Killer Barbys (1996/2001) -*½
There are some things that it just plain isn’t healthy to wonder about. Is antifreeze as tasty as it looks? Are badgers really as cuddly as they appear to be? What has Jesus Franco been up to lately? As you’ve doubtless gathered already, that last question is one which I took it upon myself to answer this weekend. Truly there are some things man was not meant to know.
Let us be clear, to begin with, on the point of this movie’s title. Killer Barbys (spelled that way to deflect a lawsuit from Mattel) is not another deadly doll movie, and it certainly isn’t the Troma-like travesty that its title would seem to imply. No, Killer Barbys is a travesty of another sort altogether, and it takes its name from the band that comprises the main body of its central characters. The Killer Barbies (who apparently have no fear of lawsuits themselves) are indeed a real Spanish mall-punk band— their sound is somewhere between a sleazier, more rocking No Doubt and every two-bit unsigned act that ever played at the Bronze on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” For some reason, Franco got it into his head that what the world really needed was a sex-and-gore counterpart to A Hard Day’s Night, with these guys standing in for the Beatles.
There is some indication, however, that we’re supposed to draw a distinction in our minds between the Killer Barbies and the Killer Barbys, and that the band aren’t quite meant to be playing themselves. For one thing, only the drummer, Billy King, goes by his “real” name here. (When you habitually go around calling yourselves Silvia Superstar and Carlos Subterfuge, “real” obviously needs all the quotation marks it can get.) For another, the band in the movie has an extraneous member named Sharon (Angie Barea), whose main purpose seems to be dancing at the edge of the stage in the skimpiest practicable costume, and Mario the bass player is not the Killer Barbies’ bassist in real life. (Rather, he’s Charlie S. Chaplin, grandson of the Charlie Chaplin without the S in the middle, and if there really is an afterlife, I’m going to have to ask the old man what he makes of this unexpected wrinkle to the family legacy when I get there.)
Anyway, because this is both a Jesus Franco movie and a movie about a rock band, there’s really only one way it can possibly start— with a notionally ominous prologue followed immediately by a nightclub scene. The prologue has a young man whose identity we never will learn being chased around the grounds of a huge old castle by the stylishly sinister Arkan (Aldo Sanbrell, from Beaks: The Movie and Country Nurse) and his groundskeeper, Baltasar (Santiago Segura, of Acción Mutante and Blade II). After catching the man and slitting his throat, Arkan goes up into the castle, where he has a short conversation with the marginally animate corpse of a woman. Cut then to the nightclub, where the Killer Barbys are in the midst of a performance. We hear for the first time a couple of the songs that will follow us relentlessly throughout the rest of the film (“Killer Love” will be particularly ubiquitous), and then witness the band getting stiffed by the show promoter (now that’s what I call authenticity!) before packing their shit for the long haul to the next stop on the tour. Most of them will never make it there. About three quarters of the way through a 300-kilometer drive which unfolds in something perilously close to real time (and during which the band listen continuously to their own music on the van’s stereo— so much for authenticity…), the Killer Barbys run off the highway while attempting to dodge the steamroller that somebody carelessly left sitting in the middle of the road, and get themselves stuck in an extremely deep pothole in the shoulder.
Inevitably, the band have their wee-hours breakdown right down the street from the castle, and Arkan soon arrives on the scene to offer his assistance. He claims that it will not be possible to summon a tow truck until the following morning, but offers the Killer Barbys the hospitality of his mistress, the Countess von Fledermaus. Something tells me he’s referring to that talking stiff up in the bedroom. Singer Flavia (Silvia Superstar, who also appears in Cannibal Massacre under the name Silvia Pintos), bassist Mario, and guitarist Rafa (Carlos Subterfuge, who has another Franco credit on his resume, too— Lust for Frankenstein) all take Arkan up on the offer; Billy and Sharon would rather stay out in the van and continue the marathon fucking that began the moment the other three band members left the cabin to investigate the mired wheel.
