The Awful Dr. Orlof

Dr. Orloff (Howard Vernon) leads the way while Morpho carries a recent victim in The Awful Dr. Orlof.
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Director Jesus Franco loves the process of making films. Since he started making movies in the late '50s, he has made over 150 movies. Many of these movies readily belie Franco's frenzied approach to filmmaking with seemingly careless photography, an annoying reliance upon the zoom lens, and harsh lighting. He's been called a bad filmmaker, but his fans insist you must learn to look past Franco's apparently careless methods.

Franco's films contain some of the strangest characters and situations to ever appear before a motion picture camera, including a blind servant who abducts women for his master; a female vampire who performs a lethal variant of fellatio; a whip-wielding performer who tortures men and women during her nightclub act; and a radio-controlled zombie who murders on command. Franco clearly has no interest in realism. His movies give us blatantly outlandish scenarios that mix shocking violence with fairly explicit sexual situations. Moral guardians tend to consider Franco's films the work of a sick mind. But his admirers are drawn to Franco's lack of inhibitions and his willingness to explore the more exotic reams of sexual desire. Here is a filmmaker who openly deals with his own obsessions. Call it honesty. Call it exploitation. Call it craziness. Call it what you like, but Franco is a truly unique filmmaker who frequently treads where no other filmmakers have dreamed (or dared) to venture.

According to Cathall Tohill and Pete Tombs in Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984, Franco comes from a family of "super-intellectuals." His uncle Julian Marias is a famous philosopher. His brother Enrique in a musicologist. And his nephews are respected writers, critics, and filmmakers. His family held hopes of a serious artistic or scholarly career for Franco, but his aspirations lay elsewhere. He was drawn to comic books, Hollywood thrillers, pulp novels, and jazz. And his films reflect this pop art bent. His first international feature film, The Awful Dr. Orlof--now available on DVD from Image Entertainment--reflects this obsession with its variety of influences.

The film's widely acknowledged basis is Edgar Wallace's novel The Dead Eyes of London, filmed with Bela Lugosi in 1939, which features a doctor (named Orloff) who uses a blind brute to do his bidding. Meanwhile, the opening sequence of The Awful Dr. Orlof is strongly reminiscent of Robert Siodmak's classic 1946 thriller The Spiral Staircase: in an apartment room high above the street, a woman is attacked by an assailant who hides within the closet. But whereas Siodmak's camera closed in on the eye of the killer, Franco gives us a blind killer whose face is a grotesque mask. And whereas Siodmak's killer attacks amidst the airy strains of a theremin, Franco gives us discordant clanks and crashes (courtesy of a snare drum, xylophone, kettle drum, and electronic feedback). Franco's jazz-influenced score is anything but unobtrusive. It hammers at your ears with a vengeance.

These differences between The Awful Dr. Orlof's and The Spiral Staircase hint at Franco's indebtedness to his sources while also suggesting the distance that separates them. The movie that follows is built upon a structure cobbled from a litany of sources: the super-powerful brute recalls the monster in Hammer's Frankenstein films. Likewise, Dr. Orlof's obsessed scientist recalls Peter Cushing's immoral Dr. Frankenstein. Orlof bids his servant to capture young, beautiful women and return with them to the laboratory, where he then surgically removes sections of skin from the victims for transplanting to his disfigured sister (in direct homage to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face). Dr. Orlof's frequent visits to the local burlesque hall to shop for available beauties (while watching the dancers bump and grind on stage) recalls the American sleazefest The Brain That Wouldn't Die.

The sexual dynamics on display in The Awful Dr. Orlof are arguably its most distinctive element--as well as its sadism. The original European version even included two instances of female nudity. In one scene, a naked woman lies on an operating table. As Dr. Orlof's scalpel cuts into her flesh, the camera gives us a close-up perspective. In another scene, Dr. Orlof's zombie-like servant, named Morpho, struggles with a potential subject for Orlof's scalpel. During the struggle, Morpho's fumbling hands strip away the clothing from the woman's torso, revealing her breasts (or rather the breasts of a body double). While the operating room instance of nudity can be explained away as a logical extension of the plot, the bared breasts during Morpho's attack are more difficult to explain. The camera holds on the breasts in close-up for an awkwardly long period. Compared to the ample flesh on display in Franco's later movies, the nudity in The Awful Dr. Orlof is a model of modesty. However, this fleeting moment of fumbled naked breasts indicates Franco's willingness to provide his largely-male target audience with extra goods. Franco doesn't have much use for sexually ambiguous motives. His movies revel in exploring the sexual antics of their characters.

As his career progressed, the nudity quotient of his movies gradually increased until by Female Vampire (1973) we find Lina Romay spending large sections of the movie stark naked (with the camera frequently zooming in on her nether regions). Ultimately, Franco would make full-fledged pornographic movies. But during his early '60s movies, Franco displayed remarkable promise as a conventional filmmaker (albeit one with a taste for exotic subject matter). Comparing The Awful Dr. Orlof with movies such as Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971) and The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1972), it's hard to fathom they were directed by the same man. While The Awful Dr. Orlof is carefully composed in stark black-and-white images, Franco's films from the '70s frequently look like home videos. In Orlof, Godofredo Pacheco's cinematography creates an evocative, oppressive atmosphere of repressed desire told with ominous shadows and claustrophobic interiors. Franco's early '60s output so impressed Orson Welles that he chose Franco to serve as second-unit director on Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff). Several sequences in The Awful Dr. Orlof are marvelously crafted, such as the sequence where Orlof leads a woman into a decrepit mansion and locks her inside. She soon discovers she isn't alone as the blind Morpho begins the slow but relentless process of hunting her down.

The Awful Dr. Orlof's considerable impact is somewhat negated by a ridiculous sub-plot that gives us a ballet dancer who begins investigating the recent murder spree. Without notifying anyone (including her police inspector fiancÚ), she dresses in provocative outfits and begins frequenting the local cabaret, hoping to discover an admirer--and thus a potential lead on the murderer. However, Franco's films frequently embrace irrational motivations, favoring instead a dream-like rush of action and provocative situations. Likewise, the nightmarish stretches of logic at work in The Awful Dr. Orlof have the effect of isolating the characters in an alternate universe where conventional rules have, at best, only a tenuous hold on the goings-on. That's part of the allure of Franco's world. Anything can happen. Any taboo can suddenly be ripped apart in explicit fashion.

Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog has said, "You can't see one Franco movie until you've seen them all" (Video Watchdog, 1990, #1). That's a daunting statement for any Franco neophyte to confront. However, The Awful Dr. Orlof does stand remarkably well on its own as an example of '60s European gothic horror. While not quite on the same level as the work of Italian masters Mario Bava or Riccardo Freda, it's nonetheless a surprisingly effective and atmospheric journey that balances explicit medical tableau with repressed sexual yearnings. As such, it's an ideal place for neophytes to first experience the world of Jesus Franco.

Image Entertainment's new DVD release of The Awful Dr. Orlof comes without any extras save Tim Lucas' thoughtful liner notes, but this high-quality transfer renders all previous American releases obsolete.

The Awful Dr. Orlof is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment as part of their ongoing EuroShock Collection. Suggested retail price: $24.99. The Awful Dr. Orlof in also available on VHS. Suggested retail price: $19.98. For more information, we suggest you check out the Image Entertainment Web site.