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Before the DVD revolution of the late 1990s Euro-horror was for the most part a realm written about but not seen. In the fifteen years that have passed, thanks to the explosion of interest rallied by the game-changing magazine Video Watchdog, American fans now are familiar with a group of interesting Italian commercial directors that developed the horror film to new aesthetic horizons: Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Lucio Fulci. The 'crazy Spaniard' among them was Jesús (Jess) Franco, an incredibly prolific filmmaker whose highly exploitative pictures were heavily censored in his Fascist home country. When Franco passed away recently, he was certainly not an obscure figure -- his literally hundreds of sleazy horror thrillers are the focus of a legion of obsessive fans. Franco could not have dreamed that fan spokesmen would call him one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Movie fan opinion can be steered by its most influential tastemakers. Horror/sci fi fandom is a small pond, and I sometimes sense that I'm expected to swear a Loyalty Oath to some film or auteur, or risk being marginalized. I have several colleagues in writing and disc production whose opinions I value greatly, and when they praise Jess Franco beyond all understanding I'm compelled to believe that it's not just because he's good for business. Yet I've never read anything about his films to convince me that his career has any merit beyond persistence and commercial judgment. The most sane words I've yet read about the filmmaker are in his obituary in the London Telegraph.
However, with Jess Franco's first horror picture Gritos en la noche (The Awful Dr. Orlof) one can put away the ideological wrestling mat. It's not an anti-movie but an accomplished gothic chiller filmed in B&W on a real budget, with a cast of competent actors performing on well-lit night locations. According to the experts Franco had already filmed a conventional drama or two when Gritos en la Noche came along. In the (excellent) extras on Redemption's Blu-ray we're told that Franco reassessed his ambition to become the Spanish Antonioni, and turned instead to his love of horror fantasy. His screenplay gathers ideas from current European horror hits, especially Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, and concocted a sexy and gory gothic that didn't pretend it had a reason to exist beyond its own exploitable content.
Franco's storyline gives us a vague late- 1800's setting of horse-drawn carriages and gaslights. The icily sinister Doctor Orlof (Howard Vernon) kidnaps sexy young women with the aid of a frightening assistant, the scarred, bug-eyed & blind Morpho (Riccardo Valle). Orloff's daughter (Diana Lorys) has a mutilated face; Orlof hopes to restore her beauty by some surgical hocus-pocus with singers and dancers he lures to his suburban castle. Investigating the rash of disappearing señoritas is the smug Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin), who would much rather spend time with his fiancée Wanda, a gorgeous dancer (also Diana Lorys). Hoping impress Tanner with her daring and intelligence, Wanda sets out to entrap Orlof, using her own body as bait.
As critic Raymond Durgnat said, the same generic storyline can be atrocious or sublime depending on the details. The classic Eyes Without a Face didn't invent the idea of a mad doctor mutilating women to cure a loved one. It had already been seen in Mexican películas del terror, and even Astor Pictures' Z-grade horror thriller She Demons. By contrast, the sadistic goings-on in Eyes Without a Face are complex and profound. Jess Franco's opus mingles with the same genre conventions and holds together surprisingly well. The character relationships are either spelled out in perfunctory scenes of verbal exposition, or not explained at all. Large sections of the plot are devoted to the lead-brained Inspector Tanner's urgent yet aimless investigation. Tanner takes a really casual attitude toward his work. He can't be bothered to read the contents of a note frantically written in lipstick, which allows his sweetheart to fall almost irretrievably into the clutches of a madman. By the time he comes to the rescue, she's more or less been saved by other means. We aren't asked to consider Orof's deeper character, or his exact relationship with his daughter and his female assistant. The generic framework simply answers, "because this is a horror film, dummy."
But the basics of The Awful Dr. Orlof fall in positive territory. The potential female victims are attractive and spirited. Franco doesn't pretend that they're deserving of their fates, a disconcerting aspect of many later Giallo thrillers. We're also pleased that Franco's producers have outfitted the film with nice costumes, horse-drawn carriages and evocative nighttime lighting. The impressively haunted-looking Howard Vernon looks great, skulking about his in top hat and cape. The atmospheric photography evokes a gloomier, lonelier '30s Universal horror film. Another real plus is Jess Franco's jazz-percussion-electronic soundtrack score. It's the film's most progressive aspect -- a completely anachronistic collection of noises that provide a jittery surface for what would otherwise be standard 'fiends walk the night' footage.
The blind Morpho is an amusing, unlikely choice as the mad doctor's 'monster' henchman. His greatest talent seems to be an ability to negotiate roughly cobblestoned streets and steps without seeing where he's going. Morpho can also tote unconscious females through the castle interior without bashing their heads against the décor or overturning furniture.
The makeup design for Morpho is ridiculous but weirdly effective -- his face looks as though someone's features have been crudely grafted atop his own. The quality of the makeup job is debatable but there's no denying that the result is disturbing. He looks like a distilled 'mental defective' -- think of the comedian Marty Ingels, shot between the eyes and staring dumbly. That's Morpho, all right.
Morpho also provides Franco with the opportunity to trespass beyond what was acceptable in a 1962 shocker. Many good horror films including the Universal classics had been unable to fully express impure ideas and fetishistic obsessions. As explained in the extras, the film's producers wanted to juice up the picture for the non-Spanish market. At this time France was producing few horror films of its own but its enthusiastic audiences expected an erotic thrill or two. The added nude bits are shocking only given the age and origin of the movie.
Franco seems eager to bring the queasy content right out in the open. Several fleshy, attractive and buxom Spanish beauties are chained in the mad lab for Morpho to grope and paw with complete abandon. Morpho also bites their shoulders and necks, like an infantile pervert with an oral fixation. The victims on view function simply as pert and saucy bodies onto which Morpho's desires can be projected.
Franco has stumbled onto an exploitative angle here, one that's also perceptive about the way transgressive content works in screen horror. We watch the blind sex pervert Morpho molest gorgeous women he can't himself see. Through him, we molest gorgeous women we can't touch. Makes sense to me. Orloff holds up a mirror to horror fans.
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray of The Awful Dr. Orlof is in fine shape. The film source is a French version said to be uncut; other versions including the Spanish original dropped the nude inserts and used alternate footage here and there. The B&W HD transfer is light in contrast so doesn't pop with detail, but it's still attractive. English and French mono tracks are present and the interesting music track has a very good presence.
Franco expert bar none Tim Lucas was only able to provide liner notes for the first Image Entertainment disc of Gritos, now thirteen years in the past. His new commentary is so detailed that we can only imagine the inexhaustible research he must have amassed on Jess Franco -- would that be around 250 features with perhaps 700 alternate titles and versions? I don't even know if that's an exaggeration.
The Franco faithful both here and abroad have come up with some impressive extras. Daniel Gouyette gathers qualified speakers to discuss the film in his 20-minute featurette The Young Dr. Orloff Chronicles. A second 8-minute testimonial to the Franco legend appears on other Redemption Franco Blu-rays as well. A photo gallery and some interesting trailers are included.
Even more of a coup is David Gregory and Elijah Drenner's interview with Jess Franco himself, produced by the Severin outfit. One of the last interviews taped with the lively Spanish director, it finds him in good spirits and happy to discuss his work. For horror film fans, this kind of prime source content is precious stuff.
The horror faithful already consider The Awful Dr. Orlof a mandatory title. It certainly delivers the gothic scare content, especially for the year it was made. Is it the first EuroTrash movie? One must admit that the mixed-up pervert Morpho kinda paws his way into a reviewer's heart.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Awful Dr. Orlof Blu-ray rates:
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