20 August, 2013

THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF Blu-ray review

  • Hartog-1912: With the help of his deformed, blind, deranged manservant Morpho (Ricardo Valle),  Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon), a disturbed ex-prison medic, abducts and skins music hall performers and local prostitutes, attempting  to crudely graft their facial tissue onto the ruined head of his daughter, Melissa (Diana Lorys, who also appears as Wanda Bronsky, the gorgeous girlfriend of the not-to-bright but nice Inspector Tanner [Conrado San Martin], who is not making headway in solving the serial kidnappings). Wanda proposes a daring, dangerous mission in which she will pose as a "harlot" to trap the villain. Her plan succeeds all too well, resulting in her eventual abduction and new role as the next unwilling tissue donor in Orlof's operating theater of horrors. 
Title credit card for the censored Spanish version. The  new Blu-ray contains all the nudity missing from this edit, done at the time of the regime of General Francisco Franco.

The basics of this plot would be repeated, sometimes shot by shot, in such subsequent Franco efforts as EL SECRETO DEL DR. ORLOF (1964), LA VENGANZA DEL DR. MABUSE (1971), THE SINISTER DR ORLOF (1982), FACELESS (1988), to name but a few, each time adding more nudity, sleaze and gore whenever allowed. ORLOF [onscreen title: L'HORRIBLE DOCTEUR ORLOF] was, of course, censored in Spain of all nudity, including a scene of Orlof cutting into the exposed upper torso of an abducted showgirl (Mara Lasso) and Morpho pawing the exposed breasts of Wanda ( a body double was used when Lorys refused to do the shot). These were shocking images then, if not today. Somehow the richly shadowed B&W cinematography of Godofredo Pacheco makes these moments seem all the more transgressive, suddenly erupting within a more charming, genteel period setting.

What remains memorable about this film is the stunning visuals which employ B&W film stock to its fullest capacity (unfortunately this is not fully apparent in this transfer, which could used a boost in the contrast, it's sometimes grey and white, instead of jet black and white. However, definition, sharpness and detail are all significantly improved from the previous 2000 IMAGE DVD). Right from the very first image, framed through a street lamp, to the final shot of the survivors walking away down an arched walkway of a Gothic castle, Franco frames his scenes with optical, almost subliminal reminders that we are watching a staged production, an artifice, something at least once removed from reality.
 Morpho, in his voyeur mode, peers at his prey while hiding in a closet. Note the bugged-out eyes which Franco would use to even more outrageous effect with the cannibal-zombie in DEVIL HUNTER (1980).

Then there's Morpho Lautner (Ricardo Valle), who is tagged, in the perceptive and informative Tim Lucas commentary, as the screen's first "oral sadist," biting into the necks and chests of his voluptuous victims, combining the attributes of a cannibal (DEVIL HUNTER), zombie (LAS TUMBAS DE LOS MUERTOS VIVIENTES) and vampire (EL CONDE DRACULA), all in one unique, unforgettable character. This kind of thing just wasn't business-as-usual in the early 60s horror genre, leaving H.G. Lewis (BLOOD FEAST) and Georges Franju aside. The shots of the women's bleeding torsos, skinned faces, their chained bodies hanging from the ceiling of Orlof's dungeon, are the stuff of nightmares and 1960s Fumetti Neri.

This Blu-ray also presents the experimental, slam-bang, atonal, rattling, pounding, non-melodic J. Pagan-A. Ramirez Angel-Jess Franco score to its best advantage. The well-translated, very readable English subtitles (they even took the trouble to subtitle the songs in the music hall sequences) are also a welcome addition to the French langauge track

Watching the excellent documentary "The Young Dr. Orlof Chronicles" directed by Daniel Gouyette, featuring a wealth of fascinating information and insights into the making of this Jess Franco horror classic by film historians Alain Petit, Lucas Balbo, Jean-Pierre Bouyxou and Eurocine Exec Daniel Lesoeur. It alone is worth the price of admission to the new Blu-ray presentation of THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF from REDEMPTION FILMS.
"Welcome to the Mad, Mad World of  THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF.... such carryings-on and such carryings-out...." the vintage US trailer exclaimed. I would have loved to have seen the SIGMA III Corporation double bill of this with Riccardo Freda's THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK back in 1964, two of the most transgressive horror films of that era, both dealing with still forbidden themes of necrophilia, sadism, rape and sexual sadism, submerged in heavy Gothic aesthetics combining German Expressionism, French Fantastique, the London-Fog Hollywood excursions into mad scientist/Jack the Ripper territory and Jess Franco's own Spanish tinged, macabre-erotic artistic proclivities by way of Luis Bunuel and Edgar Neville.

