The Awful Dr. Orlof / The Diabolical Dr. Satan / The Demon Doctor / Cries in the Night / Screams in the Night / Gritos en la Noche (1962) ***
Now here’s a depressing thought. Imagine for a moment that you’re an independent filmmaker. Imagine further that you’re one of the most prolific in the business, with a career spanning more than four decades and a filmography that stretches well into the triple digits. Now imagine that the best movie you ever made came only five years after your first one. I wonder if Jesus Franco ever finds himself contemplating that harsh reality when looking back over his many years behind the camera. I wonder if it would trouble him if he did. For while I certainly don’t claim to have seen all— or even, proportionately speaking, all that many— of Franco’s movies, I’ve seen enough of them to be totally flabbergasted by the competence and professionalism apparent in The Awful Dr. Orlof/Gritos en la Noche, the director’s first foray into the horror genre. It may be nothing more than a quickie rip-off of Eyes Without a Face, but it’s also almost certainly the best quickie rip-off that oft-copied film ever had.
The place is some city in France, the time the wee hours of a morning in 1912. A lone woman staggers drunkenly home from her favorite tavern, and somehow makes it up to her flat on the second story without falling down the stairs and breaking her neck. Her luck is purely illusory, however, for hiding in her closet is a hulking man (Ricardo Valle, from Hercules Against the Sons of the Sun and Island of the Doomed) with bulging, apparently sightless eyes and a ghastly scar down the left side of his face. The man lunges at the inebriated woman when she opens the closet door to get her nightgown, swiftly overpowering her and ripping her throat out with his teeth. The blind killer then carries her off to wherever it is he comes from.
The next day, Police Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin, of Samson and the Mighty Challenge and The Colossus of Rhodes) and his new fiancee, ballerina Wanda Bronsky (Diana Lorys, from Fangs of the Living Dead and The House of Psychotic Women), return from a two-week vacation; Tanner is about to wish he hadn’t. For as the inspector’s boss explains, the woman we saw getting killed in the opening scene was the fifth to disappear recently, and Tanner has just been assigned to the increasingly high-pressure case. Matters are only made more complicated by the fact that none of the witnesses Tanner interviews in regard to the disappearances seem to be describing the same man.
While Tanner is going about his frustrating business, victim number six is being set up. A tall, slim, 50-ish man (Howard Vernon, from The Bloody Judge and Castle of the Creeping Flesh) dressed to the nines despite only being out at a vaguely slummish music hall, has his eye on one of the performers in a way that can’t possibly be good. After her act is finished, the snappy dresser calls the girl over to his table, where he proceeds to get her good and hammered on champagne which one assumes she couldn’t quite afford if left to her own devices. Having thus earned the girl’s affection, the man ups the ante by presenting her with a huge— and obviously very expensive— necklace; at this point, there’s just no way she isn’t going to agree to go home with him. The first irrefutable evidence that doing so is a terrible idea comes as the man and his date walk through the garden of the chateau to which he brings her. For one thing, there’s a carriage parked inconspicuously beside the castle wall, and it’s got what appears to be a coffin stashed in its cargo bed. Not only that, lying in the tall grass beside the path to the front door is a hastily concealed “for sale” sign. The well-dressed man ushers the girl from the music hall inside, and then immediately shuts the door behind her, locking her within. At first she figures he’s just screwing around with her, but then she meets up with the blind throat-biter from the opening scene, and that changes her understanding of the situation right quick. After the killer has done his bloody job, the other man enters the castle and directs him to the carriage outside, where the coffin is waiting to receive the girl’s body. The two criminals drive to a boat landing some miles away, and then transfer their grisly cargo to a dinghy for the trip upriver to a different castle, the one in which they actually live. And now, at last, we learn what this girl-killing caper is all about. The sharp dresser is a retired surgeon named Orlof, who once worked in a prison. The killer is Morpho Launer, who was one of Orlof’s inmate patients many years ago. The rest of the household consists of a housekeeper named Arne (Fury of the Wolf Man’s Peria Cristal) and a much younger woman named Melissa (also Diana Lorys), who is actually the doctor’s daughter. Melissa doesn’t seem to lead a very active life, and it’s easy enough to see why— much of her body is covered with what look like the scars of extremely severe burns. The reason Orlof and Morpho spend their evenings collecting dead girls is that the doctor hopes to use their flesh to repair his daughter’s injuries. Arne, for her part, is nearing the end of her tether with her boss’s ghoulish hobby, but Orlof swears he’s close to the solution he seeks, and thus to the end of his killing spree.
