Celebrating Lina Romay: Exorcism & Lorna, the Exorcist

We’re kicking off a very extended look at the work of Jess Franco and the late, great Lina Romay with two ’70s era films: Exorcism and Lorna, The Exorcist. Do not let the questionable English titles fool you: there’s no exorcism in Lorna and the exorcism in Exorcism is mostly Jess stabbing naked women with a switchblade while ranting about saving their souls.

Exorcism and Lorna, the Exorcist are both sterling examples of what a Jess Franco Picture is: both star the late, great Lina Romay, both have explicit sex scenes, and both deal with the confusing, perverse magic of female sexuality. Not only that, it seems like they both benefit from the Jess Franco Method of making films: finding locations that work, actors that work, and building a film around them. Both of these films, as well as Celestine Maid At Your Service and Brutal Nights of Linda, were shot using the same basic crew (though Exorcism didn’t see release until ’79, apparently) — some people don’t care for this approach but I applaud Jess’s work ethic. More is better than less!

One of the most interesting parts about Exorcism (L’éventreur de Notre-Dame) for me was the utterly Franco-ian fixation on public sex, particularly S&M shows. There are numerous examples of dark, sexy stage shows in Franco films (Succubus and Vampyros Lesbos, off the top of my head), and an S&M black mass is at the center of Exorcism’s plot. To Franco (and to Lina) in the 70s, sex was performative – Exorcism’s show takes the form of a Satanic rite, complete with chalices, bondage gear, and incantations. The audience watches the women perform bondage as we watch the audience watching them; it’s meta-performance, and the levels upon which Franco presents performance and spectatorship are fascinating to take apart. And Lina was always his partner in this performance; she was ready for anything Jess would throw at her, and Exorcism is a prime example of their equal partnership, in which one would push the other to do great things.

Jess playing a defrocked priest who attempts to save the souls of the damned through exorcism ending in murder is pretty much right in line with his general interests, particularly considering said priest makes a living writing second rate Sadean stories for (if we remember right) Knives And Garters Quarterly. While submitting his latest masterpiece, he overhears talk of a black mass (basically one of Jess’s patented nudes-and-fake-blood nightclub shows) and decides to make things right…PERMANENTLY! It’s not one of his most intricate plots, but things move along at a brisk pace and you get plenty of what you signed up for.

The character Lina plays in Lorna, the Exorcist (Les possédées du diable) is a far cry from her usual vixen roles – Lina is Linda (so many L names!), the soon-to-be-18 daughter of a man who made a deal with Lorna, a Satanic witch (I think?), before her birth, trading Linda upon womanhood for riches. Lina is innocent, corruptible, with increasingly dirty dreams of a beautiful (if ridiculously made-up) woman. It’s nice to see Lina stretch a bit and take on the wide-eyed ingenue role, but it’s equally amazing to see that final shot of Lina laughing hysterically, just having murdered her father.

Lorna is played by one-time Les Folies Bergère dancer and Franco regular (Doriana Grey, Sexy Sisters) Pamela Stanford, decked out in a truly unreal series of wigs and eye makeup, offering a promise of wealth and power to Patrick, Linda’s father, in exchange for his first born child on the day of her eighteenth birthday. Patrick, currently childless, doesn’t think too much about it and happily beds Lorna and follows her gambling advice. Eighteen years later, however, he’s decided he’s keeping his baby. Meanwhile, Catherine Laffiere is in a Renfieldian psychic connection with Lorna from her asylum bed where she writhes around and gets occasional visits from Dr. Jess. Did I mention Howard Vernon is Lorna’s butler?

Whether you’re as familiar with Lina’s work (and as bummed out by her way-too-soon passing) as we are, or a Franco naif, these two films are required viewing. They serve both as a great introduction to the Lina-Jess partnership, as they contain all the elements of the couple’s most fruitful collaborations, and as a way to celebrate the wonderful, inspiring, bonkers career of Lina Romay, a woman who would do anything, and was absolutely magnetic in the process.

