Sunday, March 11, 2007

Orlak, the Hell of Frankenstein (1960)

After completing their scripts for the Nostradamus quartet of films starring German Robles, screenwriters Alfredo Ruanova and Carlos Enrique Taboada crafted a Frankenstein script for producer/director Rafael Baledon. As director, Baledon was already familiar with the demands of a horror film with his impressive El hombre y el monstruo (The Man and the Monster, 1958) and the less than impressive El pantano de las animas (English title: The Swamp of the Lost Monster, 1956). Though the Frankenstein monster and other similar creatures had turned up in Mexican cinema in brief appearances, such as the horror comedy El castillo de los monstrous (The Castle of the Monsters, 1957), Ruanova and Taboada’s script dealt exclusively with the Mary Shelley literary creation--the first Mexican film to do so, in fact. Baledon must have been inspired by the popularity of vampires in recent Mexican cinema and saw an opportunity to mine another familiar monster found in Universal’s Golden Age of Horror and the newer successes of Britain’s Hammer Films with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). The production was helmed at the America studios, which meant that like the Nostradamus series this film, due to union regulations, had to be scheduled as a serial, this time in four parts lasting, roughly, twenty-five minutes each. Filming began on July 4 and lasted to July 21, 1960, and the film premiered that same year, on December 8, 1960.

Working in a chiaroscuro landscape and with not much funding, Baledon cleverly reverted at appropriate times to the minimalist approach of certain German filmmakers of the silent era, not in duplicating expressionistic poses and design, but in evoking an expressionistic sense of positioning and drama; at other times, he created a visual delight, part expressionistic, part surrealistic, as when filming about a wedge shaped building whose center juts toward the audience in the middle of the screen. Sets still standing from the Nostradamus series were used, and enough craftsmanship is in evidence to impart a moderate richness of production.

He's back! Carlos Ancira reprises a similar scarred makeup from Misterios de ultratumba

Ruanova and Taboada’s script kept some traditions of Frankenstein cinema. So, the film has the evil human, Jamie Rojas (Joaquin Cordero), who uses Dr. Frankenstein's creation, here named Orlak (Cordero also), to revenge himself on the people who sent him to jail, replicating the motivations found with Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939) while anticipating Hammer’s Evil of Frankenstein (1964). The determined brutality of Rojas even extends beyond the wickedness of someone like Ygor, as when Rojas instructs the Orlak automaton to murder the wife and child of one upon whom he seeks vengeance. While the child's death is kept offscreen, the scene leading up to it shows a crying child (clearly upset at what’s being staged during filming) being threatened by the advancing Orlak. The film also presents an ugly assistant of Dr. Frankenstein, the scarred Eric, played by Carlos Ancira, who desires a transformation of his pitiful condition and helps Rojas in criminal activities with that aim in mind, another motivation shared by previous cinematic deformed assistants of Dr. Frankenstein. (Ancira wears similar make-up to that he wore in his impressive performance in Misterios de ultratumba/English title: The Black Pit of Dr. M, 1958.) And the fiery ending with townspeople chasing Orlak has clear antecedents in many a Frankenstein film, including the first one from Universal with Boris Karloff made in 1931. Despite these borrowings, Orlak emerges as interesting on its own merits thanks to Baledon’s efficient and at times inspired direction, the adroitness of the script that keeps things moving, the general excellence of the cast, particularly Joaquin Cordero's dual role as villain and an automaton killer, the creepy atmosphere of the impressive subterranean vaults housing Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, and one’s own fascination at watching a different country’s respectful take on the Frankenstein legend.

As with the better Frankenstein films, the Frankenstein creature shows a sympathetic emotional side that makes him more human (and humane) than some of his normal flesh-and-blood counterparts. Finally freed of Rojas’ control, Orlak journeys to Elvira, the woman Rojas has fallen in love with in an attempt to exact vengeance on her father. Seeing Orlak, Elvira naturally mistakes him for Rojas and offers up her desire to elope with him, decrying her loneliness without his presence. Orlak responds that she doesn’t know who he really is. “I fell in love with you because I needed peace,” he adds, perhaps not only speaking for himself but for Rojas as well. Remarking on his apparent sadness that Elvira picks upon, Orlak replies, “No, it is not possible. Only men know sadness. I am not human.” As he speaks of the torments of doing evil deeds that seem compelled by a power outside of him, Orlak sits facing the fire, which captivates him as it warms both his undead body and soul. As he continues sitting and talking, a tear running down his cheek, his artificial face begins to melt and give way to a mass of hideous lumps. It is both an emotional and physical breakdown, the highlight of the film, and a rich setup to the revelatory moment when he will turn to Elvira, revealing the fallen-apart reality of his being.

Orlak (Joaquin Cordero) gazes into his soul...

...and comes apart

Though Baledon’s earlier El hombre y el monstruo is more dramatic and sustains the resonance its monster’s inner turmoil longer, Orlak, el infierno de Frankenstein impresses with its simmering gothic meditation on duality, and the sincerity of its filmmakers who were determined not to undervalue or make fun of the original source material. The film remains a tantalizingly unique and successful interpretation of the Frankenstein legend.

Cover of the Tekila Films DVD

Orlak, el infierno de Frankenstein is available through Tekila Films as a standalone DVD and part of a four part Mexican horror collection that is sold as three films with a bonus film added. Marketed solely toward the Hispanic population in the United States, neither of the DVD presentations are subtitled in English. The standalone DVD has a nice sepia cover and an interesting menu design, but the menu sloppily misspells Frankenstein and incorrectly adds an “en” into the film’s title. The back copy mistakenly states that the film is in color and 99 minutes long, six minutes longer than the actual running time. The source of the film is clearly a video format. A frisky stretch line is visible near the top of the frame when the DVD is viewed on a computer monitor, though a television monitor’s over-scanning alleviates the problem. Despite the video source element, the picture quality is generally good and certainly far better than any of the fuzzy dupes that hardcore Mexican horror addicts have had to deal with in the past.

Unfortunately for Baledon’s goals, the film was never dubbed into English for a release to the Anglo market in the United States, either theatrically or on television, so any future DVD release geared toward the English-speaking viewer would have to be subtitled. It would be a worthy endeavor for a welcome DVD release.

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