‘Miss Muerte’, ‘Das Geheimnis des Dr. Z’, ‘In the Grip of the Maniac’.
During the mid 1960s, it seems Jess Franco was primarily working out of Paris, building on the relative success of ‘62s The Awful Dr. Orlof with a whole series of low budget pulpy capers, many of which are sadly quite difficult to track down these days. So for the moment I’ll have to merely imagine the joys contained within the Orson Welles-endorsed jazz-noir of ‘Death Whistles a Blues’ (1964), the comic book euro-spy shenanigans of 1967’s ‘Lucky The Inscrutable’, and the sight of Eddie Constantine tangling with some enraged automatons (presumably) in ‘Attack of the Robots’ (1966). Thanks to the sterling efforts of Mondo Macabro though, we can at least enjoy a pristine presentation of a film that the few critics who have seen fit to comment on such things rate as one of the best of Franco’s black & white years, ‘Miss Muerte’, better known to English-speaking viewers as ‘The Diabolical Dr. Z’.
Ok, take a deep breath folks, because I'm afraid we've got some plot synopsisin' to get through.
After escaping from a high security prison, an exhausted convict has the bad luck of falling into the hands of one Dr Zimmer (Antonio Jiménez Escribano), a blind elderly scientist with some peculiar notions about the manipulation of the nervous system, which he believes can be ‘adjusted’ to refine a creature’s balance of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ tendencies. This being a zany mad scientist movie of course, these somewhat esoteric concerns (based, we’re told, on the work of a certain Dr. Orlof) also allow him to administer electrical charges to subjects’ spinal columns, frying their brains and forcing them to obey his every command.
Delighted to have a live human to test his theories on, the wheelchair-bound doctor takes his discoveries to what appears to be the local council of research scientists, or somesuch. When his esteemed colleagues mock and belittle his ideas, Zimmer is so overcome that he promptly suffers a heart attack and dies on the spot.
And that would seem to be that. But, stepping up to prevent this from being a very short mad scientist movie indeed, we have Zimmer’s devoted daughter Irma (Mabel Karr), who vows to continue her father’s work by any means necessary, and also to hunt down and destroy the callous scientists whose scorn drove him to such a sad end.
At this point, the plot will be starting to sound familiar to those who’ve seen Franco’s rather dreary ‘She Killed In Ecstasy’ (1970), amongst others. Could we be in for an early example of the director’s seemingly endless stream of softcore variations on the old ‘The Bride Wore Black’ storyline?
Well… sort of. But there’re enough twists and turns left in this prototype to make it a somewhat weirder and more enjoyable prospect. You see, whilst she’s contemplating the form her vengeance will take, Irma finds herself (as you do in a Franco movie) attending a freaky strip club, where she catches a performance by one ‘Miss Death’ (Estella Blain), a dancer who writhes orgasmically around a giant spider web, pretending to dispatch helpless male mannequins.
Having faked her own death via a convenient car fire and a murdered hitchhiker, Irma – with the help of the aforementioned prison escapee and her father’s housekeeper, now both mindless zombie slaves – contrives to kidnap Miss Death (real name Nadia), conditioning her to obey unquestioningly via the now familiar spinal shock treatment, and sending her out to track down the disparaging doctors, seducing and killing them one by one with her long, poisoned fingernails!
So there ya go. Interestingly, it seems Franco co-wrote this one with Luis Bunuel’s regular screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, and whilst there’s certainly nothing here to suggest that Carrière took this assignment as seriously as his work for Bunuel and other art-house directors, we can at least speculate as to how much of the movie’s unusually eventful (by Franco standards) plotting, its queasy psychological overtones and more outré elements, might have originated with him.
For the period, ‘Miss Muerte’ seems singularly erotically charged, but it’s sometimes difficult to quite figure out why. Although it’s definitely at the saucier end of mid-‘60s horror, nothing here is *particularly* shocking or explicit, but somehow the whole thing is just sort of… kinky. Everything seems to crackle with a slightly unsavoury sort of sexual energy, as unusual bits of fetishistic imagery pop up here, there and everywhere.
There’s an unmistakably sapphic, S&M-like quality to the way Irma treats her female victims and slaves – a line of thinking that may only be only hinted at here, but will need no further explanation for fans of Franco’s later work – whilst a lengthy sequence in which she murders the aforementioned hitchhiker during an off-road skinny-dipping excursion sees her donning surgical gloves over a dripping wet swimsuit as she takes the wheel of the car to run down the bikini-clad girl; provocative, to say the least.