Teenage Girls in Trouble, Pre- and Post-Peaks

Recently, I watched two films that I had no idea would correlate so directly, much less would create a bridge with one of the internet’s favorite TV shows, Twin Peaks. Alberto Negrin’s 1978 Enigma Rosso (also known as Virgin Killer, also known as Red Rings of Fear – it’s one of those films that has a million amazing names, but also is hard to get any information about because everyone calls it something different) and Joel Anderson’s 2008 Lake Mungo both share the conceit of the suspicious death of a teenage girl, whose life, upon further inspection, is less peaches and cream than it looks from the outside. This, of course, is the case with Laura Palmer, Peaks‘ omnipresent murder victim, a homecoming queen turned murder victim, who actually was addicted to cocaine and worked at a local brothel. Enigma Rosso and Lake Mungo, as different as they are on the surface, present an interesting pre- and post-Peaks look at what the girl in trouble movie is.

Engima Rosso is a relatively obscure giallo, starring genre great Fabio Testi as a detective looking into the murder of a local schoolgirl with a very close group of friends. Of course, since nothing is ever as it seems at Catholic girls’ schools, it turns out the group of friends were into some wild stuff, and someone is killing them to keep their mouths shut. Or to get revenge. While not a great film, Enigma Rosso is certainly an enjoyable watch, much of which is because of Testi, a consummate cool guy as always. He forces a suspect onto a roller coaster and chokes him to get answers, for Pete’s sake! But if that was all that was good about the film, I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it.

The film starts with Testi’s detective being called to the scene of the crime, and finding the bruised, abused naked body of a teenage girl wrapped in plastic. The above image should be familiar to anyone who’s seen even the first episode of Twin Peaks, and makes me pretty sure that David Lynch saw this film before creating his Laura Palmer. The girls in Enigma Rosso aren’t in quite as deep as Laura, but they do also work in a brothel (I think? At least, they have sex with older men regularly – the plot of the film is admittedly a little hard to follow at times), and one girl goes through a traumatic abortion that would not have seemed out of place in Twin Peaks. While Peaks is, clearly, the better product, Enigma Rosso is a different beast, taking the slightly grimy route giallo fans love (the victim’s death – by dildo, I kid you not – is shown in juicy detail), giving the audience the dirt on these girls without really caring about them.

Lake Mungo, by contrast, takes a more contemporary genre look at the death of an unknown bad girl; it’s a found footage horror film about the increasingly supernatural circumstances surrounding the death of teenaged Alice Palmer (already the similarities!). Alice was enjoying a day at the lake with her family, when she simply disappears. After a few agonizing days, her body is dredged from the water, and it’s determined that she drowned while swimming in the dam. Alice’s father identifies the body, leaving her mother without a sense of closure. It’s this lack of closure that leads Alice’s family to a psychic, the information from whom starts to unravel the mystery of who Alice really was.

Lake Mungo is less sleazy than Enigma Rosso about its protagonist’s double life, but Alice’s family finds out secrets that differ only a little from the Italian girls’: Alice had been sleeping with the couple for whom she had been babysitting, and possibly doing drugs with them (or, being drugged by them). Alice’s family finds grainy videotapes of one rendezvous, and even though the action is not explicitly portrayed, Alice’s slurred, druggy flirtations is enough to be painful to her family, and the audience as well. Lake Mungo takes a slow, supernatural approach to what is a very physical revelation; in that way, we can see the influence Twin Peaks had on the story. Alice’s ghost haunts the family (and the film), just as Laura’s apparition haunts the characters in Twin Peaks.

For two films that I had no idea would have anything in common, I found a pretty interesting bridge from the giallo to the found footage supernatural horror film: Twin Peaks. Lynch’s masterpiece ties together the two genres, exemplified by these two films, through that eternal trope of the undercover bad girl, and her murder.