Review: The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962)

Written by Jesus Franco
Directed by Jesus Franco
Starring Conrado San Martin, Diana Lorys, Howard Vernon, Perla Cristal, Ricardo Valle
Released May 14, 1962 (Madrid)
RT 90 min.
Home Video Redemption (Blu-ray)
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)

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The history of The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962) is a little confusing to me without conducting more in-depth research into it. I understand that it’s considered to be the earliest Spanish horror film. Why, then, is the language French? Supposedly writer/director Jesus Franco set the film in France to keep Spanish censors at bay. Would he not, though, have used Spanish cast and crew? Was the dialogue merely dubbed in French?

We do know that Franco was Spanish and would later have a prolific career as a horror director before spending the latter part of it making pornographic films. Of the many well-known Euro-horror directors, it seems Franco is the most controversial, in terms of whether or not people like his movies. Of course, none of these things matter one bit for the enjoyment of the film itself.

There’s a lot to enjoy in The Awful Dr. Orloff. It has a delightfully sinister, although familiar, plot and some wonderful Gothic trappings. The 1912 setting contributes to the atmosphere with its cobblestone streets, remote castle, and everything dark and shadowy in between. It has a mad doctor performing experiments and a disfigured assistant doing his bidding.

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Specifically, Dr. Orloff (Howard Vernon) kidnaps, or has Morpho (Ricardo Valle) kidnap, beautiful women so he can harvest their skin to restore his daughter to her former beauty. (I don’t recall the story explaining how she was scarred.) As Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin) investigates, his fiancée Wanda Bronsky (Diana Lorys) wants to help. As coincidence would have it, Wanda is the doppelganger of Orloff’s daughter.

That means while Orloff targets her specifically as a potential “cure” for his daughter, she simultaneously tries to help Tanner apprehend him. I admire that the plot is a little more complicated than some movies of the kind; however, the execution is partially botched. The big moments are telegraphed so they become predictable and the characters purposely ignore clues in order to prolong the suspense.

When Wanda writes Tanner a note to tell him she’s found the villain, he sticks it in his pocket to read later. He thinks it’s from just another wisecrack that’s claimed to have seen him. Later, when it falls out of his pocket and is brought to his attention, he again puts it away. Only when he’s done for the night and is home in bed enjoying a cigarette does he decide to read it. At that point it’s a contrivance, not a plot point.

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The music in The Awful Dr. Orloff credited to Jose Pagan and Antonio Ramirez Angel is memorable. More often than not, it’s just a series of drums and noises. Sometimes there’s a discordant xylophone. Later, though, an organ is added and it creates a terrific mood inside the castle. While the score is noticeable, it never overpowers what’s happening onscreen. I really liked it.

I also liked the cast. Vernon looks like a cross between Karloff and Lorre. He can be suave enough to lure the ladies to come home with him, yet evil enough to caress their breasts before slicing them open from belly button to neck. Lorys is a handsome woman with smarts and perseverance. Her Wanda is a no-nonsense girl who’s impatient with Tanner’s methodical approach to the investigation and becomes a victim only when she’s unconscious.

For every great moment in The Awful Dr. Orloff, there’s a… well, awful moment. Gathering witnesses to the abductions for a sketch artist to create a composite is a great moment, particularly when the result is sketches of two different people (Orloff and Morpho). Instantly sobering a drunk who knows the location to the castle by splashing a bucket of water on him is an awful moment. If it worked that way, we wouldn’t have DUIs.

Today’s passport stamp:SpainPart of the Countdown to Halloween.  Tomorrow… the Philippines!

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