28 January, 2011

THE SINISTER EYES OF DR. ORLOFF: Intervision Picture Corp. DVD

COLOR/1973/76m 12s/Fullscreen]
16 Chapters
Amaray Case

Street Date: 2/8/11

Fiske Manor, Barcelona: Melissa (Monterrat Prous) has been a paraplegic since birth but has recurrent nightmares that she walked one night as a girl through the dark corridors of the family estate and discovered her father (Jess Franco) bleeding to death from an assault by an unknown assassin. The father's blood drips on the girl's legs as she wakes up screaming. Mellisa's half-sister (NIGHT OF THE SORCERER's Loretta Tovar) and Lady Flora (NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS' Kali Hansa) are concerned enough by Melissa's mental state and her self imposed isolation to call in the eminent psychiatrist and old family friend, Dr. Orloff (KEOMA's William Berger). But the Doctor as well as Melissa's relatives have hidden, and conflicting, agendas which will result in a series of brutal murders.

Filmed in the spring of 1973 by Films Manacoa P.C.*, Franco's own production company, this is quite different in style and impact from the first two Jess Franco branded DR. ORLOFF titles, GRITOS EN LA NOCHE (1961) and EL SECRETO DEL DOCTOR ORLOFF (1963),  THE SINISTER EYES OF DR. ORLOFF is in color rather than the gothic-style B&W of the earlier films, and that makes all the difference along with the fact that the direction and photography are much more sober and realistic. One could almost call this conservative in approach with less of the compulsive telezooming of Franco's early 70s oeuvre (cf DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN), more conventional blocking and an overuse of dialogue to telegraph plot, character and thematic exposition. A rather artificial mix of dysfunctional family melodrama, inheritance thriller and old, dark house murder mystery (cf LAS NOCHE DE LOS ASESINO, also from 1973) it is distinguished by generally good acting, especially by Berger, Prous and Jose Manuel Martin as the family servant who attempts to save Melissa from the Family Plot (Hitchcock pun intended!). 

GRITOS EN LA NOCHE is, of course, a classic while EL SECRETO DEL DOCTOR ORLOFF is a worthy follow up, replacing Howard Vernon (Orloff remains his signature role) with an able Marcello Arroita Jaurrgui (the villain in Franco's dleightful 1967 Eurospy send-up LUCKY, THE INSCRUTABLE). Vernon would return to the role in the 1982 EL SINIESTRO DR. ORLOFF, my favorite of the series. Berger looks rather physically beat but that might be understandable considering that he had just been released after being held in an Italian prison for over a year on narcotics charges. Berger's wife died while also incarcerated on the drug charges after being denied medical attention. The actor manages to exude the gravitas it takes to play such a character and his performance is boosted by being effectively voiced by the Spanish dubber/actor Jose Guardiola (HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB).* *

Prous is the correct physical type for the role of the endangered, seemingly helpless Melissa and this, along with her role as the victimized title character in Franco's SINNER: THE INTIMATE DIARY OF A NYMPHOMANIAC (1973) represenent her best work of the seven JF  titles in which she appeared. 

The main problem with this film is its verbose script and static (for Franco) direction. It looks rather rushed and has to depend on Franco's own highly atmospheric musical score for most of its suspense. Written under Franco's frequent David Khune beard the music harks back to the experimental Pagan/Franco cues in GRITOS EN LA NOCHE. This time the score is driven by jarring, low organ notes atonally clashing with dissonant piano chords, rattling percussion, an eerie whistling and other odd instrumentation. There are few of the iconoclastic camera angles the director became noted for although the intercutting of sudden close ups of Orloff's visage into the murder scenes in rather effective. A corny folk song ("open your eyes again") sung in English by Robert Woods' Davey Hutchison character (this is not the real voice of Woods) doesn't really provide the intended counterpoint and seems a rather mawkish device, especially when used as a way to provide a uplift as the final credits roll. Edmund Purdom (THE CAPTAIN IS 15 YEARS OLD, PIECES) is totally miscast as the local detective on the case and appears noticeably uncomfortable in the role. His role probably should have went to the able Spanish character actor Joaquin Blanco (HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD) who appears as his assistant here. And although some of the director's recent DV work may be criticized for having too many overlong sex scenes included THE SINISTER EYES... could definitely have used an infusion of eroticism to perhaps enliven the proceedings at certain intervals. 

The INTERVISION PICTURES CORP. disc is the film's North American DVD debut as well as one of the maiden releases, along with Franco's most recent PAULA-PAULA (2010), of this company, or at least the new incarnation of it since CEO Larry Gold Sr. has reportedly been a VHS pioneer and claims to have many more upcoming releases to unleash. Opening with an obviously vintage VHS-sourced INTERVISION logo (complete with a glitch, I guess to give it a Grindhouse tip of the hat; at least I hope it was intentional) the feature itself appears to have been sourced from an ancient PAL master. Mr. Gold himself mentions that "...Jess stepped up with a rare 1-inch master, culled from his vault in Malaga..." in a press release available on the INTERVISION website. A press released dated Dec 22. 2010 states that the original negative was sold to a "competitor" by Franco in 1973 "who promptly butchered its distribution, losing the negative in the process."  If that's what indeed happened then what is "lost" are the original elements rather than the film itself, which has been available for decades on Spanish VHS {Sogepaq Video} and DVD [VELLAVISION]. I have a dub of the Spanish video which has a consistently better video quality than this DVD in terms of clarity, sharpness, detail, luminosity and definition. Whatever element they used does have brighter, more present colors than the somewhat pale colors of the Spanish VHS, with saturated reds and greens, but this plus is spoiled by the overall transfer, which can best be described as fuzzy. The closeups are soft while most long shots go into a rather unsightly blurring mode. To add to the list of afflictions there is also an unfortunate tendency for the presentation to exhibit a kind of motion artifacting which is most apparent when the characters or camera suddenly move. Whatever merits the original cinematography by Antonio Millan might have had are cropped by the fullscreen presentation.

