Color, 1978, 97 mins. 23 secs.
Directed by Jacinto Molina
Starring Paul Naschy, María José Cantudo, Ágata Lys, José Calvo, Carlos Casaravilla, José Nieto, Silvia Tortosa, Julia Saly
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Divisa (Blu-ray) (Spain RB HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Though best known for his lovable monster movies including his classic werewolf cycle, actor-director Paul Naschy peppered his career with several surprising one-off projects that frequently ranked among his favorites. Two in particular seemed to stand out in his estimation, namely El caminante (now also known as The Devil Incarnate) and this fact-based crime tale, El Huerto del Francés or The Frenchman's Garden, that frequently skirts on the edges of the horror genre. Sort of a turn of the century serial killer story, this often plays like a rural variation on films like 10 Rillington Place with its matter-of-fact account of a lengthy murder spree occurring right under the noses of average townspeople. Naschy directs here under his real name (Jacinto Molina) in one of his first films after the demise of Spain's fascist leader, General Franco, which allowed for a freer treatment of touchy subject matter that would have been much trickier even a year earlier (and certainly couldn't have been set in Spain). Barely seen at all outside its native country outside of miserable bootleg copies from a dupey VHS, the film has finally been given an immaculate presentation on Blu-ray from Mondo Macabro that fills a major gap in his filmography for many fans.

In early 20th-century Spain, condemned inmates Juan Andrés Aldije (Naschy) and his sidekick, José (Calvo), have very different final meals before preparing to meet their maker. In flashback we see how Juan, nicknamed the "El Francés" or "The Frenchman" due to his time abroad and fuzzy lineage, ran a busy inn where the tavern is usually populated by drunken, disrespectful slobs. Enabled by mistress Charo (Lys), he uses the female staff for a side prostitution business that thrives off of the illegal gambling going on behind closed doors. However, in the spirit of Sweeney Todd, Juan has come up with an even better way of making a profit: whacking his richest gamblers with an iron rod and burying them out back in his spacious garden. Two other women complicate things further, Juan's wife Elvira (Panic Beats' Saly) and new arrival Andrea (Cantudo), whom he has impregnated. As his cadaver-fueled tomatoes grow outside, Juan's greed also blossoms thanks to his determination to upstage his snooty father-in-law, forging path that we know will lead to his downfall.

Made during a half-decade period when Naschy was veering far away from his werewolf persona with roles encompassing everything from social dramas to historical satires, The Frenchman's Garden is a strong showcase for Naschy's skills as a director with a beautiful eye for period detail underscored by appropriate guitar music. The film isn't terribly explicit for the most part, but it does manage to jolt the viewer with some brief dashes of violence and sexuality including such then-taboo topics in Spanish cinema as abortion and homosexuality (the former delivering the most harrowing moment in the film). It's also an effective commentary on class division, with the need for money and status at the forefront of our villainous protagonist's mind as he navigates his own self-created treacherous personal life. The film really sticks the landing as well with a disturbing finale that's still guaranteed to make you squirm.

As mentioned above, the Mondo Macabro Blu-ray will be a fresh experience for just about everyone out there, even anyone who tried to suffer through that old VHS-sourced copy that was so dark and blurry you couldn't tell what was happening during the night scenes. The fresh 4K scan from the original negative is a real stunner to behold, finally bringing out all the shadowy nuance in those interior scenes and making the most of that rich, earthy color scheme. The DTS-HD MA Spanish 2.0 mono track is also in immaculate condition and features optional English subtitles. The same presentation was also issued at the tail end of 2020 on Spanish Blu-ray with optional English, Spanish, and Portuguese subs, but the U.S. disc is the one to own thanks to its substantial bonus features. A new audio commentary by Troy Howath and Naschycast's Rod Barnett, and Troy Guinn (yep, two Troys here!), who are obviously extremely qualified to tackle this one with tons of in-depth info about the state of Naschy's career at the time, the nature of Spanish-language dubbing at the time, the Naschy veterans seen floating around on camera, Naschy's achievements as a director, and possible readings of the star's feelings about social issues of the time. Also included are two video interviews with Naschy: one about his general career (27m52s) from childhood onward, and a second about this film in particular (3m6s), which features an interesting connection between the true story and a very familiar turn of phrase. The usual Mondo Macabro promo reel is also included, and as usual, this was first made available in a limited red-case edition featuring reversible cover art and an insert booklet with notes by Victor Mate-llano and Sergio Molina.

Reviewed on August 23, 2021