Monday, April 15, 2013

Meltdown 08: Francophilia (Part II)

The Awful Dr. Orlof 

(Grito en la noche


The Awful Dr. Orlof doubles as both one of Franco's earliest films and one of the earliest horror film in Spanish cinema. Though rather tame, conventional, and linear when seen in comparison to Franco's later work (and to the seedy, gory depths that horror cinema in general was to begin to scour by the decade's close), Orlof isn't without its own taboo-breaking moments: hark, the fondling of bare breasts! the sucking of necks! the surgical violation of nude torsos! Though possessing the general air of a supernatural Gothic horror romp, the film is distinct from its symbolic predecessors due to the fact that its villains are decidedly human. Moreover, they're humans with sexual obsessions and perversities that render them into monstrous beings. Orlof (Howard Vernon), our primary antagonist, is essentially a date rapist, drugging intoxicated women at nightclubs while appearing to behave as a gentleman and then carting their unconscious bodies back to his abode where he has his way with them. Granted, "has his way with" in this case translates to "performs experiments on," but it's made fairly apparent that his Moreau-like, objective-less experimentation has sexual motivations. His implied motivation-- curing the physical and emotional ailments of his ambiguously fire-mutilated  daughter-- is merely a distraction: she's nothing more than a cipher for his sexual desire and gross medical ambition. (Unsurprisingly, she expires (without explanation) at the exact moment her father does.) We bear witness to the supremacy of his sexual desire, portrayed with all the agony of a pining lover, through his tireless pursuit of a famous ballerina for his next victim (a ballerina who happens to be played, not coincidentally, by the same actress who plays his daughter) and his easy promise of his "beloved" daughter's sexual favors to his oafish assistant, Morpho (Ricardo Valle), in return for positive results in regard to the ballerina's capture. Morpho is himself a human monster, a bug-eyed, mute brute who attacks the doctor's victims with bouts of pathetic, ineffectual sucking of the neck, as if he were an impotent vampire, trying desperately to get his fangs up. With these rather blatant sexual overtones, Orlof ushered an unreserved strain of eroticism into the realm of visual horror, bringing to the fore themes that were previously restricted to mere suggestion. For this, the film stands as a landmark alongside similarly themed early erotic horror films, like Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), released in Italy a scant month after Orlof was released in Spain.

Better yet, the film also manages to throw in a handful of broad-minded transgressive touches, including a strong female protagonist who, through her independent actions, makes her distinguished male counterpart look like an ineffectual doofus. This woman is Wanda Bronsky (Diana Lorys), the ballerina ladyfriend of Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin), who -- despite no personal connection with the case-- basically does his job for him in her free time by donning a disguise and tracking down Orlof. Sure, she gets herself caught in the process and requires male intervention to break free, but it's questionable as to whether or not the slovenly police would have ever caught up to Orlof without her selfless efforts. Appropriately, Tanner, and the film, bestow upon her the title of "finest investigator." But besides these delightful touches, primarily the film is a well-made, atmospheric, pseudo-scientific European chiller, showing us-- through sumptuous black and white photography-- perspectives on a series of abductions from both those persons responsible and those investigating. It may at times err on the side of the obvious (Orlof is visually coded throughout the film's first act by a blanket of perpetual shadow), but it's never less than striking in its effect.

  Dr. Orloff's Monster  

(El secreto del Dr. Orloff


Two years later, Franco's follow-up-in-name-only to The Awful Dr. Orlof, Dr. Orloff's Monster (a.k.a. The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll), adds an extra 'f' to the good doctor's name and almost completely jettisons Orloff himself (who garners a mere cameo), introducing instead a Dr. Conrad Jekyll (Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui), a man who "comes off like he invented penicillin or something" and who bears no relation to that other Jekyll. Maybe. Though producing a mostly new story and cast of characters, the film can be viewed as a reconfiguration of the themes from its predecessor. It's not nearly as sleazy, but the film is still all about sex and, moreover, sexual dissatisfaction. Dr. Jekyll, a man cuckolded by his wife and her lover (who happens to be, of all men, his own brother), sets out to create a creature of the undead, a walking organic "robot" to do his bidding, through his immoral science. The catch is that his new experimental subject is none other than his brother, Andros (Hugo Blanco), whom he murdered in a fit of rage after walking in on him with his wife in bed. Curiously, Dr. Jekyll's anger at his wife does not manifest in any overt way through his treatment of her (as she appears to be suffering enough knowing her lover is dead); instead, Jekyll takes his frustrations out against all other woman, becoming a murderous misogynist angry at all the women who might betray him if given the opportunity. But his twisted, sexually motivated revenge couldn't possibly settle there: Jekyll doesn't kill women himself, but instead compels his brother (whom Jekyll freely admits has always been more charming and handsome than him) by way of radio waves to commit the bloody deeds for him.  In an inspired bit of irony, Jekyll spitefully transforms his romantically successful brother into a literal "ladykiller." The unexpected arrival of Andros' daughter, Melissa (Agnès Spaak), at the Jekyll residence precipitates a series of events that lead to the almost-touching rediscovery of Andros' humanity through his love for his daughter. This evolution of the monster is the heart of the film and Franco pulls it off with a surprising grace that is evident in scenes such as the one in which  the shambling Andros visits his own grave and the film's closing moment, in which the monster fails to comprehend why his loving daughter has betrayed him. It's worth noting that unlike The Awful Dr. Orlof, Dr. Orloff's Monster, through its creation of the Andros zombie, veers headlong into the supernatural. And yet it's a decidedly more human film than its namesake, dealing with genuine human emotions-- both those repressed and those thrashing at the surface-- through the symbolic filter of monstrosity. 

