The Awful Dr Orloff Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of The Awful Dr Orloff. A historically significant, if not especially good, horror flick has received a very mediocre DVD release.

Opinions differ as to whether Jesus Franco Manero, director of Gritos en la noche AKA The Awful Dr Orloff, is one of the greatest directors ever to be denied his true status by the cynicism of the critical community or a largely untalented hack who made a couple of half-decent genre flicks in the midst of untold amounts of celluloid garbage. Knowing of old the danger of knocking Franco – his cult is wide-ranging and passionately devoted – I will sit on the fence by stating that I think his better films show too much character to be dismissed as trash. That’s not to say that I feel inclined to defend him too much – sitting through Frauengefängnis or Greta – Haus ohne Männer is an experience which gives you an idea of how painfully filmmakers can make their audience suffer for their art – but I don’t want to be too glib either. No less a talent than the great Fritz Lang once praised Franco’s Succubus as the best erotic film he had ever seen, so there’s clearly more than sometimes meets the eye.

Franco’s breakthrough film, The Awful Dr Orloff, is a period Gothic which borrows heavily from George Franju’s marvellous Les Yeux San Visage – one of the most beautifully directed of all horror movies. Dr Orloff (Vernon) is a deranged surgeon who is obsessed with the task of finding women whose flesh can replace the scarred countenance of his once-beautiful daughter Melissa, who was badly burned in a fire. This involves finding young prostitutes / nightclub singers / single young women of no fixed profession, kidnapping them, killing them and then grafting their skin onto the unfortunate Ms.Orloff. He’s not happy in his work though – “Just a few more women… and I will find a cure for my beloved Melissa.” Unfortunately, she keeps rejecting the transplants and so the work must begin again from scratch. Assisting him in this non-NHS work is the deranged blind monster Morpho, saved by Orloff from an abortive execution, whose sadistic hatred of women allows him hours of endless pleasure as he terrorises them. The abduction and murder of a young woman in Hartog lead to the legendary Detective Tanner (Conrado San Martin) being put onto the case. Hot, or at least lukewarm, on the trail, he finds witnesses to produce a composite sketch of the suspects – his matchless skill is confirmed when he muses to a colleague “We mustn’t ignore the possibility of robbery” – but his breakthroughs are thwarted when his girlfriend, shapely ballerina Wanda Bronsky (Diana Lorys), decides to do a bit of amateur sleuthing. Her remarkable resemblance to the comatose Melissa (the same actress) means that she is soon in grave danger when she attempts to entrap the crazed Dr Orloff.

There isn’t anything remotely surprising in the plotting and the somnolent pacing is likely to make even the most committed horror fan wonder whether they’re watching a film underwater. However, what is notable – at least in the least cut version that I’ve seen, about which more later – is the revolutionary grisliness and sexual frankness on display. Morpho’s attacks are genuinely unsettling as they have are directed for a sort of sexual frisson which is very uncomfortable to watch. Franco’s love of nubile young ladies undressing and subsequently being abused for our entertainment is not something I find remotely appealing – even in Orloff, which is relatively tame by his later standards, the whole sex-and-violence-for-a-cheap-thrill effect is distasteful. It doesn’t help that Franco is so hopelessly lacking in any subtlety whatsoever. HIs fondness for the zoom lens is already on display and it tends to have an unintentionally amusing inevitability after you’ve watched fifteen minutes of the film. The photography by George Pacheco is often impressively atmospheric, adding some genuinely eerie moments to a film which is otherwise lacking in genuine scares. The constant striving for shock effects is bad enough but it’s just embarrassing when it’s combined with grotesque sentimentality and hopelessly banal ‘comic’ relief. Dr Orloff’s motives are derivative but might be more engrossing if he wasn’t so prone to bouts of self-pity while kneeling over his daughter. Howard Vernon may or may not be a bad actor but I can’t comment with any authority since I’ve rarely seen a Franco film which wasn’t either badly dubbed or badly recorded. He’s certainly as capable of overacting as any of his peers and his whole performance is pitched at a hysterically obvious level.

The mention of dubbing brings me to the biggest problem with the film. Most of Franco’s films are available in several different versions, usually with more or less sex depending on the censorship problems in various countries. Some of his later films turn from horror into hardcore porn depending on how many hardcore scenes have been inserted into the film. The version of The Awful Dr Orloff that I am reviewing has not only been cut by 37 seconds – much of the gore and some of the nudity is missing – but contains one of the worst English soundtracks you could ever hope not to hear. To call the dialogue banal would be over-generous. Here’s my favourite example:

Tanner: They brought us together, a poor police inspector and the greatest star of the ballet company – Wanda Bronsky !
Wanda: I prefer to say a modest ballerina who was lucky to encounter the most brilliant of all police inspectors !

This sounds like a Mel Brooks parody to me and has a disastrous effect on the experience of viewing this film, which may not be good but is certainly important. Franco was one of the first directors to explicitly combine sex with sadistic violence and the graphic gore in his works was, along with Mario Bava’s early films, a major influence on the European horror film. This dubbed version is unfortunately hilarious and points up the weaknesses of the film with ruthless efficiency. If you place it next to Franju’s classic horror film it’s barely even worth talking about, but it’s still a pivotal film in commercial development of the genre and definitely worth your time if you are a horror fan.

The Disc

Given that this disc contains the aforementioned English dub of the film, it’s hard to even begin to recommend it. Luckily, the DVD is such a mediocre offering that the problem doesn’t arise.

The video release from Redemption Video a few years ago was pleasing to watch because it finally presented the film in a decent form for home viewing. Unfortunately, this DVD doesn’t actually represent an advance on this since it’s still largely VHS quality. It’s not a bad image to be fair. Presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1, the monochrome image is satisfactory on the whole but contrast could be better and the blacks are washed out. There is some artifacting on show and the image is rather soft on the whole and fine detail is lacking.

The soundtrack is acceptable. Daniel White’s irksome music score comes over well and the dialogue is fairly clear if a little too quiet on occasion. It’s mono only, which reflects the original recording.

The only extra is a filmography for Jess Franco as director and cinematographer. This seems reasonably complete although there is no indication of the different versions of the same films which are out there or the impressive number of pseudonyms which Franco has adopted at one time or another. There’s also a text only catalogue for Arrow films, but to call this an extra is to clutch at straws. It would have been nice to have some material on the revival of the European horror film or one of the “Eurotika” programmes which were shown on Channel 4 a few years back.

An interesting, deeply flawed film has been given a very basic release in a version which is not the best way to first encounter it. The toning down of the more graphic elements renders it less shocking and less historically interesting and the English dub is just a bad joke. Given the lack of extras, it’s hard to see a reason to buy this disc.

Mike Sutton

Updated: May 08, 2002

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