Originally titled Gritos en la noche ("Screams in the Night;" 1961), The Awful Dr. Orlof has the sort of title1 that suggests the direction most reviews will take. Sometimes that isn't the best way to go. So, is it "awful"? Not really. Actually it's pretty goodvery surprising given the director (more below).
Set in the early twentieth century, there is a mystery going on. Women are disappearing without a trace: "not even a button." There's not a lot of police action because they aren't the sort of women polite society types like to acknowledge, women "of rather doubtful reputation"dancehall girls and singers, some probably prostitutes. As seemingly frank as that may seem for 1961, it is even more remarkable given it was produced under the censorship of Francisco Franco. It was a Spanish-French coproduction, filmed in Spainsupposedly the first horror film made in Spain. There are two scenes with naked breasts that were excised from most prints before distribution that were only left intact in the French copy (restored in the DVD). Little did anyone know that it was just the beginning of where the director's body of work would lead.
There is an inspector who does take interest in the case and it begins like a police procedural/thriller or an early formulation of the later Italian giallo films.2 And it plays that way from time to time. He interviews witnesses who have seen a man in a black cape and top hat, who is "pale and creepy looking" and who walks "peculiar" like a "sleepwalker" or "mourner following a hearse to a funeral." In what may be the first police sketch artist to work with an audience, all the people give their descriptions leading to the conclusion that there are two men abducting the women.
Despite the investigative elements, more like the gialli, the villains are concentrated on. Orlof, it turns out, was a prison doctor who fell in love with one of his female patients. He helped her escape (by inducing an insulin comaa la Claus von Bulowand writing out a fake death certificate). But he also helped a madman ("a sadist, at 20 he was a parricide") named Morpho. Orlof freed the woman because of love but Morpho was to serve a more sinister purpose. But not after conducting some experiments that leave Morpho bug-eyed and blind with a "cadaverous face." His sight has been replaced with a heightened sense of hearing. All of which made Morpho (what a name) obedient and willing and able to carry out Orlof's orders.
Why does Orlof need a psychotic zombie-like assistant? He needs subjects for other experiments. His sister has been horribly disfigured (her face) and he is trying to restore her beauty by grafting skin from his (and Morpho's) victims. Orlof allows his assistant's inclinations to take charge and after he stalks, chases, and kills them (by biting into their throats), they come back to the castle's basement where the doctor performs the surgery. One problem is that it isn't working because the skin comes from dead women. He needs a live victim if he is to succeed. That will be his downfall.
Is is any good?
Filmed in nice crisp black and white, the sets, almost all in the studio, are excellent and detailed (if one pays attention, a couple streets are reusedbut it's forgivable). There are some scenes in driving rain that are well lit and photgraphedsuperbly done. There is nice camera work, tracking and overhead shots, odd angles that enhance the murky, night time world that Orlof and the shuffling Morpho inhabit (there is also little use of the zoom lens which would later become standard and gratuitous in European horror). The score is also strong.
Sure, the film steals ideas as liberally as Quentin Tarantino, but it's still enjoyable. In the DVD liner notes, Tim Lucas (publisher of Video Watchdog, which specializes in fantasy and horror films) notes at least three to five films (some based on booksthe director loved pulp thrillers and mysteries) that probably inspired Orlof, including the name of the main character. The most obvious source is Georges Franju's classic Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959), in which a doctor uses skin grafts to restore his daughter's face after an auto accident. The script (written "in a minute," according to the director) is credited to a story from a novel by a David Khune. According to Lucas (and the general consensus among critics) no such book exists. Further, Khune is a pseudonym used by the director on other films. It's probably a nod to H.P. Lovecraft and his invented tomes.
Nicely atmospheric and with an edge that few contemporaneous ones have (though one might note the sexual element is nowhere as perverse as the Freda film mentioned in footnote one), The Awful Dr. Orlof is quite good. Not exactly gothic or procedural or giallo, it's a bit of all three, with a sense of style that would later be the trademark of European horror filmmakers like Mario Bava and Dario Argento, among others. Maybe not great but a real solid viewing and suitably creepy (even though Morpho's bug-eyes are kind of chuckle-inducing rather than shocking). Yeah, and the dubbing sucks.
Just who is this guy?
