Color, 1996, 90 mins. 41 secs.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Santiago Segura, Marianelo Giordano, Silvia Superstar, Aldo Sambrell, Charlie S. Chaplin, Carlos Subterfuge, Los Angeles Berea, Billy King
Kino Lorber / Redemption Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Shriek Show (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Whether one loves or hates the cinema of Jess Franco, there's no denying that it becomes much more difficult to find aesthetic enjoyment in his career once he switched to shooting on video in the late '90s. One of his final genuine film productions is also one that sharply divides fans, a glorified starring vehicle for a Spanish punk, the Killer Barbys, who got to embark on a spooky adventure here laced with bloodshed and sex. The film proved successful enough for Franco and the band to reunite again six years later for the cheaper, scrappier Killer Barbys vs. Dracula, though this is really the one to watch if you'd like to see a last gasp of genuine Franco style.
After finishing up a raucous club gig, the Killer Barbys -- Flavia (Superstar), Mario (Chaplin, grandson of Charlie), Rafa (Subterfuge), Billy (King), and Sharon (Barea) -- take their van out through the Spanish countryside only for it to break down in the middle of nowhere. They end up at a spooky castle owned by the mysterious, decrepit Countessvon Fliedermaus (Burial Ground's Giordano), who lives with the aging Arkan (Sambrell) and manservant Balthasar (Segura). Soon the newcomers are splitting up and getting entangled in a grisly plot to harvest blood for more than one ungodly secret within the castle walls.
A pop culture curio if there ever was one, Killer Barbys (which alters the spelling of the band's name from Killer Barbies due to objections involving a certain toy manufacturer) is definitely Franco in fun mode and a precursor of sorts for the freewheeling attitude that would define his shot-on-video period, right down to the music video closing credits. It still qualifies as a horror film with lots of classic atmosphere involving fog, candelabra, and dark corridors, though the lashes of fake blood and frontal nudity keep reminding you how far we've come since the heyday of classic Spanish horror. It isn't a "good" movie in any traditional sense at all with barely any semblance of a plot and mostly amateurish acting, though old pros Segura and Giordano hold their own with the more demanding roles. Superstar also has a certain magnetic presence as well with her flaming red hair and boundless enthusiasm, which is well in evidence in the band's performances as well. Definitely not the place to start ifyou're new to Franco, but in a ramshackle sort of way, it's pretty amusing.
Killer Barbys made its U.S. debut on DVD from Shriek Show with either Spanish or English-dubbed options (the latter pretty much unlistenable, not to mention confusing since tiny bits of the film were shot in actual English) with optional English subtitles, talent bios, a Billy King and Silva Superstar interview (13m23s) in heavily accented English about their music careers and playing with the Misfits, a "Barb Wire Babies" text essay, "Mars" and "Downtown" music videos, bonus trailers (Eaten Alive, Burial Ground, Jungle Holocaust, Beyond the Darkness), a lobby card gallery, and "Talking with Killer Barbys" (19m59s), essentially a selected scene commentary over highlights from the film. The PAL-sourced transfer runs a bit fast at 87m2s and looks pretty awful, with lots of motion blurring, cropping, severe vertical squeezing... it's just a mess.
In 2017, Redemption Films gave the film another shot with Blu-ray and DVD releases touting a 4K(!) transfer from the original negative, and while this film still looks like a very cheap and sometimes underlit quickie, this may very well be the best it can look. The deliberately dark and hazy cinematography is at least textured here and doesn't look smeared into oblivion like the DVD, and everything runs at the correct speed and looks correctly proportioned. Any Blu-ray fanatics watching without context will probably come away scratching their heads, but it definitely looks much, much better than before. The DTS-HD MA stereo options are Spanish, English, or French, with optional English subtitles. No video extras, but the film can be played with something that feels like a cheeky violation of the cosmic universe: a scholarly commentary by Troy Howarth. He actually does a skillful and frequently bemused job of tackling the film's manipulations of horror conventions, noting right off the bat that this isn't a production detail type of scene-specific commentary but rather an appraisal of Franco's merits as a filmmaker and this film's peculiar place in his filmic legacy. On that front he more than succeeds and makes a solid case for the cheap pleasures of this latter day Franco oddity.
SHRIEK SHOW DVD
Reviewed on August 22, 2017.