International Horror Film Review: The Awful Dr. Orlof (dir by Jess Franco)


This 1962 Spanish film opens with a village gripped by terror!  Someone is abducting young dancers from their apartments and sometimes straight off the street!  Who could be responsible for such a terrible act?  Could it be the Mafia?  Could it be the Communists?  Could it be a wayward jazz pianist or maybe an aspiring filmmaker who befriended Orson Welles when the latter moved to Europe to escape the IRS?  Or could it be that awful Dr. Orlof?

Who is Dr. Orlof, you may ask?  He’s a former prison doctor who retired after a fire disfigured his daughter.  Now, he lives in an isolated castle, where he cares for his daughter.  They say that his only companion is Morpho, a blind former convict who wears an emotionless mask over his features and who is often seen wandering around the village in the middle of the night.  Could it be that Dr. Orlof is responsible for the disappearances?

Of course it’s Dr. Orlof!  His name is right there in the title of the film.  In fact, it’s so obvious that Dr. Orlof is sending Morpho out in the middle of the night so that he can abduct beautiful women who are then used in experiments designed to restore the beauty of Orlof’s daughter that you have to wonder why the police just don’t arrest him as soon as the crimes start.  I mean, yes …. I assume that the police need to find some sort of evidence to prove that Orlof is behind the crime but then again, this film was shot in Spain during the years when General Francisco Franco was in charge of the country.  I’m sure the police could have done whatever they wanted.

The Awful Dr. Orlof is considered by many to be the first Spanish horror film.  It was also one of the first films to be directed by Jess Franco, who was no relation to the general.  With both critics and at the box office, this was one of Jess Franco’s most successful films and it was one that he would remake several times over the course of his career.  Dr. Orlof, always played with decadent haughtiness by Howard Vernon, went on to appear in several other Franco films.  (In subsequent films, he added an extra F to his last name.  That’s probably because The Awful Dr. Orlof was released in some countries as The Awful Dr. Orloff.  The double F brings to mind Boris Karloff so it’s not a bad idea to spell it that way but all of the evidence that I’ve read and seen would suggest that Franco originally spelled the name Orlof, with only one F.)  For that matter, Morpho also appeared in quite a few films, some with Orlof and some without him.  In the Awful Dr. Orlof, Morpho is played by Ricardo Valle and he’s a genuinely creepy character.  The blank mask that he wears as he stalks through the night is perhaps the best-known image to come out of The Awful Dr. Orlof.  In fact, if you’ve only seen screenshots of the film, it’s easy to assume that Morpho is the title character, just because of how prominently he is featured in every shot.  It’s impossible to take your eyes away from him.

On the whole, Jess Franco does not have a great critical reputation.  He worked fast.  He made a lot of movies and occasionally, it was obvious that his main concern was getting a paycheck.  Especially when it came to his later films, Franco could be a sloppy and inconsistent director.  And yet, when Franco took his time and when he actually cared about the material, his talent was undeniable.  The Awful Dr. Orlof is one of Franco’s better movies.  While the story won’t win any points for creativity, Franco’s direction is atmospheric and, at it best, the movie feels like a filmed nightmare, full of slightly askew angles and menacing shadows.  The black-and-white cinematography helps, adding a touch of gothic class to the film.  Howard Vernon gives a multi-layered performance as Orlof.  He may be, as the title state, awful but there’s no doubt that his actions are the actions of a desperate parent.  And, of course, Morpho will haunt your nightmares.

All in all, The Awful Dr. Orlof is not awful at all.  It’s a good film to use if you’re tying to introduce Franco to someone who might not be familiar with his work.  Definitely show them Dr. Orlof before showing them A Virgin Among The Living Dead.  Just a suggestion.

One response to “International Horror Film Review: The Awful Dr. Orlof (dir by Jess Franco)

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review — 10/25/21 — 10/31/21 | Through the Shattered Lens

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