I love Jess Franco movies. Granted, he's not for everyone. Many people say he shows no passion for his work. Many people say he doesn't have a coherent thought in his head. Many people will even say Franco shows absolutely no skill behind the camera.
We call these stupid people.
Okay, that's a bit harsh. In truth, it's just a difference of taste. But for my money, Jess Franco is one of the most exhilarating filmmakers ever. He's not easy to get used to. Like many others, I was inducted into the cinema of Franco via his biggest success, VAMPYROS LESBOS.When that film ended, accompanied by the classic swinging lounge score, I didn't know what to make of it. The plot was admittedly lightweight, but the emotions were real, the pathos was intense and the images unforgettable. The experience floated in my brain for days. When time past, not only did I realize that I thoroughly enjoyed VAMPYROS LESBOS, I knew I wanted more. Right now.
Franco's films are certainly unique, but they are a craving I cannot deny. I can't go a few weeks without popping in a Jess Franco film. These range from his lightweight films like KISS ME MONSTER to the incredibly dark and subversive EUGENIE DE SADE. His filmography of nearly 200 films insures that I will probably never be able to see every Franco film.
THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF was not Franco's first film, but it was the film that made him who he is. With ORLOF, we are familiarized with many of Franco's cinematic fetishes. Right away, the film opens with a skewed camera angle. Moving in and out of the shadows is a drunken woman, as an improvisational jazz score plays in the background.
She doesn't last long of course. A killer named Morpho has been offing the painted whores in town ? that town being Paris, circa 1912. He's a scarred man with bugged out eyes and he brings the bodies to Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon). Orlof has been trying to figure out a way to save his daughter, whose face was left scarred by a horrible accident and who now lies dying of a strange illness.
Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin) has his hands full trying to find the mysterious killer, much to the chagrin of his ballerina fianc�, Wanda (Diana Lorys). Tanner tries every lead he can find to track down the man responsible for the killings. But in the end, the one who leads him to Orlof is Wanda, ironic since Tanner continually tries to keep his personal life separate from his work.
THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF has stood the test of time and still remains one of Franco's most fondly remembered films. A reason for this might be what permeates through many of Franco's films, a personal touch not entirely visible on the surface.
Tanner is more than the standard wooden hero. He is certainly able to be foiled and is seen as less than invincible. Still, like just about everybody else in this film, he is entirely charming. Tanner uses a town drunkard as a source of information. Rather than browbeat him or dismiss him like any other chisel-jawed hero might, he knows that he would be lost without that connection to the common man. His inability to protect the townspeople makes it impossible for him to remain completely superior to them. Hence, the drunkard returns later on with important info. He goes to Tanner specifically, saying, "He's the first policeman I ever saw who knew how to be a gentleman." With Franco's skilled writing and direction, we actually believe it.
These interactions are effective. One that I wish they had spent more time is the relationship Morpho shares with those who show genuine compassion for him. Morpho's face is a literal mask and he is unable to show any emotion. It's like Kenneth Robeson's pulp character, the Avenger, who wore an expressionless mask of a face after the mysterious death of his family. Morpho is brought to life and sent off to be a slave to the forces of evil. Still, he shows a certain humanity when relating to Orlof's mistress and then Wanda. Unfortunately, this particular plotline is underused.
Wanda starts out as the disposable damsel in distress and she shares many character traits with the women of the old Universal horrors. She is, after all, ultimately the object of Dr. Orlof's lust. She is a sex object and an inexperienced member of society. But again, peel away the layers. She shows an understanding that certainly catches her fianc� off guard. Likewise, her ingenuity proves invaluable, even if she isn't ready for the physical combat.
Franco's filmography is somewhat sexually explicit. In fact, there are areas in his body of work where that last sentence may seem like a huge understatement. He loves the female form and even splices in some genuinely shocking quick flashes of nudity here. But he also shows women who are undeniably more complex than the standard Hollywood fare. Women are murderesses, accomplices and sometimes the strong link that saves impotent heroes. He throws gender roles on their ear, but all of this is a very subtle touch in Franco's world.
ORLOF even manages to throw in some genuine social satire. A mass hysteria similar to the circus surrounding Jack the Ripper or Burke and Hare. Everyone seems to see the killer in every corner, and because of it, he always seems to escape the grasp of authorities. The police have become almost used to the theatrics of the crowd, who are possessed by equal parts paranoia and a desire for fame. One visibly shaken woman accosts the police as if she were asking for an autograph. "Please! Help! I saw the killer! He was after me with a knife!" They quickly dismiss her. Morpho kills with his bare hands. The hysteria surrounding grisly events is nothing new, Franco seems to be saying.
Howard Vernon's portrayal of Orlof was so stunning that he would return to the role several times, and would also become a Franco stock player. Vernon has the perfect balance in his performance. He is charming enough to make his seduction of various women completely convincing, especially the drunk ones who aren't too bright. Also, he shows an amazing insidiousness that always seems to be boiling beneath those analytical eyes. He apparently was a kind man at one point, but as one character tells him, he has become "possessed by the demon of torture and murder." He enjoys his work and would likely enjoy it even after his daughter was cured.
And what of his daughter? In her state, she looks almost as old as Orlof. Plus, Orlof seems to focus his attentions on Wanda because she is the idealized vision of his own daughter. Could his obsession with his offspring be something more than paternal?
But the real star of the show is the eye of Jess Franco. Many people are surprised to learn about the close friendship Franco shared with Orson Welles. On first glance, many would claim their direction is as different as night and day. Not so. Compare THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF with Welles' take of Kafka's THE TRIAL, and you will seem some startling similarities. Franco showed a real skill for setting a rhythm in his films, and then completely disrupted that rhythm when the audience got too comfortable. Franco also threw many of his own themes into standard exploitation while Welles struggled to get his personal projects off the ground.
Franco is also one of the only other filmmakers who uses Welles' deep focus as well. Deep focus, the idea of having every part of the frame in crystal clear focus, is a film technique that is often talked about in film class but seldom duplicated on the screen.
Behind every shadow in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF lies another mystery. He will show gothic beauty at one point, like in the scene where Morpho and Orlof move the casket up to the castle. And then he'll throw in a raucous nightclub scene, the type that suggests Franco would love to do more experimental musicals.
THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF is only one of the many exploitation films Franco has brought us. The films usually exist in many forms. Most publications can't even agree on whether to spell the good doctor's name with one "f" or two. As one can expect, Franco's filmography is hit and miss. Remarkably, ORLOF is not even his best film. It's merely an accomplished film that shows exactly what we could expect from Franco... and that is everything, except the expected.