Jess Franco: 1964

Of all the films of Jess Franco’s early career, El Segreto del Dr. Orloff (“Dr. Orloff’s Secret”, aka “Dr. Orloff’s Monster” and “Les Maîtresses du Dr. Jekyll”) is the first that really feels like a Franco movie.

Coming as it does right on the heels of his two eminently successful thrillers, La Muerte Silba un Blues and Rififí en la Ciudad, El Segreto del Dr. Orloff feels like a step backwards in quality and professionalism… though this could be attributed mostly to the lack of funding. After the French co-producers he’d lined up for Rififí en la Ciudad had failed to come through, Franco found himself on the hook for some of its production expenses; then Rififí didn’t perform well at the Spanish box office, making the situation worse. Gritos en la Noche, Franco’s first horror movie from three years earlier, had done well, both in Spain and internationally. But so few prints had been struck of the film that even given its success, Gritos… still took several years to show a profit. Thus Franco had to cut a few corners to get El Segreto… finished, giving the movie that uneven, slightly unbalanced feeling that fans of the later Franco know so well.

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff also features far more gratuitous nudity than his previous pictures. It’s not just the fact that we see more naked female bodies: it’s the context… or should I say lack of context… for the nudity that looks forward to the Franco of the 1970’s and beyond. Furthermore, by this time Franco had written and directed enough films that his patterns were starting to become recognizable. This was the first of his films in which so many elements of his prior scripts had been drawn together. Sure, a movie like Gritos… had also been a patchwork of references, but those had been to other people’s movies; in this film, Franco was clearly quoting himself.

The film begins with an eerie and atmospheric sequence: the awful Dr. Fisherman (Marcelo Arroita Jáuregui) lies on his bed, smoking a cigarette, while his troubled conscience tortures him with memories. He had surprised his wife and his brother (Hugo Blanco, from La Mano de un Hombre Muerto) in bed together, and had murdered his brother. Since Fisherman is a respected doctor, he’d been able to pass off his brother’s death as an accident… but he’d never been able to rid himself of the image of the two of them together, nor the image of his brother’s eyes widening in fear as he’d killed him.

Fisherman’s crimes go much further than this. He’s also stolen his brother’s corpse and brought it back to some semblance of life. He keeps the reanimated cadaver in his laboratory, in the attic of his castle. There — out of a weird combination of guilt and the desire to continue punishing his brother even after death — he uses the living-dead man as his human test subject.

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff

The arcane knowledge Fisherman uses to restore life to dead tissue comes from his work with another scientist, the elderly Dr. Orloff (two “f”s, and [cough] presumably no relation to Howard Vernon’s character from Gritos en la Noche). Orloff is dying, and on his death-bed he confides in Dr. Fisherman his segreto — his method for not only making corpses breathe and twitch, but actually move and obey commands. His secret is this: in place of the “eleven herbs and spices” he advertises, he really uses only one ingredient, monosodium glutamate, which… ummm… wait a minute. Excuse me. That’s the horrible secret of Colonel Sanders. Orloff’s method involves ultra-high frequency sounds (sort of a zombie dog whistle), which have no effect on living human beings, but which stimulate reactions in creatures which no longer have the ability to filter them out. Yes, it’s nonsense, but it looks forward to the wacky behaviorist theories of Dr. Zimmer in Franco’s next movie, Miss Muerte (1966), as well as Jorge Grau’s 1974 zombie flick, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.

With the Secret of Dr. Orloff in his hands, Dr. Fisherman is ready to complete his experiments. Partly out of a spirit of scientific curiosity, partly to avenge himself on his late brother, and partly to avenge himself on all womankind for his wife’s betrayal (but mostly because he’s in a Jess Franco movie), Fisherman takes to picking up bar girls. He seduces them with costly gifts, and then uses those gifts — necklaces with receptors built into them, which pick up the sound waves from Fisherman’s control device — to mark the wearer as the next target. Perhaps The Secret of Kindly Dr. Carruthers might have been a good alternate title? Of course, necklaces were also part of Howard Vernon’s Orlof’s technique, so perhaps the Secret also involves dating tips.

