Thursday, May 28, 2020

Dr. Cyclops

(1940) Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; Written by Tom Kilpatrick; Starring: Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian and Frank Yaconelli; Available on Blue-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“Are we then country doctors? You do not realize what we have here. In our very hands we have the cosmic force of creation itself. In our very hands! We can shape life, take it apart, put it together again, mold it like putty.” – Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker)

If one thing’s for certain, movie scientists of the ‘30s and ‘40s were up to no good, tampering with nature’s laws and creating unspeakable horrors in the process. Dr. Cyclops continues in the proud tradition of deranged doctors with ambitions that are inversely proportional to their conscience. The folks at Paramount kept things under wraps while the film was in development, but considering it was the brainchild of one of the creative forces behind King Kong (1933), Ernest B. Schoedsack,* chances were it was bound to be something big. Well, yes and no. The fact that Dr. Cyclops was the first genre film to be produced in three-strip Technicolor was certainly a big deal. On the other hand, Schoedsack had something more petite in mind for his newest spectacle, in which a mad doctor reduces people and animals to doll size.

* Fun Fact #1: According to film historian Richard Harland Smith’s (occasionally meandering) DVD commentary, Schoedsack had a 200-page sketchbook full of drawings and notes, which formed the basis of Dr. Cyclops. Although the book’s current whereabouts are unknown, it would be interesting to see what visuals and concepts never made it into the finished film. Perhaps the world will never know.

In the opening scene, the brazen Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker)*/** and his cautious assistant Dr. Mendoza (Paul Fix) bicker about the ramifications of the senior scientist’s recent breakthrough. Mendoza expresses his moral indignation about Thorkel delving into life’s mysteries, forbidding him to continue with the experiments (“Destroy your slides, burn your notes.”). Naturally, this ends about as well as you’d expect, with Thorkel murdering his naïve colleague. Soon after, the not-so-good doctor receives a group of visitors (invited by Dr. Thorkel to help him figure out a problem) including a trio of scientists, along with a rancher and a farmhand. When the visitors overstay their welcome, the paranoid doctor assumes they’re trying to steal his secrets. He tricks them into entering his test chamber, reducing the pesky unwanted guests to a fraction of their original size. They emerge, bewildered, and fashionably attired in handkerchiefs (Question: While everyone else is wearing some variation of a toga, why does farmhand Pedro get a diaper?). Now, their main concern becomes trying to avoid the maniacal doctor and survive in a world that’s suddenly grown larger and infinitely more hostile.

* Fun Fact #2: After his hair started growing back, Dekker was called back by Schoedsack for additional scenes, playing the follically challenged mad scientist. Dekker refused to shave his head again, demanding a bald cap instead. For the majority of the film, Dekker’s head is clearly shaved. It’s quite obvious, however, that he’s wearing a bald cap in the introductory scene.

** Interesting Note: If you’re not aware of the fascinating life and ignominious death of Albert Dekker, it’s well worth a trip down the internet rabbit hole, but a word of caution: tread carefully.

Let’s get this out of the way, so we can get on with life. Don’t expect Dr. Cyclops to feature a physician resembling the mythological one-eyed creature – If you’re expecting something from Ray Harryhausen, move on. In an early scene, Dr. Bulfinch (Charles Halton) likens Thorkel to the Cyclops of Greek mythology (“Cyclops too felt size and strength were sufficient. He was a very ignorant fellow.”). Only when one lens of his glasses is broken does the myopic doctor take on any of the physical properties of the mythological creature. As played by Dekker with devious abandon, Dr. Thorkel doesn’t possess many redeemable traits. He’s evil through and through, a lone-wolf researcher, drunk with the power of his discovery and unconcerned with the consequences. He keeps his cat Satana* well fed with cast-offs from his experiments, and callously dispatches Dr. Bulfinch with a chemical-soaked wad of cotton. People are nothing to him – merely regarded as temporary help or permanent hindrance.

* Fun Fact #3: Because the cats tended to get spooked on the set, the filmmakers used six black cats to play “Satana” for the movie.

