THE STRANGE CASE OF DOCTOR RX is more of a light mystery with comedy elements. Directed by William Nigh (who brought us such cinematic classics as THE GHOST AND THE GUEST, MR. WONG IN CHINATOWN and THE APE), the film was originally called DOCTOR RX but received a name change so that it would not be confused with the old Warner Bros. technicolor horror DOCTOR X starring the self-same Lionel Atwill. Here, as stated, Atwill appears VERY briefly; in the entire film he probably has 5 minutes screen time tops. The real leading man of the film is Patric Knowles; veteran of the classic Universal horror films THE WOLF MAN and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. He is ably assisted by leading lady Anne Gwynne; another Universal veteran featured in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, WEIRD WOMAN and BLACK FRIDAY. Frankly, Ms. Gwynne has never been more charming or watchable than in this film. Knowles himself is also eminently watchable and likeable. Thankfully, that's a good thing since there's precious little in the way of horror or suspense going on during the entire length of the movie so a likeable pair of actors on screen most of the time helps things considerably. The movie is REALLY saved by, as usual, Mantan Moreland as Knowles' valet. Whenever Moreland is on the screen things brighten up tens times! Basically that was Moreland's function in most of the programmers he was in: to ratchet up the entertainment factor when the film is flagging. Mantan does have quite a bit of screen time (thankfully for the movie's sake) but it STILL isn't nearly enough. Minor character roles are filled out by familiar contract players Samuel S. Hinds, Shemp Howard (who was in the Three Stooges shorts at the time as well) and Paul Cavanagh. Included among these SHOULD be Lionel Atwill who has less screen time than Hinds or Shemp or Cavanagh. Classic screen villain Atwill cuts a suitably menacing figure in his thick coke-bottle glasses but . . . well . . . he's hardly ever there! All in all, I've seen a lot worse than THE STRANGE CASE OF DOCTOR RX. As these low budget mystery programmers from the 1940s go, this one is actually more entertaining than most; and we can thank the very likeable stars Mantan Moreland, Anne Gwynne, Patric Knowles and Lionel Atwill almost entirely for that.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
THE STRANGE CASE OF DOCTOR RX (1942) IS NOT REALLY A HORROR MOVIE, OF COURSE, BUT IT'S ALWAYS LISTED AS ONE. That's no biggie. A lot of movie people (or even I) call horror movies aren't; we just include them in that genre because, as in this case, it stars someone closely associated with the horror genre. That person would be Lionel Atwill, of course. The funny thing is that Atwill basically only has an extended cameo in this film (even though he's billed second and it's universally considered a "Lionel Atwill film"). The basic doings go like this: five criminals were acquitted of their crimes but, after being found not guilty, are murdred by a mysterious Doctor Rx. A private eye named Church is hired to catch the murderer; he is helped (?) by his faithful valet and his new bride. Various "mysterious" hijinx ensue.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
THE DEAD ONE (2007) STARTS WITH A REFRESHINGLY DIFFERENT PREMISE FOR A HORROR MOVIE. Based on the comic book by Javier Hernandez called "EL MUERTO", THE DEAD ONE concerns a young East L.A. man named Diego is killed in a car crash on the way to the annual Latino "Day of the Dead" celebration. Still in his full "zombie mariachi" makeup and costume, Diego is revived in the land of the Dead (Mictlan) by the Aztec god of death (Mictlantecuhtli) who cuts out Diego's heart (in the tried and true ancient Aztec way) and seals it in a clay pot; thus gaining control over Diego's soul. The "undead" (?) Diego is returned to earth in order to carry out Mictlantecuhtli's revenge against the Catholic church that supplanted the Aztec religion back in the days of the conquistadores. At least I think that's why he's sent to earth. Sadly, it's all a bit muddled and Diego actually pits himself AGAINST the god of death whose ultimate sacrificial target is Diego's girlfriend Maria: last descendant of the Somera family who established the first Catholic mission in the area. Diego (or El Muerto) has the power to restore life to the dead and is fairly invulnerable to natural harm. His skullface makeup is permanently emblazoned on his face (Diego actually steals concealer makeup in a vain attempt to cover it up).
As I said, basing the proceedings on Aztec mythology is a welcome change from the usual horror tropes. Off hand, I can only remember the classic episode of KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER in which a young Erik Estrada is the agent of Aztec deities on Earth in which this theme is explored so fully. Completely unfamiliar with the comic book upon which the film is based, I was intrigued by the whole idea and as I started watching the film I must say I was totally captivated by the sumptuously gorgeous imagery that is on display throughout the whole film. I don't know if this is due in large part to relatively unknown director Brian Cox, cinematographer Steve Yedlin or the combined talents of set decorators, costumers and makeup artists. Sadly, the script co-written by director Brian Cox and Javier Hernandez lets the film down flat. It did occur to me that the movie might be a much better experience with the sound turned off. It really does look wonderful. Star Wilmer Valderrama (late of "THAT 70's SHOW" which I've also never watched) makes a passable leading man back from the land of the dead and his iconic image with the stark white skullface makeup and a cross etched into his forehead is arresting. I even like his black costume with all the little bones up and down his sleeves and pantlegs. Other than minor TV celebrity Valderrama, the most well-known cast member is surely the wonderful Michael Parks as the sheriff: probably best known recently for playing a similar sheriff role in Quentin Tarantino's "KILL BILL" as well as "DEATH PROOF". It's certainly nice to see Parks here because the rest of the acting can most kindly be called merely adequate at best.
Probably the biggest criticism about the film is that it's all image and no substance. THE DEAD ONE, as I've said, is completely let down by the script which never really seems to get going and, in fact, seems quite muddled in spots as to what's actually happening and why. A movie that looks THIS good with a superior script would've been something! Scene compositions are routinely tasty with nice use of deep blacks as well as vivid colours: the use of El Muerto's ghostly white face emerging from the shadows is utilized to great effect throughout and the spectacular colours of the "Day of the Dead" altars and the path of marigolds, particularly, are stunning. Unfortunately, another criticism lobbed towards this film is that it's merely a rehash of "THE CROW"; and there's some truth to that. The director seems to focus more on the "pseudo-supernatural-superhero" vibe that the Crow (or SPAWN for that matter) has when it would've been FAR better to downplay that aspect and highlight the horror elements and the Aztec mythology angle. Sadly, nothing approaching "scary" ever happens. The evocation of a spooky, supernatural atmosphere is actually maintained quite well; sadly the events on screen never payoff for the viewer and we're left with a beautiful but static movie. Other than "THE CROW", "THE DEAD ONE" also reminded me of several other (and better) movies while I was watching it. El Muerto's stark-white skullface makeup reminded me in some shot of the vampire Radu in Full Moon's SUBSPECIES series of films. Also, the "Day of the Dead" festivities naturally draw a parallel in the mind with Haiti's similar celebrations as depicted in, for one, "THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW"; the depositing of Diego's heart inside a clap pot to capture his soul also echoes the similar capturing of souls inside clay pots in the voudoun passages of "SERPENT". There is even one scene in "SERPENT" where Bill Pullman's character has his face painted white with a blood red cross on his forehead that foresees El Muerto's makeup. Basically, while watching "THE DEAD ONE", the viewer is constantly hoping that the film gets better but must sadly settle for some pretty pictures. A sad waste of any potential this movie might have had.