Author Pete Tombs remembers José Ramón Larraz, 1929-2013
As anyone will know who has heard his audio commentary for the DVD release of VAMPYRES, José Ramón Larraz was a brilliant and hilarious raconteur, possessed of a bubbling vitality and a lascivious wit. It’s one of the many mysteries of the man that his most personal films are almost entirely the opposite. They are moody, slow burning, atmospheric and more than a little tinged with tragedy and the taste of nightmares.
He was a complex figure and one of the most cultured men you could meet, and yet he spent most of his career in occupations that the culterati would spurn. First, in comic books and photonovels, and later in small budget sex and horror films. The irony was not lost on him and it’s true that, as Cathal Tohill wrote in IMMORAL TALES, he often undervalued his genuine achievements in the field of popular cinema. It was a great pleasure to be involved, in some small way, in creating awareness of his work amongst film goers. At first reluctant to stick his head above the parapet, Larraz was finally gratified by the growing number of fans around the world who would tell him how much they appreciated his films. The culmination of this being the Lifetime Award he received at the 2009 Sitges International Film Festival and Celia Novis’s essential film, ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS
Born in 1929 in Barcelona, Larraz came from a left wing, intellectual background. His upbringing and early experiences in the Spain of General Franco turned him into a lifelong rebel. Whatever the mainstream view was, José Ramón would be against it. He began his professional career in 1952 as a comic book writer and illustrator in publications such as Spain’s famous El Coyote and then, in 1954, moved first to France and then to Belgium, where he worked for the agency Opera Mundi and later for the hugely influential magazine Spirou. He also directed photonovels, which took him closer to his ultimate goal of filmmaking. He met Josef von Sternberg in Brusssels in 1968 and was inspired by the great director’s edict that he should just go out and make a film; that his lack of experience could be a positive advantage as it left him with an open mind.
The result, WHIRLPOOL, released in 1970, was a big success but its sexy thriller format and low budget meant that Larraz was marked out as an exploitation film maker and he subsequently found it difficult to break out of that world into anything more ambitious. As he said later: “I had a family to feed, don’t hate me…”
And yet these early, low budget, quickly shot works have the unmistakeable stamp of an “auteur” (I can hear now his outraged protest at the use of the term!). Like all his best work, they share a slim scenario, a small cast, an isolated rural location, and the atmospheric woods and misty “golden hour” landscapes that nurture his dream spaces. There’s something old fashioned about many of Larraz’s films (it’s no surprise to discover that one of his favourite US movies was the 1946 Robert Siodmak chiller THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE) and yet there is something almost indefinably modern about them too. It’s in the way they are framed, the way the shots are cut, the camera angles: that’s where his artist’s eye comes in and it’s what makes the best of his films special and timeless.
Larraz finally settled in the UK in the early 1970s, having married an English woman, a former dancer. In 1974, his film SYMPTOMS was selected for Cannes, something that Larraz himself was very uncomfortable with given the film’s low budget and modest ambitions. However, it led to what is undoubtedly his most famous work, VAMPYRES, produced by the editor of SYMPTOMS, Brian Smedley-Aston, who was a member of a very well connected British film family.
VAMPYRES more or less defines Larraz’s work. It is both dreamlike and savagely visceral, a contradiction that underpins all his best work. For a British film of its vintage (it was released in 1974) it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on screen, but its artistry and cinematic skill lift it way above the norm of similar exploiters.
The vast majority of Larraz’s subsequent pictures, from the mid 70s onward, was funded and shot in Spain. The films of this period run the gamut from more ambitious works such as EL MIRON down to klutzy comedies like THE NATIONAL MUMMY and MAGIC POWDER. There’s good stuff in there (LA OCCASION and THE COMING OF SIN, for example) but it’s mostly commercial, hired-hand stuff. Larraz subsequently worked in TV with some success. The series GOYA was sold around the world in the late 1980s. In recent years, he wrote novels and his autobiography, published in Spain in 2012.
Much of Larraz’s work is hard to find these days. Of the first six or seven films, which represent his best, only VAMPYRES is commercially available. And of his later releases, only the more obviously exploitable efforts ever found English friendly video releases. The obscurity of his best films means that he is a director whose work has to be discovered and sought out. For that reason, he remains a cult figure. Which, I feel, is what he would have preferred. He used to say that going into films was the worst thing he could have done. He would have been happier as an artist, just toiling away by himself with his pen and brush rather than wasting time in meetings, surrounded by people he had little in common with. He was an intensely private man with a rich inner world. And his first six or seven films give us a glimpse of that world. If you’re attuned to its delicate vibrations, it’s a unique and memorable place to visit.
“Life is a continuous enigma…The thing is to always live something other than reality.’ -José Ramón Larraz
– Pete Tombs
Pete Tombs is the co-author of IMMORAL TALES: EUROPEAN SEX & HORROR MOVIES 1956-1984 (with Cathal Tohill) and author of MONDO MACABRO: WEIRD AND WONDERFUL CINEMA FROM AROUND THE WORLD.