The production of horror films experienced a renaissance in the late fifties and early sixties, due largely to the breakthrough hits of England’s Hammer films. It’s no surprise that these commercial successes inspired others to follow, though it is somewhat counterintuitive that the first Spanish horror film, The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), would up the ante in terms of sex and, to a lesser degree, violence. Spanish censorship was notoriously strict during the sixties and seventies, so much so that the writer/director of that film – Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco – would ultimately leave his homeland to be free of it.
Born in 1931, Franco had a handful of directorial credits to his name by the early sixties, none of which have received English-friendly distribution as far as I can remember. It was during the production of one of them – Vampireas 1930, apparently a musical – that he accompanied producers Serge Newman and Marius Lasoeur to a screening of Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula (1960) and proposed they undertake something similar. Of course, Franco has spoken on many occasions of his ambivalence towards the Hammer horrors of the time, so while it was a film from that stable which provided the initial impetus for Orlof, the influence of continental productions is much more evident on screen. Franco is known to have been an admirer of German Expressionism – particularly of Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang – and that admiration may well have influenced the shadowy canvases of Orlof. Equally, the scenes of characters creeping around Orlof’s castle would not look out of place in the Italian Gothics of the time, the films of Freda, Bava, Margheriti et al.
“How sad to think that this juvenile grace, this freshness, can be withered by death”
Howard Vernon plays the titular Dr. Orlof, a man driven to desperate measures by the desire to remedy the disfigurement of this daughter Melissa (Diana Lorys). Assisted by his lumbering, bug-eyed henchman Morpho (Ricardo Valle), he kidnaps a series of young woman to serve as unconsenting skin donors. The premise, of course, owes a considerable debt to Georges Franju’s wonderful Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960), in which Pierre Brasseur, as Dr Gennesier, takes similar action in a vain attempt to restore the features of his daughter Christiane, played by Edith Scob. The execution here is quite different though, with Franco – who wrote the screenplay under his ‘David Khune’ pseudonym – evoking an air of menace and perversion where Franju had conjured something more dreamlike, more akin to a fairytale.
While the narrative resemblance to Franju’s masterpiece may be problematic for some, The Awful Dr. Orlof – or Gritos en la Noche, to give it its Spanish title – is a resounding stylistic success, thanks in no small part to the beautiful cinematography of Godofredo Pacheco. Shot in black and white, the aesthetic is one of darkly-clad characters on rain-soaked, cobbled streets, castles and cabaret, all brilliantly realised. There’s a temptation to see Franco as the sole creative force behind his films – unsurprising given he has been known to write, direct, operate the camera and appear on screen – but we shouldn’t underestimate the contributions of his collaborators in this case. In addition to the cinematography, the cacophonous, avant-garde jazzy score – credited to Jose Pagan and Antonio Ramirez Angel – adds significantly to the film’s appeal and marks it out from its contemporaries.
We should also acknowledge the three principles in terms of the film’s strengths, which is not to suggest any particularly revelatory acting occurs herein. Diana Lorys is competent enough in an important dual role though (she plays Orlof’s daughter and Wanda, the fiancé of the inspector investigating the case) and Ricardo Valle certainly looks striking as Dr. Frankenstein’s, I mean, Dr. Orlof’s monster (I didn’t say Franju’s was the only film Franco borrowed from). Howard Vernon is undeniably the strongest presence though, dominating every scene he’s in. It’s no surprise that Franco would cast him again and again over the next twenty years.
That being said, there are a number of problems with the film, both in terms of its construction and execution. There is a scene between Orlof and Arne, his female accomplice, which jars due to some rather ham-fisted exposition, and I’ve always been bothered by Wanda’s willingness to accompany Orlof – who she knows to be a killer – to his castle. The scenes focussing on the police investigation are also something of a weak link, looking rather old-fashioned at this point. One such scene even borders on comedy, when a mustachioed artist is commissioned to sketch the kidnapper(s) based on witness testimony. Not only is the appearance of the artist somewhat comic, the resultant sketches look to have been completed by a child. There are also a couple of rather glaring continuity errors in the French version, which brings us full circle, back to the thorny issue of sex and violence.
