Cinematic provocateur Jess Franco and frequent Luis Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière worked together for the second and final time on The Diabolical Dr. Z. Shot in moody high-contrast monochrome by veteran cameraman Alejandro Ulloa, the film is a delirious mash-up of pulp sci-fi and noir motifs: mad scientists, mind-control machinery, and wronged women out for revenge. It occupies a pivotal Janus-headed position in Franco’s filmography, pointing back, on the one hand, to the gothic surgical horrors of The Awful Dr. Orlof, whose title character is explicitly mentioned as Dr. Z’s scientific mentor. The film also paves the way for a handful of titles that were inspired by Cornell Woolrich’s 1940 novel The Bride Wore Black, most memorably She Killed in Ecstasy, with Soledad Miranda as the exterminating angel and Howard Vernon again turning up as one of the victims.
The film opens with an atmospheric and nearly wordless prison break as the black-clad figure of notorious strangler Hans Bergen (Guy Mairesse) throttles a guard with his own truncheon before absconding into one of those archetypal dark and stormy nights that seems lifted straight from the pages of a Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel. Days later, an exhausted Bergen conveniently turns up on the doorstep of Dr. Zimmer (Antonio Jiménez Escribano), who just happens to be discussing the whereabouts of the fugitive with his daughter-slash-lab assistant, Irma (Mabel Karr). Elderly, frail Dr. Zimmer—with his wheelchair and dark spectacles—suggests a droll caricature of Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove gone to seed, while the dialogue cheekily between Zimmer and Irma alludes to Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, a little cinephile in-joke that’s evident only in the French-language version of the film.
Dr. Zimmer conscripts Bergen as the ideal guinea pig for his experiments on the “moral centers” of the human nervous system: a disturbingly invasive procedure that involves an apparatus outfitted with spidery metal appendages and the insertion of long metal spikes into the subject’s spinal column and brainpan, though the film mostly implies its body horror. The sequence’s borderline spy-fi trappings bring to mind the numerous sequels-in-name-only being cranked out in the wake of Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. (Franco himself would later contribute to the Dr. Mabuse series with The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse). Later in the film, whenever Irma and her robotized cronies repeat Dr. Zimmer’s operation on successive victims—typically female, of course—Franco gleefully dials up the sadomasochistic undercurrents, replete with torn garments and fettered limbs.
The Diabolical Dr. Z‘s first part is crowded with incidents, and the connective tissue between them isn’t established in anything approaching a causative fashion. Franco and Carrière prefer a surreal dream logic that informs characters’ ostensibly arbitrary motivations, as well as the unrelenting onrush of events, as though they were compressing an entire cliffhanger serial into the film’s first 45 minutes: Zimmer’s humiliation and death, Irma’s assignation with sympathetic medico Philip Brighthouse (Fernando Montes), Irma’s faked death and scheme to revenge herself on the three men she holds responsible for her father’s demise. On top of it all, Irma somehow finds time to convert an exotic dancer, Nadia (Estella Blain), who performs under the alias Miss Death, into another of her subservient automatons.
The film’s second half descends into Cornell Woolrich territory, with Irma employing Miss Death and her poison-tipped talons to cross the names off her kill list in a series of increasingly elaborate set pieces. Nadia’s seduction of Dr. Vicas (Howard Vernon) onboard a train provides a stunning showcase for Ulloa’s shadowy lighting schemes: As the lights in the dining car are ominously extinguished, a lone beam of illumination picks out Nadia’s eyes—an ornately stylized shot straight out of classic film noir. Her pursuit of Dr. Moroni (Marcelo Arroita) takes place against the eerie backdrop of a mist-shrouded village where reproving prostitutes suddenly rear up out of the fog, as does an apparently benign taxicab, only to prove an unlikely deathtrap.
The Diabolical Dr. Z‘s finale involves an intricate series of twists and double crosses culminating at an incongruously gothic clinic belonging to Irma’s final target, Dr. Kallman (Cris Huerta). Franco stages an impressively dynamic fistfight between Brighthouse and Bergen, all snap zooms and smash cuts on flying fists and battered visages, and indulges in a visual flourish with some low-angle views up a spiral staircase, an indelible shot reminiscent of films as diverse as Mario Bava’s Kill…Baby, Kill! and Brian De Palma’s Passion. Franco and composer Daniel White turn up to save the day as two police inspectors who heretofore have mostly served as some low-wattage comic relief. And Franco ends on a wonderfully ambiguous shot that holds out equal possibilities for a loving reunion and imminent death.
Alejandro Ulloa’s opulent cinematography looks positively ravishing on Kino’s new Blu-ray release, surpassing Mondo Macabro’s already visually impressive DVD from 2003 when it comes to bringing out fine details of costume and set design, like the diaphanous mesh of Nadia’s spider-woman costume and the various apparatuses and caged animals that litter Dr. Zimmer’s laboratory. Black levels also get a significant boost in density from the HD transfer. Kino’s disc offers two audio options: French or English LPCM mono. Both tracks have their compensations, each one handling different scenes better than the other, but all things considered, the French-language version probably comes across as more robust. It also serves as a better showcase for Daniel White’s wonderfully out-there score, a bewitching blend of haunting church-organ harmonics, atonal musique concrète, and sultry jazz numbers.
Tim Lucas delivers another exemplary audio commentary about a Jess Franco production, covering every significant aspect of The Diabolical Dr. Z’s production history. Lucas thoroughly covers the professional and occasionally even the personal lives of the cast and crew (including the tragic demise of actress Estella Blain), suggests numerous links to other genre films, and points out the frequently repurposed character names and other motifs that crop up across Franco’s enormous filmography. Kino’s disc also includes the entertaining French-language trailer.
A wonderfully whacked-out blend of sci-fi and noir tropes, Jess Franco’s The Diabolical Dr. Z comes to Blu-ray with a gorgeous 1080p transfer and an informative commentary track from Francophile and film maven Tim Lucas.