The effects work might seem a bit dated to 21st century eyes, but they get the job done (just sit back, shut up, and let your imagination do the rest). The filmmakers used a combination of oversized props* (one of Thorkel’s victims is clutched in a giant hand, similar to a sequence in King Kong), dwarfing the “miniature” actors, and rear projection that make an ordinary house cat, an alligator, and even chickens look fearsome. The best effect was the glorious 3-strip Technicolor cinematography (courtesy of Henry Sharp), and with Kino’s new restoration, it’s safe to say it’s never looked better on home video.  

* Fun Fact #4: The furniture and props were built five times normal size to make the actors appear smaller.

Scientists didn’t often get a fair shake in most science fiction movies from this era. In Dr. Cyclops, humanity is given two unpalatable choices: meet groundbreaking discoveries with fear and distrust or wallow in willful ignorance. The story is paper thin, with mostly generic characters (including Frank Yaconelli’s cringe-worthy, stereotype-laden portrayal of farmhand Pedro), and even at 77 minutes, seems to out-stay its welcome. Half of the film consists of a game of cat and mouse between Dr. Thorkel and his victims, which gets tedious at times. Regardless of any deficiencies, it’s an undeniably fun premise (recycled quite a few times in the 1950s), made enjoyable thanks to Dekker’s eccentric performance, and deserves to be in the collection of any serious genre enthusiast.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The City of Lost Children

(1995) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro; Written by Gilles Adrien, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro; Starring: Ron Perlman, Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, and Mireille Mossé; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating ****½

“This film is about dreams, and maybe in dreams, we need to see dreams that would awaken us, our imagination… We’ve always been supporting fantasy cinema, and this is what this film is about: If we don’t dream, it’ll kill us. It’ll age us very quickly. It’s as simple as that. It’s what the movie is about.” – Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Fairy tales, in a traditional sense, are enduring stories told in broad strokes, set in an ambiguously distant time. They may possess many (if not all) of these classic elements: strongly delineated protagonists (with the requisite hero’s quest), appropriately loathsome villains, and universally relatable themes, often with a strong moral attached. The City of Lost Children (aka: La Cité des Enfants Perdus)* is a contemporary fairy tale, set in an unspecified seaside city in a mythical era, which borrows designs from yesteryear (think 1930s urban sprawl, blended with touches of post-industrial Victorian steampunk). Filmed almost entirely on a French soundstage for $18 million, The City of Lost Children looks like it cost much more, featuring expansive city sets, meticulously detailed interiors, and a massive wharf complete with ships and seagulls.

* Fun Fact #1: Watch for co-writer/co-director Marc Caro in a cameo as a blind beggar in an early scene, and as a Cyclops cult member.

The genius but emotionally stunted villain Krank (Daniel Emilfork)* resides in a towering offshore oil derrick guarded by mines. He lacks the ability to dream, so he steals children for his nefarious experiments, where he can experience and infiltrate their dreams. He resides with his more even-tempered brother, who exists as a disembodied brain in an aquarium tank, serving as a mediating influence. He’s assisted by four clone henchmen (all played by Dominique Pinon, thanks to some clever effects trickery), along with diminutive researcher, Mademoiselle Bismuth (Mireille Mossé), who keeps the clones in check.

* Not So Fun Fact: In his DVD commentary, Jeunet described Emilfork as a “diva,” who was difficult to work with. He was quick to note, however, how he admired the actor’s performance in the film.

A hero’s journey can’t be accomplished without a solid protagonist, and virtuous circus strongman One (Ron Perlman) rises to the challenge. One* may be deficient in intellect, but he possesses a heart as big as his physique. He takes a young orphan boy, Denree (Joseph Lucien), under his wing, referring to him as his “little brother.” When Denree is abducted by a group of fanatics, One resolves to get him back. He meets up with a scrappy band of orphan thieves led by crafty street urchin Miette (Judith Vittet). The orphans are under the watchful eye of conjoined twins and former sideshow performers known collectively as La Pieuvre, or “The Octopus” (played by real-life twin sisters Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet), a sort of Fagin (multiplied twice) to Miette’s Oliver Twist. Perlman described the film as “the exploration of innocence.” I would probably replace “exploration” with “exploitation,” since none of the kids in this film have an easy life. One stands as the one nurturing, compassionate influence in Denree’s (and later Miette’s) life, as a pseudo-paternal figure. We’re never in doubt, however, who’s really in charge.  

