Long before his name became associated with the cinema of exploitation Eurosleaze, Jesús Franco made his best films in the 1960s, productions with notable quality and genuine value, such as 'Count Dracula' and 'The Diabolical Dr. Z.' Working under the name Jess Frank, 'The Awful Dr. Orlof' is the stylish and atmospheric Spanish horror film that brought him worldwide recognition, and aside from the two just mentioned, it is arguably his finest achievement. Indeed, his camerawork is somewhat inspiring as it seamlessly moves through the romantically gothic set design of Antonio Simont and appreciates their beauty from a distance.
Employing the signature feel of Hammer Films and the visual styles of Baroque atmospherics popular in European horror at the time, Franco immerses his shocking tale of murder and the undead with beautifully spooky shadows. Since much of the narrative takes place at night, it's essential to see the cobblestone streets shimmer from the moonlight and the narrow passages between buildings congested with an unnerving fog. Even when inside a cabaret show, light and shadows seem to dance with one another while a sensual lady on stage sings a passionate melody. It's thanks to the eerily hypnotic photography of Godofredo Pacheco that many of these sequences are made so hauntingly memorable.
Those moments when Franco and Pacheco's efforts are in perfect, spine-chilling harmony are ironically having to do with our dastardly villain performing his evil deeds. Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon) and his zombie-like henchman Morpho (Ricardo Valle) — a recurring character name used in many of Franco's later films — walk the streets of France with a creepy swagger and determination, deceiving young working girls into their deaths. Indeed, eye-witnesses to his murderous tendencies describe Orlof as a darkly sinister man with a stare that reaches deep into your soul. And wouldn't you know it, Vernon does have that magical presence, aided by beautifully placed shadows just under his brows. Valle, on the other hand, walks around with fake, bulging eyes that more comical than scary.
Despite Franco writing the original screenplay, the plot undeniably borrows from Georges Franju's 'Eyes without a Face,' or at least from the Jean Redon novel on which the horror classic is based, and from Walter Summers' 'The Dark Eyes of London,' especially in the Morpho character. It follows the once-prominent but now mentally disturbed Dr. Orlof on his crazed pursuit of repairing his daughter's disfigured face, which he tries to do by making skin grafts from kidnapped women. Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martín) is the man in charge of the case but doesn't have any leads to go on. One pretty amusing scene has the few eyewitnesses describe the kidnapper to Tanner while a sketch artist draws the details.
More importantly as the narrative progresses, Tanner is engaged to the gorgeous Wanda Bronsky (Diana Lorys), who coincidently looks identical to Orlof's daughter. From there, it doesn't take much to guess how things proceed, but to Franco's credit, he turns the whole situation into an opportunity of suspense. Bronsky has meddling nosey streak to her personality and attempts to help her fiancé by putting herself on the line — which, of course, is pretty darn stupid. Nonetheless, it makes for good storytelling, involving dumb decisions of not following the clues and a very timely rescue. And to top it all off, Franco still manages to surprise with an unexpected twist of cosmic irony, making 'The Awful Dr. Orlof' a great piece of atmospheric horror entertainment.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings Jess Franco's 'The Awful Dr. Orlof' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Redemption" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase, the Region Free, BD50 disc goes straight to a static menu screen with music playing in the background.
'The Awful Dr. Orlof' abducts Blu-ray with a passable, sometime very good 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Taken from an uncensored 35mm print, the 1.66:1 image is fairly detailed with nice definition in the costumes and architecture. Of course, several moments of blurriness accompany the best part, and the frame is often spoiled by white specks, a couple scratches and some mild decomposition. The picture displays good contrast for a majority of the runtime, but a few sequences run much too hot, ruining the finer details and creating a good deal of blooming. Black levels are, for the most part, accurate with strong shadow delineation, yet many scenes also appear faded and dull. Overall, per usual of Kino products, the transfer is representative of the print's current condition, making it only a passable high-def presentation.
Like the video, the uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack is faithful to the source and its current state of repair. The film's original spoken language is Spanish, but it is presented here in the French dub. Apparently, in order to give viewers the opportunity to watch the unedited version of the movie, the French track is the only one available. All things considered, the lossless mix is not altogether bad, but it's not wholly impressive either. Ignoring lip movements not exactly matching the spoken dialogue, vocals are clean and distinct in the center. Bass is pretty much non-existent. Imaging is probably the track's best feature with good, detailed dynamics and a nice, broad soundstage. From the music to background activity, the soundfield is quite welcoming and engaging, making it one of the better reasons to enjoy the high-rez audio.
Although remembered for his trashy horror features, Jesús Franco had his best filmmaking years in the 1960s, before his name became commonly associated with Eurosleaze exploitation. It was during this decade he made 'The Awful Dr. Orlof,' a beautifully shot movie with a mad-scientist theme immersed in romantically gothic atmospheres. The Blu-ray arrives with a generally pleasing audio and video presentation and a small collection of supplements. Overall, the package is an improvement over previous home video editions and fans will be more than happy.