Preparing different versions for different territories was common practice during the heyday of horror and exploitation, due to the variance in censorship between countries. In the case of Orlof, a Spanish/French coproduction, this was clearly considered at the time of shooting and two distinct versions exist as a result. In the French – the more explicit and the one used in the preparation of this article – Howard Vernon is seen making an incision between the breasts of a prone female. In the Spanish, the incision is made to her face, which aligns with what we know of Melissa’s disfigurement – that it is facial. The continuity errors occur thereafter, when the unwitting donor is seen in the French with a wound to her face, and her breast seemingly untouched. I would imagine that a lack of budget rather than care precluded the shooting of further, alternate footage but it’s a problem nevertheless.
With regards to violence, the film obviously doesn’t retain the shock value it apparently had in 1962 and looks like family fare compared to some the barbarism Franco depicted in the seventies. The scenes in which Morpho – surprisingly dexterous for a blind, brain-damaged man – attacks women are skilfully staged and fairly forceful though, containing as they do some inexplicable biting of the flesh.
It seems curious now, given the surprise international success of the aforementioned Orlof, that it would be almost two years before filming would begin on Dr Orlof’s Monster – or The Mistresses of Dr Jekyll, to translate from the French and more easily distinguish the two. More of a riff on its predecessor than a direct sequel, this time around Orlof appears only briefly, most notably at the very beginning, informing his colleague Dr Jekyll (Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui) that he has discovered how to use sound waves to animate the dead. Thereafter Jekyll leads his deceased brother Andros (Hugo Blanco) on a killing spree around provincial Austria, a spree complicated by a visit from his niece Melissa (Agnes Spaak), eager to establish the cause of her father’s death.
“He’s a nice man but strange, like he’s hiding something.”
By turns incoherent and inspired, Jekyll was hamstrung from the outset by a lack of funding, which apparently left entire sequences unfilmed and Hugo Blanco applying his own make-up. Another international coproduction, the film also exists in multiple versions, with the Spanish allegedly running 99 minutes, the English 84 and the French somewhere in between. Clearly some scenes are lost between versions, while others – for example, the death of Jekyll’s wife – play out very differently. Names and dialogue also change between versions, with our protagonist – and by extension his brother – known as ‘Jekyll’ in the French and ‘Fisherman’ in the English. While this may not seem especially problematic in itself, it seriously undermines a key scene in which Andros stands forlorn above a grave which viewers of the English will recognise as his own, while viewers of the French will probably not.
Taken together, the variable running times, nomenclature and so on make an evaluation of the film’s apparent narrative shortfalls problematic. With the longer, Spanish version never having received a home video release, it is unclear whether the inconsistencies stem from the script – again, written by Franco as ‘David Khune’ – the set or post-production. For instance, having watched the French and English versions, it is never really clear why Jekyll would want the assorted women dispatched. Is this some sort of crusade against working women or are they, as the French title suggests, genuinely his mistresses? There is no conclusive evidence of the latter in the available versions – perhaps in the Spanish? There is no evidence or explanation as to why Andros is able to speak in the final scene either, having been entirely mute up to that point.
I should restrain myself though, because I’m in danger of making the film sound like a disaster and it’s really nothing of the sort. It may not be as well-constructed as its predecessor but it retains considerable merit. The opening montage, which focuses primarily on Andros’ anguished face shot in tight close-up, is undeniably effective, as are many of the scenes that follow. The murders, more brutal than before and inflicted here on semi-naked women, foreshadow some of Franco’s later films while also calling to mind the American ‘roughies’ of the period. The nightclub scenes, already a Franco staple, are also highlights, being both carefully choreographed and energetically played. The cinematography is again worth a mention, this time around the work of Alfonso Nieva, with bright outdoor sequences punctuating the darker moments here. It may not be entirely convincing narratively, but an aesthetic success is a success nonetheless and the film is always visually appealing. In many ways it resembles a dream, a dream in which mad scientists frequent smoke-filled bars, alcoholic aunts hide awful secrets and the dead walk the earth in turtleneck sweaters.
I’d suggest the cast are also best judged in similar aesthetic terms, given they are really just playing archetypes. Hugo Blanco, dressed in black throughout, has a certain presence and makes for a more communicative monster than his analogue Morpho despite, or perhaps because of, the thousand yard stare. Agnes Spaak and Jose Rubio, as Melissa and her on/off boyfriend Juan Manuel, support the contemporary setting by looking as though they have stepped straight out of a French New Wave film. It’s really only Marcello Arroita-Jáuregui among the principals who lets the slide down, lacking the intensity Howard Vernon would have brought to the role, had Franco been able to afford him.
