To say that Spanish director Jess Franco’s filmography is daunting is an understatement. With over 200 directing credits and nearly the same as a writer, he was a cinematic shark who always kept moving, from the early ’60s until his death in 2013. Often making up to five or six films a year, Franco remade, recut, and redefined certain pictures for certain markets, tailoring material to fit the needs at the time. (I’m not a scholar, but I’m guessing there’s a lot of overlap in his IMDb credits.) At least for one project, the cutting stops with Severin Films’ terrific release of The Sadist of Notre Dame (1979), an interesting character study in depravity, sin, and redemption that Franco considered his most personal film.
Sadist started out as Exorcism (’75), the age-old tale of a defrocked priest (Franco) stalking and killing a group of swingers in Paris who stage mock satanic rituals in between orgies. However, before he remade Exorcism, he re-edited, shot, and inserted (I’m sorry) several hardcore sex scenes and came up with Sexorcism, which is precisely as it sounds. Franco himself and long-time girlfriend Lina Romay (Oasis of the Zombies) participate in the new footage, lest one was unconvinced of Franco’s dedication to his craft. Following the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in ’75, our Franco moved back to his beloved Spain, which had loosened the reins on cultural displays of sexuality. But he still had strong ties with France, and set out to redo Exorcism more in line with his original vision.
However, instead of amping up the exploitation, the new scenes are for the most part contemplative, and present his protagonist, Mathis Vogel, in a more sympathetic light (Franco is quite effective in the role). In fact, the film opens with new footage as Vogel walks around the early morning back streets of Paris, amongst the saddened derelicts and winos, deep in thought. It’s an interesting way to start what is essentially an exploitation picture, adding gravitas to a character before anything even happens; it isn’t too long, though, before we see Vogel in action, offing “sinners” with a knife while simultaneously being aroused in their company. It is a shop-worn conceit, to be sure, but by opening with his contemplative stroll, it peels away a layer of B-level plotting so Franco can at least try to imbue some sympathy (if not empathy) for the character.
This is of course nearly impossible to accomplish when the plot remains straightjacketed to Exorcism’s—stalking and killing is still the through line—but with the new, quieter moments and confessional conversations with a priest (Antonio de Cabo – Devil Hunter) at the Notre Dame de Paris, perhaps Franco was searching for and found a little redemption for himself.
Dumped to video way back in the day as Demoniac, The Sadist of Notre Dame has been lovingly restored by Severin Films, scanned in “4K from elements discovered in the crawlspace of a Montparnasse nunnery,” which is remarkable unto itself in the way it just seems so Franco. The results are illuminating, with the cleaned-up image at once showcasing the beauty of Paris while highlighting the disparity between the original and newer footage (which is great for students of film and those curious about his techniques).
Severin is never stingy with Special Features, and The Sadist of Notre Dame has several that offer a deeper look at the man and the era of his most well-known work:
While the latter two features offer fascinating glimpses of Franco in relation to Sadist, the first two have the chance to stretch out and go in depth not only on this film, but in the case of Le Brady, the whole exploitation cinema scene of Paris through the prism of the legendary theatre. Thrower, as he did on the Threads Blu-ray special features, delivers fascinating insight into the many permeations of the film, from conception to completion, including Franco’s own thoughts relayed by Thrower through their various conversations. Combined, these features shine a light on a unique and driven artist often dismissed by the sheer volume of his work alone. Even better than that, a company like Severin Films can temper the noise long enough for the art to ring true.
Movie Score: 3.5/5, Disc Score: 4/5