Plot is in exceedingly short supply for the rest of the running time. To distill everything down to the point at which it will make some kind of sense, it turns out that the Countess von Fledermaus claims the title by marriage only. She was formerly a movie actress of the silent era by the name of Olga Luchan (Mariangela Giordano, from Burial Ground and The Sect), who married the last count of the von Fledermaus line sometime in the 1920’s. The count was a black magician, and imparted to Olga the secret of eternal life: drink the heartblood of the young, and you’ll never die— although you will start to decompose after a while if you have to go without fresh blood for any length of time. All of which leads me to ask, if the count was so big-shit smart with his black magic and his secret to eternal life, then how come he’s been dead for fucking decades?!?! Regardless, his wife has kept herself in circulation by engaging the services of Arkan, Baltasar, and a couple of insane midgets (Pepa López and Alberto Martínez) to waylay any young people who come within striking distance of the castle, and the Killer Barbys have just fallen into the trap. Billy and Sharon are the first to get it, naturally, seized in mid-screw by Arkan and Baltasar. Their blood is enough to restore the countess to her youth (a plot point which would have been a tad more convincing if Mariangela Giordano hadn’t been 59 years old in 1996), and she puts in an appearance downstairs for just long enough to seduce Rafa away from Flavia. The outmaneuvered singer sulks with Mario until she has a nightmare which leaves her with the feeling that something terrible is happening to her boyfriend up in the countess’s bedchamber. Subsequent investigation leads to the discovery of the castle’s secrets, and Killer Barbys eventually becomes probably the only movie I’ve ever seen in which one of the villains dies beneath the wheels of a steamroller.
If there’s one feature that has distinguished Jesus Franco’s work throughout his lengthy career (apart from naked chicks and nightclub scenes, I mean), it would have to be his longstanding inability to stick with an interesting idea for long enough to get the full value out of it. In that respect, at least, Killer Barbys is a worthy continuation of the line, even if it is lamentably light on most of the things that make me enjoy the director’s output from the 60’s and 70’s to the unseemly extent that I do. A filmmaker with an attention span could do a lot with a story about a punk rock band facing off against an immortal, blood-drinking succubus, but in Killer Barbys, all that potential runs aground on Franco’s neurotic need to finish a project in the shortest possible time so as to prevent himself from losing interest. I strongly doubt that even a single rewrite was performed on the script, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to learn that Killer Barbys had been ad-libbed directly from a plot outline— it’s that underdeveloped. If all the footage of empty corridors and rolling fog were removed, the movie would come out substantially shorter, and the excision of scenes in which the characters just sit around doing things that have no connection at all to the story would pare the running time down to something under an hour. That air of rushed carelessness infects the technical aspects of the movie, too. The sound editing is the sloppiest I’ve ever encountered; not only is the English-language dubbing even worse than that in Gamera vs. Guiron, the sound effects are almost never in synch with the action onscreen, and the background music is full of obvious skips and stutters.
What makes the manifold missteps so frustrating is that the movie keeps almost rising above them, but then Franco apparently decides that it isn’t worth the effort, and moves on to something else. For one thing, Franco evidently isn’t doing his own cinematography anymore (the credits were in Spanish, so I’m not entirely sure about that, but how else would you explain the absence of the infamous Franco Zoom?), and whoever was running the camera here has a much better eye for composition than Franco has displayed at any point since the early 1960’s. Longtime collaborator Lina Romay, meanwhile, turns out to be a much better film editor than Franco himself ever was, and she manages to keep Killer Barbys from becoming quite as boring as it deserves to be. Finally, there were a number of times at which I found myself thinking, “Hey— that’s a neat idea!” before the film wandered off to do not a damn thing with whatever flash of inspiration had caught my attention. The most striking example of this is the casting of Mariangela Giordano as Olga Luchan. The character is written (to the extent that anything in this film can be described as being written) as a deadly, ageless seductress, and Giordano makes for an interesting approach to the type. To begin with, she certainly has experience. She got her start as eye candy in 50’s Italian war movies before moving on to the sword-and-sandal and Spaghetti Western scenes in the 1960’s. Then in the 70’s, she turned to period smut and horror-porn, appearing in several of the Decameron films and even dabbling in hardcore (Malabimba, for example) at the turn of the 80’s. She’s seen and done it all, and a bit of that shows through in her performance here. But beyond that, a more thoughtful director than Franco could have made much of her physical appearance. She’s in astonishingly good shape, with the body of a woman less than half her age (and it doesn’t look like the work of a plastic surgeon, either), but at the same time, her face, hands, and feet show every one of her 59 years. She would be absolutely perfect for the sort of decadent, diseased, unnaturally preserved sensuality that the role seems to call for. The trouble is, Franco doesn’t play it that way. Instead, he essentially asks us to believe that the countess really does look 25 when she comes out of her room to put the moves on Rafa, and it doesn’t work at all. Franco has in his grasp a tailor-made opportunity to do something really daring, and he just tosses it aside in favor of the hackneyed and the obvious, to which the materials at hand are not nearly so well suited. It’s enough to make you want to scream.