This is the also the first English subtitled presentation of this title, which helps because of the film's complicated, talky scenario but the subs are rather small  and awkwardly placed (I'm told this may be an encoding issue)*** and sometimes disappear altogether, most disastrously during the crucial scenes showing Orloff's first encounter with the police, where he is revealed to be a liar, and the subsequent, very important scene where he details the reasons for his resentment against Melissa's father and outlines his future plans to eliminate the rest of the family. I hate to include these spoilers but you won't see this information laid out in the English subtitles, as it should be! The subtitles pick up toward the end of his rant but it's too little, too late. There's also an audible hiss on the soundtrack which never goes away. All told this is one of those problematic PAL to NTSC conversion which results in numerous playback issues. 

There is one significant extra, the new 18m interview with Jess Franco, THE SINISTER ORIGINS OF DR. ORLOFF, wherein Jess reveals, between luxurious puffs on his omnipresent cigarettes, that the name Dr. Orloff originated in his filmography not as a homage to the 1939 British Edgar Wallace adaptation, THE HUMAN MONSTER, where Bela Lugosi plays a very sinister Dr. Orloff but rather from one of Jess' Capitol Records collections, which credited a "Eugene Orloff" as a violinist on an album's label. Since Jess is a known world class music buff, collector and film composer/musician in his own right, this is credible. More relevantly he discusses how he considers the Dr. Orloff character in GRITOS EN LA NOCHE to be a rather understandable villain since he is attempting to save his daughter with his crimes. He obviously considers the character somewhat sympathetic, an aspect which he would expand upon in the aforementioned EL SINIESTRO DEL DR. ORLOFF. He also affirms his respect for the late Berger whom he also directed in THE CAPTAIN IS 15 YEARS OLD, JUEGO SUCIO EN CASABLANCA (1984), GOLDEN TEMPLE AMAZONS (1985) and in Berger's very last role in the unreleased JUNGLE OF FEAR (1992). Berger collapsed during the shoot of JUNGLE and later succumbed to bone cancer. Describing Berger as a "sensitive" actor  Franco obviously considered him a close friend and valued colleague and is visibly moved when discussing his imprisonment, dedication as an actor and fatal illness. Also very interesting is Franco's detailing of how the Spanish authorities as the time rated this film as "1B" instead of "1A" because it was produced in Barcelona, a city which the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco disliked and wanted to punish because he didn't find much support there. He terms the Spanish authorities as "Motherfuckers" who damaged his career, his film and held back the future career of Montserrat Prous, who ended up as a comedienne in local theater. The director sums up his feeling about the film by admitting that he had some problems communicating his intentions to the cast and didn't really succeed in making a fully realized version of the film he had envisioned.

Franco scholars, myself included, should be intrigued by these revelations but there is also a big drawback here. Franco speaks in heavily accented English and since no English subtitles are provided at least 50 percent of his comments are incomprehensible on an initial listening. Subtitles should have definitely been provided in this case. It should also be noted that along with the above mentioned problems with the feature's subtitles are some glaring grammatical/usage errors. At one point a character is described as "degenerative" and one of Orloff's lines is translated as "Your family has played a stupid system."

So, with all these issues and a few distinct pluses, should you spend your $19.99 on this DVD presentation? . I guess if you really really want a DVD with English subs of this and want to hear some of an interesting JF interview, go for it. Some people want to collect any and all JF DVDs and can't get enough of the man. For me the film is second, if not third tier Franco and this is not in any way a definitive presentation. It may also make a future defiintive NTSC presentation less likely. 

To end on a positive note, the original Jano artwork which graces the front cover and disc is a definite plus. 

Film: **1/2
Video: **
Audio: **1/2
Extras: ***

* Robert Woods gave me additional information on the making of this film when I interviewed him in 2007. He noted that it was filmed in late spring of 1973 just before the aborted RELAX BABY from a 50 page script which was expanded on during the shoot. "The title on the script was THE STRANGE EYES OF DR. ORLOFF, in Spanish. We filmed it in less than two weeks." Woods confirmed that it was filmed outside of Barcelona but didn't travel to the Canary Islands for that part of the shoot.
Thanks to Robert Woods and Michael Casati.  
**Thanks to Mirek Lipinski and Nzoog for the additional information on the VHS/DVD history of this title and the Spanish dubbing. 
*** Additional thanks to Eric Cotenas.

NOTE: THE SINISTER EYES OF DR. ORLOFF [onscreen title: LOS OJOS DEL DOCTOR ORLOFF] is a story Jess Franco had told before (the "human killer-robot" theme would reoccur in such significant titles as EL SECRETO DEL DOCTOR ORLOFF, MISS MUERTE, NECRONOMICON/SUCCUBUS, CARTES SUR TABLE, THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU, FUTURE WOMEN, NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT, MIL SEXOS TIENE LA NOCHE among many others) and would tell again, specifically in the 1983 remake of this film, the far superior SOLA ANTE EL TERROR with a "Dr. Orgaf " {Ricardo Palacios} replacing Dr. Orloff and Lina Romay (who appears in a minor role in THE SINISTER EYES...) as Melissa.

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