France, 1912. With the disappearance of a fifth young woman, the police commissioner puts pressure on his top man, Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martín). His instructions: find the culprit, or find a new job. Although Tanner's search is slow, the viewer already knows that the murderer is the twisted Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon, would-be winner of a Boris Karloff look-alike contest), who is unsuccessfully trying to graft lovely ladies' faces onto the body of his dying daughter, who was burned in a lab fire and is now kept in a glass case. Orlof is assisted in his goals by former Death Row inmate Morpho (Ricardo Valle), who is blind and mute, and Orlof's one-time flame Arne (Perla Cristal), who hates the way Orlof treats Morpho and despises Orlof's growing body count. While Tanner slowly sifts through the facts, his girlfriend, ballerina Wanda Bronsky (Diana Lorys) starts to crack the case.
If The Awful Dr. Orlof is indeed the first horror film produced in Spain, the country got off on the right foot. This black-and-white effort, clearly inspired by various Dracula and Frankenstein movies, is a witty, thrilling little movie, propelled by excellent performances and an intriguing feminine energy thanks to director Jess Franco, whose name would eventually become synonymous with sensual horror. Admittedly, Dr. Orlof endeavors to hit a wide range of tonal notes -- only a few sequences are "horror," in the traditional sense -- but it's hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with such an inspired, inventive picture.
With a protagonist like Tanner, whose snail-like pace of police work would bore anyone, Franco packs the movie with entertaining little details and characters that liven up the film without feeling extraneous. When Tanner returns to his office after a romantic trip with Wanda, the janitor's cat has taken up residence in his office. An enthusiastic female eyewitness pops in to give her statement and can't stop babbling. Later in the film, when sketches of Orlof and Morpho have been printed in the newspaper, a fame-hungry author bursts into Tanner's office and proudly proclaims that he is the culprit, promising to write a book about his exploits. The best of these characters is Jean Rousseau (Venancio Muro), whose boozing always takes a backseat to his intelligence and wit; it's lovely how Rousseau's tips end up making him more valuable than Tanner's disdainful right-hand man.
More importantly, the film is packed with interesting women, who feel real and developed even when their screen time is brief. Orlof looks down on them, because they're harlots, but Franco gives each one a distinct and memorable personality. The viewer learns quite a bit about Dany (María Silva), Orloff's first victim, just through her infectiously bubbly personality. Later, a different girl stumbles upon a dead body, but keeps her composure, realizing the killer might still be present. The main focus is Wanda, who practically takes over Tanner's investigation, subtly keying him into important details (which Tanner assembles, and then basically ignores), then goes undercover without him in hopes of catching the killer herself. Lorys is wonderful in the role, more than capable of conveying self-confidence and fear at the same time.
Franco's antagonists are also intriguing, adding another layer of complexity to the film. Vernon is perfect as Orlof, oozing class and sophistication as he wooes each woman into his trap, only for it to vanish into a state of cold emotionlessness once the victim is dead. Arne's description of the person he used to be and his devotion to his daughter indicate that Orlof was once more than awful, but Vernon doesn't play up any of that lost humanity, further emphasizing what he's become. Although Morpho is behind most of the movie's frightening moments, his physical handicap and life of servitude make him more sorrowful than aggressive.
Directorially, Franco is not showy, but the film has a specific signature all the same. In terms of the genre, he cribs from the best, with the looming shadows and gothic castle sets echoing the iconography of hundreds of classic horror movies, without being so specific as to pin down a single one. Elsewhere, Franco uses the cabaret and its dancers as a direct contrast to Dr. Orlof's lair, with bright lights, a lively atmosphere, and lots of people to create the illusion of safety. Stand-out imagery includes Orlof's eye caught in a beam of light reflecting off of a make-up mirror, and a shot of a diamond choker wrapped around a woman's neck like a noose.
The Awful Dr. Orlof arrives on DVD with Redemption's standard cover style, complete with original Italian poster art. However, there are two different versions of this artwork -- one may be more modern -- and I prefer the other one, with more use of black-and-white and more defined lines. A minor, personal nitpick. The disc comes in a plastic-conserving eco-case (no holes), and there is no insert or booklet, just like the other two Franco titles in this wave.
The Video and AUdio
Framed at 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, this is a compromise of a transfer. As stated on the package, this was mastered from an archival 35mm print, not the original negative, so there is a considerable amount of wear and tear here. Nicks and scratches are common and constant, a vertical line or two is apparent, and the movie flickers throughout. However, the quality of the actual image taken from the print is excellent, with considerable detail apparent even amid other damage. Contrast is very nice, appearing accurate and balanced (something I can easily imagining not being true of older transfers of a film like this). Personally, print damage is not a big deal when considering the age of a film like this and the conditions it was stored under, so I rate this picture pretty highly, but those who are more sensitive to damage should be aware that this print is pretty worn. A Dolby Digital 2.0 track is clean and clear, without any distortion or popping / crackling that comes with the age of the film. An English 2.0 dub and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Kino has assembled a very nice package for Orlof on DVD. Three video featurettes are included. "The Horror of Orlof" (15:48) is a video interview with director / writer Jess Franco. This is a very nice little overview of how Franco very suddenly found himself making Orlof when another project fell through, his inspiration (Hammer!), the ideas he wanted to convey, the casting of Howard Vernon, and much more. Very enjoyable. Although the interview is in English, yellow subtitles are provided, to counter Franco's thick accent and the poor sound quality. "The Young Dr. Orlof Chronicles" (18:41) makes for a strong companion piece, filling in the story of the film's production with comments from several film historians, as well as the son of one of the producers. Considering the participants, it shouldn't be too surprising to hear that this piece considers the context of Dr. Orlof among other films of the period and in Franco's body of work. Finally, "Jess! What Are You Doing Now?" (8:24) is a little tribute to the late director, with the same participants from the previous featurette commenting on what Franco is up to in the afterlife.
Under the set-up menu, there is also an audio commentary by Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog and co-author of Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco. Lucas is a veritable wealth of information on not just the general history of the film, but all sorts of details about the characters, the script, the various cuts of the film, the genre, and of course, Franco, pointing out a number of connections between Orlof and Franco's other work. This is a great track for film fans -- Lucas is a true expert. The disc rounds out with a photo gallery, and a series of original theatrical trailers
The Awful Dr. Orlof is a minor gem, filled with all sorts of clever ideas, fully signifying Jess Franco's arrival as a horror director of note. Kino's DVD looks and sounds as good as can be expected, and is packed with wonderful bonus features. Highly recommended.
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