Miss Muerte, also known as The Diabolical Dr. Z, is often referred to by Franco’s fans and detractors alike as his best horror film — maybe his best movie of all. Enough has been said about it that I’m going to be uncharacteristically brief in discussing it.
The movie begins with a jailbreak, one of the oddest in film history. The “jail” looks more like a dungeon or old mine, and it’s hard to imagine one prisoner being locked away in it. Still less can we imagine that one prisoner getting out of it… but get out of it he does. Miles away, where the mad Dr. Zimmer is carrying out some equally odd experiments, the laboratory phone rings: Dr. Zimmer’s daughter Irma answers, and discovers it’s someone named Bresson who’s called to tell them “un condamné à mort s’est échapé” — a condemned man has escaped. Who’s Bresson? A cipher; a reference to the director Robert Bresson and his 1956 film. Franco and his co-writer, Jean-Claude Carrière (a frequent collaborator with Luis Buñuel), have thrown him in like a Family Guy cutaway.
By strange coincidence, the escaped killer winds up on Dr. Zimmer’s doorstep. Zimmer sees his arrival as a perfect chance to experiment on a human test subject: nobody knows he’s there, and nobody will miss him if — when — things go horribly wrong. Mind you, in this case there’s not much difference between the experiment succeeding or failing; the result is going to be pretty drastic for our poor escaped convict one way or the other. For Dr. Zimmer is a student of the legendary Dr. Orloff. His area of study is human behavior, and he has a pet theory that what we refer to as “good” and “evil” are purely physiological responses that can be modified by a little creative surgery. He’s already done plenty of tests on animals, changing wild creatures into docile pets, and turning pets into ferocious killers. Now, at last, he has a chance to use his sinister Mad Science Device on a human being! He will turn this “evil” criminal into a “good” — that is, useful and subservient — member of society.
It’s obvious that Dr. Zimmer has some conceptual problems with the ideas of “good” and “evil”. He’s especially confused in the way he equates moral behavior in human beings with the perfectly reasonable behavior of wild animals. When he goes to present his “findings” to the big Scientific Conference headed by Dr. Vicas (Howard Vernon), he’s quite properly laughed at. Facing both ridicule and censure by Vicas and his associates, Drs. Moroni and Kallman, the frail, wheelchair-bound Zimmer goes into a rage that results in a sudden, fatal heart attack.
Irma Zimmer, a scientist in her own right (and just as crazy as Dad), swears revenge on the men who drove her father to his death. When the late Dr. Z’s faithful assistant refuses to continue his unethical experiments without him, Irma throws the woman into the clutches of the Morpho Machine and turns her into yet another obedient robot. Then she decides to fake her own death, so she can continue her plans for revenge in secret. To this end, she murders a hitch-hiker who resembles her. Unfortunately, in disposing of the body, Irma gets caught in the fire and is horribly disfigured.
Now, “Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco” describes Miss Muerte as one of Franco’s grimmest films, and I suppose it is — if you take it at face value. I can’t possibly take it at face value. From the opening, pointless “Bresson” joke, to the moment when old Dr. Zimmer, disciple of Dr. Orloff, is confronted by the mad scientists from two previous Franco “Orloff” films — Howard Vernon as Dr. Vicas, and Marcelo Arroita-Jaureguí as Dr. Moroni — it’s clear that Franco’s tongue is in his cheek.
By now, we expect recurring character names in Franco’s films, so we can hardly be surprised by the presence here of a Moroni and a Kallman. But we might be surprised by everything else… particularly the way Franco seems to subvert even his own previous movies as the story goes on. For example, the original one-“F” Dr. Orlof had been driven by the desire to restore the scarred face of his daughter Melissa. In this film, the mad doctor exits before the movie’s really begun… so the disfigured daughter gets to perform the face-restoring operation on herself!
The method of Irma Zimmer’s revenge is also bizarre, even by the standards of a Jess Franco movie. She abducts a night club performer named Nadia (the lovely Estella Blain), whose act has her impersonating a scantily-clad angel of death, and throws her into the Morpholator. Once Nadia has been zombified, Irma outfits her with curare-laced artificial fingernails and sends her out to kill her enemies.
But Irma’s plans are undercut by some unusual developments. First, there’s the little matter of Nadia’s boyfriend. The lovers had planned to run off to Paris for a vacation, just at the time Irma abducted Nadia. To throw off suspicion, Irma plants a note for the boyfriend, in which Nadia says she’s been called away unexpectedly to a modeling job. In Paris. To make matters worse for Irma, it turns out that Nadia’s boyfriend is an old colleague of Irma’s and her father’s, who’s quick to pick up the clues and associate the supposedly-dead Irma with Nadia’s disappearance.
