by Jay Seaver
SCREENED IN NATURAL-VISION 3-D: When a movie is a big success, knock-offs are inevitable. After Warner Brothers's "House of Wax" was a huge hit in 1953, Columbia Pictures set out to clone it. To their credit, they had a great deal of the original film's DNA to work with - star Vincent Price, producer Bryan Foy, cinematographer Bert Glennon, and writer Crane Wilbur, who provided a very similar story and used some of the same devices. But, as anyone who has seen a sci-fi movie can tell you, a clone seldom measures up to the original.Here, Price plays Don Gallico, a gifted engineer whose creations for Ross Ormand's company have made Ormand (Donald Randolph) and pompous illusionists such The Great Rinaldi (John Emery) rich; to add insult to injury, his wife Claire (Eva Gabor) divorced him to marry Ormand. He devises an elaborate apparatus to saw a woman in half on his own time, but before he is able to demonstrate it on stage as "Gallico the Great", Ormand appears with an injunction to cease and desist. A man can only stand so much, and soon Ormand is being fed into the device with the safety off. Gallico's knowledge of prestidigitation will take a backseat to his skills at mimicry as he attempts to hide his crime(s).
"Hire a lawyer; if you don't get satisfaction, THEN go on the killing spree!"
The main problem with this movie is that, as dumped-upon as Gallico is, the jump to cold-blooded murder still seems a bit much. We've only seen the mild-mannered, fatherly Vincent Price to that point, and most of us don't jump straight to murder over a contract dispute; we'd at least entertain the concept of talking to a lawyer first. Then, afterwards, he keeps coming up with excuses to disguise himself as his victims to give the illusion that they're still alive, including renting a room in the home of a mystery writer (Lenita Lane) who, naturally, soon suspects something strange is going on.
The supporting cast is far from memorable; Mary Murphy is likable as Gallico's on-stage assistant who continues to spend time with him after he's forced off the stage. She's played opposite Brando in The Wild One just one year before, but this sort of small, disposable role would be much more typical of her career. Making even less of an impression is Patrick O'Neal as her policeman boyfriend (and, yes, Phyllis Kirk had one of those in House of Wax) who eventually winds up investigating the case. Randolph and Emery play generically self-centered villain-victims, and Lenita Lane serves up a full course of ham as Gallico's landlord (as does Jay Novello as her tongue-tied husband). Give credit to Eva Gabor, who doesn't exactly act much in her role, in terms of varying her expression or tone of voice, but her self-serving, naked avarice is at least a personality of sorts.
Director John Brahm was on his way down the ladder when he made this (he would soon be working almost exclusively in television), and though his direction isn't bad in any way, it is indifferent. He's lucky that Vincent Price probably wasn't capable of just mailing it in, and he occasionally uses the 3-D effects to get a rise out of the audience. He does bring the movie in at an economical seventy-two minutes, and doesn't really waste any of them. And that's a good thing; nothing bogs down an entertaining B-movie like too many excess characters, subplots, or pretensions of relevance. Points off for the disguise segments, where the other character's voice is overdubbed, and it looks silly.
Give them credit for mostly selling the stage magic, though. It's a minor quibble, I suppose, but it always annoys me when the magic in a movie is obviously assisted in the editing room (for instance, Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire). The black-and-white photography is nice, as well; even when 3-D is being used as a gimmick, it does encourage the filmmakers to be creative with where they put the camera. And I enjoyed the very B-movie-ness of it; Vincent Price was developing a persona he could milk for years, Lenita Lane is so thoroughly nosy, and Mary Murphy is so earnestly earnest. Besides, the environment was perfect - a crowded art deco theater, polarized glasses on the nose, watching a double feature with newsreel footage and vintage trailers (the latter two, admittedly, projected from DVDs). This is how my grandparents saw movies, and it's worth experiencing for myself.Hey, nobody would remember "The Mad Magician" if it weren't 3-D; even with Vincent Price in the lead, it would blend in with his other hundred roles. But, hey, it is 3-D, and it is so straight-facedly silly; it's worth enjoying for that alone.
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originally posted: 07/01/05 23:40:39