After giving Jess Franco films a fair shake and coming to the conclusion that they just weren’t for me, along comes The Awful Dr. Orlof on Blu-ray to make me reconsider dismissing a body of work based on the half-dozen titles I’d seen previous to this one. Hey, The Awful Dr. Orlof is pretty good! Many of the Franco films I had seen were amateurish schlock, with extended stretches of lazily photographed nudity framed with the barest outline of anything you could call a plot. I didn’t get the impression Franco was much interested in these films either. They felt like junk to turn a quick buck, not misunderstood mini-masterpieces of intentional erotic horror. In the special features on the disc, we find that Franco had seen a cinematic passion project stall out for being too political, and, inspired by Hammer’s Brides of Dracula, Franco directed his energies toward producing something that could compete with the chillers of the time. The result was Spain’s first horror film, The Awful Dr. Orlof.
One-half police procedural and one-half gothic horror, Orlof follows a police inspector (Conrado San Martin) dealing with conflicting accounts of a man snatching women from the streets. Unbeknownst to him, the confusion springs from the fact that there are two kidnappers – Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon) and his bug-eyed assistant Morpho (Ricardo Valle). Orlof is trying to graft skin from the abducted women onto the face of his disfigured daughter, and doesn’t care one bit if his experiment costs dozens of women their lives. Caught in the middle is the inspector’s fiancee Wanda (Diana Lorys), a dancer who realizes her value as a piece of bait to trap Orlof red-handed.
Franco’s cast is especially good, with even bit part players making the best of their small roles, turning them into memorable characters. San Martin’s Tanner has a “lived in” quality to his hero. Lorys is more than just his love interest, but a shrewd thinker in her own right (too rare for this type of film). Valle’s Morpho is a bizarre, popeyed monster of a man with a magnetic screen presence, and Vernon, as the titular Orlof, is the cold template for many a mad scientist to follow (he especially portends the serpentine aloofness of Dieter Laser in The Human Centipede). It’s quite a high-quality ensemble, and it really sets The Awful Dr. Orlof apart from other “mad science” flicks of the same time period. Orlof is a fast-paced little cult classic gem, and strong enough to make me reconsider a director I’d previously been baffled by.
Kino’s Blu brings Dr. Orlof to high-definition for the first time with a transfer that is attractively high-contrast inky black and silky silver, not just plain old black and white, with some forgivable imperfections brought over from the source. The disc comes with two different short documentaries on the film, a commentary from historian Tim Lucas, and an 8-minute tribute to director Franco. Though the English dub is available on the disc, I watched the French language version for the purposes of this review.