Unfortunately for Fisherman, there are a few complications that crop up and interfere with his experiments. The first is the arrival of his niece, Melissa. Fisherman’s been appointed her guardian until the following year, when she will come of age and inherit her father’s estate. Of course, she doesn’t realize that her father (now called “Andros”) is standing in a glass coffin just upstairs… though she nearly stumbles upon him when she first arrives at Castle Fisherman. Fisherman is anxious to be relieved of his guardianship, but that process takes time. For the moment, he’s stuck with her.

And she’s stuck with him… and the other dreary inhabitants of the castle (in fact, Castle Fisherman is the same castle used in Gritos en la Noche, which had also been the scene of the “Lord Marian” dream sequence on Franco’s first feature, Tenemos 18 Años. It’s a little disconcerting to see the same castle in both of Franco’s imaginary towns, Hartog and Hölfen, just as it’s equally disconcerting to see that the castle really stands in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It had looked so lonely and isolated in the previous films!). Dr. Fisherman’s assistant, Ciceron, is an odd little man, while Melissa’s Aunt Inglud (understandably, under the circumstances) is a bitter, drunken wreck of a woman. It looks to Melissa like it’s going to be a grim Christmas chez Fisherman.

Melissa’s arrival also brings about a completely unexpected complication. Though Melissa never knew her Dad, and fails to recognize his photograph when she sees it, there’s still an odd connection between father and daughter. The longer Melissa stays in the castle, the more “Andros” becomes aware of her — and becomes attuned to her thoughts and fears. We start to realize that the theories of Dr. Orloff are inadequate: Andros is not merely a puppet. He has begin to remember what is is to be alive and fully human.

When Melissa, unsatisfied with the explanation of her father’s death, determines to break into his sealed room and go through his belongings, Andros senses her presence. He breaks out of his glass box, staggers downstairs and surprises her. His appearance is so horrifying that Melissa faints. Fisherman tries to get Andros back under control, but the living dead man ignores him and plunges off into the night.

But even if Andros is beginning to regain his humanity, old habits die hard. So his first act of rebellion is… to go continue his master’s vendetta against women of easy virtue. He breaks into the home of the local club’s jazz pianist (played by Franco himself), murders his girlfriend after she takes a long bath, and then makes short work of the helpless pianist on his way out.

The bathroom-stalking episode is really pretty cheesy; but the clumsily-handled nude scene is followed, in typical Franco fashion, by one of the most powerful images in the movie. As dawn breaks, Fisherman and Ciceron go looking for Andros with the high-frequency sound generator. They find the living dead man standing over his own empty grave. Andros’s face is as expressionless as ever, but we get some idea of what’s going on in his mind by watching him clench his fists compulsively…

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff

All the ingredients are here: we have the mad medico, killing young girls to further his nefarious plans. We’ve got the zombie henchman, who begins to develop a will of his own (much to his master’s consternation). Here the henchman is Andros instead of the expected Morpho, but that’s OK: the mad scientist is Fisherman instead of Orlof. Hugo Blanco’s Andros does look remarkably similar to Ricardo Valle’s Morpho; though instead of being blind, Andros’s disfigurement comes from the fact that his body had already started to undergo autolysis by the time he was revived from death. Thus the skin of his face has started to separate from the tissue below, giving him a ghastly look. Hugo Blanco had also played the murderer in La Mano de un Hombre Muerto (no real spoiler there), so his appearance is a sort of synthesis of both Franco’s earlier horrors.

What else? Let’s see: there’s the expected Melissa, the daughter of the Bad Father (in this case, the adulterous Andros, who is now her uncle’s killing machine)… but this time, Melissa’s also the ward of the Bad Uncle! We’ve got the barely competent Hölfen police inspector — “Klein” this time; Georges Rollin was dead by this time, and no doubt so was his “Inspector Borowsky”. The character “Karl Steiner” from La Mano… is back in Hölfen, but in name only: rather than being an intrepid reporter, he’s a retired boxer in this story. Steiner is the sometime-boyfriend of one of the murdered girls; whereas the “Steiner” of the previous film had been the man who solved the mystery, this Steiner only serves as a red herring for Inspector Klein.