So do you think Wanda might be in for a date with the Awful Dr. Orlof? Sure you do. What gets her there is her increasing involvement in her boyfriend’s investigation of the rapidly accumulating disappearances. Wanda’s a smart girl, and she thinks she could be of use to the police. For example, her first contribution is to suggest— albeit obliquely— that Tanner bring in a sketch artist to make sense of the conflicting descriptions of the as yet unknown suspect. Once all the witnesses have had their turns directing the artist, it becomes clear that Tanner should be looking for two men acting as a team. And when Wanda goes along with Tanner to the music hall where the latest victim was last seen, she has a run-in with Orlof out in the street that leaves her more than a little rattled. She’s seen the sketches by this point, and she recognizes Orlof as one of the men the police are looking for. Orlof, too, catches a spark of recognition when he sees Wanda, for the ballerina bears a striking resemblance to his daughter before her unexplained accident. And you know what that means— Wanda goes straight to the top of Orlof’s must-have victims list.
Meanwhile, Tanner is at last making some real progress toward catching his man. Morpho accidentally unclasped the necklace which his boss gave to the music hall girl while he was manhandling her into the boat, and it just so happens that the policeman who was walking the beat outside the music hall when she was seen last is also on hand when a drunk and petty criminal named Jean Rousseau (Venancio Muro) tries to pawn the distinctive jewels. The cop hauls him in as a suspect, but Tanner quickly realizes that Rousseau is really the most valuable witness of all. The drunk supports himself partly by fishing, you see, and it was on a fishing trip that he found the incriminating necklace. Rousseau’s vocation also leads him to spend much time in the vicinity of Orlof’s castle, and of the boat landing the doctor uses to avoid calling attention to his activities, and he’s seen plenty of suspicious goings-on at both places over the past few months. But unfortunately for Tanner, police work is often a slow business, and while he’s methodically sifting the evidence, his hot-headed fiancee has come up with a reckless scheme to trap the killers, using herself as the bait.
It’s hard to believe the same man could have directed both The Awful Dr. Orlof and Oasis of the Zombies. Here in his first outing as a horror director, Franco displays a visual flair and a concern for narrative cohesion that would vanish from his work almost completely by the beginning of the next decade. Hell, he’s even got his infamous zoom lens fetish under control. It’s also obvious that Franco took far more care with The Awful Dr. Orlof than he would with his vast 70’s and 80’s output. The film is derivative, to be sure, but it is derivative of so many distinctly different things, and the pilfered elements are reassembled in such a thoughtful manner that it manages to find a personality all its own. Most of the subject matter is stolen from Eyes Without a Face, of course, but there are also echoes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and a whole slew of Edgar Wallace mysteries (most notably The Dead Eyes of London) to throw the story into a completely new equilibrium. Meanwhile, Franco aims for a very different overall feel from his primary model. The Awful Dr. Orlof’s production design has more of a Universal look to it, and there’s a dash of sleazy sex that makes for one of the very few signposts this movie offers pointing the way for the rest of Franco’s career. With all that going for it, I suppose it’s only natural that Franco would return to the character of Dr. Orlof— and to actor Howard Vernon as well— again and again over the ensuing years. By most accounts, none of The Awful Dr. Orlof’s many sequels match the balance and poise of the original, but you can hardly blame Franco for hoping to recapture his apparently freakish early success.