown by having the movie revolve around a pornography magazine that does the occasional private shows. And yet, writhing beneath all the risqué obscenities and the lewd carnal pleasures, ranging from secret sadomasochist exhibitions to intimate interludes with couples, there hides a smart story working as social commentary.
Co-written by Franco with several others, the script follows the mentally disturbed Mathis Vogel (Franco doing a surprisingly good job), an ex-communicated priest working as a writer of unsettling erotic literature. The troubled man — and with Franco's unique facial features, the character seems particularly warped and perverse — believes himself a soldier for God sent to exorcise the world of demons. Unfortunately, and this is the real twist which makes the film worthwhile, the people that Mathis deems as evil and possessed by Satan are innocent people with unique sexual preferences and taboo lifestyles. Even worse, his methods of exorcism involve kidnapping and torturing his victims to death while he struggles with own sexual frustrations and unfilled perversions.
Stranger still, those same people Mathis believes possessed are part of an S&M community that host private, invite-only shows with themes of the occult and ritual black mass. After sneaking into one of these events and confusing the stage performance for the real thing, he's convinced that has he stumbled upon a coven of witches and Satan worshippers, which is of course furthest from the truth. Almost as if portending militant, right-wing fundamental ideologies, the plot hints at acts of violence enabled by dogmatic tenets and often against those with different lifestyles. It's one the few films in which Franco works with an intentionality and a substance other than extreme close-ups of Romay's nether region.
As in some of his other movies, Franco filmed an alternate, less sexually-explicit version for theaters and retitled it 'Demoniac,' which could interestingly be in reference to the frenzied fiend's murderous activities. The new footage is really nothing more than actors being fully clothed during their provocative performances, meaning that the story of the deranged Mathis Vogel remains identical. Although his script comes with a potentially thought-provoking plot, Franco still lacks finesse and style behind the camera, and the movie is riddled with laughable acting, bad editing and ultra-cheap production values. But in spite of all that, either version is a tolerable watch of sleazy Eurotrash entertainment, one of the few Franco features considered a genuine grindhouse classic.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'Exorcism' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Redemption" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase, the Region Free, BD50 disc goes straight to the main menu with a still photo of the cover art and music playing in the background.
The print used for this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode appears to be in a bad state of repair and in desperate need of a full restoration. Granted, the 1.66:1 image has its moments of sharp resolution with some excellent detailing in hair, clothing and the surrounding architecture, but these moments are far and few in between. The majority of the picture is soft with several blurry segments and DVD-like definition. The rest of the print shows lots of scratches, tears and is littered with white specks. Along with some minor decay around the edges and distracting judder, there's noticeable discoloration and degradation, greatly affecting the overall palette and giving the presentation an unattractive yellowish tint. Only real positive is that contrast and brightness are decently well-balanced with crisp whites and deep blacks.
As with the video, this Blu-ray release comes with a less than satisfying uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack. The terrible ADR work is forgivable though hilariously distracting at times, but the voices also display a great deal of hissing and noise in the higher pitches. At other times, the high-rez track comes off very bright and piercing, most noticeable during the funky 70s music. There's decent clarity and detail to be heard in some spots, but the presentation, on the whole, doesn't offer much range and variation. Coupled with the lack of a low-end, the lossless mix, in general, is flat and listless with very little to appreciate.
Aside from the alternate cut of the movie, supplements include two trailers for Franco's movies and three more previews for Jean Rollin.
A diamond in the rough within Jesús Franco's extensive catalog of exploitation films, 'Exorcism' hides an intriguing story idea beneath all the sleaze and smut. Although riddled with the sort of cheap production value you'd expect from such low-rent fare, the sexploitation movie makes an amusing watch nonetheless, especially for those with an interest in the genre. The Blu-ray, however, arrives with a less than satisfying and overall mediocre audio and video presentation. Other than an alternate cut of the movie, bonus features are also terribly lacking. Nevertheless, hardcore fans of Franco and the genre in general will want to pick up a copy of this grindhouse classic.