Amazing, isn’t it, the kinds of ridiculous crap they used to play on broadcast television back in the days before cable? I saw Jess Franco’s lurid, sleazy, wholly indescribable The Girl from Rio on afternoon TV under its alternate title, Future Women. It was on WDRB-TV 41 in Louisville, a scrappy independent station that was, for at least part of its lifespan, actually run out of someone’s garage studio. At a time when there were only three broadcast channels plus PBS (which, back then, was actually watchable thanks to their affection for 60s and 70s British spy and science fiction shows), having WDRB pop up was a real treat, especially for a kid like me. WDRB was more than willing to broadcast all sorts of weird stuff the majors wouldn’t touch, and it was thanks to them that I first saw Godzilla, kungfu movies, and a whole pile of Eurosleaze horror cinema.
My viewing of Zombie Lake was one of those events that lead you to question everything in your life that has lead up to it. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was a “where did I go wrong” moment, because many of the choices that brought me to it couldn’t in themselves be considered mistakes. Nonetheless, when you get to the point where you see watching Zombie Lake as some kind of solemn obligation, it’s a circumstance that bares some investigation. And I would be lying if I didn’t admit that, amidst all the questioning of how and why, I also found myself asking if there was not some way that all of this could have been avoided.
The phrase “Jess Franco at his worst” is something that should strike fear in the hearts of even the stoutest of cult film aficionados, to say nothing of the mainstream masses who go about their daily lives in blissful ignorance of the sundry celluloid abominations lurking in the dank, shadowy alleys of the cinematic landscape. Even at his best, Jess Franco manages to illicit negative reactions (to put it politely) to his work from the vast majority of viewers. And Jess Franco at his worst? The sane mind dare not even imagine what such a beast would look like! I, as has been stated elsewhere, am a fan of Jess Franco, and a pretty big fan at that. And as a fan of Franco, I recognize that often times the dank, shadowy alley leads to the secret door that opens up into a magical psychedelic jazz strip club decorated with garish pop art excess and populated by the bizarre and decadent fringes of lunatic society.
I freely admit that, for one not predisposed toward Franco’s peculiar predilections and directorial quirks, his films can be inaccessible and rather impenetrable — which I guess is my way of skirting around calling them boring and incompetent. As for myself, my appreciation of Franco and of the Franco aesthetic has grown over the years, aged like a fine wine, until I have reached the point where I positively adore his warped creations. If I could have any filmmaker’s career, I would most likely end up picking Jess Franco. If nothing else, imagine the sheer number of bizarre stories he must have amassed over the decades of his long career as a cult filmmaker on the fringe.
Franco himself probably could have picked the film career of any other filmmaker to be his own, but he eventually picked Jess Franco as well. He was not always the maverick nutjob over-indulging in his own obsessions. There was a time, however brief and long ago, that Franco flirted with mainstream acceptability and garnered praise and work from more established and well-respected members of the cinematic industry. But every time the choice was presented to him: play the game and be accepted or play by your own rules and remain on the fringe, Franco took the fringe route. You can chalk this up to whatever you want: dedication to a personal vision, artistic madness, or the inability to make a sound business decision. It’s probably all three, and then some. Whatever the case, Franco become a filmmaker so prolific and so committed to his own idiosyncrasies that at some point he may very well have stopped making movies in specific genres and became a genre unto himself.
If you know Jess Franco, then you know what I mean when I say “a Jess Franco film.” You know that there are tropes and themes that run through most all of his films regardless of whether they are horror, science fiction, espionage, sexploitation — all other labels applied to his films are secondary to that of “a Jess Franco film.” And at times, not only is Jess Franco a genre unto himself, but his films attain such lofty levels of bizarreness that they perhaps stop being movies at all and become some entirely new and incomprehensible type of art. Or maybe he’s just bad at what he does. Whatever the case, and probably because Franco and I seem to share a lot of common interests, fetishes, and obsessions, I have grown to look upon his body of work with considerable fondness and respect.
And I am not alone. As more and more of his films find their way to DVD in uncut and properly presented formats, Franco’s fanbase is growing. However, even among his fans, the jungle adventure Diamonds of Kilimandjaro (their spelling, not mine) gets very little love. Even those with a tremendous talent for digesting Franco seem to regard Diamonds of Kilimandjaro and it’s follow-up, Golden Temple Amazons, as among the very worst films Franco ever made. And while “Jess Franco at his worst” is more than enough to keep most people away (hell, “Jess Franco” alone is enough to keep most people away), that phrase is, in turn, more than enough to make me think, “Man, this I gotta see!”
