Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Attack of the Robots / Cartes sur table (1966)

I became interested in Jess Franco while studying film at university. That may be a sentence that’s never been written before. Let me explain… I did not study Jess Franco, or his films, at university.  I’m quite sure that none of my professors would have considered Jess Franco’s films to be worthy of study. They may have been wrong about that, but that’s beside the point. Franco was not taught alongside Fellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, and Scorsese. However, I did write a major essay for one of my classes that focussed on the Women In Prison genre – not exactly a typical FIlm Studies topic, either, but that’s what attracted me to it – and that’s how I became aware of Jess Franco and his strange oeuvre.

The story of my relationship with the Women In Prison genre is one I will have to save for another day. Suffice it to say that I randomly rented a Jess Franco movie called Hellhole Women (1981), and then later read about it in what would become one of my favourite books, Video Trash & Treasures Volume II by L.A. Morse. It was, in fact, part of a mini section called Jess’s Jungle Frolics. The overarching chapter was called HOT CAGES, NAKED CHAINS: A Cell Block of Women Behind Bars. One of my fellow film students, and a connoisseur of cinematic trash, had recommended that I buy the book and read this chapter when he found out my major essay was about the WIP genre.

In the mini-section, Morse first reviews Women In Cell Bloc 9 (1978), noting that it contains “what is probably the only all nude jailbreak on film”. Then, in his review of Hellhole Women, Morse says:

“While it must have been a challenge to top the all nude jailbreak, old Jess was not daunted, and here provides us with an all topless prison camp — inmates, guards, and dragon-lady warden included.”

When my friend Ian and I first watched Hellhole Women, we recognized it as a crazy, over-the-top sleaze fest that had a lot of camp humour value. We did not know anything about the makers of the film. Thanks to L.A. Morse, I now knew that the genius behind it was Jess Franco, and that he had made other must see cinematic atrocities. In fact, Morse would comment throughout the book every time that Jess Franco was involved in a movie. Admittedly, the comments were most often negative. Morse was not a fan of Franco. He would say things like “old Jess has reached the point where he can effortlessly make nudity and violence seem boring.” But I was intrigued. And the worse the review, the more I wanted to see the movie. I started to rent, and later buy, any movie that I came across that had the name Jess Franco on it (or Jesús Franco as he is sometimes called). Some of them were, by any normal means of evaluation, bad – but there was always something interesting about them. And some of them were downright delightful. One of my favourite surprise discoveries was Kiss Me Monster (1969).

Those were the days of VHS and no internet, so unearthing a rare Franco film did not happen very often. He made over 200 hundred movies in his lifetime, and to this day I still haven’t seen anywhere near all of them. With the right online connections, it’s not as hard to locate the movies now – but it’s also not as special. I haven’t made it a mission to relentlessly download or stream every title in his filmography. I’m old school, so I still get excited when I find a physical copy of one of his movies – and if it’s a reasonable enough deal, I buy it. Of course, if I’m really lucky, someone will give me a nice edition of one of his films on DVD or Blu-ray for my birthday (or some other event for which gifts are appropriate). This is how I came to be the owner of a nice, shiny new Blu-ray of Attack of the Robots AKA Cartes sur table (1966).

This is an early Jess Franco movie, and as such, does not contain the kind of over-the-top sleaze that a movie like Hellhole Women does. However, it does contain a lot of the elements that Franco would remain obsessed with over the course of his 60 (!) year career as a filmmaker. There are scenes in nightclubs, featuring sexy dancers. There are women in chains. Franco appears in the film, as he often did. And this is the first of seven films that Franco made about a private detective character named Al Pereira. In this one, Pereira is played by Eddie Constantine, who was famous for playing a hard-hitting private detective named Lemmy Caution in a series of films. His portrayal of Al Pereira in Attack of the Robots could be seen as more comedic send up of his image from the Lemmy Caution films. Or maybe it was just simple exploitation of a well known actor in a similar role. Who knows? Whatever the case, Constantine is great in this movie – and it’s a shame that it’s the only time he ever got to play Al Pereira. The next time Pereira was seen, he was played by Howard Vernon in Les ebranlées in 1972. 

Attack of the Robots is a delightfully fun movie. It’s a post James Bond spy spoof that contains elements of science fiction, as a mad scientist finds a way to essentially turn people into robots if they have Type O blood. It’s beautifully shot and feels like a lush production compared to some of Franco’s later films. Sure, it’s light on sleaze and violence, but it’s played for laughs and for the most part it gets them. If you’re in the mood for  something light and fun, with the kind of stylistic flourishes that only a filmmaker like Jess Franco could provide, Attack of the Robots might just be the kind of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that you’re looking for. It’s not too far removed from another Franco film I wrote about a while back, Dr. Orloff’s Monster AKA The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll (1964). That one is more of a monster movie, and less of a comedy, but it’s also an early, more restrained version of Franco. Each of them, in their own way, make for a mighty fine #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Yor, the Hunter from the Future (1983)

I remember really wanting to see Conan the Barbarian (1982) when it first came out, but it was rated A.P.G. – which meant that I couldn’t go unless an adult (presumably a parent) accompanied me. Somehow I talked my Dad into it, and he declared it to be the worst movie he’d ever seen. A distinction that may have changed when I convinced him to take me to Friday the 13th Part III (1982), but that’s another story.

