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She Killed in Ecstacy

Original title: Sie tötete in Ekstase

D: Jesús Franco (as Frank Hollmann) / 80m

Cast: Soledad Miranda (as Susann Korda), Fred Williams, Paul Muller, Howard Vernon, Ewa Strömberg, Horst Tappert, Jesús Franco

In a career that began with the documentary short El árbol de España (1957), Jesús Franco (better known as Jess) made over two hundred movies. He was a fiercely independent movie maker who worked quickly and never went over-budget. This allowed him to make the movies he wanted to make, and though the general conception is that he made a lot of awful exploitation movies from the late Sixties until his death in 2013 – his last movie was Revenge of the Alligator Ladies (2013) – there are those who would claim Franco as an auteur. It’s true he wrote and directed a lot of his movies, and was also a cinematographer, an editor, a composer, and sometimes an actor, and his movies are recognisable for their visual aesthetic (an ethereal picture postcard quality), but Franco’s style is often his own worst enemy. When watching his movies, there’s a distinct feeling that what happens doesn’t matter, that as long as the appropriate atmosphere is created – a kind of heightened reality – then everything else is of secondary importance. This can lead to many of his movies proving difficult to watch, and sometimes they’re like an endurance test.

Fortunately, She Killed in Ecstacy is one of his more well-known and accessible movies. It’s also got a more straighforward plot than usual, as the wife (Miranda) of a disgraced doctor (Williams), sets out to punish the board members who have rejected her husband’s work – something to do with human foetuses and growth hormones – and banned him from medical practice for life. The doctor, plagued by the accusations made by the board, and driven to despair, kills himself. His wife becomes an avenging angel, and one by one, she aims to have her revenge.

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But being a Franco movie, she does so using sex. She seduces the first member of the board (Franco regular Howard Vernon) in his hotel room before killing and then emasculating him. She leaves a note warning the other three that they too will suffer a similar fate, and this is found by another board member (played by Franco himself). He warns his colleagues and even tells them that a woman was involved. However, this doesn’t stop the doctor’s wife from pursuing her revenge. Next, she seduces and murders the female member of the board (Strömberg), suffocating her with a plastic cushion while in the throes of passion. She leaves a further note.

The last member of the board (Muller) goes to the police with his fears and tells the investigating officer (Tappert) of his suspicion that the murders are linked to the doctor’s disgrace. The officer is unconcerned and dismissive. And sure enough the board member finds himself being pursued by the doctor’s wife, trailed and followed through a series of encounters that lead to a third seduction and his murder at the wife’s hands. This now leaves one remaining board member. Can the doctor’s wife complete her mission before the police find and stop her?

Shot in a spare, otherworldly style by Franco in his choice of locations, all isolated and with extraneous people removed – the board members’ hotel is devoid of any staff – She Killed in Ecstacy is one of those movies that exerts a strange fascination. Its basic revenge plot is bolstered by some odd narrative diversions, such as the doctor’s corpse laid out in bed for his wife to have conversations with, and the initial meeting between the doctor’s wife and the female board member where the wife is reading a John le Carré novel in English. Strange quirks and decisions like these add a further element of the unusual to what is already in some respects a strange movie (such as the doctor’s work on human embryos having, apparently, been conducted in his lounge at home).

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But the strangeness of Franco’s narrative fits perfectly with his approach to the material, keeping the viewer slightly off-balance, and highlighting the increasingly disturbed actions of the doctor’s wife. Until her untimely death in 1970, Miranda had become one of Franco’s muses, and their work together showcases both her skills as an actress, and Franco’s as a director; for some reason they brought out the best in each other. Here, the actress gives a terrific performance that shows the character’s pain and suffering, as well as the effects her violent activity begin to have on her. It’s not quite the sort of depth of character that you’d expect from a Franco movie, but it’s there nonetheless, and it elevates the movie out of its standard low-budget formula.

But there are still plenty of Franco’s trademark idiosyncracies for fans to revel in. His use of the zoom lens at odd, inexplicable moments is there, as is his shooting through glass or other translucent materials (the plastic cushion). At one point, Miranda positions a wine glass directly in front of the camera (and appears to break the fourth wall while doing so), so as to obscure her seduction of the female doctor. These are just a couple of the things that Franco litters his movies with, and while some viewers may find them off-putting and annoying, once you’ve seen a few of Franco’s movies, they become less intrusive.

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Miranda’s performance aside, the rest of the cast indulge in varying degrees of histrionics, with Muller coming closest to the usual kind of performance you’d expect. Even Franco, not always the best cast member in his movies, displays a coolness of character that is broadly effective, and Tappert’s unhurried, almost frivolous portrayal works as close to comic relief as you’re likely to get. But in the end, these are bonuses, as the performances aren’t the main attraction of a Franco movie. It’s the man himself, and discovering what new perpsective on his somewhat perverse world view is going to be explored on each particular occasion that makes viewing his movies so worthwhile in the end.

Rating: 7/10 – in usual terms this is no masterpiece, but amongst Franco’s work this is easily one of his best, a brooding, provocative revenge movie that proves unexpectedly rewarding; as an entry level movie to Franco’s ouevre, She Killed in Ecstacy is a great place to start, and better still, works well on its own.