The deathbed scene with Dr. Orloff early in the film serves a similar purpose to the deathbed scene in La Mano de un Hombre Muerto: to kick off the story with the revelation of a deep, dark secret… though the secret turns out not to be quite as important as it seemed.

As usual for a Franco film of any genre or any vintage, there are also plenty of club scenes and musical numbers… but here they seem less related to the story than they’ve been in his movies so far. The first of these interruptions features the danseuse to whom Fisherman’s just given a deadly necklace. Her act is a striptease, and oh boy is it cheap and sleazy. It’s not as though the stripper’s very carefully dressed when she starts: her skimpy lingerie is put on so haphazardly that it looks for a moment as though we’re about to get the first of Franco’s famous pubic shots. But once she starts wiggling, her performance is staggeringly banal. She’s not on stage: she’s just standing in a clear spot between the patrons at the club, shaking her body in a way that could only be described as “dancing” as a euphemism on the “occupation” line of her tax return. For most of the number, she keeps her eyes glued to the camera. Then she takes off her top, and the act is over. It looks and feels remarkably like a real striptease in a shabby, disreputable bar somewhere — and heaven knows Franco had seen enough of those by this time.

Perla Cristal’s (literally) show-stopping number later in the film, “Pepita que horror”, is far more dignified (and better-dressed), though like the musical numbers in Franco’s later films it does grind the story to a halt. Fortunately, the song is so good that we don’t much care… However, Franco does manage to work in another delightfully sleazy striptease, this time in the guise of a murder set-piece. When the pianist’s girlfriend goes upstairs to take her bath (where Andros is waiting for her), the pianist (Franco) stays downstairs working on his latest blues composition. His music filters up to the bathroom, where the girl disrobes. The music continues as she steps into the tub and splashes the water all over her body, paying particular attention to her breasts… The blues in the background makes it a musical strip show with an added hint of voyeurism. It’s the clearest example we’ve had to date of the sort of thing the later Franco has in store for us.

'Pepita que horror'

Though these striptease sequences may match our expectations of the Franco of the future, they really don’t fit in this particular movie. The rest of El Segreto del Dr. Orloff is heavy with Gothic atmosphere, but those brief scenes are blunt and comparatively dull. They could have been shot by, say, Herschell Gordon Lewis and inserted afterwards, that’s how out-of-place they feel in this context.

Another thing I can’t help but think is out-of-place is our mad Doctor Fisherman himself. Franco regular Marcelo Arroita Jáuregui is a good actor, and he gives the movie’s strongest performance as the temperamental Dr. Fisherman… but after Howard Vernon’s turn as the Awful Doctor, Arroita Jáuregui just doesn’t look the part. To me, the bearded, rotund actor looks less like the successor of Orloff and more like Father Christmas (the Saint-nic Baron von Claus?). The Christmas setting of the story doesn’t help me take him more seriously. OK, OK: I admit this is my problem, not his nor Franco’s. But really: Dr. Fisherman? That’s not the most sinister and suggestive of names, is it? The French seem to have realized this, and renamed the character “Dr. Jekyll”, though this makes it difficult to explain why Andros goes to stand beside the Fisherman family crypt. Franco claimed for a time that the name “Fisherman” was a sort of homage to the English director Terence Fisher, though later in life he called Fisher “one of the worst directors that ever was” (in a 1986 interview reprinted in “Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco”).

Nevertheless, for all its problems, the movie redeems itself with its final sequence — a long fatal walk that seems to look forward to the endings of the films of Jean Rollin. Daniel White’s elegiac score and Andros’s one-and-only spoken line contribute to the feeling of tragedy and despair. Again, this is a touch of the later (dare I say “mature”?) Franco: like his later Virgin Among the Living Dead, El Segreto… ends with a gesture that suggests the whole film might have been deeper than we realized. It’s an illusion, but it’s a remarkable illusion, and it helps explain why viewers like me keep going back time and time again into the frustrating world of Jess Franco.

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Will Laughlin

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