The Awful Dr. Orlof (Jess Franco, aka, Jesús Franco, 1962) Meets The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Robert Hampton, aka, Riccardo Freda, 1962)
I’ve recounted in my last two film posts how my on-going retrospective on that most unlikely of recurring characters —the larger-than-life, quasi-supernatural, identity-shifting, megalomaniacal crime lord Dr Mabuse — has led to a little off-shoot tangent of films as preparation before engaging with the latest film up in the cycle, namely Spanish filmmaker Jess (that’s Jesús to you, buddy) Franco’s single entry, The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse, as I discovered not only was it a (sort of) remake of Franco’s own The Awful Dr. Orlof, but that there were two earlier cinematic reference points for “Orlof”; two movies that were said to be inspirations for the iconoclastic, less-then-entirely-reputable Franco — namely, a 1939 British crime programmer, The Dark Eyes of London (which turned out to be nicely satisfying – and surprisingly nasty – viewing experience) and the other, the much-more celebrated transcendent French classic of art-house horror from 1960, Eyes Without a Face.
With those two early influences out of the way it was time for a look at Franco’s “Orlof” itself, and considering it was originally released in the US on a double bill with an entry, also from 1962, from the noted, slightly lesser-celebrated spaghetti genre maestro Riccardo Freda, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, I figured why not give ‘em both a whirl… sort of slaughter two innocent birds with one stone kinda thing.
Watching “Orlof”, I quickly realized that while Franco might have lifted both the Orlof name (from Bela Lugosi’s surprisingly Mabusian disguise-prone underworld crime lord Orloff) and the figure of the lumbering, blind henchman doing the doctor’s evil biddings from “Dark Eyes”, it’s clearly the other “Eyes” (the ones without a face) — with the tragic image of a disfigured female serving as the narrative centerpiece, her beauty destroyed in an accident that the titular doctor (Howard Vernon) caused, with the monstrous, anguish-riddled Orlof determined to reconstitute her visage – from which the filmmaker drew his greatest cinematic inspirations for this, a pretty jazzy, eccentric vision in its own right.
I mean, from the abductions of nubile females off the city streets, headed for unspeakable surgeries, as the exasperated Orlof watches his attempts at face-grafts onto his daughter continue to fail, to the doctor’s strikingly beautiful loyal female assistant (Mary Silvers), to the frustrated police shown working to find the culprit, and right on into the final plan of using one of those female cuties as bait to catch the mad doctor, “Orlof” does go more than a bit beyond homage. It’s a direct (if unauthorized) remake (rip-off, you say?) of the French “Eyes” (with Franco then amusingly going on to cannibalize his own “Orloff” film — referencing it, remaking it, sequelizing it — again and again, throughout his career, which I guess makes sense, as – in a film career that spanned something like 350 films, many if not mostly in the low- to zero-budget domain – the desperate search for money assuredly made the name-dropping in producer-pitches of his greatest box office success a wise idea).
“Orlof” opens in really exciting and inspired fashion with the abduction of a drunken woman of clearly ill-repute by the doctor’s blind, horribly ocularly-scarred henchman Morpho (Ricardo Valle, in some rather iffy monster-face makeup), with its wildly jagged editing style of the violent struggle, the dutch, shadowy-lit camera angles capturing the frightened neighbors hiding away, and the crashing jazz score (made even more resonant with its undercurrent of electronic feedback – an evocative score that’s one of the best parts of the whole film). Even the conclusion of the opening segment, with Morpho, in long flowing black cape, gliding powerfully along the dark street as he carries the unconscious girl to the waiting Orloff suddenly – and I think deliberately — referencing Hammer’s Christopher Lee/Dracula (only in black and white) works great.
And while the film may never quite reach that level of showiness during the rest of its running time (that is, until the exciting flourishes of the final sequence, with Morpho precariously carrying the final damsel along the castle edge while our police heroes work to shoot him from below, all edited and shot with great eccentric flair, reminiscent of a later Orson Welles’ film, during his Othello and Mister Arkadin years, the style cascading intriguingly between primitive and accomplished) – with a sudden sensational closing image on a defeated Orlof) and definitely has its wonky attempts at humor, with way too much time spent having characters delivering veritable monologues explaining their motivations and backstories, it may not reach the lyrical brilliance and haunting beauty of its “Eyes” predecessor, yet, at the same time, it has a lot to offer, such as wringing a few thematic variations out of female representation compared to “Eyes”.
