Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Awful Dr. Orloff

Jess Franco hardly needs any introduction here. I've been watching his movies and lovin' them for awhile. The Awful Dr. Orloff, credited as one of Franco's first titles and one of the first Eurotrash pieces of cinema, isn't what I'm normally used to when it comes to Franco's oeuvre. Orloff is actually hardly recognizable as a Franco film, if you're used to his stuff like Female Vampire, Venus in Furs, or Ilsa, the Wicked Warden. In fact, Orloff seems downright understated when compared with Franco's stuff from the 70's. But for all its seeming outward restraint (and believe me, it's not totally restrained, it is still a Franco film after all), it is a pretty subversive little slice of trash that invites us as viewers into an almost pornographic experience.
The Awful Dr. Orloff, or Gritos en la Noche (the Spanish titles always sound so much better), was made in 1962 and, as the credits tell us, is based on a novel by David Khune, which I believe is one of Jess' many aliases. (Curious, because as much as I would like to think of myself as a big huge Franco fan, I don't know why this would be based on a book that may or may not exist by Jess Franco.) The film is the tale of the Awful Dr. Orloff, a former prison doctor who is obsessed with bringing back the beauty of his daughter, Melissa, who was burned in a fire by in the prison of his employ. Orloff hopes to restore this beauty by using skin grafts from female victims he and his assistant, blind and disfigured sex pervert Morpho, pluck from nightclubs around the city after these lovely ladies are adequately sauced on brandy. The film is set in a time of horse drawn carriages, corsets, and gaslights and has an excellent, albeit, anachronistic jazz percussion soundtrack, which really adds to the overall sleaziness of the picture.

The film opens as a drunk woman staggers about the cobblestone streets and eventually makes her way home to her apartment. Chugging wine from the bottle (my kinda gal), she opens her closet to reveal Morpho's distorted face (think a regular face with a graft of eyes and nose, the eyes bulging and rendering him blind - which, btw, makes for the WORST mad scientist's assistant EVAR! Why have a guy doing your evil bidding if he can't even see? He's bound to knock one of these beauties heads into the furniture or banister in your castle, thus rendering them unusable for your crazy experiments! Surprisingly, though, Morpho does a pretty good job of procuring lovelies for Orloff and even manages to get them back to the castle in all one piece for the most part.) Morpho quickly dispatches the young lady and it's off to the castle with her.

We then meet the good Inspector Tanner and his absolutely stunning ballerina fiancee, Wanda. Apparently they've been off on holiday for two weeks and they're over the moon with happiness since they've finally decided to make it official. But Tanner's got to get back to work and leaves Wanda to go about her business. He returns to his office to find a kitty on his desk, which he orders to be replaced immediately with flowers, he's a new man now, and flowers obviously punctuate this newness. But there's little time for revelry, because seems a girl (the one from the opening scene) has disappeared. She's the fourth missing young lady in 20 days and the circumstances surrounding the other three disappearances are similar. Tanner and his deputies set out to interview some dumdum witnesses and figure out what to do next.

Cut to a nightclub. One particularly gorgeous singer receives a diamond necklace from an adoring fan (Orloff), which immediately sways her. She's the needy sort, 'promise me you'll keep me forever and ever,' causing Orloff to spout some ominous blather about youth and beauty. She gets sloshed (the women in this movie are such goofy drunks - all wobbly and bouncy and straps from their dresses falling all over the place and saying the same stupid shit over and over - not like me at all), and Orloff takes this opportunity to take her back 'round to his.

Upon arriving at his garrett, he locks her in the labyrinthine house, leaving her to stumble drunkenly through the halls until Morpho, donning a cape all Dracula like, gums her on the neck killing her, in what critic Glenn Erikson has describes as, 'not as a vampire, but like an infantile pervert with an oral fixation.' Well said. The singer expires and Orloff remarks, 'her face is unmarked. It has such a lovely pattern. Almost as if it was made of pure alabaster.' I want to be remembered in death by my killers has having a face with a lovely pattern.

It's after the singer's death when we first meet Orloff's daughter, Melissa, encased in glass with a horrible burn scar on her face, although the makeup job, like the one Morpho sports, is somewhat technically questionable. It's still fairly effective, however. Morpho helps Orloff with the most recent body and is then banished, to be called when he's needed. Orloff isn't very nice to Morpho, which causes some consternation on the part of Orloff's other (female) assistant, also whose death he faked and took from the prison to help him with his nefarious deeds. Seems though, she's become particularly disgruntled with how he treats Morpho and the nature of the experiments he's conducting to make Melissa beautiful again. It's ironic, because she's quite beautiful herself, why Orloff never considered her for his experiments is beyond me. I think he does hint that he loved her at one point, but now, since she has grown quite obstinate, he's questioning her loyalty and therefore, her usefulness.