The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff  

(Los ojos siniestros del Doctor Orloff


Dr. Orloff (William Berger) returns in style a full decade later in The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff, which is in many ways the most conventional of the Orloff tales. Such conventionality also means that it's perhaps the most immediately entertaining of the films, being as it is a twisty gaslightling tale of a woman (Montserrat Prous) who may or not be a deranged, sleepwalking killer. Berger makes a fine replacement for Howard Vernon in the Orloff role, but this version of the character lacks the psychosexual dimension of previous incarnations due to his motivation stemming entirely from an over-elaborate inheritance-grabbing scheme (yet another sign of the film's conventional aspirations). The film more closely resembles the convoluted commercial mystery plot styling of Silence of the Tomb (1972), released a year prior, and it may be that this was simply the sort of film Franco was being paid to make at the time. It's difficult to complain when the results are this fun: we're gifted with throats (or as the subtitles tell us, "uvulas") being slit with a clock pendulum, Lina Romay refusing to ever wear pants, a Freudian father/blood dripping/leg paralysis nightmare, and sexy evil assistants who plan on using their cuts of the inheritance money to have "thousands of adventures with the hottest men of the Earth." What The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff lacks in depth it makes up for with demented pulp zeal. "We all have a demented germ in our brain," one of the film's characters declares. That's not false, and it's precisely that germ that allows us to take pleasure in the joys found here.

  The Sinister Dr. Orloff  

(El Siniestro Doctor Orloff


The Sinister Dr. Orloff, arriving yet another decade after the loose series' nearly identically titled previous entry, is basically The Awful Dr. Orlof updated for the Fear City (1984) crowd. It's sleazy as heck, smeared with that unmistakable grimy '80s sheen, wailing synth score included. (For a specific instance of this contemporary update, gander at the Morpho character, here named Andros (Rafael Cayetano), who dons a cheesy leather jacket and aviators while going about his mute abductions of women). An elderly Howard Vernon makes a welcome return as a wheelchair-bound Dr. Orloff, though he's relegated to the background so that his son, Alfred Orloff (Antonio Mayans), a budding macabre scientist himself, can take the woman-slaughtering, body-part-collecting reins. When not carrying on an incestuous relationship with his perpetually nude comatose mother, Alfred cruises the neon-lit streets of the city in his automobile, providing voice over narration reiterating how desperately he wishes to kill all those "sluts" and "filthy whores" out there in the night, though in practice this hatred materializes as a scene of near cunnilingus with a fleshy middle aged prostitute. Although Alfred relates that he's only able to be aroused by the anguished cries of women, we're never given a meaningful or coherent reason for his feelings. (Though, if he's comparing other women to his mute and passive mother, we can probably figure he'd be peeved by all those conscious women out there who say "no" to his clumsy, creepy, sociopathic advances and don't simply lie there and take it.) It's a sloppy film (the version I saw had Andros alive one moment with a cut to him lying dead the very next), but it musters some interest with its off-kilter approach to the material. Of particular interest is the pseudo-science, here taken to a light-strobing metaphysical level involving the transference of souls between bodies. This creaky scientific advancement results in a cynical and poignantly grim ending in line with that of Dr. Orloff's Monster. If nothing I've said is enough of a recommendation, be informed that the film features a cameo from Franco as a flamboyant gay shop owner and that it also includes mention of an angora cat named "Pussywuss." One cannot find this stuff simply anywhere.

Coming up: Jack the Ripper (1976), Mansion of the Living Dead (1985), The Sadistic Baron von Klaus (1962), The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966).


  1. Bravo! I did not know that 84's The Sinister Dr. Orloff even existed. I almost asked you last week if it was Mansion Of The Living Dead. Your Sinister review hits the nail on the head. After seeing Silence Of The Tomb Richard and I talked about the similar dreamy styles of it and Sinister. Tombs was like a lazy (in a good way) giallo. And not a bit of nudity. Which was weird. I need to see the first Orlof again. Keep it up!

    1. Lazy gialli might be my favorite kind.

      I didn't know the '84 Orloff existed either (title doesn't help) until I started watching it and saw that Howard Vernon was grimacing where William Berger should have been.

      And, alongside Lorna and Faceless, Mansion of the Living Dead is one of my new Franco favorites. What a peculiar supernatural romp! More on that next time.