Sex and horror have always been linked in film, going back to the literature that inspired the early Monster horror films of the 1920s and 30s. While the horror of films such as Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (also 1931) can be read as analogies for the act of sex, homosexuality and the transmission of sexual diseases, few films have captured the emotion and feeling of horror that sex can arouse as perfectly as Jess Franco’s Eugenie… The Story of her Journey into Perversion (1969).
Influenced by the writer Marquis De Sade, the pictures limited plot surrounds members of a sadistic cult who live their life inspired by the author’s views on pleasure and pain. Cult member Marianne wants the titular Eugenie for herself and persuades the young girls Father to let her come and stay with her on her island. What follows is a weekend of sexual manipulation and mind games.
The film is compelling due to the relationship between the two female leads which drives the narrative. As Eugenie, Marie Liljedahl is perfect as the sexually innocent young girl on the cusp of womanhood. Liljedahl looks gorgeous and plays the role well, acting like a spoilt bratty teenager at the start of the film and quickly changing to a young woman of interest, keen to learn the ways of the world when she arrives at the island. The woman she idolizes, Marianne, is devilishly desirable and knows how to manipulate those around her to get what she wants. Played by Maria Rohm (who starred in Franco’s earlier effort 99 Women), whilst the film may be about Eugenie, it’s her you can’t take your eyes off, owning the entire film with her presence. The relationship between these two actresses is electric, a cross between sisterly love and admiration and lesbian sexual attraction.
It is this attraction and desire that Franco manages to convey extremely well. Whilst there really isn’t a lot of plot going on throughout the film, Franco maintains a decadent mood and feeling of a constant wanting of the body and its pleasures for the entire picture. The sex scenes feel very natural, as if the cast were really lusting after each other in reality and the audience had stumbled upon it. With Marianne there is a degree of sexual manipulation in every scene she has with Eugenie, and yet each moment they share is incredibly sensual that one forgets Marianne is using the poor girl. The bath scene the two characters share is a wonderful juxtaposition of the delicate and relaxed nature the two women have developed between each other and the actual calculating corruption of an innocent girl that is happening before our eyes, the eroticism so heavy that we forget.
Having said that, Eugenie isn’t all perfect. Where the relationship between her and Marianne starts off believable and seemingly complex, not enough happens for it to be convincing at the end that Eugenie would replace Marianne in the cult. Franco throws murder into the plot which could have driven the story to the depths of degradation and depravity, but instead the film seems to come undone in the third act. Eugenie seems a little too accepting once she has realised what has been happening to her. The end also employs a flashback device that shows that the story was actually all a dream of Marianne’s. What would have been far better would have been to end the film with Eugenie stuck on the island, having realised the estate is sealed off with barbed wire and found the graveyard where, presumably, other past members of the cult are now buried. What better way to continue the journey then to leave Eugenie alone with the bodies of those she killed whilst she deals with her horror and arousal at the corruption of her innocence.
Despite some blurry out-of-focus shots and some scenes of fetishism which don’t feel all too well staged, the film is generally a success. The supporting cast are okay, including Christopher Lee (who claimed he had no idea as to some of the content of the film despite a young woman in one scene getting down on her knees in front of his crotch…) as the cult leader and Jack Taylor as Rohm’s Step-brother lover and partner in crime. This is, by far, one of Franco’s better films and one that will stay with you after watching due to its evocative feel and photography. Few other films I have seen have so perfectly captured how pain and pleasure stem from each other and how the slope between them is a very slippery one. Or maybe it’s the portrayal of sexual manipulation that is so acute; we all know someone or have been in the situation where we are blinded by our lust or desire for someone and are theirs to bend and play with at will.
It could be that Franco was having the last laugh after all. Having worked in exploitation fare for most of his career, Eugenie presents an insightful and intelligent ending that is maybe overlooked. Having followed Eugenie on her journey with a voyeuristic stance, the audience are faced with an ending that feels slightly jarring because it transpires it was all fantasy and not reality. Maybe the reason that many don’t like this device is because they refuse to acknowledge that they too have been aroused by degradation and sadism. Maybe the beauty in Eugenie was not its soft focus aesthetics but how well Franco understands aspects of human sexuality.