“It’s like an old horror film.”
It’s a good idea to temper expectations going into any Jess Franco film, but it’s particularly the case with his post-1980 output. Always eclectic and technically erratic, Franco’s filmography is what Troy Howarth calls a “landmine of confusion,” and his late-career record is a bewildering succession of features, comprising some of his very best (1981’s Bloody Moon) and the dregs of his very worst (the dreadfully irredeemable Red Silk, from 1999). Frequently helmed under a roster of pseudonyms and released with a range of alternate titles, Franco’s body of work is a mishmash of styles, genres, storylines, and degrees of provocative content, and the quality of the resulting diorama extends from the wholly entertaining to the absolutely abhorrent. New on Blu-ray from the Redemption label, Franco’s 1996 comedic-rock-horror rarity Killer Barbys is one of those films that fall happily toward the positive end of this spectrum.
Coming in at around number 170 in the Franco catalogue, Killer Barbys (AKA Vampire Killer Barbys) begins with a foggy, diffused nocturnal prelude, teasing a decrepit female personage beneath a frosting of kitschy decaying makeup, and featuring some unfortunate soul who has his throat slit and ear lobbed off by a raving psychopath (a psychopath who, in turn, delivers the appendage to his “children,” two diminutive accomplices that may or may not be his actual offspring). The film then transitions to a concert by the eponymous Spanish rock band actually known as the Killer Barbies (though their real name remains in the picture, Mattel had a thing or two to say about the name of the movie itself). The group consists of the film’s eye-catching cover girl, lead singer Silvia Superstar, appearing as Flavia, and her boyfriend, Rafa, played by Carlos Subterfuge, along with Mario (Charles S. Chaplin—believe it or not, the grandson of the famed comedian), Billy (Billy King), and Sharon (Angie Barea). They perform a riotous number called “Killer Love,” a gnashing song of death and murder and love, an anthem to the sexualized violence and violent sexuality that will comprise Franco’s tawdry tale to come (as it has so often in the past).
Following the show, the rowdy and randy punky bunch hop aboard their Mystery Machine to set off for their next gig. Soon, however, the van breaks down in a murky forest, a suddenly gothic realm out of time and place from the film’s preceding milieu. Silvia and company are greeted by an ominous figure emerging from the darkness. Arkan, played by Aldo Sambrell, a menacing actor of minor Spaghetti Western fame, is the prowling caretaker at a nearby castle, governed by the Countess von Fledermaus (Mariangela Giordano). One-hundred years young, the countess requires the lifeblood of youth to regain her beauty and vitality, and at age 59, Giordano, a screen veteran with credits in everything from post-war Italian cinema to hardcore porn, plays the alluring matron without qualification. Hers is the film’s only performance of note.
In his excellent, conversant, and enthusiastic commentary, Howarth suggests that with its opening hallmarks of “howling wolves, a full moon, and a creepy castle,” Killer Barbys takes initial shape as a classic horror send-up, “or so it seems anyway.” Perhaps overcompensating for his limited means (though production values here appear much higher than some of his adjacent fare), Franco gets a bit carried away with the fabricated atmosphere: the excessively misty, soft-light sheen that envelopes the scenery and seeps into the stone manor; the sets littered with conventionally spooky décor; and lights and shadows cast upon an exotic, though distinctly synthetic, backdrop. Sometimes, though, this graphically forged union works in the film’s favor, as in a blood-splattered chamber of horrors where props and dummies adorn an effectively realized display of the corpse-draining procedure so vital to the countess’ livelihood.
Once the bandmates have been either cordoned off in the castle or marooned on its periphery, Killer Barbys proceeds with no substantial development, essentially unfolding like a cartoonish series of events (there are obvious—apparently unintentional—Scooby-Doo allusions, Flavia wears a Spider-Man T-shirt, and a song at the end of the picture self-consciously references a comic book). The inevitable violence is slapsticky and crude, and though occasionally gory, it appears more sensational than sickening. And it’s usually too ridiculous to ever be upsetting. When Balthasar (Santiago Segura), the maniac from the beginning, chases down a nude Sharon as she dashes through the woods (she and Billy had been lasciviously engaged for most of the movie to this point), he gleefully declares, “Someone’s not horny anymore!” Franco seems to be having a good deal of fun with the absurdities of Killer Barbys, and he doesn’t seem overly concerned with any semblance of discerning judgement or firm verisimilitude (never his forte to begin with).
Howarth’s commentary places Killer Barbys in the context of horror film history, connecting dots from Universal horror of the 1930s to Mario Bava to the 1980s American slasher strain, but he also situates the film as a sampling of familiar Franco tropes. If these are abundant, a large part of that has to do with recurrent Franco collaborators, including Daniel White, who provides the score, and cinematographer Javier Pérez Zofio, who also shot one of Franco’s finest, Justine, from 1969. More than anyone, Zofio’s efforts stand out on Killer Barbys, where the imagery is an appealing mélange of luminosity and color (a candlelit seduction/murder scene; Balthasar sharpening his scythe as orange-yellow sparks cascade against the deep blue night). Finally, editing under the handle Rosa M. Almirall (a variation of her real name), Franco muse and partner Lina Romay manages to reign in the director’s penchant for extraneous drifting and dawdling.
Killer Barbys is never really scary and it’s never really suspenseful. But it’s also never really boring. Absurd and garish, it’s a satisfying Jess Franco film, especially for the Franco-initiated, those who are willing to grant the unconventional auteur more lenience than they would otherwise. It might even be enough to rouse one’s curiosity concerning Killer Barbys’ 2003 sequel, the enticing Killer Barbys vs. Dracula. Or maybe not.