Miss Death’s spider web striptease is of course the film’s big erotic highlight though, and as befits Franco’s legendary enthusiasm for staging such bizarre nightclub sequences, it is absolutely spell-binding, causing what until this point seemed to be a simple mad science b-movie to suddenly disappear down an erotic avant-garde black hole; accompanied by free-form, discordant wailing and creepily abused Indian strings, Blain writhes wildly as a white web is projected across a featureless black background… human eyes dart back and forth beneath the face of a porcelain mannequin, as the rest of the film’s world seems to vanish into deep space… and god bless Jess for managing to make all this *sexy*, for god’s sake.
Not that it takes that much effort I suppose – the transparent spider body-stocking (initially complemented by a Dracula cape) that Blain wears both during her act and through the rougher business of her subsequent kidnap and brain-washing is extremely risqué, only barely managing to conceal her modesty as she flees from Irma’s zombie henchman and wrestles on the dusty ground with Dr Z’s housekeeper, and by the time Irma takes her on lion-tamer style with a raised chair and whip, it’s safe to say things things have heated up to the level of psycho-sexual frenzy that Franco would go on to explore more thoroughly in his best films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. 3/5
Very little here is creepy in the old school gothic horror sense, but in terms of yr unsettling medical imagery and furtive perversions of science type stuff, it’s totally out to lunch.
For a start, Dr. Z has a great, weird laboratory going on. Franco’s early ‘70s run of Frankenstein films revealed his obvious love of this sort of thing, and the selection of paraphernalia on show here is truly strange: giant sun lamps, primitive computer equipment, banks of oscillators, maddening flashing lights and a menagerie of caged animals. The undoubted star of the show though is one of the film’s most memorable conceits – a sort of remote controlled confinement device that allows a captive to twist around in place whilst strapped to an upright gurney, wrists and ankles clamped by flexible robotic claws, perforated like giant drinking straws. Never given a word of explanation, this thing is totally unique in my experience of watching strange horror & sci-fi films - more like a weird bondage toy gone horribly wrong than something you’d be liable to find in a non-Jess Franco affiliated laboratory.
There is something really peculiar too about the sound design in the laboratory sequences, as demonstrated by the deep, melancholy jazz theme that plays over yet another bonkers scene in which Irma operates on her own scarred face - an incredibly strange and unsettling moment. (Interestingly, some shots here are framed with jagged black borders and white lines, in what seems like an audacious bit of pre-pop art stylistic invention.)
These icky shots of Irma cutting her own burned flesh with a scalpel, and of Nadia having electrified rods driven into her forehead and naked back during her zombification, aren’t terribly strong stuff today, but their graphic nastiness seems deliberately designed to shock and appal a ‘60s audience. Perhaps taking their cue from Franju’s infamous surgery scene in ‘Yeux Sans Visage’, they seem to be aiming for an instinctive gut response - ‘gore moments’ before the dawn of gore.
And on a more conventionally atmospheric note, sequences like opening prison break and Miss Death’s pursuit of one of her victims through cramped, vertiginous streets of what looks like some Dutch lakeside town have a wonderfully, shadow-haunted noir quality to them… but we’ll get to that in a minute. 4/5
Given what’s been outlined above, it shouldn’t take much work to justify a good score in this category, and indeed, ‘Miss Muerte’ draws upon all manner of 20th century pulp fiction to aid its assorted carnage, with a particular accent on the French tradition.
In addition to the story’s obvious debt to Franju and ‘Yeux Sans Visage’, there are other sequences such as the one in which the villains asphyxiate poor Dr Moroni using a fake taxi with an interior exhaust pipe – an idea that makes no sense whatsoever in script terms, but seems to have been introduced solely to bring a gleefully ghoulish, Fantomas-like sensibility to proceedings. And elsewhere, in between the more contemporary horror thrills provided by poison-nailed zombie strippers, chilling train murders and Frankensteinian bondage craziness, the clued up viewer will be able to identify deliberate nods not just to Franju and Feuillade, but also to figures as diverse as Robert Bresson, Cornell Woolrich, James Whale and Orson Welles. 4/5
At this point, Franco’s films were often closer to being conventionally ‘well-made’ than his later, more wayward work, as well as using scripts that take greater pains to conform to the logic of linear plotting (in spite of the crazy subject matter). Often, this striving for cinematic ‘normality’ can serve to short-circuit the kind of hypnotic drift that characterises Franco’s ‘70s work, but, so long as you’re prepared to tolerate the lethargic pacing and workaday ‘investigative’ scenes, this higher degree of formalism actually pans out pretty well in ‘..Dr. Z’.
