02 February, 2018

THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (1965) Redemption Blu-ray Review...


A woman whose face has been hideously disfigured with burn tissue is seen through a surgical mirror. She is lying on a hospital bed as if prepared for surgery. Suddenly she picks up a scalpel with a white gloved hand and begins to cut the scar tissue away in bloody close up. This is just one of the arresting images in Jess Franco's 1965 medical horror classic MISS MUERTE (THE DIABOLICAL DR.Z). It's an image which might recall a canvas by Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon or Rene Magritte. A jarring, surreal composition which can't be dismissed once it is seen. Welcome to the world of Jess Franco...

Austria: The aging Doctor Zimmer (Antonio J. Escribano), a student of the notorious Doctor Orloff ( one f in GRITOS EN LA NOCHE-1961), has been experimenting on animals with electro-magnetic energy he terms Z-rays, which are supposed to alter the chemical processes which control good and evil impulses in the human organism. A noted Chemistry Professor and independent thinker, he visits a local medical conference to gain permission from organizer Doctor Vicas (Howard THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF Vernon) to begin experimenting on humans. When he is violently repudiated by the committee, Zimmer collapses, suffering a fatal attack as a result of the public rejection. His daughter, Irma (Mabel Karr), also a scientist, vows to her dying father that she will continue his work. In the meantime, medical ethics be damned, she secretly plans deadly vengeance on the members of the medical board.


THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z was Jess Franco's fourth black and white horror film, and the third in which the transgressive medical theories and practices of "Doctor Orloff" (who is only mentioned in the dialogue here) play a key role in the plot. After the rather uneven EL SECRETO DEL DR. ORLOFF (1964), MISS MUERTE (Spanish title) registers as the aesthetic perfection of Franco's 1960s mad scientist series. By making the mad scientist a woman the director confirms his predilection for focusing his attention on female protagonists (cf his feature debut TENEMOS 18 ANOS) in a hostile, male dominated world. The stern, disturbing presence of Mabel Karr as the criminal with a complicated agenda is very effective, looking forward to such future Franco female super criminals/dominatrices/femme fatales as Lorna in SUCCUBUS/Necronomicon and LORNA, THE EXORCIST, Sumuru in THE GIRL FROM RIO, Irina in FEMALE VAMPIRE, Countess Zaroff in THE PERVERSE COUNTESS, the female prison wardens in 99 WOMEN, BARBED WIRE DOLLS, SADOMANIA, Tara Obongo in MACUMBA SEXUAL,  the daughter of Fu Manchu is ESCALAVAS DE CRIMEN (1987), the wild women in CRYPT OF THE CONDEMNED (2102) and many more deadly females. 

So, what is it with Jess Franco and wicked, transgressing women? There's much evidence throughout his filmography that he finds women much more fascinating and magnetic than men, even mentally unstable women, like Ana, the unconscious killer in AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO (1973), a film which Franco had originally planned to make around the time he made MISS MUERTE. Estella Blain, also an unconscious killer in this earlier scenario (co-written by Luis Bunuel scenarist Jean-Claude Carriere BELLE DE JOUR), has a vulnerable aura and a mysterious factor beneath her appearance as a beautiful young blond here. She's perfectly cast as the instrument of Irma's revenge, and reflects Irma's quiet resentment of women more desirable to men than herself.. Her performances in tight, glittering spider gear, seen from an overhead camera angle looking down at a spider webbed stage as she writhes toward a male mannequin, are the high points of this film. Other striking scenes include the stalkings and killings of Howard Vernon, in a Hitchcockian dining car (cf NORTH BY NORTHWEST),and the portly actor who played the mad scientist character in EL SECRETO DEL ORLOFF (Marcello Arroita-Jauregui, who was also a member of the Spanish censorship in the 1960s!). Scenes set in trains moving through the night and the dark alleyways of the small Austrian town also add Film Noir style ambiance, all superbly lit and framed by the masterful Alejandro Ulloa (COMPANEROS, THE DEVIL'S HONEY, EL CAMINANTE). His high contrast black and white lighting schemes really shine in this stunning presentation.

The Zimmer's weird, secret operating theater, filled with automatized operating tables equipped with retractable, metal claws, electronic generators, caged animals, blinking Strickfaden-style laboratory lighting, brings to mind both classic Universal Horror ( BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and Al Adamson's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN. They seal the film in its own unique, monochrome, mid-1960s Euro-horror atmosphere. Such William Castle style horror gimmicks as the needles which are inserted into human flesh, gender bending disguises and plastic surgery interludes add to the macabre environment. The Edgar Wallace like lead inspector is played by Jess Franco himself, in a high spirited, if world weary manner. The film's composer, the prolific Daniel White, a longtime creative partner of the director, appears as a visiting Scotland Yard observer. They both seem to be relaxed and having fun with playing their roles. Their presence may have been a typical Jess Franco in-joke or likely dictated by cost cutting considerations.  All this and much more make this a top tier entry in Franco's long,  twisting filmography. This works as a headlong thriller told in a sometimes Expressionist, sometimes Surrealist mode, and a continuation with Franco's career-long obsession with those who break medical and other ethical codes. He would use the exact same plot again, with Soledad Miranda as the sexy, robotized avenger, in the 1970 SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY. It was the penultimate film of Miranda, who, like Estella Blain would die a tragic, premature death. 

This shimmering HD 1080p transfer from Gaumont's 35mm element marks a significant upgrade of this key title, and is definitely the best it has ever looked on digital media, with bottomless backs, appropriate grain, with not much visible DNR on display. Much detail, depth and resonant definition are revealed, and each image is razor sharp. This HD presentation of the film is going to be a must for the serious Jess Franco student, cult movie collectors or anyone who wants to be introduced to his work via a demonstration quality presentation.

Special Features include a detailed, informative commentary by OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO co-writer Tim Lucas, who focuses on the themes of mind-control and gender in the film, the English and (preferred) French language tracks with English subtitles, along with the original theatrical trailer.
87 min, 1920x1080p (1.66:1, with some added information on both sides, top and bottom).
Daniel White's moody jazz music and both language tracks sound vibrant and crystal clear.

Highly recommended.
(2018) (C) Robert Monell

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