Conan… may have been the first of many movies of it’s type that I watched over the next few years. Having a VCR helped greatly with this, as I don’t think I could have convinced my Dad to take me to any more movies like Conan… Thankfully the video store clerks never seemed to worry about how old you were when they took your money and allowed you to rent R-rated films on VHS and Beta. 

When I refer to movies of the same type as Conan…, I’m actually talking about a few different genres. There were the fantasy films, with swords and sorcerers – like The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), Conan the Barbarian, The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) and Deathstalker (1983), 

There were also the post apocalyptic variants like She (1984), Phoenix the Warrior (1988) and Warriors of the Apocalypse (1985). Movies like Land of Doom (1986) and 2020 Texas Gladiators (1983) weren’t far off in their own way, but
the characters tend to use guns instead of swords.

Then there were the prehistoric fantasy films, like Quest for Fire (1981), Ironmaster (1983) and The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), I suppose. 

Yor, the Hunter from the Future (1983) is a movie that almost defies description, but it’s kind of a combination of all three of the above genres. I did not see it back in the ’80s, when I was renting strange fantasy and post apocalyptic movies on a regular basis. I remember Yor… hitting the theatres back in the day – and it wasn’t even R-rated, so my friends and I COULD have gone to see it. But the reviews were pretty bad, and the poster didn’t inspire confidence in me at the time, so I guess just passed it by. And I continued to walk past it in the video stores for the rest of the decade. 

When I was at university in the ’90s, I would often come home late at night, sit down in front of the TV and watch whatever movie happened to come on at midnight. I had a strange schedule one year, and all of my classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This meant I had a lot of days off, which was great, but it also meant that I had very long days twice a week. Classes started at 8:00 AM, which was a couple of hours before I generally ever liked to be awake. And I needed to leave about an hour early if I expected to catch a bus and make it all the way out there in time. Needless to say, watching a midnight movie the night before was not a good way to ensure that I would stay awake and alert all day.

It seems impossible to me now, but I believe that on one particular night, I finished watching whatever midnight movie had been on and was about to head up to bed when a second movie started. It was Yor, the Hunter from the Future, and I had still never seen it. I knew that there was no way I could stay up and watch it. Not when I needed to be up before 7:00 AM. I was already going to get less that five hours of sleep. I couldn’t cut that down the three. No way. 

Yor… caught my attention immediately. It was impossible to look away. It was jaw droppingly, mind-blowingly bad – in the best way possible! I knew it had been panned back the day, and I expected it to be bad, but this was something else. It was a celluloid miracle. I was majoring in film studies at the time, so I was used to watching and analyzing films (sometimes on three or four hours of sleep), and I admit that sometimes I would nod off while watching a certified masterpiece. But this ridiculous, over the top, indescribable thing that was flickering on my TV screen had me completely mesmerized. Every time I  thought I thought I would be be able to turn off the TV and walk away SOMETHING ELSE would happen that was even more ridiculous than the last thing – and I would keep watching! What was wrong with me? I had to get up in four hours. I needed to stop!

Just in case you doubt my first experience of Yor…, and even I have trouble believing it when I think back on it, here is what L.A. Morse had to say in Video Trash & Treasures: 

“The first half of this is so vigorously inane and astonishingly cheap and shoddy that it’s a complete hoot, with technical incompetence combining with utter brainlessness to produce as shabby a spectacle as is ever likely to pass in front of your glazed eyes.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. And the first half is exactly how much I sat through before I forced myself to turn it off and have a brief nap before classes started in the morning.

When I saw my friend Ian in class the next day, he said “You’re not going to believe this movie I started watching on TV last night…”

It was Yor… and he had had the exact same experience as me.

We were both film students who loved Martin Scorcese, Charlie Chaplin, and classics like His Girl Friday (1940) and The Bicycle Thieves (1948). But we had found a new cinema god, and his name was Yor.

For reasons I can’t explain, I did not watch Yor…  again until last #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. I always intended to, but somehow it never happened. Perhaps a part of me knew that I could never have that same experience again. Now that I knew what to expect, it couldn’t catch me off guard and make my jaw hit the floor. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve watched a lot of bad movies in the intervening years. A LOT of bad movies. And probably many that were way worse than my old friend Yor… It’s possible that he would pale in comparison to my memory of him, and maybe I didn’t want that to happen. But you can only go so many years without knowing how a story ends. So, I finally invited Yor…  back into my living room.

Did it live up to my memory? Not exactly. I expected it to be shoddier and more ridiculous. But the good news is that I really enjoyed it. It had a charm and an energy that only a campy bad movie can have. And in some ways, it actually looks more lush than a lot of the no budget crap that has been produced in the past ten years. This was a movie that played theatres, after all. And it had practical effects that I find way more pleasing to the eyes than the bad CGI that has plagued modern genre films. It’s fast paced, the characters are likeable, and it’s just plain fun. It’s a #NotQuiteClassicCinema masterpiece that I will without a doubt be watching again in the future – and I won’t wait twenty plus years to do it.