Late one night in this French town, a young woman is retuning to her home in a state of inebriation, dawdling and swaying her way along the streets, talking and singing to herself all the while. She does eventually reach her front door and makes her way to her apartment where she plays peekaboo with her full-length mirror then decides she has had enough fun and should get ready for bed, so goes over to the wardrobe and opens it. Suddenly, from out of the clothes on their hangers a tall figure with a terrifying visage lunges out and grabs her, rendering her unconscious and spiriting her away into the darkness...
It's an opening scene which is less cliché and more archetype, but it was the first time director Jess Franco really made his mark on the world of cinema, and you could observe he never looked back, or indeed changed his tune very much. It was all here, the sleaze, the horror, the nudity, but at this stage in his career he was displaying more control than in his later efforts which tended towards a looser, more improvisational style in the manner of his beloved jazz music. With Gritos en la Noche, which was the original title of The Awful Dr. Orlof, this was more indebted to a different, then recent horror hit from Europe.
This was Spain's first horror movie, not a genre popular during the extremely conservative rule of General Franco (er, no relation), but one which in export to other countries proved very lucrative, especially when a filmmaker such as this one was prepared to push the envelope that bit further in terms of what you could get away with on the screen, and he would only push it as far as he could take it as his career progressed. With that in mind, the first of his Dr. Orlof series (named either to make the audience think of chiller icon Boris Karloff, or after a Bela Lugosi character, or both), may not have been all that shocking, indeed many find it incredibly boring, but you could discern the sort of filmmaker Jess Franco was growing into.
Franco denied it but the previous hit that Orlof owed its debt to was Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans Visage, or Eyes Without a Face as it was called in English, as he had borrowed a few plot points to render not quite a cover version, but something of a variation on a theme. Here it was the actor who would be most identified with the director's movies playing the mad scientist, Howard Vernon, who knew how to put his sinister features to good use in the field of character work which was just as well when he was essaying the doctor whose main desire in life is to rebuild his daughter's ruined face with a rather drastic skin graft programme: basically he sends his zombie manservant Morpho (Ricardo Valle), he of the mad, staring eyes, to collect young ladies from the streets so he can lift their faces as a transplant.
Even though this bright idea has a success rate of zero so far, Orlof still sticks with it, and by the time the heroine Wanda arrives on the scene to investigate he has graduated to keeping his victims alive to see if that offers more satisfaction in his endeavours. Wanda (played by the beautiful Diana Lorys) is the fiancée of the police inspector Tanner (Conrado Saint Martín) who is conducting the official investigation, though not very well - there's rather more intentional humour than you usually associated with Franco here - which leaves his girlfriend to turn Nancy Drew and prove that women are better than men at solving mysteries, even if they have to be captured by the baddies to do so. In its favour, and what the naysayers were wont to overlook, was that Franco did a very nice job of crafting a creepy mood through making the characters we care about vulnerable, matched with some rich black and white photography which pretty much states outright there's menacing business going on. Derivative it was, but nicely done, though the music is an acquired taste.
Legendary director of predominantly sex-and-horror-based material, Spanish-born Jesus Franco had as many as 200 directing credits to his name. Trained initially as a musician before studying film at the Sorbonne in Paris, Franco began directing in the late 50s. By using the same actors, sets and locations on many films, Franco has maintained an astonishing workrate, and while the quality of his work has sometimes suffered because of this, films such as Virgin Amongst the Living dead, Eugenie, Succubus and She Killed in Ecstasy remain distinctive slices of 60s/70s art-trash.
Most of his films have been released in multiple versions with wildly differing titles, while Franco himself has directed under a bewildering number of pseudonyms. Actors who have regularly appeared in his films include Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee and wife Lina Romay; fans should also look out for his name on the credits of Orson Welles' Chimes of Midnight, on which he worked as assistant director.