Posts tagged: jess franco

The Diabolical Dr. Z

The Diabolical Dr. Z, aka Miss Muerte (Jess Franco, 1966)


Diabolical Dr. Z begins with a cat having something stuck/injected in the back of its neck, on a tabletop decorated with human skulls.

So there you go.

I’m going to confess I haven’t seen much of the Jess Franco oeuvre. Mind you, seeing “much” of it might be a practical difficulty, inasmuch as he has closer to 200 than 100 titles to his credit (Jess has been nothing if not industrious). What little I’ve seen has come just a bit later, late 60s, to early 70s stuff, which I think contains the characteristics he’s more stylistically associated with – dreamy imagery, zoom lens abuse, “stories” with plots that either meander or disappear altogether, and as much nudity as he can get on film. As the decades rolled on, he circled the exploitation drain ever-closer to flat out porn. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen nothing of his past maybe ’73. He seems to have any number of casual detractors (dismissers might be more accurate) and a handful of contrarian champions. It is often casually dropped that he worked with Welles, as if that provides some cover. Frequent collaborator Christopher Lee gives Jess benefit of the doubt, indicating that if he ever had the time or budget he’d do just fine.

Having seen their Fu Manchu collaboration (rightfully MST3K’d) I would be suspicious of Lee, but Diabolical Dr. Z makes me wonder if he’s right. It is a hugely enjoyable genre piece, and has virtually none of the characteristics I associate with Franco – plot matters (it’s not a brilliant plot, but it moves, it more or less coheres, it drives action. It’s conventional and I say that with relief), it doesn’t look dirt cheap or rushed, nobody gets naked, and if there was a camera zoom I missed it. On the other hand it does have some traditional Jess virtues – imaginative visuals, and the habit for making stage performance part of his stories is indulged. So I’m thinking Christopher Lee was at least sort of right – he can make good movies, or at least could in his earlier days.

Anyway, back to the cat. It is being experimented on by Dr. Zimmer, an old fella with some gogglish glasses and hair that looks like his finger found an electrical socket. He is wheelchair-bound, which means we prejudicially classify him as a “mad” scientist. He reads in the paper of a murderous convict who has escaped the local prison and is roaming the countryside:

Naturally, this means the guy is going to end up half-conscious and hurt at Dr. Z’s front door. His female lab assistant and his daughter Irma drag the convict into the house. He’s hustled into the lab, and Dr. Z’s daughter convinces him that now is the time to move from cats to people – no one will miss this guy, experiment away!

It’s a biggish, well-propped lab set. Already I’m wondering who had money to give Jess.

The convict is grabbed and hoisted by Zimmer’s Dr. Octopus-like contraption.
“Now you might feel a slight prick…”

The convict has been turned into a compliant, commandable assistant.

Fully 8 minutes in, the credits finally show up. I was surprised – by then I had forgotten there hadn’t been any. This is like 10% into the movie. So what do you think of that “J. Franco” credit? I’m trying to decide if it’s ostentatious auteur posing or absolutely egoless, industrial film style professionalism.

The Doctors Zimmer, father and daughter (that’s not them above, don’t get confused), go to a professional conference where he can brief his peers on his breakthrough. This sort of thing never goes well. The guy on the right is probably supposed to be the Austrian, but I’d like to think it’s the American – I like the idea that we’d send some badass eyepatch dude to the big neurological conference.

Zimmer is sneered, jeered, and generally laughed at by the room.

You can mock people while walking around with those teeth?
Big room, big gang of extras. Again, this is a Jess Franco movie?
Dr. Zimmer collapses and dies on the conference floor under the weight of professional insults. His daughter inherits his cause – it is Irma who is the Diabolical Dr. Z, not her father.
Drinking to dull the pain. A colleague, Phillippe, begins putting the moves on Irma.

He takes her out to a nice, normal club with a simple floor show. What, don’t most clubs feature interpretive dances by someone calling themselves Miss Death? Why it’s as humdrum and everyday as meat helmets or luge lessons.
So this her act: Writhe around on a floor painted to look like a spider web, across from a dummy in a chair. Wriggle over to him, crawl up his legs, straddle him…

…Then rake her hyper-long razorlike nails across his dummy neck, as if slicing his jugular. Set the dummy on the ground, loom over it…

…And hold a skull mask over her face.

That’s it. Applause, everyone!

Phillippe takes Irma back to her hotel and goes in for the clinch. What he hasn’t quite noticed is – she’s bonkers.
On the way home from the conference, Irma picks up a hitchhiker. Noticing a superficial resemblance, she decides to put her bonkers to work – by getting her out to the middle of nowhere, getting the girl out of the car and running her over!

(If either of the Maciste Brothers read this – yes, there’s a dummy used in the crash, but it’s distant and momentary)

Irma is going to fake her own death so she can secretly carry on for her father, first by exacting revenge on the leading scientists who shamed him to death! Why, that plan is fiendish – one might almost say…diabolical?
Unfortunately, while lighting the car on fire, she gets herself a faceful.

A mercedes, on fire, tossed in the water. Who is giving you the money for this Jess, and why did they stop?

Bad burns. Or messy peanut butter eating.
Upon her return home, she finds her father’s assistant rather recalcitrant. She gets the needle treatment to get her back in line.
Just to prove she belongs in the Mad Scientist big leagues, Irma goes where few have gone, performing plastic surgery…on herself!

Meanwhile, Phillippe mourns Irma’s “death” by making a play for Miss Death. Dig those nails!
Irma has better uses for Miss Death. Posing as a Hollywood agent, she tells Miss Death that her brilliant, brilliant act is just what Hollywood has been looking for. Miss Death, if you couldn’t already tell, is a dope. Believing Irma, she is easily trapped. Irma’s surgery mostly came out okay, but she has a shiny/sparkly residue on her muzzle that won’t go away.

Needle time!

Miss Death comes out of the treatment not quite as naturally compliant – rather more feral. Irma can handle that.
Tamed, Miss Death is treated like an animal – chained up, whipped, dungeoned when not needed.

The revenge list.
Inspector Jess Franco is personally on Irma’s trail.
Miss Death placidly goes about her assignments, luring the men one by one and attacking with her jugular-ripping claws. Truthfully this sizable revenge chunk of the film is a bit more predictable and less compelling. One of the victims is Howard Vernon however, and that’s always nice.

Phillippe, living out a kind of everyman nightmare – what if your two girlfriends met and just happened to possess torture equipment? That would probably suck.

I’m going to be on the lookout for Jess Franco’s earlier efforts in the future, because The Diabolical Dr. Z is good clean Mad Scientist fun.


Euro Stairs Of Horror! #1

The Diabolical Dr. Z (Franco, 1966)









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