* Fun Fact #2: Why was his character called “One?” According to Perlman, after he initially read the script, he asked Jeunet, whose only reply was “Why not?”

A predominant theme in The City of Lost Children is individualism versus conformity. One stands alone, as a force of good among a cruel and unyielding city. Miette, hardened by her experiences, gets by on her wits alone. On the flipside, the four clones bicker endlessly about which one is the original (SPOILER: It’s someone else, also played by Dominique Pinon). Much like the clones, the unscrupulous twin sisters scheme together as one criminal mind. Similarly, an ascetic cult of “Cyclops” (who shun their organic vision in favor of a third, electronic eye) function as a hive mind, roaming the city streets, searching for more to convert to their order.

The gorgeous production design/art direction by Marco Caro and Jean Rabasse takes center stage, employing an intentional color palette, in which reds and greens dominate.* The beautifully detailed sets masterfully create the illusion of a city made of bricks and steel, while Krank’s oil derrick lair (a convincing large-scale model) resembles something out of Jules Verne’s nightmares. Somewhat less effective is the cartoonish CGI flea, which stands out amidst the intricate three-dimensional set pieces. In defense of computer-generated imagery, it’s utilized to much better effect to create the distorted perspectives of the dream sequences, or a glowing green cloud of dreams trapped in a brass cannister.

* Fun Fact #3: According to Jeunet, the filmmakers were inspired by the work of painter Giorgio de Chirico for the look of the film.

The City of Lost Children is delightfully weird in all the right ways. Directors Jeunet and Caro somehow manage to rein in the eccentric characters and colorful surroundings without seeming distancing or overwhelmingly busy. The visuals create the narrative. Much like its predecessor, Delicatessen (1991), Jeunet and Caro have created an immersive world made enjoyable through innovative, playful visuals and Rube Goldberg-inspired gags. A mesmeric street organ-tinged score by frequent David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti fits the dark carnival tone of the film perfectly. The City of Lost Children emulates a dream, where the rules of reality only superficially apply. It’s a buoyant, funhouse experience only something truly magical can produce, and couldn’t we all use a little magic right now?


Monday, May 11, 2020

Doctor X

(1932) Directed by Michael Curtiz; Written by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin; Based on a play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller; Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford and Dr. Rowitz; Available on DVD (in the “Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection”) 

Rating: ***½ stars

 “Dr. Xavier is still working on his theory that strong mental repressions, phobias hidden in the darkest corners of the subconscious mind, can be brought to the surface and made to register through certain reactions of the heart. Am I correct, professor?” – Dr. Wells (Preston Foster)

Although Universal was the undisputed leader in horror in the 1930s, it wasn’t the only game in town. Hollywood rival First National had something up its sleeve, with Doctor X, filmed in “Two-Strip” Technicolor, an expensive*/** early color process that combined red and green film strips to create a color image. To today’s viewers, the film has a surreal, otherworldly appearance, resembling something from a comic book or a dream state.*** The screenplay was derived from a 1930 stage production, which originated from an unproduced 1928 play, Terror. The film version was initially conceived as a horror vehicle starring Bela Lugosi, but First National eventually changed its tune, deciding to produce a mystery/thriller with comic overtones. Prolific director Michael Curtiz filmed Doctor X over a grueling 20-day schedule, requiring 15 to 20-hour days.  

* Fun Fact #1: According to film historian Scott MacQueen in the DVD commentary, the “Two-Strip” process cost two-and-a-half times the amount of black and white film, requiring high-speed cameras that needed four times the amount of lighting.