If my rough estimate of the timing involved is anywhere near correct then Franco was fresh off working as an assistant to Orson Welles on ‘Chimes At Midnight’ when he came to make ‘..Dr.Z’*, and, perhaps fired up by that experience, his desire to make his presence felt as a ‘proper’ filmmaker can be clearly seen here right from the opening prison-break, with its audacious POV camera work and moody, Wellesian tracking shots. Subsequently, a seemingly endless supply of long corridors, imposing low angles and multi-layered, deep focus mise en scene does little to hide Franco’s obvious fascination with Welles' technique, giving the film a dense, vertiginous sort of quality that renders it both atmospheric and faintly trippy in a way that fans may not quite have been expecting.
This is helped by the way Franco often makes an effort to inject potentially dull scenes with at least some gratuitous weirdness, as can be seen when an exposition-heavy conference between the film’s police duo (Franco himself as the local detective, with British mad-composer-genius Daniel White making a rare cameo as “Inspector Grinder of Scotland Yard”) takes places whilst a lady in evening dress blows long, discordant notes on a trumpet in the background, almost drowning out their dialogue.
And speaking of Mr. White, the dissonant, expressionistic jazz score he provides here adds considerably to the film’s top-heavy, Wellesian flavour, generating some moments of real cognitive dissoannce as it accompanies flailing robotic arms, feverish hints of bondage and icky surgery sequences, helping to ensure that, whilst it might be a stretch to call ‘..Dr. Z’ ‘surreal’, it’s certainly pretty damn weird. 3/5
Aside from a few references to a place called ‘Hartog’ (a quick google search reveals no European towns of that name), the setting of ‘The Diabolical Dr. Z’ remains entirely vague. Germany? Holland? France? Anybody want to take a guess?
Studio sets and anonymous suburban locations predominate, and it would likely take more research than I’ve got time for to pin down either the Spanish looking castle exterior that appears at one point (looks a lot like the one in ‘..Dr Orloff’?), or the impressive municipal building that Dr. Zimmer enters to attend the medical conference.
The film’s sight-seeing highlight is probably the aforementioned lakeside slum town (my instincts say it looks Dutch, but again, who knows). The whole stalk / suspense sequence set amongst the winding streets is wonderful, full of slow-moving shadows and artfully composed shots that provide an early example of Franco’s talent for both picking out distinctive locations and utilising them in unearthly, transformative fashion. 2/5
Of the innumerable mad science movies made in Europe during the ‘60s, this is definitely the wildest I’ve come across, imbuing its zany storyline with a sense of lingering perversity and a cracked aesthetic sensibility that is pure Franco.
Inevitably, the film takes a heftier chunk from ‘Les Yeux Sans Visage’ than some may be comfortable with, but if ‘The Awful Dr Orlof’ can be seen as a “garage rock cover version” of Franju’s masterpiece (a nice turn of phrase I picked up from this article), ‘..Dr Z’ returns to the same source material for something more akin to a side-long psychedelic freakout.
That said, the “consumer advice” aspect of my responsibilities as a movie reviewer causes me to note in closing that, whilst I certainly enjoyed it a great deal, ‘The Diabolical Dr. Z’ is perhaps not *quite* as much of a b-movie fun factory as the review I’ve just written would tend to imply. As is often the case when Jess Franco tackles stories that should by rights be snappy and fast-moving, much of the film has an infuriatingly meandering feel to it, with a lot of down-time between the highlights that drags even more than usual. As such, those who have a bug-bear about movies being ‘too slow’ should probably note that they may not find the assorted craziness outlined above delivered to them quite as quickly or regularly as they might wish.
But, as Franco fans will be well aware, all of his movies have their share of slack, and such gripes are minor indeed compared to the wealth of batty riches that a film like ‘The Diabolical Dr Z’ offers the indulgent viewer.