So with my love of Franco in general established, let me further say that I also have a weakness for jungle adventure movies. Some of the earliest films I remember seeing were the old Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller, and between those and all the Poverty Row b-movie adventures about jungle goddesses that filled Matinee at the Bijou when I was a kid, plus a dollop of old pulp stories when I could find them, I knew that jungles were full of crocodile wrestling, hot chicks in loin cloths, lost treasure, ancient crumbling cities carved into the sides of cliffs, and oblivious British professor types in pith helmets explaining some anthropological point as they puff on a pipe and fail to realize that they are slowly sinking in quicksand. And men of adventure — men like me — would stride through those leafy quagmires with a machete in one hand, a colonial rifle in the other, and harvest glorious tales of adventure and romance. Yes sir, that was the life for me. And even though I’m in my thirties now, I still haven’t let go of the dream that one day I’ll be living that kind of life. The closest I can get is the jungle adventure film, all full of the good stuff I just mentioned, and usually even fuller of scenes consisting of the stars pointing at something off camera, followed by a cut to grainy stock footage of an elephant or a rhino or something.
So that brings us to Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, an old fashioned jungle adventure film as directed by Jess Franco and produced by Eurocine Studios in France. Man, for a guy like me, it just keeps getting better! Eurocine was infamous for being the production house that looked at the very cheapest, laziest, and sleaziest of European exploitation films and felt that they could do it even cheaper, lazier, and sleazier. In fact, “Cheaper, Lazier, and Sleazier” might have been their corporate mission statement, and as far as I can tell, they always lived up to it. You knew that with any Eurocine production, you were going to get a plot that had been written on the back of a used napkin five minutes before filming started. You knew you would get stars with no interest in acting in the movie. You knew you would get a director who was considered to be the worst by most people but was still working beneath himself when working for Eurocine. And perhaps most defining of all, you knew you were going to get a whole lot of nudity. I’ve always wanted to research and write two film books. One would be a history of exploitation filmmaking in Florida, when folks like David Friedman, HG Lewis, and Doris Wishman were running wild and setting gorillas loose in nudist colonies. The other would be a history of Eurocine, driven by personal anecdotes from the people who worked for and with them. It must have been insane, and any book on the subject would be a tome of ultra-cheap filmmaking techniques and hilarious personal accounts. Sounds like a job for Tim Lucas and Pete Toombs!
Among cult film fans, Eurocine’s best-known production is probably Zombie Lake, a film of staggering incompetence directed by one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, after another of my favorite directors (Jess Franco) turned it down because the movie was just too cheap and crappy. Too cheap and crappy for Jess Franco, huh? Truly, it boggles the mind. But Franco wouldn’t get through a lifetime career in exploitation films without doing some work for Eurocine. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro and Golden Temple Amazons were two of the movies Franco apparently didn’t think were as cheap and shoddy and ill-conceived as Zombie Lake. And while even Franco fans seem to hate both films, I have to admit that, well, just like Zombie Lake, I kinda like them. Actually, I more than kinda like them.
Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is basically the end product of someone at Eurocine getting stoned and proposing a movie probably with the description, “It’d be like Tarzan, but with tits!” And from what I can tell, that’s about as far as you had to go with concepts and pitches at Eurocine. All that’s left to do is call Jess Franco and tell him to have the film done in a week or two. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro begins with a plane crash, as all good Tarzan rip-offs do. The only survivors are a caricature of a Scotsman and his daughter, Diana, who grows up to be German sexploitation actress Katja Bienert. For some reason, the natives who find them decide to worship the Scotsman as a god, even though they already seem to know what white people are and thus shouldn’t really be so enraptured when one of them drops by wearing a knit cap and kilt. Years later, an expedition to the jungle results in an explorer running into Diana, who has an aversion to wearing tops — an affliction all women in this movie seem to have. When she frees him after the others want to put him to death for trying to take sacred diamonds from the jungle (actually, it’s a small chunk of amethyst), the explorer returns to civilization and reports to the dying matron Hermine (Lina Romay in heavy old-person make-up) that her daughter is still alive. Hermine then commissions an expedition to find the child and return her to civilized society.
