Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Devil Came from Akasava (1971)

AKADer Teufel kam aus Akasava
Director: Jess Franco
Starring: Fred Williams, Soledad Miranda, Horst Tappert

Jess Franco is a looming monolith that casts a long shadow over the cinematic landscape, a monolith constructed purely out of sheer force of volume. This Spanish-born director, who has worked in Spain as well as Italy, France, Germany, and on occasion, the United States, made roughly seventy-three million films. If you break down the cinema of the world based on number of productions per nation, Jess Franco alone qualifies as a sovereign film-producing state. Like any good European cult film director, Franco has worked in every genre conceivable, and perhaps more than a few you of which you wouldn't want any conception whatsoever. There's really no effective way to describe Jess Franco to the uninitiated. He is something they will simply have to discover on their own, in small bits and pieces, perhaps completely unaware of the fact that they are learning things about Jess Franco, until the day they wake up and realize they understand him, though they may not like him, and they certainly won't be able to articulate their comprehension to others. If anyone tries to puzzle you with one of those Zen koans, your reply should be to simply show them a Jess Franco film.

Coming out in 1971, The Devil Came from Akasava (which is based on a story by mystery writer Edgar Wallace) was a bit late to jump the Eurospy bandwagon of the 1960s, which Franco had previously entered with his thoroughly ridiculous and highly entertaining Danger! Death Ray. Still, when a movie is this utterly strange, we can forgive it showing up to the dance a little late, especially since it shows up looking like Soledad Miranda clad in silver boots and a see-through black tunic.

Our action, if you want to call it that, begins in the fictional country of Akasava, where a geologist discovers the fabled Philosopher's Stone that can turn any metal into gold. The only problem with the stone is that exposure to it causes one's face to fry. Oh, and it also turns you into a zombie. So, right away, we're going to have zombies, spies, and Soledad Miranda striptease performance art? I guess you can see why Franco has his admirers. No sooner has the geologist found the stone than he is getting shot at. He manages to deliver the stone to Doctor Thorrsen (German cult movie mainstay Horst Tappert, who would work with Franco on a regular basis during the 1970s), but it isn't long before someone show sup to off the assistant geologist and steal the stone. Then Thorrsen himself mysteriously vanishes while, at the same time, back in London, a mysterious man is lurking behind the curtains in Thorrsen's office, just long enough to kill a man sneaking in to try and crack a safe. How's that for intrigue?

It's enough to get sexy British intelligence agent Soledad Miranda assigned to the case, and like any good female operative, she ascertains that the best way to approach the case would be to travel to Akasava and immediately get a job as a stripper in one of those arty, weirdly-lit strip-jazz clubs that only exist in Jess Franco films yet exist in every Jess Franco film. Here is the first, most noticeable, and most enjoyable of Franco's reoccurring obsessions. It kills the man to go ten minutes without inserting a performance art striptease at a jazz club full of swirling lights and candy colors. He should have made a Bollywood film, because he shares the same affection for cutting to the musical number and the hot dancing girl, regardless of whether or not it has anything at all to do with the scene before or after it, or with the movie in general. Though these scenes were often gratuitous asides, it's obvious that Franco (himself an avid jazz fan and musician) adores them. They are shot and choreographed beautifully, and Franco's taste in groovy sixties cocktail lounge jazz is impeccable. I've certainly had worse times at the movies than watching Soledad Miranda dance (if you want to call it that; it's more a series of stylized poses -- "voguing," I suppose) while breezy lounge music from some of Europe's most accomplished composers of swanky bachelor pad music go wild.

Miranda teams up with Fred Williams as Rex Forrester, a detective from Scotland Yard, who all things considered, seem a little out of their jurisdiction operating in a fictional African nation, but jurisdictional squabbles are really the least of anyone's concerns in a movie with magic stones, Lugers, zombies, and avant-garde jazz-strip clubs. Together, at a very languid and meandering pace, they get around in one way or another of working on the case at hand, tracking down Thorrsen and recovering the stone.

Like most Franco films, The Devil Came from Akasava walks to its own idiosyncratic beat, and it takes its sweet time getting anywhere, allowing Franco to linger on whatever catches his fancy. Luckily, more times than not, that's Soledad Miranda. Franco populates his film with a cast of experienced B-movie actors, all of whom turn in exactly the performance you expect from a band of such professionals -- which is to say, some are good, and some are just weird. Besides, Soledad, the real star of the film is the zoom lens, which Franco employs with almost gleeful abandon, zooming slowly, zooming rapidly, on any and every thing that happens to catch he camera's eye. It gets disorienting after a while, as the mere act of walking down a hallway seems to justify Franco zooming in and out. The end result is that a rather run-of-the-mill trashy James Bond knock-off like The Devil Came from Akasava becomes suddenly hallucinatory. Creating a dreamlike atmosphere is the primary goal in many European cult films, but while we expect it from a vampire or zombie or ghost film, seeing the same technique applied to a straight-forward spy thriller is really odd. Pleasant, though, and along with Soledad Miranda, it's that quirky approach to filmmaking that saves an otherwise dull spy film from going on the scrapheap.

The action, when it does come, is pretty clumsy and not the least bit thrilling. The espionage isn't particularly engaging, either. But the film appeals to me never the less, perhaps because I can sympathize and relate to Franco's weird pacing and personal quirks. There are times when I simply can't struggle through one of his films, but The Devil Came from Akasava is much breezier, eye-catching and fun, helped in large part by Franco's dwelling on Soledad Miranda, a goofy spy plot, and some really good Euro-lounge cocktail music, which gets better when it's employed at really inopportune times that should be tense and exciting save for the breathless "la de do za zu!" female vocals accompanying the action.

Make or Break: I hope you like long, arty stripteases to cocktail jazz and featuring a stunningly beautiful woman, because this movie is going deliver them.

MVT: Soledad Miranda. She possesses not just the beauty but also a hypnotic charm and an incredible array of pop-art outfits.

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