Like the STAR TREK movies or James Bond, the films of Jess Franco can only really be measured against themselves in terms of quality, his world of cinema being the kind of unique place where you know within about ten minutes whether it's your sort of thing or not.
MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD is middle-grade Franco. Not as fascinating as SUCCUBUS or LORNA THE EXORCIST, but nowhere near as dull, meandering or incompetent as his worst stuff. For a Franco film there’s a surprisingly straightforward plot, even if it is told in Franco’s rather oblique style.
Hundreds of years ago the Spanish Inquisition had a headquarters on Grand Canaria. One of the atrocities they committed was to stake and burn a young woman, who cursed them with living death until one of their number could find true love with her reincarnated form.
Now that’s not a bad backstory as far as these things go. Unfortunately, in MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD, none of this is revealed until close to the end of its sometimes ponderous 89 minutes. Up until then it’s Mr Franco on a bit of auto-pilot and goes something like this:
Four topless waitresses arrive at a hotel in Grand Canaria in search of sun, sea and sex. Despite the hotel looking as if it could cater to at least three hundred people, there is no-one else there apart from hotel manager Carlo (Robert Foster). The girls think nothing of this and set off to their shared rooms to indulge in the usual sort of sapphic softcore groping that those familiar with Mr Franco’s work will either fast forward through or will have fast forwarded to get to (I dread to think who those people might actually be). The only other man on the island appears to be loony Marleno who spends his time singing and sitting on a strategically-placed dustbin on the beach.
One of the girls goes for a walk and wanders into a nearby abbey. We hear her screams and that’s the end of her. Meanwhile Mabel (Mabel Escano) goes for a bit of nude corridor wandering and bumps into Carlo, who promises he’ll meet up with her tomorrow but now he has to ‘go and feed someone’. The someone turns out to be a naked lady he has chained to a wall in one of the hotel’s rooms in a decidedly kinky subplot that also surprisingly, and unexpectedly, permits a bit of relevant backstory. Mabel ends up wandering into the abbey and is set upon by undead monks sporting either rubbish skull masks or Halloween-style makeup. She is sentenced to death, and this being a Franco film that means having her clothes torn off and being repeatedly raped in the kind of tasteless scene that again hopefully the viewer with taste will be fast forwarding through (if any Franco fans can be described as such). Lina Romay, playing Candy, turns out to be the reincarnated girl and Carlo is the undead monk who is supposed to fall in love with her. She kisses him, peels his face off and he falls over and turns to dust (I think - there obviously wasn’t the effects budget to show this and that’s hardly surprising seeing as there doesn’t seem to have been a budget for clothes for any of the actresses either considering the amount of nudity in this film). Lina runs away and the film ends.
As I’ve said above, MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD isn’t terrible Franco. Anyone unfamiliar with his work will of course think it’s simply dreadful, and they should be advised to steer clear. For the Franco fan, however, there are a few items of interest. Franco’s eye for filming architecture serves him well in getting the most out of his off-season hotel setting, with creepy empty corridors and lots of shots of the exteriors that manage to evoke that otherworldly weirdness that seems to come effortlessly to him. The few cast members are doubtless a result of budgetary reasons, but there is a genuine sense of loneliness in this film which, coupled with a revisiting of Franco's themes of obsessive love and necrophilia that he explored more enticingly and enigmatically in works like SUCCUBUS (1967) means it’s not a complete waste of time. But as I've already hopefully spelled out - if you’re not that familiar with the man’s work, this is one occasion when I would advise you to stay well away.