Appellate Judge Tom Becker has still not recovered from his ordeal with an awful Dr. Pepper.
His shrine was the face of terror!
Once upon a time, mad scientists trying to restore the lost beauty of a loved one was a common horror movie trope. Perhaps the best example is Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) from 1960. Franju's film remains the gold standard of the facial-disfigurement genre (yes, I'll call it a genre), a horror film done as a melancholy fable.
But there were plenty more in the decade and change ahead, including such gems as Corruption with Peter Cushing, Atom Age Vampire, The Blood Rose, Circus of Horrors, and Jess Franco's 1962 near-classic, the gothic chiller The Awful Dr. Orlof.
Set in Europe circa 1912, The Awful Dr. Orlof gives us a doctor, now mad (Howard Vernon, Love and Death), desperately trying to restore his daughter's scarred face. It seems that Melissa (Diana Lorys, House of Psychotic Women) was disfigured in a fire in her father's laboratory. To help Melissa, her father is kidnapping and killing women—often, women of "ill repute"—and attempting to graft their skin onto his daughter's face. Orlof's accomplice is a blind and mute monster of a man, Morpho (Ricardo Valle, Knife of Ice). Unfortunately, these efforts meet with little success. Dr. Orlof then gets a brainstorm: His victims need to still be alive when he pulls their skin off.
On the case is Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin, King of Kings). Dedicated as the inspector is, he's also distracted: He's just fallen in love with singer/dancer Wanda (also Lorys). Unbeknownst to the Inspector, Wanda decides to go undercover to help her beloved solve the case. When Orlof sees Wanda, he's struck by her resemblance to his daughter. Thinking she's but a common prostitute, he decides—with Morpho's help—to kidnap her and her use her face to put Melissa back together again.
I distinctly remember seeing The Awful Dr. Orlof on TV when I was a kid. The opening sequence of a drunken woman noisily arriving home—accompanied by some wildly discordant music—only to be confronted by Orlof and Morpho stayed with me. Watching the film all these years later, it's not hard to see why. While it's pretty tame by contemporary standards, and "soft" enough to make it to a Saturday morning fright movie show, this is a wonderfully disturbing, visceral opening.
The film contains a fair share of shocks, as well as some rather tedious stretches involving the police investigation; but what most viewers will take away is the morbid beauty and the melancholy elegance of Franco's vision.
Franco's film, like much of his work, is intensely sexual and perverse. Orlof is trying to restore his daughter's damaged face, though his obsession seems, at times, to cross the line from fatherly devotion to spurned lover. The unfortunate Melissa is kept in his laboratory, behind a locked iron gate and confined in a kind of glass box. She never rises or leaves her bed; it's clear she's dying, yet Orlof is more concerned with fixing her appearance than her health, as though putting her face back together will somehow "cure" her other ails.
Wanda turns out to be a far more effective sleuth than her boyfriend, who seems to need clues shoved down his throat before figuring out their significance. Wanda not only puts her life on the line, but her reputation: she is something of a public figure due to her ballet performances as well as her relationship with the police inspector, and yet she's perfectly capable of trolling the underground like a hooker. For a gothic horror heroine, she's actually surprisingly resourceful and forward thinking.
Vernon would go on to play Dr. Orlof in a number of follow-ups, as well as a cameo appearance as the nutty doctor in Franco's Faceless (1987), yet another disfigured woman saga, this one with far more violence and kinky sex than the earlier film. Faceless is more of a typical Franco effort—lots of sex, lots of nudity, lots of kink; the comparatively restrained Orlof is a far more rewarding experience.
Redemption's release of The Awful Dr. Orloff (Blu-ray) is hugely satisfying. The image has been mastered in high def from an archival 35mm print, and while it's not pristine, it's still solid. There's some damage and speckling, but it's overall clear with good contrast and reasonable black levels—a good representation of Godofredo Pacheco's beautifully atmospheric cinematography. Audio is offered in LPCM mono tracks in English and French, with English subtitles.
The disc sports a wealth of supplements, all new to this release. First up is a commentary track by film historian Tim Lucas, who co-authored a book on Franco. Needless to say, Lucas offers up all sorts of interesting tidbits about the film and the filmmaker. He frequently references a longer cut of the film, the original Spanish version, and it's kind of a shame that cut isn't available (although this version does give us a couple of topless scenes that would have been cut from the original U.S. version; in fact, they were shot for the French version).
An interview with Franco—likely one of his last—is a treat, as the director offers an almost stream-of-consciousness series of recollections about the film. Franco's personal eccentricities are noted throughout the supplements and are apparent here; for instance, while The Awful Dr. Orlof seems clearly influenced by Franju's Les Yeux Sans Visage, a connection noted by other commentators, Franco denies the connection and even makes it point to note that Franju was not influenced by Franco's film.
A "making of" is a series of interviews with film historians and people who'd worked with Franco; in "Jess! What Are You Doing Now?" some of those same interviewees, as well as others, offer their thoughts on what Franco has been up to since he…well, died, in April 2013. Trailers for Orlof and other Franco films, as well as a gallery, round out this excellent set.
Redemption has put out a terrific release. Fans and followers of Franco will want to scoop this one up, and for audiences not familiar with the iconic director, this is a great starting point.
Highly recommended, and not at all guilty.
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