Dr. Orloff’s Monster (aka, The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll) (Jess Franck, aka, Jesús Franco, 1964)
Perhaps it’s a reaction against the cold reality of the finish line being in sight for my highly, highly (worth saying it twice) enjoyable cinematic Dr. Mabuse retro (well, with one novel included amongst all the visual in-take, that being the original 1922 Jacques Norbert novel that started it all, the one that cinema giant Fritz Lang then adapted for his first wonderfully epic silent Mabuse masterpieces) that’s admittedly been taking years (hey, when you mix it in with full “Halloween”, “Alien”, Cheech and Chong, Stephen King and Fritz Lang retros – and a few additional on-going ones I likely can’t think of at the moment – these things all take awhile!) that has only two (alas) entries left… but whatever the reason, I’ve decided to add in this looser-form, “Mabuse” off-shoot retro on the infamous (or some would say, barely remembered) ‘Orloff’ films (or at least whichever I can get my hands on), a dubious, seemingly barely connected, loose ‘franchise’ of films started by that relentlessly prolific, yet beloved eurotrash Spaniard with the first name of that man on the cross who died for all of our sins, both before and to come (which I have always taken to mean it allows us free reign to thankfully keep sinning!) and the surname of that last great (I kid) dictator of Spain (minus the title of General), Jesús Franco (though you can call him Jess Frank, or Jess Franck, Franco Manera, or any of the other gobs of pseudonyms he worked under during his career, almost always for some international financing purpose or another).
I figure, not only would it afford me an opportunity to check out some of these older ‘Orlof’ films (or ‘Orloff’, with the single ‘f’ spelling only lasting for Franco’s initial outing from 1962, The Awful Dr. Orlof) but also to catch up with a few Franco viewings (a crazed director whose films align my shelves but I just haven’t yet dug into in any great extent – now that will be one long, daunting retrospective if I ever dare take it on!), as well as a few by other half-remembered directors that otherwise would almost assuredly never have found their way onto my viewing list; this is assuming I can locate viewable copies of all the films – which number six quasi-sequels or remakes (or whatever you call them) in total, according to noted euro-film critic Tim Lucas – but that I’ll see as I go.
Regarding this “Monster” entry, however, opening in captivating fashion on a series of hypnotic and quasi-Bergmanesque intimate shots edited in confidently languid and hypnotic fashion, with our main mad doctor (Jekyll, mind you, not Orloff), played by Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui (an actor more reminiscent of a weaker, Spanish version of Pierre Basseur’s Doctor Génessier from Eyes Without a Face, the French film that was a huge influence on Franco for the original “Awful Orlof” film, than, alas, the strikingly hawk-faced original incarnation of Franco’s Orlof, Howard Vernon, who I kinda miss this time around, though my understanding is he’ll come back around for some of the further continuing “Orloff’ tales), lying back on his bed in the shadows, haunted by memories and snippets of furtive dialogue swirling about the secret infidelities and tragic murder that guide the film’s narrative, I was again surprised to discover (as I was with the original “Orlof”) just how elegant and composed a filmmaker Franco was revealing himself capable of being with these early gothic films, especially against all that I’ve heard said about his later, more shambolically executed, oft-barely coherent and poorly budgeted entries (with his much more frenetic, though entirely entertaining The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse, the Franco Mabuse entry that started his whole “Orlof” offshoot retro, is, I assume, a more representative sample of).
While the narrative might wane a bit in interest — such as in the juvenile banter between our teenage heroine Melissa (Agnès Spaak) and her hopelessly love-struck fellow student Juan Manuel (José Rubio), with him taking her to the castle of her uncle, the mysterious and cranky Dr. Jekyll (obsessively tinkering away up there in his laboratory) to finally grant the orphan girl the fortune left to her by her deceased father, who died under mysterious circumstances and who she comes to realize looks a lot like that mute guy Andros (Hugh White) with the weird oatmeal-looking stuff caked on his face (if there’s one thing Franco doesn’t seem to bother with, in either “Orloff” films, or in “Vengeance” is seemingly even a half-convincing make-up job attempt on any of these lumbering mind-slaves) who she finds either wandering the foreboding halls at night (having been released from his standing position in his day prison, frozen in a glass case, in a clear — and nice — nod by huge film-lover Franco to the sad conditions of that much more celebrated somnambulist slave Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt, in the 1920 silent expressionistic masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) or hovering over her bed in the middle of the night (with none of this leading her to even consider going to the police – I mean, she may be cute, but clearly a dimwit) – the entire film is quite beautifully shot in moody black and white, creating from the streets and the castle interior an appropriately gothic atmosphere.
