THE MAD MAGICIAN is the second of Vincent Price’s horror flicks, after HOUSE OF WAX (factor in SON OF SINBAD and Uncle Vinnie must be one of the most persistently three-dimensional of actors, for reasons I can’t quite fathom), and despite boasting a story by Crane Wilbur, who scripted the earlier film, and direction by John Brahm, who had brought expressionist/noir chiaroscuro stylings to two Laird Cregar shockers (THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE), it’s easy to see why it doesn’t have the same killer rep as Andre De Toth’s wax museum penny dreadful.
Obviously shot on a lower budget, MM is black and white, but a slightly gray and washed-out kind, not quite up to the usual standards of Brahm or ace cinematographer Bert Glennon. I suspect the technical difficulties of the 3D resulted in over-lighting, or something. I can’t think of any b&w 3D movies with outstanding cinematography, actually. And Brahm doesn’t do too many of the great off-balance compositions and slow advances that made his Cregar movies deliciously spooky — I suspect Price’s physog just doesn’t inspire him the way lovely Laird’s bloated kisser obviously did.
The plot has compensations — Price may be the only killer in screen history to frame his first victim for his second victim’s murder, and he attempts to repeat the trick with a third target. The gimmick is rubber masks, which Price has developed as part of his job designing tricks for magicians (imagine if the BBC’s Jonathan Creek went bad — and not in the sense of slowly running out of ideas and charm and droning on endlessly with a mounting sense of desperation, because obviously that couldn’t happen). He also uses lethal tricks such as a buzz saw and a crematorium to dispose of his enemies, although ex-wife Eva Gabor is despatched via simple strangulation. Which is odd — you’d think she was the kind of person who could inspire a far more creative homicide.
Actually, the film’s most surreal moment is when the script requires Price to slap Gabor, something he just can’t do with conviction. Price is an ungainly actor, a brilliantly athletic face mounted atop a stiff, bumbling frame, with a bandy lope of a run — only his hands seem to obey his mind, forming beautiful flourishes in the air. They might wield a whip or pull a maleficent lever, but slapping a face is something they draw the line at.
The whole thing is reasonable fun, slightly unpredictable, vestigially original and worth watching for the Brahm completist, which is me. It’s interesting that Brahm really got his mojo back on TV, where some of his Twilight Zone episodes are even more visually inventive and striking than his best movies. In this he was not alone — Jacques Tourneur, whose late features are largely a sorry bunch, whether compared to his 40s and 50s masterpieces or to run-of-the-mill studio pablum, managed a terrific Zone episode, Night Call, which I recommend to all his admirers, and Mitchell Leisen’s The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine, with Ida Lupino, could serve as his epitaph.
We watched THE MAD MAGICIAN flat. A guy with a paddle-ball routine turns up, as in HOUSE OF WAX, and the buzz saw looks like it would be fun in 3D, spitting splinters and sawdust in our faces. With Brahm at the helm, it seems likely that some of the more interesting effects are less obvious and can only be discussed after an “in-depth” viewing.
Hooray! Some clips —
And actually that does look a lot more interesting than the flat version would suggest… (You might have to double-click the image to call up an anaglyph version.)