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September 23, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #38 - The Diabolical Doctor Z

Wait, which Diabolical Doctor?
Oh, THAT Diabolical Doctor!
Classic horror goes European in The Diabolical Doctor Z (originally titled Miss Muerte), a relatively early offering from Spanish schlockmeister Jesus Franco.  According to IMDB, Franco has directed 192 films in his career, yet many horror fans are quick to dismiss him based on heavy sexual themes in his output.  In fact, Franco is also known for "making Spain's first pornographic film", and his most popular film is the flamboyantly titled Vampyros Lesbos.

With his reputation preceding him, I was kind of shocked when I came across The Diabolical Doctor Z.  This isn't a restrained film by any means, but it feels more like the offspring of a Terence Fisher or Herk Harvey to me.  It borrows from classic tales like Frankenstein and foreshadows future horrors like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and puts it all together in a bizarre yet artistic manner.
Summing up the plot of the film briefly, the Diabolical Doctor Z is a scientist with a God complex who dies of a heart attack after defending his ideas against a panel of doctors who dismiss his methods.  He is survived by his loyal daughter Irma, who vows she will take revenge on the men who drove her father to his grave.  I guess the easy methods of murder weren't available, because she decides it'd be best to brainwash a macabre dancer known as Miss Muerte, and then have her seduce and kill the fellows with her poison-tipped fingernails.

(REALLY WEIRD TANGENT ALERT - I have to say, I always was kind of terrified of the poisonous female when I was growing up.   While I was religiously watching professional wrestling in the early '90s, I convinced myself that a particularly fatale valet known as Lady Blossom (who was accompanying future megastar Steve Austin) was the type of woman who, like Batman's Poison Ivy, wore lipstick containing a sedative that could knock out one of Austin's opponents in a pinch.  All she had to do, of course, was give them a little peck on the lips.  Part of me wants to believe this actually happened on TBS one Saturday afternoon, but it's probably just something I made up while playing with my wrestling figures and subbing one of my sister's Barbies into Lady Blossom's role.  Whether or not it was real, it made a lasting impact on me.

And now that I've talked about my completely embarrassing childhood (I lived on a farm, OK???  I had to make up my own weirdness!), back to the movie....)
Miss Muerte is not a willing assassin, which leads to a lot of weird torture scenes in which the female Doctor Z (though I'm not sure she got her degree) gives her a "treatment" that brainwashes her.  Of course, one of those boring European chisel-jawed heroes shows up to try and help her escape Irma's power, and the film mixes a lot of the plot elements that would later reign in the Italian horror scene, such as the hero's quest to find a countryside locale.  As punctuation, the music of the film volleys between ominous organ music (like Harvey's Carnival of Souls) and manic Jazz music - fitting some of the more odd moments brilliantly. 

As Irma and Miss Muerte, respectively, Mabel Karr and Estella Blain definitely succeed on opposite ends of the "Women in Horror" spectrum.  With her short blond hair and eventual facial disfiguration (occurring in a fabulous scene in which she murders a young woman by plowing over her with a car), Karr is viciously intimidating, but can turn on the charm when she needs to convince others of her normalcy.  On the other hand, Blain's showgirl-turned-slayer is incredibly naive for such a picturesque woman.  She doesn't seem like she wants to recognize the power that comes with her beauty, and the treatments from Irma seem to release her onstage persona as a tangible, real-world being.  Irma, whose mastery of science compels Muerte, is the true killer, yet it's fascinating to see this young woman live up to her name.  There's definitely some catharsis as Blain's character truly becomes the spider-woman that she portrays on stage.
 At just over 83 minutes, The Diabolical Doctor Z is a slice of Euro horror that's easy to get into, though there are a few lulls in the action.  Despite the director, it's not a film about nudity or exploitation; it's an honest-to-goodness psychological horror with wickedly surreal imagery and plenty of weird science.  It's also one of Franco's lesser seen films, receiving only 271 ratings from users at IMDB (In fact, only one of Franco's 192 films has received more than 1000 votes on that site, a staggeringly low number).  While I'm still relatively new to his work, I can't imagine he's made many films better than this one, and I think any fan of classic black-and-white horror should seek it out as soon as possible.

(Oh, and if you have any doubts about this one, just click on those pictures and make 'em bigger.  Wicked cool, I tell ya!)


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