The Diabolical Dr. Z
Original title: Miss Muerte
Directed by: Jess Franco
Distributed by: Mondo Macabro
Repeated viewing of Jess Franco movies will (or should, if you are paying attention) result in the recognition of certain patterns, threads and themes that reoccur in many of his works. The Diabolical Dr. Z is one such movie where familiarity is found, more specifically the avenging woman theme with the most famous possibly being Sie tötete in Ekstase (She Killed in Ecstasy) 1971. On both movies Franco used a ”woman out for vengeance” plot most likely influenced by Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black, a novel that not only inspired Jess Franco, but also the likes of Umberto Lenzi, Hitchcock and Truffaut.
A criminal, Hans Bergen, aka The Sadist Strangler [Guy Mariesse] escapes from death row – the papers report of his breakout and flight warning locals to be on the lookout. Safe inside his mansion, Doctor Zimmer [Antionio Jiménez Escribano who also starred in Franco’s first feature, the comedy Tenemos 18 ãnos (We Are 18 Years Old) 1959] reads of the daring getaway of this sinister criminal for his daughter Irma [Mabel Karr] and their servant Barbara [Lucía Prado]. Before you can say juxtaposition, the doorbell rings and they all freeze… But if you where expecting Bergen to enter the house and hold the Doctor and family hostage you got another thing coming, because here the tables are turned and Bergen becomes one of Dr. Z’s laboratory specimens.
In front of the board at the International Neurologist Congress Dr.Z presents his research and proclaims that he can manipulate the brain and make the most violent animal the most gentle – and vice versa – and that the time has come to take his research to a new level and experiment on humans. Not mentioning that Bergen the Sadist Strangler already has been cured. Obviously the board strike down upon him as Howard Vernon’s Dr. Vicas ridicules and rejects Dr. Z’s request! Crushed by their reaction Dr. Z suffers a fatal heart attack and with his dying breath, he begs Irma to take over his research… the ball is set in motion.
Dr. Philippe Brighthouse [Fernando Montes – who also starred in Gritos en la noche (The Awful Dr. Orlof) 1962] comforts Irma in her grief and also takes the advantage of bedding her in her weak condition - something I’ll get back to later on. The two go to the obligatory Franco nightclub scene and watch an erotically charged act featuring Miss Death [Estella Blain] and a mannequin. Irma takes the first steps towards claiming her revenge, and whilst trading places with a hitchhiker she’s just killed, she is hideously disfigured when the flames of the car she’s trying to torch flare up in her face.
The fancy robotic operating table of Dr.Z comes back into action as Irma and her slave Bergen turn Barbara one of her puppets, They then take to reconstructing Irma’s burned face on which she impressing enough operates on herself. It’s another obvious referent to Franco’s breakthrough feature The Awful Dr. Orlof and there are several others to be found if you are keeping count, and yes Bergen is the Morpho of The Diabolical Dr. Z. With her new identity, Irma kidnaps Nadja – Miss Death’s real name – who has become romantically engaged with Dr. Brighthouse! As Nadja is strapped to the table and has her brain manipulated by Irma she too becomes a mannequin of death and Irma can start to claim her vengeance on the men who ridiculed and drove her father to his grave. It is time to unleash Miss Muerte!
I really like The Diabolical Dr. Z., I find it to be one of the best early Franco works. It's in there among his so called Pop-Art movies and it's easy to understand why. I love discovering small details that find their way into these early movies. Not just intertextual referents, but also small details like the members as the International Neurologist Congress where the American representative has a patch over his eye – just like Europeans had been portrayed in US movies, here the Yanks get a poke with the stick.
