In 1960, a Mexican horror boom was under way and local filmmakers were eager to tackle classic monsters and homegrown fiends alike. Directed by Rafael Baledon (The Man and the Monster, Curse of the Crying Woman), this was the first South-of-the-Border film to concentrate exclusively and seriously on the Frankenstein theme. Unusually for a Mexican film, it doesn’t change the name to something like ‘Frankestein’, ‘Franquenstein’. Inspired by recent Hammer and 1940s Universal, Orlak opens with a scene evoking both the then-fresh The Curse of Frankenstein and the vintage House of Frankenstein. Elderly Professor Carlos Frankenstein (Andres Soler) languishes in prison, sharing a cell with glib, plausible rogue Jaime Rojas (Joaquin Cordero). Rojas soon worms his way out of jail — dropping by a club where his ex-girlfriend Estela (Rosa de Castilla) warbles and winks at the patrons, so he can rough up her new manager/boyfriend – and helps the Professor escape, killing guards in the process. They seek out Frankenstein’s cavernous underground laboratory (a nicely vaulted set in the James Whale manner), where Rojas is attacked on sight by Frankenstein’s scarred minion Eric (Carlos Ancira) until the misunderstanding is sorted out.
In a refrigerated chamber behind a secret door lies the monster Orlak (named for the character in Hands of Orlac?), who doesn’t yet have a head. Orlak is brought to life, with a curious boxlike contraption strapped to his shoulders – he looks unfortunately like a kid playing monster or robot with a cardboard carton helmet – but soon given a face which makes him Rojas’s exact double (allowing Cordero to play both roles). This development is revealed neatly: we see Orlak, with a scarf round his neck where his head was stuck on, at table ordering Eric to pour him wine and take him to be the original, who then walks casually into the scene. Orlak follows orders whispered into a microphone held by Rojas, who has a list of victims already prepared – prefiguring the remote-controlled creatures of Dr Frankenstein on Campus, and the vengeance-seeking hypnotist of The Evil of Frankenstein. Eventually, Rojas has the control device built into a pair of wire-framed specs.
Soon, Orlak is striding about town in a wide-brimmed hat and black cloak attacking Rojas’s enemies while the villain has a perfect alibi. For instance, he’s paying a call on elegant, piano-playing socialite Elvira (Irma Dorantes) while Orlak is battering a dignitary in a strikingly-staged sequence outside a stark, prowlike corner house. Sub-plots bubble: Eric wants a new face, Rojas smarms around Elvira, policeman Inspector Santos (Armando Calvo) is frustrated at not being able to pin the crimes on Rojas, Jaime’s best friend Gaston (David Reynoso) barges into the lab and mistakes the prone Orlak for his pal before being accidentally electrocuted, and Frankenstein is slightly concerned at the direction this experiment is taking. Rojas and Santos have a barbed conversation in the club, with Santos needling the crook by ascribing the murders to ‘un maniaco’, while Orkak strangles Estela in her dressing room. For his next atrocity, Rojas has the lumbering Orlak murder a mother and her baby. While having a fraught conversation with Elvira’s disapproving father (Antonio Raxel), Rojas grips his hands together just as Orlak’s are closing on the crying baby’s head (an inexplicit, but still transgressive shock).
Elvira, who has a very faint moustache, finds Orlak lurking in her garden and takes him for Rojas, who she inexplicably hasn’t pegged as an utter rotter. The monster, confused by some sort of emotional backwash from his master, refrains from crushing her head with his gloved hands. Some of Rojas’ enemies, catching on that they’re in danger, beat him up, but Orlak arrives to order and kills them – crushing one against a wall with a table, after doing the traditional unfased-by-a-hail-of-bullets bit. Orlak takes the wounded Rojas back to the laboratory, contemptuously tossing aside the control glasses, and pays a call on the smitten Elvira, who wants to elope with him. In an imaginative bit, the monster crouches by a fire and expresses the inner torment of his divided soul to the girl until his wax face melts gruesomely. The silly goose screams and faints, and the monster – also as is traditional – hefts her in his arms and carries her off. The runny-faced creature is an interesting Frankenstein monster variant – ridiculous, but still acceptably repulsive; here, the monster doesn’t find his own humanity until he stops looking like a normal person and becomes physically grotesque.
Rojas is about to dash out with a gun, when Eric realises he’s been played for a sucker and throws a snarling tantrum which ends with Rojas shooting him. After this, even Frankenstein turns on Rojas and, picking up the specs, orders the dough-faced Orlak to pursue Rojas, who has got hold of Elvira and is dragging her as a hostage. The monster, one of his eyes popped and the other halfway down his cheek, pursues Rojas, while a mob of armed police and citizenry are after them both. Santos saves the girl, who is dangling from a balcony, while the single-minded Orlak catches up to the villain after a chase across some silo-like buildings and drops Rojas to his death. With his last gasp, Rojas uses the glasses to order Orlak to kill Santos and Elvira but his control over the creature doesn’t extend past his death. Orlak runs off, pursued by angry stone-throwing peasants, and redeems himself by rescuing a girl we’ve never met from a fire (!) before willingly surrendering himself to the flames. Frankenstein and Santos exchange philosophical pleasantries about free will and the soul, ending with a heartfelt ‘quien sabe?’ Of a number of Mexican films shot as bogus four-part serials for union/tax reasons, this is the only one I’ve seen which still retains the title cards for individual episodes every twenty minutes or so. Baledon wasn’t the best of the Mexican horror directors and this doesn’t have the production values of higher-profile efforts like El Vampiro or the truly demented tone of The Brainiac – but it is a fast, fun, occasionally poignant bit of old-fashioned, cloak-swishing monster melodrama.