Next, there’s the really, really obvious fact that the theories of Orloff and the Doctors Zimmer are completely bogus. The Morpholator may have a certain effect on people whose moral sense has already been compromised — such as an escaped murderer, or a mad scientist’s assistant — but when it comes to controlling an innocent victim, it is far less effective. Though Zombie Nadia starts carrying out her assassinations, her conscience gradually begins to awaken and rebel. At one point, as though to underscore the inadequacy of Zimmer père‘s animal experiments, Nadia turns feral and attacks her captors; Irma must fend her off with a whip and a chair, in the manner of a cartoon lion tamer.
But the biggest threat to Nadia’s grand scheme — and the one thing I love most about this movie — is that once Dr. Vicas has been killed, Dr. Moroni and Dr. Kallman immediately realize they are in danger, and refuse to fall into Irma’s traps. Moroni simply panics and runs away, allowing Irma to catch up with him and dispatch him. But Kallman not only expects some sort of crazy mad-scientist scheme… he even has a Plan B in place to respond to it.
Of course, Irma expects that, too, and has her own Plan C…
In the meantime, Nadia’s boyfriend, Dr. Phillipe Whitehouse, has begin to suspect that her abduction and the deaths of the scientist are all related. Also on Irma’s trail is Police Inspector Tanner — yes, Tanner; not only is this the name of the bumbling detective in the original Awful Dr. Orlof, in this case he’s played by Jess Franco himself. This version of Inspector Tanner isn’t quite as boneheaded as the version played by Conrado San Martín four years earlier. However, Tanner’s faculties have been dulled by two additional responsibilities: first, he’s just become the father of triplets, which keep him awake all night; and second, he has to play host to a visiting detective from Scotland Yard, one Inspector Green (played by composer Daniel White).
How can I take any of this seriously? How can I not laugh when the victims thwart the villain’s elaborate schemes with good old-fashioned common sense? How can I let all the twisted references to Franco’s other films, let alone the conventions of everybody else’s horror films, go by without a whistle of appreciation? How can I not giggle over a guy named White playing a guy named Green?
Well… actually, I do take it fairly seriously. I just don’t take it at face value. In fact, there’s plenty of interesting stuff going on in the movie that tempers the underlying humor. Take the design of the Zimmer Machine, for example. Its minimalist design makes it look exactly like we’d expect a home-made Morpholator to look — it’s a very menacing creation. Nadia’s struggle to regain her humanity is certainly anything but funny — and on that subject, the ambiguity of the movie’s very last image is haunting. Irma’s scene with the hitch-hiker works pretty well, too: it veers uneasily between seduction and murder. Irma’s subsequent fire injury, though, is just another movie reference (like the Bresson gag from the opening), and contributes relatively little.
From his very first film, and all through his career, Franco made it very clear that his female characters were always central to the action. Often it would be a pair of strong women who took the lead in whatever passed for a plot in these films, as we’ve already seen in Tenemos 18 Años and Labios Rojos, and as we’ll soon see again in films like El Caso de los Dos Bellezas and Besame, Monstruo. In Miss Muerte we see the negative version of this partnership, as the story is driven forward by Irma Zimmer and her unwilling partner in crime.
Nadia may emerge as the tragic focal point of the story, but for most of the film’s duration it’s Irma’s story. Franco would return several times to the Cornell Woolrich-inspired theme of the woman who takes revenge on the men who robbed her of her man; but in this, his first variation on “The Bride Wore Black”, the story has been strapped into the Machine and given the Orloff Treatment. The Orloff saga so far has been dominated by the idea of the Bad Father; in El Secreto de Dr. Orloff, the focus had shifted from the corrupted father (and uncle, as well) to the innocent daughter… and in this film we’re given a further twist, as the daughter turns out to be even more reprehensible than the father.
The men who follow in Irma’s track aren’t as helpless as they will become in some of Franco’s later movies, but they are far from the standard movie heroes, saving helpless women from their own frailty. Nevertheless, Nadia’s night club number — in which she dresses as a sort of sexy predator and first seduces, then attacks a male mannequin — is a stunning visual metaphor for Franco’s handling of the relations between the sexes.
While we’re on the subject of gender conflict… the American distributors of The Diabolical Dr. Z seem to have been completely at a loss to deal with the movie. They just weren’t prepared for a horror movie in which all the most active roles were taken by women. If you look at the English-language promotional materials, they suggest that the title character is Irma’s father, who looks like a combination of Dr. Strangelove and the blind fortuneteller from The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. I guess they thought American audiences weren’t ready for the vision of Jess Franco.