There’s an old saying in the business world that goes “If it moves, sell it.” Nowhere is this more true than the world of schlock. Anything that garners even the faintest whiff of success the first time is guaranteed to be repeated ad infinitum by the schlock merchants who made it. How else would you explain all those sequels to Leprechaun and Children Of The Corn?
And this rule remains true no matter what level of the business you are at. For instance, consider the case of Jesus Franco. He scored a noteworthy European hit in 1962 with The Awful Dr. Orloff, an Eyes Without A Face knockoff built around a mad scientist who specializes in plastic surgery experiments. After it did well in the territories, Franco subsequently brought the character back another seven times. Whether the good Doctor was a lead or just a cameo, his cinematic life extended through the next few decades and involved multiple actors.
The Sinister Eyes Of Dr. Orloff was made in 1973 and is one of the lesser-known Orloff/Franco ventures. The story is built around the travails of Melissa (Montserrat Prous), a troubled young paraplegic bedeviled by nightly bad dreams about the mysterious death of her father. The extended family members she lives with — mainly the vain, status-obsessed Aunt Flora (Kali Hansa) and cousin Martha (Loreta Tovar) — are not exactly concerned with her well-being.
Enter Dr. Orloff: this time, erstwhile spaghetti western regular William Berger plays the role. He is brought in to evaluate Melissa’s psychological condition and he warns her that her father was murdered before leaving abruptly. That night, Melissa has a dream in which she can walk and murders her Uncle Henry (Jaume Picas). As her murderous nightmares blend with a death-filled reality, she begins to wonder if someone around her is trying to drive her crazy. It is inevitable that everyone, regardless of their motives and machinations, will soon discover that Orloff is pulling the strings.
It’s surprising that this film is so rare because it is actually one of Franco’s more conventional films. The plot makes sense in its own clunky way and the film focuses on this story instead of the carnal fascinations and self-conscious artsiness his work is usually known for. Even the ending avoids the expected Franco dime-store surrealism in favor of a t.v. show-style ending that neatly ties everything up.
That said, none of the concessions to narrative filmmaking make The Sinister Eyes Of Dr. Orloff what anyone would consider a commercial film. The dialogue mixes awkward exposition with curious stabs at poetry (particularly during Orloff’s monologues) and the acting has a certain blank-faced campiness to it. Franco films it all in a hasty style that favors handheld-camera flourishes, resulting in a style that falls somewhere between exploitation film and artsy student project. The film also features a pretty hilarious folk song performed by “rock star” character that sounds like Jandek trying his hand at bubblegum music.
In short, The Sinister Eyes Of Dr. Orloff is a mid-level Eurocult oddity that occupies its own phantom space in the Franco filmography: it’s neither the best nor the worst thing he’s done yet it’s not a representative example of his filmmaking either. Even the way it uses its most saleable asset — Dr. Orloff — is far afield from what the character is known for. It’s probably best left to the Franco completists, who will no doubt find it a breath of fresh air when compared to the video-based quickies he’s been cranking out over the last decade or so.