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The Awful Dr. Orlof
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The Awful Dr. Orlof

A musical adept as a child of the Spanish Civil War, Jesús "Jess" Franco studied theory and composition in his native Madrid, branching off in his education to the study of cinema at Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias Cinematográicas (IIEC) while also exploring the medium of live theatre as a director and actor. Cinema studies at the Sorbonne in Paris pointed him toward a career as a director but Franco broke into the Spanish film industry as a dubbing supervisor for the Eddie Constantine vehicle Poison Ivy (1953) and composer for the backstage theatrical drama Cómicos (1954), directed by Juan Antonio Bardem - the uncle of Javier Bardem. Eager to try his hand at filmmaking, Franco climbed the ladder, assisting such directors as Bardem, Emilio "El Indio" Fernández, Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent, and León Klimovsky, while graduating to writing film scripts and helming documentary short subjects. He got his first shot at directing a feature film with the vacation comedy Tenemos 18 años (We Are 18, 1959). A lifelong fan of American horror films, Franco was eager to make his own but found no one in Franco's repressive, censorious Spain to back his dream.

It was in France that Franco found a kindred spirit in Marius Lesoeur, head of the Paris-based production house Eurociné. When plans between Lesoeur, Franco, and Spanish producer Serge Newman fell through regarding a proposed project, Franco invited the pair out to an evening's entertainment at the cinema - a showing of The Brides of Dracula (1960). Invigorated by this bracing Hammer horror, Franco and Lesoeur hashed out a film treatment in a sympathetic vein. Restrictions on the use of grotesque themes in films was relaxing on the Continent, thanks in part to the pioneering efforts of Georges Franju's Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960) and Giorgio Ferroni's Il mulino della donne di pietra (Mill of the Stone Women (1960), both of which married old school frissons with a fetishistic affection for the female form. Hewing close to the Franju template, Gritos en la noche (The Awful Dr. Orlof, 1962) attended the efforts of a surgeon (Howard Vernon) to restore beauty to his scarred daughter (Diana Lorys) via facial grafts obtained from unwilling subjects kidnapped by his moronic amanuensis (Ricardo Valle) - the latest of which (also Lorys) is a dead ringer for his beloved daughter.

Gritos en la noche ("Screams in the night") was released in Spain in May 1962, before migrating to France the following year as L'horrible Dr. Orlof. In America, The Awful Dr. Orlof was sent into cinemas in 1964 on a double bill with Riccardo Freda's L'Orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock (The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), a gaslight shocker that turns on the taboo topic of necrophilia, prompting critic Eugene Archer to carp in The New York Times "For once, the adjectives in the titles were not only descriptive but also accurate."

The Awful Dr. Orlof marks the midpoint of cinematic horror in the 20th Century, looking back to such cobblestone classics as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and The Lodger (1944) and ahead toward David Cronenberg's "body horror" films and the psychosurgical excesses of The Human Centipede (2009). Vernon's Orlof honors the tradition of the mad medicos played to the hilt by Bela Lugosi in The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and The Human Monster (1939), whose principal villain was also named Dr. Orloff. Yet he's a right Frankenstein, too, employing as he does a resurrected corpse for a helpmate (who also boasts an analog in The Human Monster). Introduced in the stinger of a Jack the Ripper style tracking shot through gaslit streets, Morpho is revealed to be secreted inside his victim's closet - a tack that puts him in the creep category of Chicago serial killer William Heirens though there's a touch too of Universal's Kharis the Mummy in him. Franco would reboot the Orlof character for The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff (1973) and The Sinister Dr. Orloff (1984) - while Howard Vernon would reprise his role in Pierre Chevalier's Dr. Orloff's Invisible Monster (1970) - and remake the film as Jack the Ripper (1976) and Faceless (1987).

by Richard Harland Smith

Interview with Marius and Daniel Lesoeur by Donald E. Hood and Curtis Fukuda, Video Watchdog, no. 63, 2000
Immoral Tales: Sex and Horror Cinema in Europe 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs (Titan Books, 1995)



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