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THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (1966)
aka MISS DEATH, MRS. DEATH AND DR. Z IN THE GRIP OF THE MANIAC
Directed by Jesús Franco
Written by Jesús Franco (original screenplay), Jean-Claude Carrière (dialog & adaptation)
Starring Estella Blain, Mabel Karr, Howard Vernon, Fernando Montes, Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui, Cris Huerta, Alberto Bourbón, Guy Mairesse, Mer Casas, Ana Castor, Jesús Franco, Antonio Jiménez Escribano, Lucía Prado, Javier de Rivera
I’ve seen a ton of Jess Jesus Franco films in my time reviewing horror films and while Franco is sometimes pretty hit or miss, his early work really took the time to consider the art of filmmaking a little more. THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z is one of those films.
When a mad scientist named Dr. Zimmer passes away, his daughter Irma Zimmer (Mabel Karr) plots revenge on the doctors and authorities who refused to recognize his genius. After a flubbed attempt to fake her own death which leaves her hideously scarred, Irma pivots and vows to heal her scars, focusing on kidnapping a dancer with long nails (which she steals after entrancing the dancer). Once healed, Irma proceeds with her revenge plan, but the police are hot on the trail of a series of disturbances and disappearances, an admirer of the dancer tracks her down and the film climaxes in a violent confrontation amidst Dr. Z’s demented lab.
While some of Jesus Franco’s films simply devolve into fetish and exploitation, every now and then, his early works actually see the director using and playing with the craft. This is the case with THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, which has one of those “let’s throw a bunch of shit against the wall and see what sticks” mentality when it comes to storytelling. The twisty and turny way the plot evolves actually makes for a fun little rollercoaster ride filled with wonky mad science, weird machinery, plastic surgery, faked deaths, mind control, long fingernails, and choreographed dance of death set to groovy music. While Franco’s fetish-play is still at work, specifically with a burlesque show with a skeletal mannequin, a web painted on the floor, and a woman in very little clothing, Franco actually seems interested in atmosphere by highlighting the dark corridors, alleyways, and an especially creepy cinema chase scene that really seems to highlight Franco’s early passion for film noir. Franco is also paying homage to the Universal era of horror with the bonkers lab and machinery which is definitely cheesy, but still played straight.
Another unconventional move is that Dr. Z actually dies in the early bits of this film, so actually this is more of a “DAUGHTER OF THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z” flick, but I guess that doesn’t roll off the tongue as well. Mabel Karr is both enchanting and insidious in the role of Dr. Z’s offspring. For it’s time and genre, Karr gives a rather complex performance. She is utterly vain because she halts all of her revenge plots in order to heal her face from a botched death falsification, so there’s a fragility there that you don’t normally see in this type of movie. But when Karr gets cold an evil, she does so triumphantly.
THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z is filled with goofy science and mad plots of revenge, but everyone, especially Franco, is taking everything seriously. This reflects a time before Franco comfortably settled into the sleaze and it is a bolder and more entertaining film because of Franco’s rawness. Most likely, if you’re looking for an intro into the grimy world of Jess Jesus Franco, you might as well start with one of his best and check out THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z.