Other than the mad doctor’s somnambulant daughter, who operates as no more than a device for Orloff’s anguish (unlike the gliding female ghost of “Eyes”, who is a much more complicated figure within that sadistic melodrama), perhaps surprisingly (though I haven’t seen enough of his work to know for sure) – and certainly admirably — Franco allows his female characters much more active participation, providing them greater agency, than the Franju film (that is, at the same time, with Franco kindly not forgetting the film’s greater exploitation-heart, supplying us a few nicely leering, gratuitous stares at naked breasts).
Where the final girl used to lure out and expose the doctor and his mad schemes in “Eyes” is basically blackmailed by the police into taking part (unwittingly, as they don’t even tell her of the possible danger she might be facing) in exchange for dropping her shoplifting charge (a charge they were gonna drop anyway – it’s an act of manipulation by the male authorities that the film interestingly not only never judges them for, but treats with humor), in “Orloff”, the much-more active character Wanda Bronsky (Diana Lorys, another strikingly attractive woman Franco found for the film), a renowned dancer, not only keeps giving her fiancé, head Police Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martín), good advice on how to solve the case (such as doing face mock-ups from the witnesses), but eventually intuitively recognizes the infatuated Orlof as the killer right upon meeting him (with her being a dead ringer for his daughter – naturally, in that familiar horror film trope, Franco has her play both parts — and a perfect specimen for another go at the ol’ skin graft experiment), deliberately allowing herself to be taken in by him in the hopes of cracking the case. And, yes, while Tanner does have to save the damsel at the end, it’s her who jumps over his much-more-plodding-investigation to cut to the chase faster, culminating with a fairly striking admittance on his part (and even that it’s told in half-jest doesn’t dissuade the underlying truth of it) that she’s the best investigative partner he’s ever had.
Even Dany, Orlof’s female assistant, is much more independent-minded than the slavishly loyal character in “Eyes”. Unlike Alida Valli’s Louise, actively taking part in the kidnapping of female victims, Dany refuses to help him in his nefarious schemes; as we learn (once again through a pedantic monologue), her once-love for the doctor has turned into anger and hatred, having watched him perform his heinous acts and experiments (as well as his ill-treatment of Morpho… Dany’s also shown to be compassionate). The only reason she doesn’t turn him in is that he freed her from prison and she’s hiding out (though eventually she will turn on him). The underlying assumption for Louise’s loyalty, meanwhile, is much more narcissistic; mixed within an unquestioned belief in his genius is her obvious undying thankfulness that he saved her beauty (a motive that could be argued as deliberate commentary on surface values by Franju and the writers, or instead revealing of an underlying misogynistic streak).
Perhaps what I found most impressive about “Orloff” though, especially having heard of the oft-dubious quality of much of Franco’s filmography (likely related to constant struggles with raising proper financing, as well as an obsessive need to keep shooting regardless), even accounting for its storytelling flaws and occasionally clunkiness, was just how technically accomplished the film is (with moments of true eccentric inspiration), especially with it being such an early film in his career.
As enjoyable as “Orlof” was, however, the unmistakable crowning jewel of the evening (made even more luridly shining by its presentation in excitingly garish color) was guided by the hands of an older and already much-more experienced (and, man, does it show) genre craftsman, Riccardo Freda, who delivers an astonishingly perverse and hypnotic gothic masterpiece, an open hymn to necrophilia known as The Horrible Dr Hichcock (and, no, I don’t mean the roly-poly director with the famous bulbous profile – that guy’s got a ‘t’ in his name – though he might have been as equally as perverse as the doctor in this film, judging by one of his favorite little jokes that he apparently used to say to all the actresses upon meeting them – ‘Just call me Hitch. Hold the Cock.’)