While all this is going on, Tanner has assembled some witnesses for a sketch artist party. I don't know the history of police sketch artists or of forensic science much at all, but these scenes, there's also one involving fingerprinting, seem out of place in an old timey setting. It's a time before electricity and gasoline engines - were fingerprinting and sketch artists commonplace at the time? Anyanachronism, the group manages to come up with a good working likeness of both Morpho and the good doctor, which they release to the press, hoping to aid in their investigation, since they all suck at police work. Orloff hangs out at the club where the ladies work! He has a private room upstairs where he gets them drunk! How can Tanner not find him!?!

Orloff has failed to make Mel purdy for the fourth time and has finally come to the scientific conclusion that the victim needs to be alive. Out on the town for another body harvesting expedition, he sees Wanda, Tanner's girlfriend and becomes immediately enamoured. Not only is she hot as hell, Orloff also thinks she really resembles Melissa and decides she's the perfect victim for the living cell experiment. Wanda recognizes him from the police sketch and then becomes increasingly obsessed, like her fiance, in finding out who he is and capturing him. Orloff becomes obsessed with Wanda, at one point even promising his daughter sexually to Morpho, if Wanda can be found.

Since Tanner's a complete dumbass, Wanda takes the investigation into her own hands, puts on the hottest dress I have ever seen, and goes to the club to seduce Orloff. She succeeds, and hurriedly pens a note in lipstick divulging her whereabouts to dummy Tanner, so he can come save her once she's infiltrated Orloff's operation. Tanner's so stupid though, upon receiving the note, he dismisses it as some crazy thinking they've seen the killer, and disregards it. All shit hits the fan and the whole thing degrades into a fairly predictable ending, but not before Morpho gets to chain up some nubile women and grope a pair of boobies.
The film as a whole functions on the obsessions of the characters - Orloff's obsession to bring Melissa back to her full beauty, Tanner and subsequently Wanda's obsession to bring Orloff to justice, and Morpho's to grope a pair of boobies even though he can't see them. If the characters are aware of their obsessions, which increase ten-fold over the course of the action, they don't realize the sexual path it's taking them down. By watching Morpho feel up bare breasts and suck on necks with no gratification, we become the voyeurs, which is really the whole central idea behind the artistic merit of horror films in the first place. Author Phil Hardy, in his excellent horror movie encyclopedia, says that when we engage in the voyeuristic-sadistic elements, we as an audience complicitly acknowledge the horrible acts on screen and therefore, expand and extend the genre. What I'm saying is this - by not having any supernatural elements, Orloff is a story about humans acting on obsessions. The monsters here are human - and horror films throughout the ages explore this idea. Morpho, even though he's disfigured, is still a human being, therefore, the obsessions in the movie - sex and beauty namely - are identified as our, the audiences', own.

Orloff is an important movie, not because it's necessarily all that stunningly great. It's important because it's a shift from the Universal monster films portrayal of human qualities in monsters. Here, the monsters are human. It's also important in that is frankly displays sexuality and sexual perversion. While the Universal monsters merely skirt the sex issue (Creature from the Black Lagoon, anyone?), Orloff puts it right out there, even offering his own daughter sexually to Morpho to complete his (newer) obsession. It's actually not too unlike The Curious Dr. Humpp, made almost ten years later (and not by Franco), which certainly owes a certain amount of debt to Orloff. Obsessions, like sexual tastes, shift here too. At first, Orloff is obsessed with returning Melissa to her original beauty; after he sees Wanda, he's obsessed with attaining her beauty.

I wasn't out and out in love with this movie (it gets tired and downright predictable in many places and even moves kinda slow for the hour and twenty minute running time), but I see its merits. I'll stick with the later balls-out Franco films of the seventies, mostly those starring the sexpot Mrs. Franco, Lina Romay, but as a progressive artifact in the history of Euro-sleaze and horror films in general, Orloff fits the bill. I would have like Morpho to play a more central role, like Masky in Humpp, because he is that unsettling and ridiculous, he's the perfect foil for Orloff. Ah well. Still, good, sleazy stuff. And when Franco keeps it sleazy, which he always does, that makes me a very happy girl.


  1. Great review Jenn, I liked this one a lot and didnt know much background about it =D

  2. Thanks, Carl. Yeah, it's good-un. You should also check out The Curious Dr. Humpp if you haven't already. I love blind awkward henchmen. Doesn't everyone?

  3. Forgot to ask, have you seen and of the other Orloff entries in the series? Very curious about them

  4. No, I did not know about other Orloff movies even existing. I'll have to check them out. Are they directed by Franco?

  5. I believe they are all directed by Franco, I dont know any by title but I do know Faceless is his quasi-remake of the film, and an awesome splatter version at that =D If I get a chance to check them out first youll be the first to know

  6. The Others are, "Dr. Orloff's Monster", "Revenge in the House of Usher" and "Orloff and the Invisible Man!". Available with The Awful... in a dvd box set on amazon and no doubt other dvd outlets. I love the original so will check out the rest at some point.