THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF
Just as the modern Italian horror genre began with Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava in 1956, the Spanish horror movie began with Jess Franco's debut horror film, The Awful Dr. Orlof, made in 1961, but released to America in 1964, becoming his first international success.
While Jess Franco, though prolific, is no Mario Bava or Dario Argento, he does incorporate an ominous, moody style into his early movies and The Awful Dr. Orlof is a film of merit and style.
First of all Howard Vernon's star turn as Dr. Orlof is always interesting, Orlof is a man living in a castle that can only be reached by row boats navigating dark, threatening waters. There, he barely keeps alive his formerly beautiful but now disfigured daughter. Becoming a serial killer of young, beautiful women, we first meet Orlof fondling the face of a young woman in a nightclub and seemingly more interested in her skin than anything else. Of course, he is the evil doctor that claims victims to restore the beauty of his daughter. Orlof does not commit the ghastly deeds; instead, he has a bestial accompanist, Morpho, whom he helped escape from prison after he was arrested for the murder of his father. Morpho, now scared and blinded with pop-out eyeballs, becomes the fiend who both molests and then bits the necks of the pretty young victims. Always present to orchestrate the mayhem, once the victim lies dead or at least unconscious, Dr. Orlof taps on the floor with his cane to give direction to his brute manservant.
However, the movie's best sequences involve those creepy sequences leading up to the appearance of both Orlof and Morpho, when terrified beauties panic, breath heavily, look frantically around their darkened surroundings and suddenly walk directly into the arms of danger. During one interesting sequence, after Orlof places his unknowing victim into a house of dread, the girl wanders upstairs calling out Orlof's name, expecting the rich sugar-daddy to join her, but instead, she finds Morpho, blindly lashing out to grab her. Remaining virtually motionless and noiseless near the edge of the large hallway area, the victim expects Morpho to venture on down the stairs, but with rapid speed and virtual eyesight, the maniac zones right in on the cowering victim whose neck is ripped open with munching teeth. Logically, both the victim and the audience feel the girl has outsmarted the fiend because of his very apparent blindness and her "quiet as a mouse" stance. But when Morpho runs right up to her, everyone is surprised.
Suspense is incorporated into the plot when the lead detective's fiancee, now going undercover as a cabaret singer to attract the serial killer's attention, cleverly learns that the rich gentleman Orlof has poured a drug into her drink (visible from the mirror's reflection) and she hastily writes a lip-stick note to be given to the policeman on the corner. The policeman dutifully delivers the note to the detective, but as the girl is overpowered and taken to Orlof's castle by boat, the detective decides upon two or three separate occasions to open and read the note later. When the detective finally reads the note while in his pajamas in bed, the young victim is on the operating table ready for Orlof's knife. The detective gets moving and solves the case in less than six minutes.
Unfortunately, both a French and American print is offered, but no subtitles, so the viewer has to tolerate American dubbing. Other than scene sequence selection, no extras are available. The original 35mm print is nicely letterboxed, and while a few lines and glitches appear, the print is generally dense and sharp. The Awful Dr. Orlof is not a classic, but for the European horror cinema, it remains a pivotal movie and showcases the talents of Jess Franco which were to deteriorate over the course of the next three decades.