Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Awful Doctor Orlof (1962), by Jess Franco

I have to admit, preemptively, that I am more apprehensive of reviewing The Awful Doctor Orlof than I was of reviewing Blood Feast. That's not a difference in respect--after all, H.G. Lewis is a veritable idol of mine, due to not merely directing Blood Feast but also writing the novel of Blood Feast. The Awful Doctor Orlof is, if you will, the European counterpart of Lewis' overwhelming genre-busting success, leaving nothing the same in its wake. It marks the commencement of Jesus "Jess" Franco's legendary horror career, wherein he produced fantastic revolutionary classics as well as an intense amount of shit. Franco is a director often described as relentless, in ways both good and bad. Doctor Orlof is, however, one of the true Franco classics. Christopher Lee in yellowface does not lurk herein, I can promise you.

The plot of Doctor Orlof is memorable if anything because it was duplicated dozens of times through Franco's corpus. Ultimately the story is a loose lift from Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face from three years prior--a movie that would see a variety of imitators and perhaps create interest in the old "Killing People to Steal Their 'Glands'" plot, which was included The Leech Woman and Atom Age Vampire just a year or two after Eyes, but had its origins in 1945's The Man in Half-Moon Street. Which, in turn, had its origins in good ol' Dorian Gray. What's interesting to me is that Eyes tells the story of a scientist who collects the body parts he does to restore his daughter's beauty after she is injured. Atom Age Vampire also had a scientist who killed to restore a loved one, this time his burned wife, while The Leech Woman killed people to restore her own good looks (influenced by age, not burning). With the Man in Half-Moon Street, the gland-harvester just wants to live forever. And a lot of this, along with Doctor Orlof, was probably mutated and shuffled around when they were doing the plot for The Abominable Dr. Phibes nearly a decade later.

Anyway. Having not seen most of the films I just referenced, I will instead elucidate that The Awful Doctor Orlof is a relatively straightforward story about a man, named, natch, Dr. Orlof, who goes around killing women to take their skin so he can restore his comatose daughter's face. Actually, the person who does the killing is his blind, mute, deformed ex-convict butler Morpho. If that's not fucking pulp I have no idea what it is. Except this is also a Gothic story, principally so. The city whose streets Orlof and Morpho prowl recall German Expressionism and there are spooky mansions, fancy evening clothes, and a dearth of daytime scenes. Pulp influences return when we see that Orlof largely picks up his women at sexy nightclubs, a feature of basically every other movie Franco ever made. Whatever the influence, atmosphere is everywhere. Simply put, every frame of this movie is interesting just because it is genuinely creepy. Franco, when he did his thing well, was a master of trapping us in the world he created. Orlof fulfills every desire for old-style "innocent" movies that still have a scummy sublayer to them.

Adding to this atmosphere is the ever-charismatic presence of Howard Vernon. I don't know why I'm such a big Vernon fan--actually, never mind. Go and watch Revenge in the House of Usher and see his performance in that. Make sure you have the English dubs, wherein I'm positive Vernon voices himself (his English voice and his natural voice from interviews are too similar to be an impersonator). In that one, he's being hilarious, but he still also delivers his lines fantastically, with gravitas. By the time he shows up as a cranky mayor in Zombie Lake, you'll be sold. And then he turns up in Ogroff... Think Lugosi in his movies from before the drugs got too bad, or Vincent Price but sleazier and less silly (though no less gentlemanly). Vernon was born to play villains precisely like Orlof, and Franco made a great choice in casting him.

Next, there is a plethora of great moments all throughout the film. My favorite trash films always have one moment that they boil down to, though not always (and sometimes the moment is the entire movie). This movie's big moment is probably the scene with the Crazy Guy who wants his name in the paper. Six or seven watches and I still don't really know what he's talking about but I get enough of the gist of it to proceed with the movie. But only just so. I want to know if you have the same reaction. There are certainly other big moments, probably involving some of the decisions regarding accents in the dubbing, but this one takes the cake.

Finally, Orlof obtains some meta-coolness by the legacy it leaves behind--the extremely overcomplicated legacy. You see, Orlof has a great many sequels, and the names of its characters are reused frequently. There are at least five movies with name of Orloff (spelled with two f's after this first movie) in the title that I can think of off the top of my head, and one of them, The Orgies of Dr. Orloff, doesn't even have a character named Dr. Orloff in it (though the main character is played by Howard Vernon). However, characters by the name of Orloff show up in Franco's films The Diabolical Dr. Z, Female Vampire, and Jack the Ripper (with the last of which revealing, in a literally unbelievable sense, that Jack the Ripper was Dr. Orloff), though admittedly the movies that did feature Orloff's name in the title probably weren't depicting the same character. Regarding other names of Franco's, then: if there is an imperiled wife/daughter/sister/mother who the main character wants to protect or heal from an injury, they are probably named Melissa, just like Orlof's daughter in this movie. Morpho also shows up, at least in name, in The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein and Revenge in the House of Usher in basically the same role. Actually, in House of Usher, he was playing the exact same role, because I refuse to believe that Howard Vernon's evil scientist character is actually named Usher. He is clearly Dr. Orlof, probably the same as the one from this movie, and I say this because a lot of the substance of House of Usher is stock footage from Dr. Orlof. Morpho is shown to have aided "Usher" as a younger man and, because young!Morpho is stock footage, he has the same scenes as Morpho from Orlof. Morpho is just one less name we have to change to make House of Usher the closest thing this first Orloff movie has to a bona fide sequel.

House of Usher amusingly complicates the situation further for reasons involving the Zombi series ("series"), which I'll explain in a later article, because that is a huge mess unto itself that drags in Planet of the Apes and Friday the 13th. In that time I'll probably talk a bit more extensively about The Awful Dr. Orlof's cinematic roots, for it digs in deep both in a cinematic and literary sense. What's interesting is that as per Antonio Lazaro-Reboll, in his book Spanish Horror Film, Franco insisted that in the '50s, he wrote a series of pulp novels featuring Orlof, as well as basically every other mad scientist he created, under the name "David Khune" or "Khume," whom he credits as the writer and/or director in a lot of his films. I only wish these books were real. They aren't. Unless someone can prove me and everyone else wrong. Or at least, provide a reasonable and entertaining forgery. 

And at last (can you tell I like movie history?), I feel like there has to be some sort of connection between Doctor Orlof and the other adjectival doctor film of 1962, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. Provided, this is based on the fact that as a kid I always got these movies confused with one another (because yes, I'd heard of them by 11), but riddle me this: Hichcock was released just a month after Orlof. Certainly the film had been made by then, but maybe there was a title switch at the last second that wasn't recorded. The production details behind a movie like The Horrible Dr. Hichcock were never going to be the subject of a tell-tale book, after all--anything was possible. Maybe there was the hope for a double-feature with Orlof, if not a full-on cash-in. Dr. Hichcock proved to be popular enough to have a sort-of sequel, 1963's The Ghost, as well as an in-name-only sequel, 1964's Autopsy of a Criminal, also released as The Killer of Dr. Hichcock (L'assassino del Dott. Hichcock). At the very least, it's an interesting coincidence that a movie possibly retitled to cash in on Doctor Orlof also ended up inheriting that film's curse as far as sequels went.

The Awful Dr. Orlof is both fun to watch and a lesser-known piece of cinematic history. That makes it a classic in my book. If you ever need a new page for your own--your book, that is--give it a try.

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