Agnes Spaak, sister of the more famous Catherine and screenwriter Dad Charles
Along with the artful opening, there are a couple of really memorable moments that find Franco inspired above and beyond just the traditional (still quality) filmmaking of much of it. The scene in the opium den, for instance, opening, with no immediate explanation, on the sudden delirious image of a woman writhing slowly in drug-induced hypnotic ecstasy, eventually (and the shot certainly takes its time) reaching the spaced-out Jekyll, who we come to understand comes here to numb the anguish and guilt he feels, is a real eye-opener. And the fact that the finale, with the mute Andros quietly led – by barely remembered love from his life before being resurrected as Jekyll’s slave to do his evil bidding — through the dark and quiet streets down a path of betrayal by his reluctant daughter Melissa, then finally uttering a last painful word, ends up being captured with some surprising resonant power, despite the machinations and motivations of the whole thing never quite adding up, speaks plainly to Franck’s (oops, I mean Franco’s) cinematic abilities.
The original “Orlof” is definitely a better film (with the presence of Vernon helping out in the department, for sure), but this sequel grows on me the more I think – and write — about it. While it might be a fairly standard gothic tale of domestic secrets and betrayals leading to the creation of a monster, Franco’s filmmaking efforts show through, and, as I said, he brings some wonderfully memorable moments to it. Even with the obviously lesser budget, in which it seems clear a lot of things had to be shot very quickly, with continuity not always achieved, the slightly disjointed editing at the moments is cleverly put together, creating an emotional consistency, even within the obviously disjointed elements (Franco’s hero Orson Welles, the master at turning geographical/temporal filmmaking disjunctions into wild inspirations, would have been most proud!).
Gosh he really does look like Pierre Basseur’s Doctor Génessier from Eyes Without a Face!
As far as actually being a ‘sequel’, however, I mean, it clearly isn’t much of one, as the entire film is transplanted to modern times, where the original “Orlof” was a period film (back in those faded times of yesteryear when he only had the one ‘f’ in his name). There is a Doctor Orloff in this one, however, but he’s a wheelchair-bound and aged side character, a mentor to our Dr. Jekyll, a brilliant doctor who tried the initial fun experiments in trying to raise the dead into mindless slaves, who eventually is revealed as a good guy in this, ultimately turning his acolyte in, realizing the evil he’s doing with his creation… as if any good was gonna come out of it in the first place).
Speaking of evil, where Vernon’s original “Orlof” was having his henchman capturing young woman with at least a goal of performing nasty skin graft surgeries on them to save his dying sister, in this one, Jekyll’s only reason to get Andros to kill the beautiful women of ill-repute he initially secretly courts with gifts and romantic talk, is in some perverse act of punishing his objects of illicit desire (hence, leading to the numbing of the guilt in the opium dens). With Jekyll’s tormented wife (who we realize was having an affair with Melissa’s father – that is, Andros, now raised from the dead, with Jekyll further punishing him by forcing him to kill for him) drinking herself to death.
Another element that keeps popping up is the bumbling side-plot of the police investigation, this time with the flu-ridden Inspector Klein (Pastor Serrador) trying to uncover who is killing these woman working the shadier clubs in town. It’s relatively inoffensive material, with not particularly effective broad humor, and ends up providing the moments where the interest lags a bit, where I was waiting to get back to the much more interesting scenes of the actual horrors festering outward from the domestic turmoil and shame going on in that creepy old castle.
It may be mis-identifying itself as an “Orlof” sequel, and is also a fairly bloodless affair (another thing Franco can’t seem to get right over these three films I’ve recently watched is a single convincing strangulation death!), yet through some nicely captured photography and a couple of truly inspired moments that reveal the talent and vision that’s obviously at the heart of Monsieur Franco’s cinematic labors, does manage to produce an interestingly perverse little fantasy of a film in a painless time of under 90 minutes.