(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
“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.