Film Review: THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (1965) – directed by Jess Franco

Posted: August 17, 2012 in Jess Franco
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If there was ever a film in Jess Franco’s body of work you could use to justify ranking the man among the very best Euro-Horror has to offer, it would be THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z. Granted, you could always mention the film that is generally regarded to be his masterpiece, VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), but for my money, that was a film with a lot of great ideas but not a particularly engaging film from a narrative standpoint. THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z on the other hand truly has it all. A great revenge plot that’ll hook even the most jaded of horror fans, some of the most gorgeous women to ever grace the silver screen, an absolutely exquisite look to the film that evokes the film noir cinematography of THE THIRD MAN, the surreal night-club scene portrayed in countless David Lynch films and a sublime mix of the Gothic and the sensual. This may very well be my favorite Jess Franco film and certainly his masterpiece at least in the domain of his coherent narratives.

The plot centers on Dr. Zimmer who has created a mind control device that can enhance or eliminate one’s tendency for good or evil. When he reveals his work to his academic peers he is rejected and declared mad. This rejection causes him to suffer a fatal heart attack on the spot. His daughter vows to continue his work and does so in the grand tradition of revenge films – by making a list of the doctors who spurned her father and knocking them off one by one using his mind control device to brainwash a sexy go-go dancer to do the deed for her.

When I first saw THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, I was absolutely floored. The visual aesthetics of the film captivated me like no other horror film ever did. I was particularly enthralled by the famous night-club scene in which our go-go dancer turned deadly killing machine performs a surreal and sexy artistic number by crawling around on a spider-web pinned to the floor, making her way to a man seated on a chair. I was so inspired by this scene, that I paid homage to it in one of my films, DARK LOTUS (2009).

Watching this film again, I was also struck by how once again Jess Franco was ahead of his time and a true innovator of horror. This film was made almost a decade before the rape-and-revenge craze of the ’70s, and while there’s no rape in this film per se, the concept of the “hell hath no fury as a woman scorned” revenge theme is certainly present and was a revolutionary one at that. So for those keeping track not only did Jess Franco direct the first giallo with THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS, he may very well have directed the first female revenge film with THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z.

THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z represents Jess Franco at the height of his career. The ’70s would see Franco move away from his Gothic/Film Noir hybrid horror pictures to a more experimental approach to filmmaking. It would be this departure from traditional narrative moviemaking that would spark the debate over whether Franco was an auteur experimenting with genre or simply a deviant masquerading as an artist in order to indulge his sexual thrills in the name of “making art.”

When you watch what I like to call his “Gothic Trilogy” of THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS and THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, I don’t know how any critic can claim with a straight face, that Jess Franco was a no-talent hack. These three films, with the last one in particular are beautifully shot, incredibly well made and above all else, unbelievably innovative in their approach to genre filmmaking. The one thing that has always categorized Franco for me was that all his best films were the ones that played with the conventions of genre and the audience’s expectations of it. While it can be argued that some of his work in the ’70s may have gone a little too far in its experimentation to the point where cinematic semantics and plot incoherence alienated audiences expecting films living up to the promise of lurid titles like VAMPYROS LESBOS, A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD and FEMALE VAMPIRE, the fact that Franco was consciously trying new things and not just churning out another cheap exploitation flick to make a buck (given the meager budgets he would soon be working with, I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t make any money at all) would certainly indicate the temperament of an artist.

At any rate, THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z comes highly recommended and is a must-see in order to properly place Jess Franco’s work in context. It’s important to see where Franco came from before delving into the seedy underbelly of his sexually and experimentally provocative work of the ’70s and understand that Franco was more than capable of creating strong narratives with gorgeous, eye-popping visuals to match. Much like it’s important to see films like ERASERHEAD, BLUE VELVET, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DR. before you see David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE. If your introduction to a filmmaker’s work is through his most obtuse picture, you’re bound to write the rest off as equally inaccessible and that’s not fair or right.

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