Wildly prolific Spanish trash auteur Jess Franco (who died earlier this year at age 82) never met a beauty he didn’t want to undress for some onscreen psychosexual madness, as evidenced by Redemption’s deluxe Blu-ray releases of three early Franco efforts.
By far the best of that trio is 1962’s The Awful Dr. Orlof, which put Franco on the cinematic map, and is often said to be Spain’s first horror film. Shot in luxurious black and white, the story concerns Howard Vernon’s titular mad doctor attempting to restore his facially scarred daughter to her former gorgeous state. That surgical plan requires the skin of other women—specifically, whores, whom Vernon abducts and brings to his remote castle. He does so with the aid of Ricardo Valle’s blind, lumbering serial-killer lackey, whose own reconfigured visage, defined by giant eyes that never close, is as strangely terrifying as anything in the Franco canon.
Befitting the director’s legendary fondness for nude female flesh, The Awful Dr. Orlof boasts more than one instance of laughably gratuitous T&A. Yet, relative to his later work, Franco does a reasonable job integrating such titillation into the action proper. Despite a script full of silly plotting, the film—aided by a soundtrack of bizarre cacophonous noises—is defined by a delirious gothic-horror atmosphere.
By 1970’s Nightmares Come At Night, however, Franco was more interested in simply indulging his own libidinous urges. Seldom seen since its theatrical run (limited to one Belgian theater), the film recounts the troubled circumstances of Diana Lorys’ stripper, who’s fallen under the spell of her blond temptress lover, Colette Jack. While residing at Jack’s mansion, Lorys loses her grasp on reality, thus compelling her to talk about her hallucinatory nightmares and troubled past with Paul Muller’s doctor. Besides a mesmerizingly sensual striptease, the proceedings are dull—a series of erotic vignettes tethered by faux-poetic narration, a flimsy scheme involving two nearby thieves, and signature Franco zooms that offer an apt aesthetic thrusting motion.
While Nightmares Come At Night is little more than arty softcore lesbian porn, 1973’s A Virgin Among The Living Dead at least couches its endless sexual material in something resembling an actual horror narrative. In this case, that involves young Christine Von Blanc travelling to her family’s ancestral home for the reading of her recently deceased father’s will. While everyone she meets says the place is abandoned, Christine finds the mansion full of relatives—though it’s soon clear that they’re zombies, or ghosts, or some sort of demons intent on luring her into Hades as part of an ill-defined satanic ritual.
Whether in Franco’s original version (called Christina, Princess Of Eroticism), or the re-release cut featuring superfluous zombie footage shot by Jean Rollin, the film is a silly exercise in excessive gore and nudity. Nonetheless, it’s one elevated by alternately hilarious and haunting imagery—the former marked by the sight of an undressed Christine reaching for, and then smashing, a giant dildo dubbed “the great phallus,” and the latter defined by a truly chilling shot of Christine’s dead father, tied by his neck to a chair, being pulled back into the underworld by a singing Queen Of The Night.
An otherwise meager DVD week is highlighted by two new Criterion discs for Satyajit Ray classics about female identity: 1963’s The Big City, his first film set in contemporary India; and 1964’s Charulata, a 19th-century tale of rebellion and self-definition. On the new-release front, Amour finds Michael Haneke examining the last days of a married couple, Fox’s animated Epic finds a teenager fighting evil in a mythic forest, and Scary Movie 5 finds Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan cameoing amid more dismal horror spoofery.
The Awful Dr. Orlof: B+
Nightmares Come At Night: C-
A Virgin Among The Living Dead: B-