Venus in Furs (1969)

15 Oct


She's pretty for sure. But in film, as in life, sometimes pretty just ain't enough.


I kept waiting for the horror in “Venus in Furs.” It’s listed as a “horror classic” on Netflix, and the premise seems supernatural if less than spooky. Little by little, I became quite aware of the true terror of this film: With every monotone voice-over, I shuddered. With every hamfisted musical exclamation, I cringed. With every wooden expression, I gnashed my teeth. Yes, the true terror of “Venus in Furs” is in how mind-meltingly bad it is.

Smooth jazz trumpeter Jimmy Logan (James Darren) wakes from a haze in a beachside shack in Istanbul and begins narrating in a drippy voiceover. He retrieves his trumpet — which he’s buried in the sand near a fencepost — and blows a few mournful notes when he notices something strange floating in the surf. He retrieves a young woman’s body and is shaken when he recognizes the face as that of Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm). In flashback, Jimmy remembers the “crazy scene” where he first noticed Wanda. She catches his eye at a real “jet-set party” one night, and he follows her after she leaves in the company of millionaire playboy Ahmad Kortobawi (Klaus Kinski). Ahmad is joined by art and antiquities dealer Percival Kapp (Dennis Price) and high fashion photographer Olga (Margaret Lee), and the trio makes sport of a seemingly unwilling Wanda. Jimmy watches as a blade is taken to Wanda’s chest, and he leaves in disgust. When he finds Wanda’s body, it bears the same marks he observed her receiving during her escapades with the jet-setters. Consumed by guilt, Jimmy flees to all the happening global hotspots, eventually landing in Rio de Janeiro. But, just when he’s found love with lounge singer Rita (Barbara McNair), Wanda wanders into his bar. Jimmy doesn’t know whether she’s real or only a dream, but he’s powerless to fight his attraction to her … and her former lovers keep turning up dead.

There are a few scenes, and this is one of them, that show Jesus Franco is capable of incredibly striking imagery.

It’s an overstatement to suggest the plot doesn’t make much sense; but then I’m not sure it’s supposed to. The film seems to be the type that’s meant to be evocative of a dream-state, although I feel it’s far too trite and predictable to feel particularly dream-like. The entire story unfolds pretty much as you expect it to, with only the details of how characters die left maddeningly obtuse. It’s never really clear (at least not until the end of the film, anyway) whether they’re being haunted by a spectre or whether they’re being stalked by a Wanda lookalike. Director Jesus Franco (credited for this one as Jess Franco) makes bold use of color and staging and does hit upon some striking sequences. I found the initial flashback “jet-set party” sequence to be particularly effective with its frozen cast and garish lighting serving to force the focus to the five people in the room who comprise the core of the film. The nightclub sequence with Rita succeeds as well as any other in the film at achieving a murky, dream-like effect. Franco must also be credited for the Sapphic interlude toward the midpoint of the film between Olga and the resurrected Wanda. That sequence could actually stand really well on its own as a remarkably strange, yet still erotic short film. The resolution of the sequence — with the nearly nude Wanda descending a staircase and striding across plush red carpet — was, for me, the visual highpoint of the film.

The problem is none of the artistry of the film can overcome its relentless cheesiness, its horrible acting and its film school-esque effects. The stilted voiceover takes off in the first scene and never lets up, with much of the dialogue consisting of cringe-worthy gems such as “If that was her scene, then she could have it,” or “Rio. Man, that was a wild scene.” It’s exactly the sort of trite, hep-cat garbage Maynard G. Krebs was spouting on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” — which began airing a full ten years before this film was made. Whether the dialogue is well-written or not turns out to be completely irrelevant as the uninspired, clunky acting by virtually every cast member would tank even the most sparkling of lines.

James Darren is beyond wooden as the dull “Whatever, man” Jimmy Logan. Maria Rohm, well — she shows great proclivity for striding about nude. She is absolutely beautiful and is photographed accordingly, but her role consists mostly of being a blank slate for others to project their desires onto. Margaret Lee turns in the most compelling performance and even manages to achieve a level of emoting in a film which otherwise would seem populated by automatons. Even Klaus Kinski, as magnetic as he is, is given so little to actually do that he fails to make any real impact. By relying too heavily on Darren and Rohm, the film wastes any chance it has to build audience interest through intriguing characters or something approaching professional acting.

In case you're curious, here's King of the Voiceover himself, your protagonist, smooching Rita.

Franco certainly seems capable of good, perhaps even great bits of filmmaking, but the great bulk of “Venus in Furs” comes off extremely amateurish. There are so many focus pulls that recenter on a bare nipple that I literally lost count of them. Fades to black and fades to white are in overabundance. So-called psychedelic color washes aim to disorient or perhaps distract from the weak twist ending but instead come off as laughable and predictable. This is a film which endlessly references itself: The shot of Wanda’s face just after she’s pulled from the surf must show up at least 20 times during the course of action in “Rio.” (The stock Carnival footage used to say “Hey, we’re in Rio, OK?” is seriously ridiculous.) It’s impossible to tell if all the out-of-sequence shots are continuity errors or specifically chosen for artistic effect, but does it really matter? If Franco’s aiming for art, he misses wide; better to just say they were mistakes.

The true horror of “Venus in Furs” is it is exactly the sort of tripe some people instantly think of when you say “art film”: Lots of needless nudity, a plot that doesn’t make sense and pretends to be full of deep and profound truths, “minimalist” acting that is in fact just bad acting. And the biggest offense of all? Not even remotely gory, scary or unsettling … though Jimmy Logan’s disembodied voiceovers may cause me nightmares for years. One star out of four.

Venus in Furs“: Rated R. Starring James Darren, Barbara McNair, Maria Rohm, Klaus Kinski, Dennis Price, Margaret Lee and Adolfo Lastretti. Directed by Jesus Franco (credited as Jess Franco). Written by Milo G. Cuccia, Carlo Fadda, Jesus Franco, Bruno Leder and Malvin Wald. Cinematography by Angelo Lotti. Original music by Mike Hugg, Manfred Mann and Stu Phillips.

One Response to “Venus in Furs (1969)”


  1. 31 Nights of Horror: Final thoughts (2010) « Rhanda watches - November 23, 2010

    […] Bed: The Bed That Eats.” There were three one-star reviews: “Bad Biology,” “Venus in Furs,” and “Swamp […]

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