Friday, September 13, 2013


Jess Franco, 1962
Starring: Howard Vernon, Diana Lorys, Perla Cristal, Richard Valle

Allegedly the first Spanish horror film, The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) aka Gritos en la noche is one of Jess Franco’s finest films, and though there are thematic similarities, bears little in common with his later, more surreal and erotic works. Kino Lorber and Redemption have released a trilogy of his films on Blu-ray in the wake of the director’s death earlier this year, including the obscure Nightmares Come At Night and A Virgin Among the Living Dead. The Awful Dr. Orlof is undoubtedly the most accessible of these films and should be seen by all horror fans, regardless of how they feel about the late, great, and often difficult to fathom director.

Former prison doctor, the demented Orlof, uses his deformed, blind assistant Morpho to kidnap, torture, and murder lovely young women. His ultimate goal is to restoring the face of his once beautiful, but badly burned daughter, Melissa, who he keeps locked up in a caged room while he desperately tries to heal her. A local police officer, Inspector Tanner, is put on the case when over five women are kidnapped and his plucky ballet dancer fiancée, Wanda, decides to help him out when his investigation plods along. Unfortunately for Wanda, she bears a startling resemblance to Orlof’s daughter and attracts his unsavory attention...

As I said above, this is likely the Jess Franco film that even steadfast Franco-haters will enjoy. It benefits from a wonderful atmosphere that combines traditional Gothic visuals with a Belle Epoque setting and there are numerous shots of Orlof’s creepy castle and laboratory, fog, cobble-stoned streets, candelabras, etc. Orlof uses a coffin to transport unconscious women to his castle and his methods of torture and medical experimentation get far more extreme as the film goes on. 

While the plot borrows a lot from Georges Franju’s seminal Eyes Without a Face (1960), I agree with Tim Lucas (in his commentary) that Franco was also likely influenced by the urban murder mysteries of Edgar Wallace, particularly The Dead Eyes of London, which involves a murderous blind henchman very similar to Morpho. The Dead Eyes of London (1961) was adaptation for both the British and German screen, though German Edgar Wallace adaptations, known as krimi, went on to influence the developing giallo genre and likely Franco himself.

There are some decent performances, namely from Diana Lorys (Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll) as Wanda. She would go on to star in Franco’s Nightmares Come At Night and here bears a striking resemblance to French actress Yvonne Monlaur from Hammer’s Brides of Dracula and Circus of Horrors. Perla Cristal is not on screen long, but gives a compelling performance as Orlof’s reluctant former mistress who grows increasingly horrified by his actions. But this is undeniably Howard Vernon’s film. Though he starred or appeared in a number of Franco films, he is excellent as Dr. Orlof, equally suave, charming, creepy, manipulative, and sociopathic. He has the kind of face that is endlessly fascinating, which Franco likely noticed.

Richard Valle doesn’t have a lot to do as Dr. Orlof’s henchman Morpho other than lumber about murderously, but he is surprisingly effective. The make up design is odd and a little silly, and at times he looks like a papier-mâché Marty Feldman, but he is undeniably creepy. His roaming hands, which touch the women he is unable to see, provide a sado-sexual element absent from other films of this time, or, if present, were certainly more subdued. Probably the dullest and least successful elements of the film involve our hero Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin) and his scenes interacting with witnesses or other police officers. Lorys steals every scene from him and it is no wonder she takes it upon herself to solve the murders before her bumbling fiancé gets a chance.

The Awful Dr. Orlof is presented on Blu-ray in a nice 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 print that was restored from a complete 35mm negative. As with Redemption’s other titles, the restoration is not intensive and though The Awful Dr. Orlof looks better than it ever has, there are some issues with age damage. There are white flecks and scratches, but they don’t distract from from the print in any noticeable way. Godofredo Pacheo’s lush black and white cinematography looks excellent and the detail rich sets are lovelier than ever. 

Though The Awful Dr. Orlof was originally filmed in Spanish, Redemption presents the original French dub and English dub, which are uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 mono tracks with optional English subtitles. As with the other recent Redemption Franco releases, I highly recommend the French track over the English, which simply feels stilted and awkward. Either way, the audio is clear and dialogue sounds great. There are some very minimal issues, including occasional hissing and popping, but these are barely noticeable. The wonderful score from Jose Pagan and Antonio Ramirez Angel sounds lovely and is one of the finest elements of The Awful Dr. Orlof. It is equally modern and jazzy, but in its own pleasantly weird way that perfectly fits the tone of the film. 

As with Redemption’s other recent Franco Blu-ray releases, there are some nice extras. There’s yet another excellent audio commentary from Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas that makes this release well worth purchasing if you already happen to own the film. There is also The Young Dr. Orlof Chronicles, a twenty minute making-of featurette with interviews and behind the scenes info. The Horror of Orlof is a nice interview with Franco about the production. Jess! What Are You Doing Now? is a short collection of interviews with Franco’s friends about his legacy. This is included in both the Nightmares Come at Night and A Virgin Among the Living Dead Blu-rays as well. Also included is a stills gallery and a number of trailers. 

The Awful Dr. Orlof may not feel like a Franco films to his critics, but it is a delightful example of early Spanish horror than blends together some of his regular themes: beautiful, spirited women, performers, mad scientists, voyeurism, characters that futilely hope to recreate the past, horrific henchman, and more. If you are a Franco newbie or skeptic considering revisiting his catalogue, this is an excellent place to start and comes highly recommended. Kino and Redemption have done a lovely job with the Blu-ray transfer and The Awful Dr. Orlof looks better than it ever has. 

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