Film Review: THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF (1961) – directed by Jess Franco

Posted: August 14, 2012 in Jess Franco
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This is where it all began. While Jess Franco had directed a couple of films here and there prior to the release of THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, this was the film that launched his career and with good reason. It’s a very effective thriller that evokes the creepy, atmospheric feel of the old Universal horror films of the ’30s and the cinematography and lightning of the German Expressionistic films of the ’20s. It also laid the foundation for a mythology that Franco would go back to time and again throughout his future films. Characters like Inspector Tanner, Dr. Orlof and Morpho have all appeared in his work be it direct sequels to THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF or simply as a clever nod to the film that kickstarted his career. There’s also the commanding presence of Howard Vernon, who was to Franco what Johnny Depp is to Tim Burton. This artistic partnership would blossom over the years but never was Vernon ever as powerful and compelling as a lead as he was in this film.

The film in question tells the story of Dr. Orlof (played with real gusto by Vernon) who is desperately trying to restore the beauty of his disfigured sister, Melissa. Rather than take her to a plastic surgeon, he opts for kidnapping a series a beautiful music hall entertainers in a vain attempt to use their “fresh and beautiful skin” to revitalize his poor sister. Not one to get his hands dirty, Dr. Orlof enlists the services of Morpho, a dangerous convicted criminal whom Dr. Orlof shared a cell with and helped arrange a false death certificate so that Morpho could roam free while officials believed him to be dead. When Dr. Orlof was eventually released, the two reunited and organized this campaign of terror.

Meanwhile, Inspector Tanner is hired to investigate these disappearances and with the help of his fiancée, the two quickly discover that these heinous acts are being perpetrated by two different men and once obtaining sketch outlines of their faces based on eye-witnesses’ accounts, they discover the identities to be that of Dr. Orlof and Morpho. Inspector Tanner’s fiancée disguises herself as a debutante who frequents the music hall where Dr. Orlof selects his victims and after wooing the good doctor and getting herself invited to his castle, Inspector Tanner follows in tow leading to a big climactic showdown where good triumphs over evil.

THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF is probably your best bet if you’re looking to get into Jess Franco’s work. It’s not as experimental as his ’70s stuff is and is fairly straightforward as far as narrative goes. This makes for a very welcoming combination that isn’t likely to scare you off from exploring his work further.

As mentioned earlier, it’s a very well-made thriller that continues to surprise me every time I watch it, especially seeing as I associate Franco with sloppy zooms, hand-held cinematography and an equally slippery approach to storytelling. It’s also fairly constrained when it comes to its portrayal of sexuality. While there is the obligatory close-up of our heroine’s impressive rack, the film is otherwise vanilla, often bordering on celibacy in its depiction (or lack thereof) of sex. The film also has a very FRANKENSTEIN vibe to it, with Dr. Orlof in the role of Dr. Frankenstein and Morpho as the Monster, even going so far as to create a sense of sympathy for Morpho at the end when he discovers Dr. Orlof had killed a woman he loved who had served as a mother figure to him.

That being said, the film often hits a series of lulls, particularly when it gets bogged down with scene after scene of police procedural. Perhaps a few scenes of how Dr. Orlof and Morpho met in prison via flashback could have spiced things up. Not to mention some more scenes between Inspector Tanner and his fiancée who seemed to have some nice chemistry together.

But all in all, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF is a fine film and a worthy introduction to a man who would go to break many boundaries and shatter many expectations.

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