So begins the adventures of one of the worst-equipped jungle expeditions of all time. Two of the guys (Albino Graziani as the dickish but ultimately moral Fred, and Antonio Mayans as the friendly but ultimately immoral Al) at least spring for proper jungle attire, or as proper as dungarees and t-shirts can be. But the other guy, Diana’s drunkard uncle or something, played by Olivier Mathot, shows up wearing his finest flared slacks and loafers. Still, that’s nothing compared to his wife, Lita (played by Mari Carmen Nieto, aka Ana Stern), who shows up for their jungle adventure wearing the same tank top, denim cut-off hot pants, and high-heeled, hot pink 1980s scrunchy boots that she would later wear in Jess Franco’s Mansion of the Living Dead. Seriously, someone needed to get this woman one of those old Banana Republic catalogs, from back when the catalogs were digest sized and printed on thick brown paper, and all the clothes were safari and adventure themed, with lots of tales about rum and gauchos and jungle expeditions thrown in for good measure. Lucky for all involved, Lita’s questionable taste in rain forest hiking attire will not be much of an issue, as she spends much of the movie naked.
In fact, if you are going to like Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, you are going to have to really like two things: naked women and random shots of jungle foliage, because that’s about all this movie is comprised of. In fact, they should have just titled it Tits and Foliage, because it’s not like I wouldn’t watch a movie called Tits and Foliage. In fact, I’d probably be more likely to watch Tits and Foliage than something called Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. Plus, the movie is full of tits and foliage, but there are no diamonds, and there is no Kilimandjaro. For like 89 minutes this is a movie about a group of dumb people trying to find a naked white chick in the jungle while a naked black chick in the jungle throws spears at them. And then in the last minute, some Scotsman in a hut stammers, “You are here to steal the treasure!” Huh? Treasure? What treasure? What the hell is anyone in this movie talking about?
If you asked me if I like this movie, the answer would be an enthusiastic “yes!” If you asked me why I liked this movie, I would sort of shuffle and mumble and get all awkward like a little kid who has just been asked what the teacher just said after being caught not paying attention. Certainly, there are very few, if any, artistic merits about Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. Most of the signature Jess Franco flourishes are absent. There’s no jazzy psychedelic score. There’s no ultra-cool pop art nightclub. There’s no interesting cinematography or direction. Jess pretty much sits the camera in the jungle (or a Spanish stand-in for a jungle) and lets stuff happen in front of it. If the movie is short on running time, no problem. He’ll just shoot fifteen seconds worth of random palm fronds and jungle scrub to pad things out. Still short on time? Might as well use some of that stock rhino footage Eurocine found lying around in a warehouse somewhere. It’s obvious that Franco was as bored making this movie as most people are watching it. And yet, I really like the movie. Is it the threadbare plot? Is it the bored acting? The listless direction? The plodding pace? I can’t say for sure, but something about this movie delighted me. I guess, Like I said before, I’m just a sucker for jungle movies, especially when they feature an adventurer in high-heeled, hot pink 1980s scrunchy boots.
Lead actress Katja Bienert has little to do beyond walk around the jungle naked. When she is given more than that to do — swinging from a vine, for example, the results are usually pretty good evidence for why she wasn’t given much to do beyond walking around the jungle naked. She sort of flails around on the vine for a second and is obviously about to fall right before Franco cuts away and dubs in a war cry that sounds more like, well, the sound you make when you are about to fall. I don’t think even Tarzan himself would have seemed as cool if his war cry had been, “Whoops!” Bienert looks good in a loin cloth, of course, and she worked with Franco a number of times before and after this film, including Eugenie, Lillian the Perverted Virgin, and one I absolutely must see, Linda — aka Naked Super Witches of the Rio Amore. In fact, as late as 2002, she was still working with Franco, appearing in Killer Barbys vs. Dracula, as well as doing a fair amount of work on German television shows. As you might guess from the titles that make up the body of her work, she hasn’t exactly achieved an air of respectability, but then, neither has Teleport City, and I’d probably be much happier hanging out with Katja Bienert than I would with Meryl Streep or the Dali Lama. Sorry, Your Holiness, but I’m bailing on you to hang out with a German sex film star, because that’s the kind of awesome guy I am. Katja spends the bulk of Diamonds of Kilimandjaro looking vaguely confused and amused, which is nice because that’s how I spent the bulk of Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, too.