Franco fans will know that Jess Franco likes to cast himself in his own movies. The Diabolical Dr. Z is no exception and here he gives a great performance as Inspector Tanner - a police inspector depraved of sleep due to his infant children at home - really brings some classic Franco quirk to the part. The older detective, Inspector Green, is Daniel White who you know as the composer of oh so many Franco scores. There’s like a genuine comedic quality to his reoccurring parts. In many ways it’s like watching a twisted Woody Allen portrayal, where he’s plagued with some neurotic fetish, rambling back and forth through the narrative. Just keep an eye on what he has on his desk in the first police station scene… Looking at the movies Franco shot at the same time period its perhaps no surprise that there’s a comedic element to his performance, both the Sci-Fi flick Cartes sur table (Attack of the Robots) 1966 and the spy action movie Lucky, el intrépido (Lucky the Inscrutable) 1967 as they both feature heavy spoofish and comedic takes on the two genres, and as I mentioned early on, his first feature was a comedy toned movie.
The camerawork & lighting of D.P. Alejandro Ulloa - who also shot stuff like Lucio Fulci’s Una sull’altra (One on Top of the Other) 1969, Sergio Corbucci’s Vamos a matar compañeros (Companeros) 1970 and Luciano Ercoli’s Le foto prohibite di una signora per bene (The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion) 1970 to mention a few – is absolutely outstanding. The entire sequence on the train as Nadja seduces and finally murders Dr. Vicas [Howard Vernon] is textbook stuff. It should be lifted from this movie and shown to aspiring filmmakers for all eternity. The lighting, the tension, the atmosphere, the fragility of him slowly disrobing her as she gently prepares to strike him down with her poison laden fingernails… it’s a magic moment.
Looking at the storytelling angle of The Diabolical Dr. Z, there are several things that stand out. This is Franco using his David Kuhne pseudonym and Jean-Claude Carrière (who went on to become one of the most acknowledged French screenwriters ever) at their finest - well it’s all objective isn’t it, and for me as a Franco fan, this is a fine moment – and here we find storytelling crafts coming into use. After the death of Dr. Z a short amount of time is spent creating empathy for Irma, she doesn’t want to go back to the old house as it will be “lonely in the big house without him”, Dr. Brighthouse backtalk’s the other members of the congress – which helps us take sides with Irma, and then when she pulls back out of her bedroom, startled by the empty wheelchair of her father we can understand her sadness. Instead she takes refuge in the arms of Dr. Brighthouse, which leads right into the next splendid little trick. By having him be a double-dipper being entangled with both Irma and Nadja, it creates a neat little triangle drama and builds a tension that we take with us into the final act, as we know Irma, Nadja and Dr. Brighthouse will have to come head to head before it’s all over. Great stuff and a delight to watch unfold.
Two last comments on the final moments of the movie. It would be fair to say that the quick fix is a trait of Jess Franco; he doesn’t waste time when the end is reached. The Diabolical Dr.Z plays exactly but that trait, the moment after the police settle the score the movie ends, but for one final quirk. The ending where Inspector Tanner, who miraculously after a good nights sleep away from the children who have been depriving him of sleep figures it all out and arrives on the scene of the crime at the exact right moment to set it all straight, certainly rings of a certain humour just like I mentioned previously. The final scene of the film, an open question, a last provocation, a last shock if you wish, as Nadja is consoled by her lover Dr. Brighthouse she raises her hand to his cheek and we will never know if she strokes his cheek lovingly or if those poison claws take one final victim. It’s a fantastic ending to a fantastic movie.
The Diabolic Dr.Z is a fantastic Franco movie. It’s possible that due to it being shot in black and white or the lack of required nudity and sleaze inhibit it from being recognised for the masterpiece that it is. For it is a masterpiece of a movie. A movie that is more of a Horror Noir with Gothic elements than the stuff we associate with Jess Franco. If anyone asked for a crash course to the movies of Franco, then The Diabolic Dr. Z would definitely be amongst my top five must-see titles for any one boldly entering the world of Jess Franco.
Black & White – Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, optional English or French dialogue, with English subtitles
Mondo Macabro usually fill up their discs pretty damned well. This one is no exception as the disc contains the Jess Franco episode of Eurotica, an alternative opening sequence, Trailers, Galleries, production notes and stills. Finally there are the mandatory trailers for other Mondo Macabro titles.