After starting his directing career in the late fifties with several light comedies and two musicals, thirty-two year old, Madrid-born, maverick filmmaker Jess Franco, kick-started the Spanish horror movement with his "Screams In The Night" (Gritos En La Noche) — retitled "The Awful Dr Orlof" for it's American release — a stylish Gothic horror film that deftly pays tribute to Franco's eclectic array of influences ranging from the Universal classic monster series of the Thirties to the films of Fritz Lang, F.W.Murnau, Carl Dreyer and Robert Siodmak. The expressionistic style of the film harbours a plot quickly cobbled together by Franco (written in "a minute" according to the man himself!) from elements of an Edgar Wallace story called "The Dead Eyes Of London" and the classic 1959 French horror from Georges Franju, "Eyes Without A Face". The opening credits claim that the film is an adaptation of a novel by one David Khune, but this is one of Franco's many pseudonyms and the novel apparently doesn't exist -- despite the "author's" claims to the contrary! The film not only marked the starting point of Spain's love/hate relationship with the fantastique genre, but turned out to be the template for much of Franco's subsequent moviemaking. Character names and plot-points from "The Awful Dr Orlof" resurface time and time again in films as diverse as "Jack The Ripper", "Eugine De Sade" and "Vampyros Lesbos", while Franco has remade the film several times ("The Sinister Dr Orlof", "Faceless") and apparently plans to do so again in the near future with one of his shot-on-video quickies for the American based One Shot Productions.
Franco's subject matter is unashamedly horror of a distinctly lowbrow variety; the film positively revels in it's pulp-fictional world of mad scientists, marauding monsters and incompetent detectives. What immediately strikes the viewer, especially if you've only been aware of Franco's more haphazard offerings, is the sheer professionalism with which this pulpy material is realised. Beautiful, expressionistic black & white photography from Godofredo Pacheco combines shadowy lighting with weird camera angles and sets them against Jose Pagan and Antonio Ramirez Angel's bizarrely original score, with it's cacophonous menagerie of clattering drums, discordant whistles and atonal xylophones!
The story appears to be set in 19th century Paris where buxom music-hall entertainers are mysteriously disappearing at a worrying rate! The hapless Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin) is under pressure to come up with results but his investigations are hampered, not least by a bewildering array of eccentrics who keep coming forward to confess to the crimes, providing the film with it's occasional (and tiresome) comedy moments. The inspector's resourceful fiancee Wanda (Diana Lorys) takes it upon herself to give her beau a helping hand, and, posing as a cabaret singer, soon falls into the clutches of the film's titular character (played with relish by Franco regular Howard Vernon) and his zombified, blind henchman Morpho (Ricardo Valle). With the help of his bug-eyed assistant, the mad Dr. Orlof is kidnapping young women from the streets of Paris and using them to provide skin crafts for his sick and disfigured sister, Melissa (also played by Diana Lorys). The experiments are not going to plan, leaving a trail of mutilated victims in their wake. When Orlof happens upon Wanda (who is a dead ringer for his ailing sister) his obsession spirals even further out of control. Will Tanner make a breakthrough on the case in time to rescue his intended bride?
Despite it's traditional Gothic trappings and comic book elements "The Awful Dr Orlof" has all the specific hallmarks that would come to be seen as indicative of the Spanish horror, or fantastique, genre. These revolve around a tendency to emphasis those more perverse and sadistic elements of the material to a far greater degree than the source material that provides the original inspiration for the work. Franco's later preoccupation with sadistic imagery is even here in embryonic form, particularly in a scene where one of Orlof's previous victims is found chained up in the castle dungeon by the heroine of the movie. Although light on nudity by today's standards, Franco manages to use it in a transgressive way in several scenes; one involving a surgical procedure on one of Orlof's female victims in which the camera lingers on the woman's breasts in a thoroughly unnecessary manner as the doctor makes an incision. Another instance occurs later when the blind Morpho grapples with the heroine as she makes a bid to escape, and expertly manages to remove her top in the process! Monsters abducting screaming young women had long been a mainstay of horror cinema and although not particularly explicitly dealt with in the film, "The Awful Dr Orlof" does at least convey an awareness of the perverse erotic undertones inherent in this kind of material. Morpho attacks his victims with unusual ferociousness, biting and clawing at them in an uncontrollable sexual frenzy, while Orlof's obsession with his sister seems to imply an incestuous relationship between the two. Franco would go on to take these kinds of themes and sadistic subject matter much, much further of course, but "The Awful Dr Orlof" is a perfect bridge between the innocent old-style Gothic horror of yesteryear and the deranged excess of Franco's later work and still serves as a great introduction to this fascinating and infuriating filmmaker.
Image give us a fairly nice (though non-anamorphic) presentation of the film presented in it's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The English dub is as bad as you would expect but that is something most Euro-shock fans have come to expect by now. The DVD offers no extras whatsoever, but is at least available for $9.00 or less and is most definitely a must see for Franco freaks.