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Upon finishing the second of his two musicals, Franco and his producers—Marius and Daniel Lesoeur (father and son) of Eurocinéac—met with the censor to gain approval for their next project. "[It was] based upon a popular story of Central America that I knew from my childhood," Franco told Kevin Collins (in EUROPEAN TRASH CINEMA SPECIAL #1). "It was a story I knew since I was four years old, and this story was forbidden by the censorship!" The project was already in preproduction, with actors under contract, so certain had Franco and the Lesoeurs been of gaining clearance.
Looking for something else to do, Franco persuaded his partners to attend with him a screening of the Hammer film THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) in Paris. In addition to everything else the film was, it depicted something that would have been unpresentable on Spanish screens without the window-dressing of horror and fantasy: common red-blooded people who were preyed upon by blue-blooded people in positions of privilege. "[The Lesoeurs] said, since we have trouble with the censorship, why don't we do something this way?" Franco recalled. "Nobody would say anything because there's no politics involved in it." Franco wrote the script "in a minute" and the film—released in Spain as GRITOS EN LA NOCHE ("Screams in the Night," 1961), in a somewhat longer cut—became his first international success. A decade later, Franco said with some pride to VAMPIRELLA interviewer Alain Petit that "In America, I am known as Jess (THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF) Franco."
In Franco's hastily-written story, Inspector Tanner is summoned to solve the mystery of why beautiful music hall entertainers are vanishing under mysterious circumstances. His resourceful fiancée decides to help him by going undercover as a cabaret singer, and succeeds all too well, attracting the attention of the diabolical Dr. Orlof (played by the late Swiss actor Howard Vernon, real name Mario Lippert)—who, with his blind henchman Morpho, is using the skin of slain women to restore the beauty of his disfigured sister, Melissa. Franco was able to come up with this outline so quickly because he was not only a filmmaker, but someone truly addicted to movies of all kinds—as his subsequent prolificity would attest. Like many other young directors of his generation, Franco had grown up adoring the movies—but unlike, say, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, who admired Alfred Hitchcock and others of that station, Franco's appetite for cinema was less elitist and more voracious. Consequently, Franco's work can be like a glorious rummage sale of pop culture, spilling over with references to all that he has absorbed from endless different avenues of entertainment.
For viewers who know Franco only from his later, cruder productions, the level of technical sophistication in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF may be surprising. Godofredo Pacheco's black-and-white cinematography is genuinely atmospheric, particularly in its expressionistic night scenes, and there are outstanding performances by Vernon, Ricardo Valle as Morpho, and Diana Lorys in the dual role of the heroine and Orlof's disfigured sister. The music score, by J. Pagán and A. Ramirez Angel, deserves credit as one of the most effectively avant garde scores to be found in the genre: staccato snare drum, xylophone, kettledrum, recorder, baleful horns and organ, all clattering in cacaphony under a goosebump-inducing wash of electronic feedback. And still shocking all these years later are a couple of instances of female nudity that, needless to say, were never part of the film's original English-language release. Those who happened to catch the film during its original French release at the legendary Midi-Minuit and Scarlett theatres in Paris still speak with awe of the unprecedented frisson they felt as the front of Diana Lorys' bodice torn away from the bouncing breasts of her stand-in. It is remembered as a moment in the genre's history from which there was no turning back.
Despite this and other shocks to the heart and the libido, Jess Franco now regards THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF as "a museum piece... the end of an era." Indeed, it ranks as one of the last films of the 1960s to strike a genuine chord of Gothic horror reminiscent of the great classics of Universal, and the silent masterworks of UFA. Simultaneously, it strikes an underlying harmonic of progress and innovation, heralding a new age of erotic and sado-masochistic permissiveness within the genre.
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