Following our feverishly troubled (I guess carrying around a maddening desire to sleep with the corpses of recently dead hottie young females as a secret can do that to you) titular Doc Hichcock (in an absolutely captivating, seething turn by actor Robert Flemyng, who seems otherwise to have had a fairly nondescript, if long-running career) mistakenly (or perhaps not, it’s never entirely clear, even as his anguish at what he’s done is real) gives his beautiful pianist wife Margaretha (Teresa Fitzgerald) too much of the anaesthetic the brilliant doctor has gained fame for, a breakthrough drug that temporarily slows the heart to the point of replicating death (under the guise of using during surgery, with his real motive being sexy funeral games at home) apparently killing her, the tale moves to twelve years later, with the return of the doctor, more celebrated than ever, with a new young wife Cynthia (played by the absolutely fascinating scream queen originator extraordinaire Barbara Steele, who carries an almost mythical air about her, then in the midst of her most legendary period of so many wildly evocative and phantastique Italian-genre-films… ahhhhh… it’s all so sublime, isn’t it?), whose unease grows by things such as the pictures of the dead wife everywhere about the dilapidated mansion walls and her husband’s increasingly isolated and strange behaviour (though you would have thought the fact that the doc is married to a woman played by Barbara Steele and yet he has her sleep in separate quarters might have been a first obvious sign that something was a bit amiss here)… and then there’s things like the sudden female screams in the night, the strange cloaked figure that seems to haunt the grounds and the secretive behaviour of the long-time housekeeper Martha (the equally perfect Harriet Medin, who, a quick glance at her filmography reveals has had a quite extraordinary career of supporting roles in a ton of great genre stuff, from legendary Italian films like this “Hichcock and number of key Mario Bava films, right on into later classic American cult films in the 70’s, such as Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 and bigger 80’s ones, including James Cameron’s The Terminator and George Miller’s _The Witches of Eastwick_… sounds like she woulda been a perfect interview for “Shock Magazine” if, alas, she hadn’t died, at 91, in 2005) to start Cynthia wondering not only if she’s in danger… but if her increasingly agitated and sweaty hubby isn’t plotting to kill her.
Shot in pulsating prime color schemes replicating the doc’s inner sexual turmoil, with wonderfully evocative and ornate gothic sets, enriched with one visually striking composition after another and an ever-swelling omnipresent orchestral score, “Hichcock” is an intoxicating experience that just swept me up in its imagery and sweaty sense of excitement… and it’s one I simply had no idea how good it was before now. Freda shows without a doubt with this film, while his fellow brilliant genre filmmakers like Mario Bava and successor Dario Argento might be more celebrated, as far as cinematic vision goes with “Hichcock”, neither of them have anything on this vet of many a wonderful film (though this one is likely his best).
With a narrative clearly riffing on gothic classics like Jane Eyre and Rebecca, and a wild cinematic style akin to Bava (and a more openly perverse angle than any of them – and that’s saying something as that Bava guy had his own things going on with films like the also feverishly colorful and wild The Whip and the Body), Freda’s fever dream (with the film’s actual fever dream, by Steele’s Cynthia seeing her husband looking like an actual monster, being one of the many profoundly inspired moments in the film) seems to me to have clearly inspired Argento as well (there’s a lot of Suspiria in this film, especially in the closing moments, with the insane laughing female figure wielding the sharp knife more than a bit reminiscent of the appearance of one of the Three Mother witches at the end of Argento’s film, along with the flaming conclusion).
With a narrative that’s not just coyly hinting at the main character’s frustrated passions for necrophilia, but is literally openly wrapped about it (I mean, it’s got a scene of the good doc sneaking into the hospital late at night to have sex with a female corpse – a woman its implied he deliberately killed in surgery earlier — before getting cock-blocked by one of his dopy interns who happens to stumble in), it’s kinda amazing that “Hichcock” even got made in the first place.
Perhaps it’s because the morality police at the time were dismissing horror films as juvenile. Whatever the reason? Thank goodness this sensual gem did get made. I have zero idea if it has any thoughtful observations on necrophilia (I suspect not), but who gives a shit? As a showily perverse gothic horror film? As far as I’m concerned, it deserves a special place, right up there in the upper echelon of great Italian cinema, genre or otherwise.
Okay, then! With the always nice pleasurable re-watching of Eyes Without a Face, the satisfying discovery of the 30’s dark crime film The Dark Eye of London, the finally getting around to checking out The Awful Dr. Orloff and the discovery of the lurid masterpiece that is _ _ The Horrible Dr Hichcock_? This has been one rewarding rabbit hole Mabuse-inspired retro off-shoot!
It’s been so enjoyable and rewarding, in fact, maybe I can scare up a few more titles to check out before delving into Franco’s Mabuse film…