** Fun Fact #2: Doctor X was simultaneously filmed in color and black and white. The black and white prints, which included different takes from the color version, were intended for international release.

*** Fun Fact #3: Due to the limitations of the film process, blues, purples, or yellows could not be accurately duplicated. See the EastmanMuseum website for more details.  

After a series of murders near a medical school run by Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill), the police have set their sights on the school’s staff. Further signs point to Xavier’s school when Xavier’s examination of a victim’s body reveals an incision that appears to have been perpetrated with a precision scalpel. Adding to the mystery, he discovers that a sizable chunk has been cut out of the body, suggesting cannibalism. Concerned about the potential bad press that the investigation will cause, Dr. Xavier resolves to mitigate the scrutiny by conducting his own investigation, using scientific methods. Unfortunately for the good doctor, things are not as hush, hush as he intended, on account of a snooping reporter, Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy).

We’re introduced to the eccentric suspects, all researchers employed by Dr. Xavier. One-armed Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) conducts research on reanimation of body parts, and is also an ardent student of cannibalistic practices. Dr. Haines (John Wray) studies brain grafting, and has a fondness for erotica (the filmmakers were careful to tiptoe around the censors, by avoiding too many details). Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe) researches the moon’s effects on the mind. Both Haines and Rowitz were involved in a shipwreck, where a third survivor vanished under mysterious circumstances (Could it have been…cannibalism?). Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford), the fourth researcher, is confined to a wheelchair, appearing the least likely to have perpetrated the murders. Dr. Xavier puts his plan into action, in an overly elaborate scheme to ferret out the killer. In what seems an awful long way to go on such short notice, the suspects are subjected to a re-enactment of the murders at his spooky cliffside mansion (under the full moon), with wax figures and live actors. Meanwhile, the suspects are confined to chairs connected to special equipment designed to measure their physiological response (Don’t hurt your brain trying to determine the science behind this experiment).  

Doctor X balances horror and comedy (emphasizing the comedy), with mixed results. Goofy, go-getting reporter Lee Taylor provides the lion’s share of the comic relief, with a little going a long way. He’s obnoxious and overbearing at every turn, wearing out his welcome long before we’ve reached the midpoint. Taylor has more on his mind than landing a juicy story when he falls for Xavier’s aloof daughter Joanne (Fay Wray, in an underwritten role). Perhaps the biggest stretch, in a film full of contrivances, is that Joanne eventually falls for him, as the script dictates. Much more effective is George Rosener’s* quirky/creepy performance as Dr. Xavier’s enthusiastic butler with a morbid streak, Otto. He enjoys tormenting Mamie the maid, played by Leila Bennett (it would be easy to see her contemporary, Una O’Connor, in the same role). She’s prone to bouts of hysteria, keeping a bottle of booze under her pillow to keep the demons at bay. 

* Fun Fact #4: Roesener wrote the first draft of the screenplay, which was mostly discarded.

A humorous scene, applied with care, can help defuse tension in horror. In this case, however, less comedy would have been an asset. The film betrays its theatrical roots with scenes that are a bit too stagey and static. The basic whodunit story isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, but the morbid premise breathes new life into the proceedings, especially when the boogeyman is revealed in the climactic payoff. In the movie’s most distinctive scene (with makeup effects credited to Max Factor), the mad scientist undergoes a hideous transformation,* slathering on the clay-like artificial skin like a demonic Mummenschanz performer. It’s a scene that continues to mesmerize today, and likely caused a stir or two when it first played. Creaky plot elements and irritating characters notwithstanding, Doctor X remains a minor classic, a milestone in horror, and a must-see for any film fan.

* Fun Fact #5: According to the DVD commentary, British film censors deemed the transformation scene too horrifying, omitting it from prints at the time.

Note: Doctor X spawned a sequel, albeit in name only, The Return of Doctor X (1939), starring Humphrey Bogart, in a role he despised (but I quite enjoyed).

Source for this article: DVD commentary by Scott MacQueen, Eastman Museum website: