Dr. Orloff’s Monster / The Secret of Dr. Orloff / The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll / Brides of Dr. Jekyll / El Segreto del Dr. Orloff (1964/1967) ***
Jesus Franco made a bunch of movies over the years that we might collectively think of as An Awful Dr. Orloff. That is, they’re mad science movies in which the medical maverick shares bits and pieces of modus operandi with Franco’s original horror villain, and in which somebody (albeit not necessarily the primary baddie) shares his name, but they’re nevertheless not quite sequels to The Awful Dr. Orlof in the ordinary sense. It’s one more manifestation of Franco’s jazzy themes-and-variations approach to filmmaking, like his obsessive recycling of the same dozen or so character names or his tireless riffing on the premise of two girls who may or may not be lesbians gallivanting about having ribald, genre-jumping adventures. Dr. Orloff’s Monster is the first of those not-exactly-sequels, and already shows how far off-model Franco was willing to let his Doctors Orloff stray. This one is a surprisingly minor figure who merely provides the technological basis for someone else’s reign of terror before vanishing from the story almost completely.
Indeed, we first see him in a flashback, as an old man in poor health, on what you’ll naturally assume to be his deathbed. It isn’t actually (we’ll see him again near the end of the film, apparently enjoying a comfortable retirement), but Franco gets his Welles on something fierce in this movie, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he found the temptation to include a “Rosebud…” scene irresistible. Anyway, Orloff had been working together with another scientist by the amusingly off-kilter name of Dr. Conrad Fisherman (Marcelo Arroita-Jauregui, from Two Undercover Angels and The Diabolical Dr. Z) on that favorite project of all mad scientists everywhere, the restoration of life to dead tissue. But up until recently, Orloff and Fisherman had been stuck somewhere around square two. They could bring dead cells back to life, but a complete organism subjected to their process could do no more than to lie there on the workbench metabolizing. Shortly before his illness, however, the elder doctor had a breakthrough; hell, the overwork from pursuing that breakthrough to its conclusion might have been what made Orloff so sick in the first place. By stimulating a revived carcass with ultrasonic waves, he was able to impart animation and crude muscular control. Not quite worthy of an “It’s alive! Alive!” but a clear and definite step in the right direction. Orloff passes his discovery along to Fisherman, and leaves him to carry on the work alone from there.
Unlike most scientists in his position, Fisherman has solid practical reasons for wanting to raise the dead. Many years ago, he returned early from a business trip to find his brother (Hugo Blanco, of The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus) banging his wife, Ingrid (The House that Screamed’s Luisa Sala). Fisherman went berserk when he saw that, and brained the younger man with a fireplace poker. He immediately regretted his rash action, and has been trying to make up for it ever since by resurrecting his victim. Even with Orloff’s ultrasound gizmo, the best he’s been able to achieve is a zombie-like creature which he calls “Andros,” presumably because he can’t bear to call the desiccated human automaton by his brother’s proper name. Fisherman continues searching for a way to activate Andros’s higher brain functions, but without success so far. Still, the creature has its uses in the meantime. Not content with what he’s already done, Conrad seeks ongoing marital revenge against Ingrid by cheating on her with a whole army of mistresses, most of them cabaret girls. (Is that a nightclub scene I see coming? No! It’s three or four of the things!) When the doctor tires of a particular dalliance, he sends Andros out to deliver the breakup message; those tend to be rather final. Is it any wonder that Ingrid has become a booze-for-breakfast drunk in the years since her indiscretion?
Fisherman’s college-student niece, Melissa (Agnes Spaak), knows nothing about any of that when she comes to spend Christmas break at his castle in Holfen. She does, however, realize that something more significant than presents and eggnog is in the offing, because she’s reached an age at which the matter of her inheritance simply must be discussed. Melissa was but an infant when her father died, and Fisherman somehow wound up administering the trust into which his brother’s fortune was placed. That’s a responsibility he no longer wants (if indeed he ever really wanted it at all), not least because it impinges on his freedom to withdraw into the lab for days at a time to commit abominations against nature, to say nothing of how it interferes with his busy schedule of bedding and murdering showgirls. Now that Melissa is of age, Conrad wants to turn the trust over to her and be done with the hassle. The doctor hasn’t considered, however, how Andros might react to having his daughter in such close proximity. As if sensing Melissa’s presence through some uncanny faculty, the creature takes to stalking the castle in the hope of catching a glimpse of her, and becomes steadily less controllable during his missions of murder. Melissa sees Andros, too, although her uncle is able to explain away the cadaverous intruder by convincing her that she’s suffering from recurring nightmares. At least Fisherman has no need to explain away Andros’s identity, too; Melissa has never so much as seen a picture of her father. I guess Mom just didn’t feel like talking about the guy who died while screwing around on her.
It’s obvious, though, that the truth is going to come out sooner or later— about Melissa’s dad, about Fisherman, about the cabaret girls, about everything. Maybe Melissa will let herself into her uncle’s lab at exactly the wrong moment. Maybe Ingrid will get so drunk and fed up that she blabs the whole story. Maybe Inspector Klein (Pastor Serrador), the policeman investigating the showgirl slayings, will finally get his shit together and crack the case. Or maybe Melissa’s would-be boyfriend, a lad by the name of Juan-Miguel (Pepe Rubio, from Goliath Against the Giants), will see something he wasn’t supposed to while sniffing around the castle after her. But no matter what, the Secret of Dr. Orloff will not remain the Secret of Dr. Fisherman much longer, and there’ll be half a dozen kinds of hell for the scientist to pay.
Though my heart belongs to the crazily idiosyncratic stuff he made in the 70’s, I do like to return every once in a while to this early phase of Franco’s career, and remind myself that he really did know how to make a more or less normal movie. It’s just that he lost interest in doing so once he realized that he could make stuff like Venus in Furs and The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein instead. Dr. Orloff’s Monster shows Franco just beginning to stray beyond the limits of conventional genre filmmaking. It rehashes elements of The Awful Dr. Orlof in that weird, recombinant way that would later become a Franco trademark, and it experiments a bit with the fractured narrative and opaque character motivations that would reach the climax of their development in Macumba Sexual some fifteen years later. It also spends as much of its time in nightclubs as any Franco movie yet, save perhaps the overtly showbiz-oriented Vampiresas 1930 and Queen of the Tabarin Club. At the same time, though, Dr. Orloff’s Monster reflects a truly unexpected combination of thoroughly conventional influences. In its pacing, cinematography, and overall mood, this movie is as studiedly Wellesian as anything I’ve seen from Franco (although to be fair, I haven’t yet gotten around to his early noir picture, Riffifi in the City, frequently cited as his most overt tribute to Orson Welles). That’s not the weird part, though, jarring as it may be for Franco neophytes. The weird part is how closely Dr. Orloff’s Monster resembles The Curse of Frankenstein. Jesus Franco hated the Hammer horror films, the ones directed by Terrence Fisher most of all. And yet in its subject matter, in its production design, in the characterizations of Andros and Dr. Fisherman, Dr. Orloff’s Monster could almost be one of them, and I frankly don’t know what to make of that. Maybe it’s as simple as an awareness on Franco’s part that those movies made money, regardless of what he thought of them, and that he really needed a good payday after spending himself into the hole on Riffifi in the City.
In any case, Dr. Orloff’s Monster is another film that I’d recommend for Franco novices interested in exploring the director’s work, but unenthusiastic about spending 80 minutes at a time peering up Lina Romay’s snatch. It’s a nifty combination of noir styling and gothic mad science, with a nicely handled mystery that for once we’re supposed to be able to solve before the heroine does. The technical cribs from Welles give the movie a look that elevates it significantly above its natural station, and generally serve the story in a way that’s far too rare with such directorial and cinematographic showboating. In particular, the scene in which Fisherman tracks the malfunctioning Andros to his supposed resting place in Holfen’s cemetery climaxes with one of the most evocative images of Franco’s entire career. Not bad for a movie built from repurposed scraps of pilfered ideas. And there’s a special bonus here for fans of Zombie Lake. (It’s no use hiding under your desks; you know who you are.) That ridiculous movie’s most ridiculous plot thread— the one in which the little girl exploits her uncanny bond with her amphibious Nazi zombie father to save the village while laying him and his undead comrades to a long overdue rest— forms the main load-bearing structure of this film’s third act, only here it makes perfect sense! What’s more, it might even qualify as moving if you’re already in a sufficiently maudlin mood! Heaven knows a sensible and effective take on the dumbest part of Zombie Lake was the last thing I expected when I sat down to watch Dr. Orloff’s Monster.