Albino Graziani is another Franco regular. In fact, I don’t think he ever worked with anyone but Franco. He stars here as Fred, vying for Alpha Male status on the expedition with the less boisterous Antonio Mayans. But while Fred spends all his time carrying around a gun and shouting, Mayans is busy laying every female he sees, including Lita and, eventually, Diana herself. If there’s anything close to a complex character in this film — and there really isn’t, to be honest — it’s Fred, who reacts with disgust when he learns that there is more to this expedition than he was initially told. It turns out that Lita and boozy uncle whatever his name was are intent on making sure Diana never returns to civilization, lest they lose out on their inheritance. Al himself eventually has a crisis of conscience as well but ultimately sacrifices principal in order to steal the diamonds that are actually amethyst. Pretty much all of his character development takes place in the span of thirty seconds, which is convenient if you lead an active lifestyle and don’t have a lot of time to spend watching some dude with a beard discover himself and ultimately succumb to temptation and greed.
Actually, one of my favorite things about the Eurocine films I’ve seen is that they all try to throw in some deep, important message amid all the gratuitous scenes of naked jungle chicks and skinny dippers. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro has the moral conflict between Fred and Al. It has the moral conflict between the primitive and civilized. It has the moral conflict over whether it is right to take Diana from the jungle if she does not want to leave — would she even know if she wanted to leave? And it throws in an angry, frighteningly hot black chick (Aline Mess, also in the jungle adventure Devil Hunter with Al Cliver and possessed of the most alluring bloodthirsty snarl I’ve seen in a while) who knows these white fools are no gods and have only come to plunder her land. Mess seems to relish her role, and if there’s anyone to watch this movie for, it’s her. She spends the entire thing running naked through the jungle, beheading obnoxious jackasses with unbridled glee, doing sexy ritual dances, and throwing spears at irritating people. You could be offended by the stereotypical portrayal of blacks as primitive and superstitious, but I look at her behavior and think, “Man, what’s not to love about this girl?” Plus, she’s like the only one who isn’t falling for the “white man from sky is god!” shtick.
Oh, and there’s the moral trickiness of a father who hangs out with his naked daughter in the jungle all day, but the film seems unconcerned with that one. It is European, after all. But the script, penned by Franco and Olivier Mathot in a writing session that probably lasted twenty minutes, crams all these “big ideas” in with no real thought. Not that Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is deep or meaningful in any way. Hell, I’m like one of maybe three people in the entire world who love this film, and even I wouldn’t try to sell that claim. It’s like something I would have written when I was twelve and all hopped up on jungle adventure movies and copies of Penthouse than my friend’s dad had hidden in their utility closet.
Franco at his worst? I don’t really think so. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is certainly not Franco at his best, but I really thought this goofy mess of a film was kind of fun. I can’t justify it, and don’t feel like I even need to. I certainly wouldn’t promise you that you will like it as much as I did. But I did like Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. It really is a throwback to old style adventure films, only without much adventure and with more nudity. It has nothing to do with the better known Italian jungle films of the 80s, all of which were gory, serious cannibal movies. Compared to those, and even with the near-constant gratuitous nudity, Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is sort of this dumb, innocent old-fashioned movie. It has a charm for me I can neither explain nor deny. It’s pure, idiotic cheesecake, and then it attempts to cram complex thematic elements in between the scenes of Ana Stern skinny dipping and Ana Stern getting laid and Ana Stern wearing her high-heeled, hot pink 1980s scrunchy boots, and Katja Bienert topless and falling out of trees. I admire that.
Release Year: 1983 | Country: France/Spain/maybe Germany | Starring: Katja Bienert, Antonio Mayans, Aline Mess, Albino Graziani, Javier Maiza, Olivier Mathot, Ana Stern, Daniel White, Lina Romay | Screenplay: Jess Franco, Olivier Mathot | Director: Jess Franco | Cinematographer: Jess Franco | Music: Jess Franco and Daniel White | Original Title: El Tesoro de la Diosa Blanca
While many fans of B-movie and cult film tend to center their discussion of Franco on his horror and sexploitation (though one could argue that all his films fall into this latter category) output, I tend to be more familiar with his action and espionage films– and keep in mind that, when discussing Jess Franco, the term “action” is used in an extremely loose fashion by which “action” can be defined as people sitting in a nightclub watching a psychedelic performance art striptease, or it can mean two people standing silently and staring at a rug for a spell. But the reason I like looking at Franco’s non-horror films is that, within the realm of horror, and certainly within the more narrowly defined realm of European horror, there is already a lot of incompetence and weirdness and a tendency to abandon logic.