And what of the director? This was the first horror film (the fifth, overall) of a man who is little known in polite circles but legendary to those who are "into" exploitation films. A man known (usually) as Jess Franco. Also billed by his full first name Jesús Franco (Manera). Born in 1930, he went on to make more feature movies than probably anyone outside of the porn industry (had he lived longer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder might have given him a run for the money but we'll never know). Still working in his 70s, he's directed well over 150 movies, likely many, many morethe Internet Movie Database lists 183, one in preproduction as of this writing. One of the problems is his penchant for using numerous pseudonyms and the many alternate versions of many of the films under different titles, and in different edits. He also has no problem reusing footage from one movie in other ones. Just to show how tireless he is, it should be noted that he usually writes his scripts, sometimes edits the films, composed some of the scores, and acted in quite a few of his movies.
After some successful movies like Orlof in the 1960she even worked with Orson Welles on Chimes at Midnight (1965), he became the hyperprolific (he claims the fake names were largely due to the number of movies he'd put out every year) schlock- and sleaze-meister for which he is known and loathed (in the early 1970s, the Catholic church gave Franco and Luis Buñuel the title of "most dangerous filmmaker"). Blood, gore, violence, and sex became his subjects and quick and dirty was his way of working. He would be known for such "masterpieces" as Christina, princesse de l'érotisme (1971, all these movies are known under several titles; I saw it as A Virgin Among the Living Dead), Eugenie (Historia de una perversión) (1980), Sexo caníbal (1981), La Tumba de los muertos vivientes (1983; see footnote 3), or Lust for Frankenstein (1998). An example of how prolific he is? Put it this way, George Lucas put out one movie in 1983 (Return of the Jedi)Franco put out 14 (his most prolific year).
Franco's films are nearly plotless, cheaply filmed (often with cobbled together footage from other work), and basically excuses to show naked females and blood. All the elements of Orlof that make it good are missing or perverted (pun intended) in his later (the majority) work. Though if one looks at it with an (extraordinarily) open mind there can be an almost fever dream-like quality to the narrative, like trance logic. But that is probably (extraordinarily) kind to the movies of Señor Franco. Definitely the sort of thing that is an acquired taste. Not for everyone and likely only for a few.
Perhaps after a few good films like Orlof it was all downhill. Regardless of where his work ended up, it started quite good. The Awful Dr. Orlof is not awful at all and certainly worth a look.
1Like a lot of European horror movies, the movie is known by a number of names in both English and other languages. The French title, L'Horrible Docteur Orlof, is fitting given the pairing with Riccardo Freda's L'Orribile segreto del Dr Hitchcock (1961; "The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hitchcock," often known as "The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock" or "The Terror of Dr. Hitchcock"an excellent example of Italian period horror) as a double feature in the US (1964). Also note the single "f" in the good doctor's name (though some later prints added the letter back in). There were several not-quite sequels featuring the character (by this film's director and others) in which he is Dr. Orloff. In all but one instance, he was played by Howard Vernon (1914-1996).
2Italian for "yellow," it is a reference to the yellow covers that mystery-detective-crime novels once had in Italy. It has come to mean similar films, usually featuring black-gloved killers, wild plots, and brutal killingsthe killings and the murderer as important (or more) as the solving of the crimes. In Film Comment Maitland McDonagh elaborates: "psychological/detective thrillers driven by the cruel, the outré; they hark back to Hitchcock's Psycho  not because Psycho is suspenseful and keeps viewers guessing about the killer's identity, but because it takes place in a warped world defined by the mind of a maniac."
3La Tumba de los muertos vivientes is a prime example of why it is difficult to track down his filmography. His movie was little seen but footage from it was taken and reworked (with new material) by a producer creating a new film with a simlar plot. That film is better known and still available in old video stores and on DVD as Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies or Oasis of the Zombies (the DVD might be the original Franco film). Thing is, most film guides (if they mention it at all) credit it to Franco, despite there being two separate, though incestuous, films. (I have seen it: it sucks, and though the Franco version is supposedly better it probably isn't by muchincidentally, it is not the best Nazi zombie movie, 1977s Shock Waves has that title and even the awful Jean Rollin directed 1980 Zombie Lake is slightly less worse.)
Viewing and liner notes from personal copy of the DVD
dates, facts, and trivia from the Internet Movie Database
Maitland McDonagh's definition of giallo can be found in the January-February 1993 issue of Film Comment
Numerous web pages with very little information on Jesús Franco
Many, many years of watching exploitation films: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Movies mentioned above that I haven't seen (and don't plan to): Eugenie (Historia de una perversión), Sexo caníbal, or Lust for Frankenstein