The Awful Dr. Orlof DVD

Jesus saves

Released as part of Image Entertainment’s “Euroshock” series, this DVD presents one of Spanish director Jess Franco’s earliest, most accessible features.

Franco had directed several musical comedies in Spain, but yearned for meatier work. A voracious film fan, he’d seen the horror films Hammer had been making, and since the government refused to let him make a project he had ready, he came up with a horror story over the weekend and started shooting.

Gritos en la Noche, as it’s known in Spain, begins with energetic music — staccato drumming, mixed with strings and horns and voices — juxtaposed with a quiet turn of the century city street at night. Despite the racket on the soundtrack, a woman prepares for bed after a long night of partying. To her horror, she finds a blind fiend hiding in her closet who abducts her, disappearing into the night.

The next morning we meet French police inspector Edgar Tanner (Conrado San Martin) who has just returned from his vacation where he’s met and become engaged to ballerina Wanda Bronsky. Having made a positive impression with his last case, Tanner’s assigned the case of 5 women who have disappeared recently.

At a cabaret that night Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon) is in his regular box, romancing a beautiful chorine with soft words, large jewels and strong wine. By coach, they journey to a large mansion that Orlof says is his own, though it’s actually up for sale. Orlof locks her in this creepy, ominous house of shadows. As the girl wanders about, the blind fiend Morpho (Riccardo Valle) stalks her in the darkness and attacks, biting her to death in the throat.

The work done, Orlof appears to supervise. They take the corpse by boat down the canal to Orlof’s real house. On the way, the necklace Orlof gave her is lost, becoming a diverting clue.

Orlof’s girlfriend Arne (Perla Cristal, who returned in Dr. Orloff’s Monster and later starred with Paul Naschy in Fury of the Wolfman) consoles Morpho, whom she feels has been mistreated by Orlof. The mad doctor doesn’t care. He’s too consumed with using his fresh victim in yet another attempt to restore the face of his catatonic sister Millicent.

Tanner investigates the sixth disappearance, which the evidence says is also a murder. Much in the manner of “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, the witnesses all disagree about the appearance of the killer. On Wanda’s recommendation, he sets up a meeting with a sketch artist and the witnesses. Their descriptions seem to break down into two divisions, leading the detective to theorize that they’re actually after two suspects.

Meanwhile, Orlof’s efforts result in another failure. Orlof is shown to be not a soulless monster — he realizes his guilt, but can’t deny his obsession. A prison surgeon who dabbled in skin graft experiments, he’d retired and disappeared when his sister (and lover?) was disfigured and stricken by an accident. Obsessed with restoring her face, he’d faked Morpho’s death, making him a somnambulistic servant.

Believing he’s close to success, that night Orlof is on the prowl again. He spies Wanda in a coach as she waits for Tanner and is transfixed by her beauty. Wanda recognizes him from the police sketch, but manages to hide it. Arriving too late to see Orlof himself, chauvinistic Tanner makes light of Wanda’s claim.

Well, she’ll show him. While Tanner goes off to investigate a lead — the necklace has been found — Wanda plans her own bit of sleuthing. She dresses up cheap and sexy to act as bait for Orlof in the local nightspots.

Orlof is keeping busy. He and Morpho visit a café after hours, where a chanteuse is staying late for extra practice. Morpho practices his vampirism on the pianist (Franco himself), then attacks the woman.

Pressure builds to solve the case, and the public is seeing fiends lurking everywhere. Wanda’s undercover work bears results — Orlof takes the bait and she’s abducted. She manages to send a note to Tanner before she’s taken captive, but the fool’s too busy tracking down leads to read it. While Wanda struggles with Morpho, Tanner goes to bed — finally reading her note before falling asleep. Will he find Orlof’s castle before it’s too late?

Borrowing heavily from Eyes Without A Face, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Edgar Wallace thrillers, Franco nevertheless managed to infuse the production with his own twisted style. This would continue to be his M.O. through over four decades and 160 features in every genre — probably a lot more, considering his high output of hardcore flicks in the ’70s, plus a lot of reworked and re-titled material, much of it done under any one of his dozens of pseudonyms. Orlof, Morpho, and Tanner would appear again also in many more of his films, if in name only. Franco, whose work is eccentric and highly idiosyncratic, is definitely an acquired taste. But it’s a taste that, once acquired, is hard to get rid of.

The atmospheric photography by Godofredo Pacheco recalls the classic Universal monster pictures, filling the frame with shadowy castle corridors and gas lit alleys. In places, Franco makes his input more apparent, such as in one handheld camera shot as the hero runs toward the castle.

The music, on the other hand, is anything but traditional. Later, Franco would mainly compose his own scores but here he used his musical/comedy collaborators, José Pagán and Antonio Ramírez Ángel. The weird score consists of organ, trumpet, strings, and even slide whistle, and recalls the work of Morricone from a decade later.

Image’s DVD, probably from a PAL master, is from a nice French print (the main title reads L’Horrible Docteur Orlof), and at 83 minutes is undoubtedly the most complete print ever released in the United States. It contains footage of nudity and gore not seen in the American cut, which ran on a double bill under Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock. There are no subtitles, so French writing is left untranslated, and there are some instances of artifacting and unsteady backgrounds. The foldout case contains excellent liner notes by Tim Lucas.

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