Written by: Crane Wilbur
Directed by: John Brahm
Starring: Vincent Price, Mary Murphy, and Eva Gabor
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďGood luck on your murder..."
Since its release in 1953, House of Wax has become an iconic, breakthrough film that ushered in a short-lived 3D craze and practically introduced the world to Vincent Price's horror chops. His performance was a stunner that essentially cast the mold for his later career, as Price would of course go on to become an icon. He specifically perfected the lovelorn, tragic figure driven to madness by some trauma, and he found himself right back in this mode a year after his turn as the deranged Jarrod when he assumed the title role in The Mad Magician. Like 1954ís Phantom of the Rue Morgue, this effort has been largely overshadowed by House of Wax, but thatís not for lack of effort since itís rather bonkers and features a terrific performance by Price in its own right.
Unlike Phantom, The Mad Magician isnít an aesthetic cousin to House of Wax but still shares Price, a 3D gimmick, and some of the same crew; it is perhaps every bit as ghastly, too, as it finds Price in the role of Don Gallico, an aspiring magician consigned to toiling behind the scenes and building gags for other showmen. When his first public performance is shut down by his employer (Donald Randolph), Gallico is both frustrated and appalled. Upon learning that his latest trick is legally the domain of the greedy manager, he promptly snaps and feeds the old manís head to a buzzsaw. With blood on his hands, Gallico orchestrates an elaborate cover-up that finds him assuming the murdered manís identity and knocking off anyone who might suspect him.
The Mad Magician is unusually macabre for a 50s effort, what with Gallico stuffing a severed head in a leather bag and eventually skinning it in order to masquerade as his slain boss. It has an almost wry sensibility to it, as well, especially in the early-going when Gallicoís leather bag gets switched with that of a female acquaintanceís (Mary Murphy), an episode thatís sort of like the climax of Whatís Up, Doc?, only it also features a severed head. When this subsides (without incident!), the film grows increasingly bizarre once Price begins to walk around wearing Randolphís face and disposing of evidence (for example, he burns his bossís decapitated body in a bonfire during a football victory rally). The developing cat and mouse game becomes an interesting dance involving Gallico, a rival magician (John Emery), and some conveniently placed foils in the form of a detective (Patrick OíNeil) and a murder mystery writer (Lenita Lane).
Gallico manages to stay one step ahead of them, and you actually want him to stay there. He might be a homicidal maniac, but heís mostly surrounded by awful people who are even worse; not only is his boss a greedy, manipulative jerk, but he also wooed away Gallicoís wife (Eva Gabor) with his money. Once she enters the picture, sheís revealed to be a terrible floozy whose loyalty shifts with those very riches, so itís not like these folks donít have it coming to them. So it goes for just about everyone Gallico encounters, though it should be noted that Price injects the magician with his particular brand of empathetic madness that anticipates his turns as various Poe protagonists a decade later. As he assumes different roles, he also exhibits an admirable range; as Gallico, heís both mild-mannered and full of rage depending on the situation (the switch is flipped rather quickly), but he does a terrific job of mimicking the other actors heís impersonating (the makeup effects that aid in the transformation are equally impressive, if not a bit eerieóespecially the skin-mask that transforms him into Randolph).
As a production, one canít help but feel like itís a quick and dirty cash-in on House of Wax since Columbia didnít even spring for color photography (yet still opted for a 3D gimmick that features gags that are still obvious without the effect). It arguably could have used a splash of Technicolor, if only to add to the ambiance and atmosphere here. Comparatively speaking, The Mad Magician is a little dry and looks more like an undercooked noir. In fact, itís weirdly anachronistic all the way around: it feels more like a 40s murder film (like the ones director John Brahm actually helmed during that decade), yet it also foreshadows the twisted, macabre violence that would slash its way to the screen in later decades. Itís a film that features buzzsaws and incinerators, yet never feels too terribly disturbing thanks to the jovial, almost meta-fictional presence of a pulp author that constantly serves as a reminder that this is art essentially imitating art. Despite featuring a handful of gruesome murders (that occur off-screen, of course) and the tragic downfall of a pitiful soul, it ends with a mugging joke to shuffle re-assured audiences out with a laugh.
Iíd say that The Mad Magician deserves another go, but itís not like this material wasnít mind and exploited for all its gory possibilities once Herschel Gordon Lewis got a hold of it. Even if it doesnít live up to its complete potential here, itís still more than an also-ran that spurt out in the wake of House of Wax. Granted, the presence of so many familiar faces (in addition to Price, Mad Magician also features Wax producer Brian Foy and screenwriter Crane Wilbur) and the derivative plot, but its tone is a little bit more playful and offbeat. You wonít find too many films from this era that feature a fevered race to track down a bag containing a severed head. As a Price vehicle, it provides a fascinating reminder that he nailed down this persona with ease and didnít exactly resume it until the 60s; indeed, there were seemingly very few baby steps in the journey from Jarrod to Usher and his ilk.
Long absent in the digital realm, The Mad Magician only came to DVD last year thanks to Sonyís Choice Collection; again, this is the studioís in-house disc on demand label that serves up no-frills releases (the ones Iíve encountered donít even feature a menu). Still, the quality is more than adequate, as the transfer has obviously been re-mastered, though it doesnít feature a 3D version. Now, if we could only get someone working to bring Phantom of the Rue Morgue home, modern audiences could discover that House of Wax cast a long shadow that has unfortunately obscured its contemporaries. Buy it!
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