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 Video and AUdio
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