The Diabolical Dr Z / Miss Muerte (1965)

The_Diabolical_Dr_Z_(1966)‘Your magnificent nails make deadly weapons.’

A convicted murderer escapes on the eve of his hanging, but becomes the experimental subject of neurologist Dr Zimmer. When the mad medico’s theories are ridiculed at a conference of his peers, he has a seizure and dies, but his daughter is only too willing to carry on his dubious work…

There’s a twisted mixture of mutilation, sadism and murder in this black and white French/Spanish co-production from cult director Jesús ‘Jess’ Franco. It’s cut from the same cloth as his early hits ‘The Awful Dr Orloff’ (1961) and ‘The Secret of Dr Orloff’ (1964). The three films are not directly related (despite the titles!) but share a lot in terms of both plot and theme.

For a start, we have the scientist who ‘meddles in things that man must leave alone’, on this occasion the blind Dr Zimmer, portrayed by Antonio Jiménez Escribano. He’s trying to isolate ‘good’ and ‘evil’ impulses in the brain, with many of the same aims as another famous researcher, the late unlamented Dr Henry Jekyll. Of course, Zimmer is a genius too, but, just as predictably, his methods alarm the conservative medical establishment led by Howard Vernon (already a regular in Franco’s pictures). When Zimmer pops his clogs, daughter Irina (the striking Mabel Karr) vows to get even with Vernon, as well as jeering ‘experts’ Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui and Cris Heurta. It’s hardly an original plot, and was allegedly based on a novel by co-screenwriter David Khune (actually Franco himself). Indeed, the director liked the basic storyline so much that he recycled it almost note for note in one of his best regarded pictures ‘She Killed In Ecstasy’ (1971).

Karr’s methods here involve killing a blonde hitchhiker (Ana Castor) in order to fake her own death (somewhat unconvincingly), getting her face burned in the process (somewhat pointlessly) and then using nightclub dancer Estella Blain to carry out the assassinations using her long, poison-tipped fingernails. Anyone with a knowledge of Franco’s work will see plenty of familiar elements; in some ways the film serves as a template for many of his later productions. Blain’s nightclub act as ‘Miss Death’ involves dressing in a black body stocking and writhing about on stage with a tailor’s dummy, characters are restrained before being penetrated by needles and other devices, and there’s some implied lesbianism in Karr’s relations with both Blain and Castor. The fact that it’s only implied probably had far more to do with the censors of the time than anything else, given Franco’s comments regarding the restrictions on his films of the period. Yes, it’s not hard to tell what Franco liked!

The_Diabolical_Dr_Z_(1966)

‘Just a little lower…to the right a bit…yes, that’s it!’

Considered as a horror thriller, rather than a window on the director’s psyche, this is far better assembled than a lot of his subsequent projects, with decent production values and good black and white cinematography from Alejandro Ulloa. The photography in particular makes for some excellent sequences set in narrow, mist-filled backstreets and helps to convey a sense of credibility which perhaps the hokey and formulaic ‘revenge’ plot doesn’t really deserve.

Still, the story is well-paced and Karr delivers the sort of performance which allows the audience to overlook the less than interesting work of her fellow cast members. The script gives Dr Orloff an early namecheck, which is a nice touch, but the scene where two detectives discuss the professional details of their murder case in front of a man who logic dictates would be a major suspect, can’t help but raise the eyebrows and a smile.

Pretty standard mid-1960s Euro-Horror that nevertheless has some interesting aspects and is certainly essential for fans of Franco’s work.

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