Vernon did appear in 1962’s The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus, one of several films separating the Orlof’s in Franco’s filmography and one which, in some respects, provides an clearer indication of the shape of things to come. A woman is found dead amid the snow in the town of Holfen, causing locals to declare the return of the titular Baron, who has apparently been killing periodically since the 17th century. The police, working alongside a reporter bused in to cover the case, lean towards a more prosaic explanation and suspicion falls on the Baron’s descendants Max (Howard Vernon) and Ludwig (Hugo Blanco), who are themselves reeling from a death in the family.
“It’s an initiation into a passionate world of rare and unknown sensations.”
Translating literally from the Spanish La Mano de un Hombre Muerto gives us ‘The Hands of a Dead Man’, yet the third film in our set never really convinces as a ghost story, despite the talk of curses and centuries-old murder weapons during the first half an hour. It’s actually more of a proto-giallo, with its scenes of knife crime, stalking and amateur sleuthing. Indeed the sequence in which a man wearing a black hat and gloves attack’s Max’s mistress bares a striking resemblance to Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace (1964), a film it predates by two years. I’m not aware of Bava ever having acknowledged the influence though, so one can only speculate as to whether the similarity is anything more than a coincidence.
In terms of Franco’s cinema, the more important scene is the one in which a woman is stripped, whipped, chained and stabbed; a scene stronger than anything in the Orlof films and which comes as something of a shock here, given the murders to that point have mostly occurred offscreen. Aside from the sexualised violence, which would become a staple of Franco’s cinema, the scene is stylistically distinct from those that surround it, playing out without ambient sound. I assume this stems from a conscious decision rather than a problem with the sound recording, given the film was likely shot without sound and dubbed thereafter. Either way, it gives the scene the feel of a fever dream, or perhaps more accurately, a nightmare.
While we’re on the subject of Sadism, I’m sure any similarity between the ‘original’ Von Klaus and the Marquis DeSade – most clearly manifest in the writing Ludwig discovers in the former’s cellar – is entirely intentional. Sade was a well from which Franco would draw time and again, particularly during the seventies, and which would inform some of his most memorable films – Eugenie De Sade to La Comtesse Perverse, to name just two.
Going back and watching these films (more or less) chronologically, one is struck not only by how watchable they are but also by how accomplished they are, and I think that is more evident here than in either of the others. Godofredo Pacheco’s cinematography again shines, particularly during some beautiful woodland exteriors and with the crane shot which closes the film, in which the camera drawing back from the action vertically as the survivors depart the scene of the crime. Daniel White contributes a memorable score comprised primarily of modern jazz and a classical theme, the latter being played by Ludwig early in the piece, emphasising his link to the past. Franco is also at the top of his game here, keeping us guessing as to the identity of the killer and staging numerous memorable sequences, none more so than the climatic chase involving Ludwig’s fiancé.
That’s not to say the film is an unblemished masterpiece, of course. It suffers from some ill-judged comic relief, as did the Orlof’s and as did many Hammer’s of the period (coincidentally or otherwise). I think there might also be a problem with the timeline, with at least one person being murdered with an ancient dagger before Ludwig had entered his Grandfather’s cellar (and therefore, before he would have had access to it). These are fairly minor criticisms though. The film is stylish, engaging throughout and bares repeat viewings. It is the work of a writer / director who understood the audio and visual elements of the medium, who could choreograph action and conjure atmosphere. It – like the aforementioned Orlof’s – is also the work of someone who was willing to push the envelope in terms of what could be shown on the big screen, which is a topic we’ll come back to.
WordPress does not lend itself to footnotes, but the following were consulted in constructing this review:
Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombes and Cathol Tohil (1994)
Bizarre Sinema! Jess Franco, by Carlos Aguilar (1999)
Tim Lucas’ audio commentaries, which appear on the US releases of the Orlof films From Redemption films. I also read Lucas’ ‘How to read a Franco film’ before starting this blog, so not specifically in the preparation of this piece.