A Female-Fronted Punk Band Finds Trouble When it Wanders Into a Gothic Horror Film…
DIRECTED BY JESS FRANCO/1996
STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 26, 2017/REDEMPTION FILMS
1964: The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night.
1979: The Ramones in Rock N’ Roll High School.
1996: The Killer Barbies in Killer Barbys…??
The Spanish punk band that heads up this film is most certainly a colorful and bizarre next step in this progressively degenerative chronology of bands in narrative movies. (Though the word “narrative” can be arguable). Headed up by ferocious front woman Silvia Superstar, herself bearing a punk performance persona of sexually aggressive junk culture maven straight out of Rob Zombie, The Killer Barbie’s prove to be a game group for this exploitation toss-off. Boasting a lineup both female and male, these hirsute and hair-dyed confrontational good-timers display just enough in the areas of acting and punk rock chops, and even less in the way of inhibitions.
Still a new band, only a handful of their songs fill the soundtrack, some heard too many times. The opening number, intoning again and again “I love you, I love you, I’m gonna kill you tonight!” is catchy but exhausted by the end. For whatever it may be worth, they prove to be the ideal stars of this straight-up weird blend of Scooby Gang spook house intrigue, punk rock ethos, and Lady Báthory. Too bad for them that they had to change the spelling of their group’s name for the title of the movie.
That’s right, “Barbys”, not Barbies. Mattel, the toy company responsible for the famed fashion doll, made them change the title of the film but not the name of the band the film is named after. Lest anyone get this gory romp confused with their iconic product. In the meantime, several s&m Barbie dolls serve as decorations for the band’s tour bus/shag-wagon.
As the gang makes their way through the dark and eerie middle of nowhere, one wonders if their van is more of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre variety or Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine type. In any case, this touring van has seen more hormonal action than either of them.
When the van inevitably breaks down, a seemingly kindhearted stranger (Aldo Sambrell) offers them a place to stay in his master’s large old castle, as no tow truck will be available until the next day. Some of them decide to take him up on the offer, two others decide to remain in the van, doing what they’ve been doing.
It turns out that the man’s master is a bed-ridden living, rotting skeleton of a Countess whom he’s battling the clock to preserve. Soon, he gets what it required, and the master emerges a vampy lynx on the prowl and camera-ready for Cosmopolitan‘s special all-evil edition (Mariangela Giordano).
Requiring the fresh blood of others to maintain her youth, the strange woman has long outlived whatever notions of morality and decorum that might’ve been around in her time. When questioned about her age at the dinner table, she’s quick to whip out her assets with the query, “Are these the breasts of a woman of 100?” Apparently, the ancient pagan blood-treatment includes silicone work as an added perk.
For the climax of the movie, our heroine ends up running around in red panties and a too-small Spider-Man t-shirt, which is at least twice is much as she wears on stage when singing with the band. There, her outfit is a teeny-weenie black vinyl bikini. Because rock dives are sweaty and stanky; old castles are cold and chilly.
It’s weird to think that this movie, with its vintage horror film grain and murky lighting palette, is newer than not only, say, Pulp Fiction, but the faux schlock throwback it enabled, From Dusk Till Dawn. Indeed, when Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were riffing on such things as the eurotrash aesthetic, Franco was still going strong with the very thing he’d been doing for decades. Well, maybe not “going strong”, but at least still going. It’s weird to observe that Franco may very well be, in 1996, shooting on the exact same film stock that he filmed 1972’s Daughter of Dracula with. There’s amusingly little that is “1996” about any of this.
When I use the term “eurotrash” in regard to cinema, it’s not so much a putdown as a qualifier. Killer Barbys is directed by none other than the late Jess Franco, one of the great arbiters of this particular niche. No spring chicken by this point in his career, there’s something irresistibly curious about what this aged jazz enthusiast might do with a punk rock aesthetic. It turns out, very little! That said, his stubbornly familiar gothic approach might just be dead-on in spirit. An old castle, the ominous moonlight, the round orange glow of the many candles… It’s a positively non-ironic dive into a well that dried up for Hammer, himself, and so many others decades earlier. Intended as a vehicle for the band, Franco opted to make a slightly more mainstream Jess Franco atmospheric horror movie. (Franco loves, loves, loves his billowing dry ice fog!) How punk rock is that?
On the other hand, sparse musical score, resembling that of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gone wrong, only cues up when things are gruesome. Which is more and more as the film persists.
As much as this film exists in the milieu of grindhouse and off-the-radar cinema, how ironic is it that it ends with the musical ode to the heroes of Marvel comics? It’s a crude reminder that, not that long ago, that there was something countercultural about giving a shout out to Silver Surfer, The Thing, and Jack “King” Kirby. Today, Spider-Man and his amazing friends run the pop culture joint.
The Blu-Ray presents Killer Barbys with three soundtrack options (Spanish with optional English subtitles, English, and French) in a newly restored 4K scan of the original film elements. The lone true special feature is a remarkably solid commentary track by film historian Troy Howarth. Free of down-the-rabbit-hole minutia, Howarth comes off as well spoken and well researched , if also perhaps too off the cuff. (Lamenting his solidarity with the one guy in the van who isn’t gettin’ any action, etc.) He opts to focus most intently on Franco himself, at this phase a legacy director with no shortage of varying opinions about said legacy. Howarth refers to it as a “rambling and remarkably inconsistent filmography.” In the meantime, the Barbies themselves must’ve liked the experience and/or the film, seeing how they came back to the director for 2002’s The Killer Barbys vs. Dracula.
Of the three Jess Franco films I’ve experienced (and there are tons out there. Tons.) – one from his early career, one from the 1970s, and now this one – Killer Barbys is the first one I’d entertain the notion of revisiting any time soon. It’s far, far from being a good film in the conventional sense, but it is quite the footnote in the pantheon of narrative movies that star bands, and plenty of fine Franco atmosphere, to boot. (Just make sure the boot is black leather and stiletto heeled.)