The plot is an unholy stew of tropes boldly incorporating elements of Franju's LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (1959), CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960) and countless other Euro/American models. The Owl which inhabits the Orlof household even recalls Chano Urueta's delirious Mexican sex, gore and surgery cheapo THE WITCH'S MIRROR (1960), the latter influence confirmed by the director during my 2005 interview in which he revealed an unending admiration for the Mexican maestro. It remains unclear if Franco actually saw and consciously incorporated any or all of these into his mise en scene but they somehow all pertain.

Wanda (Diana Lorys), in hooker guise, encounters herself on the other side of the mirror, the title of one of the director's best films and a recurring image throughout his long career.

I would like to cite the excellent documentary "The Young Dr. Orlof Chronicles" directed by Daniel Gouyette, featuring a wealth of fascinating information and insights into the making of this Jess Franco horror classic by film historians Alain Petit, Lucas Balbo, Jean-Pierre Bouyxou and Eurocine Exec Daniel Lesoeur. It alone is worth the price of admission to the new Blu-ray presentation of THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF from REDEMPTION FILMS.  These world class experts discuss everything from the impact of the film on the European cultural scene in the early 60s to the elusive "novels" of David Khune/Khunne, with Lucas Balbo nailing the source of the beard.  No one, including the late director, has ever produced one of these mysterious pulp fictions, but it's fun to speculate.  

Equally fascinating is David Gregory's "The Horror of Orlof," the last interview with the director focusing on his first horror film. Franco reveals that he did not set out to be a horror director, his first three features were the screwball comedy TENEMOS 18 ANOS and two light-hearted musical comedies.  He then failed to secure the go-ahead to film B. Tavern's novel THE REBELLION OF THE HANGED, an epic tale of exploitation and violence in the jungles of Mexico, by the author of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, that had already been filmed in 1954 by Alfredo Crevenna and Emilio Fernandez on Mexican locations. Shifting to Gothic territory after taking the Spanish and French producers to a a screening of  Hammer's THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, the director went full speed ahead on filming the first excursion into full fledged surgical horror, boosted with erotic elements, on Madrid locations. There's not much nudity/sex in LES YEUX SANS VISAGE, but there is much sensual poetry. But ORLOF goes for the jugular in both regards, making it all the more daring considering it was made in a country still under a dictatorship which was once allied with Hitler's Nazi Germany.

Franco claims to have  picked the name Orlof from a Hollywood studio musician. I would go with Tim Lucas that the Bela Lugosi Orloff character in the 1939 British horror THE HUMAN MONSTER was a more likely source. Franco contends he wanted to make films like Antonioni's LA NOTTE but ended up forced into the horror ghetto, from which he would never really emerge.

There's also an 8 minute homage to the late director by Daniel Gouyette, "Jess! What are you doing now?" A photo gallery and original theatrical trailers are also included in this HD upgrade package which certainly presents this "museum piece" (as Franco referred to it in his later years) in an expanded, improved edition, with some room left for future improvement in the contrast and restoration departments. This version also runs almost 5 minutes longer than the 83 minute IMAGE DVD,  making it the way to go, if you want to upgrade, until a full restoration arrives.

We'll be looking at the Spanish version in more detail in a future blog post. Thanks to Mirek Lipinski for the caps from the Spanish version and thanks to Nzoog for his consultative support.

PS: In his excellent commentary on THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF Blu-ray Tim Lucas cites the influence of director John Brahm, especially THE LODGER, on the visual style and atmosphere of Jess Franco's first horror film. This prompted me to review some images from Brahm's career, especially his 1940s films. Here's an image from Brahm's 1946 Film Noir THE LOCKET, showing Robert Mitchum's face obscured by shadows. Note how it compares to the image of Howard Vernon as Dr. Orlof. The expressionist use of lighting illustrates inner darkness

Jess Franco had already mastered the B&W format.

1 comment:

Mirek said...

Unfortunately, this classic of Spanish horror has been given an indifferent release, despite the efforts of several respected people. The quality of the transfer erases the strong dimensions inherent in a black and white film, and the extras are not compelling enough to justify a purchase solely for them, though I did enjoy hearing from French cineastes who were around at the time of the film's theatrical showing in France. I'm getting very tired of something being released on Blu-Ray just to make it a first in that format and pocket money for such an exclusive. With the economy the way it is, we should demand more of a presentation that costs near $30.