Jesus Franco is the kind of filmmaker its impossible to be neutral about. To some he's simply a bad filmmaker whose enthusiasm for the medium outstrips his talents, resulting in a massive but largely unwatchable filmography dominated by fusions of the horrific, the erotic and the downright pornographic. To others – myself included – he's a genuine maverick who could make more mainstream movies if he wanted to, but chose instead to follow the beat of a different drummer. (One of Franco's many pseudonyms is Dave Tough, after an obscure jazz drummer.)

Born in the 1930s in Spain – biographies suggest anywhere from 1930 to 1936 – Franco made his feature debut while still in his twenties with the zany comedy We Are 18 Years Old, a film somewhat reminiscent of the contemporaneous French new-wave in its style and attitude – a Zazie Dans Le Metro sans the recognition, as it were.

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After confirming his talent and versatility with a couple of musicals among others, Vamps of 1930 and Queen Of The Tabarin, Franco then found his true calling in the early 1960s with the seminal The Awful Dr Orloff, a jazz-scored, pulp-art face-transplant horror warranting the serious attention of anyone familiar with Franju's better known high-low surrealist masterpiece Eyes Without A Face or who is interested in the emergence of a distinctively European horror cinema that put sex in the foreground rather than shied away it.

Continuing to work at a furious pace through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, Franco moved from producer to producer and country to country, following popular cycles and trends while also giving his films an unmistakeable authorial stamp through the presence of certain key scenarios, figures and motifs that appear time and again to create a dense web of intertextual references to further intrigue the congnoscenti and confound the majority.

This said, Devil Hunter and to the soon to be released Bloody Moon are relatively impersonal films and, as such, more accessible to the newcomer. The other point they have in common – and share with one of Franco's many women in prison entries, Women Behind Bars, is that they were both once banned in the UK as "video nasties".

If this may seem incredible to today's Saw and Hostel audiences, who will probably regard the films as examples of a more innocent age, it is also a reminder of just how crazy things were 25 years ago when even The Big Red One and The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas were 'taken in for questioning' over their suggestive title and advertising ("this much fun couldn't be legal") respectively.

Devil Hunter opens with some cross-cutting juxtapositions to establish many of the familiar themes and binary oppositions of the cannibal film: jungle and the urban jungle, primitive and civilised, black and white; if the appeal to structuralism seems misplaced, remember that the cannibal genre and its mondo predecessor have quasi-anthropological and ethnological origins, as Claude Levi-Strauss or Jean Rouch for the masses.

These two seemingly disparate worlds soon intersect as a criminal gang, headed by the ever-sleazy Werner Pochath, kidnaps visiting starlet, Laura Crawford, as deliciously incarnated by Playmate Ursula Fellner in what we can reasonably assume was not too much of a challenge for one of her physical rather than thespian talents. Foolishly they drag her off into the cannibal-infested wilderness...

Fearing for the loss of his investment, the starlet's manager hires Al Cliver's Vietnam-veteran mercenary adventurer Peter Weston to go get the girl out alive; fans of Euro horror will here note that the Weston name suspiciously echoes that of Cliver's co-star Ian McCulloch's character in one of the key films of the closely-related zombie sub-genre of the time, into which Franco and Eurocine would also inevitably venture with the likes of Oasis Of The Zombies and Zombie Lake.

One other staple of the cannibal film, animal slaughter, is, however, conspicuous by its absence. Teasing out whom to attribute this merciful omission to, the producers emerge as the more likely candidate. Franco had not shied away from the odd spot of random animal cruelty in films like Bloody Moon or Exorcism, where a snake and a bird respectively made their ultimate sacrifices in the name of his art, whereas Cannibal Terror also distinguished itself in keeping things strictly within the bounds of essentially consensual human-on-human violence.

Everything else is present and correct, with copious nudity from both the tribespeople and Fellner; dancing, rites and other practices of intentionally dubious inauthenticity; a touch of flesh eating, and lots of more or less aimless trekking through the jungles.

While running considerably longer than previously extant and accessible versions – according to the IMDB the previous runtime was 92 minutes – the new footage in this integral version leads to more of an extended remix that gives us a bit more of what was already there rather than a radically different film, as can often be the case in Franco's notoriously tangled filmography.

The remix idea refers in part to Franco's extensive use of the zoom and actual repeated use of certain shots, such as the natives corybantic ecstasies, but also applies to one of Devil Hunter's more outstanding features, which I didn't remember from a previous viewing. This is the score by Franco and his long-time musical associate Daniel White, a reverb-heavy slice of music concrete style soundscape experimentation that at times recalls Bruno Nicolai's equally impressive work on Virgin Amongst The Living Dead.

Another point of note is the way Franco represents the natives' bug-eyed cannibal god/monster, the Devil of the title. Not only does he show the creature's point of view through a hazy subjective camera but also deploys the same technique when we are positioned with one of his victims. While the cynic might easily see this as yet another sign that Franco is an inept filmmaker whose enthusiasm far exceeds his abilities, as an expression of the figure's inhuman power it provides a justification/rationale to Franco's otherwise bizarre seeming assertion that his film influenced Predator.

In terms of the film's own inspirations, meanwhile, the most likely candidate emerges as Sergio Martino's Mountain Of The Cannibal God, insofar as it is also a relatively light and straightforward adventure piece. The survivalist and atrocity exhibition themes of Ruggero Deodato's Last Cannibal World and Cannibal Holocaust are less evident, while the ever-present sense of irony precludes the more simplistic unpleasantness found in Umberto Lenzi's Eaten Alive and Cannibal Ferox and, arguably, the racism endemic within the cycle as a whole.

Irony seems to have been something somewhat lost on Fellner, however. A regular feature in a number of Franco's films and similar low-budget exploitation fare around this time, she later repudiated her involvement in them, explaining that she was young, foolish and misled by her managers.

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2008
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Devil Hunter packshot
A starlet is kidnapped and taken into a cannibal-infested jungle.
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Director: Jesus Franco

Writer: Julián Esteban, Julián Esteban, Jesus Franco

Starring: Ursula Buchfellner, Al Cliver, Antonio Mayans, Antonio de Cabo, Burt Altman, Gisela Hahn, Muriel Montossé, Werner Pochath, Melo Costa, Aline Mess

Year: 1980

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Spain, France, West Germany


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