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Monday, October 10, 2011

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: The Mad Magician (1954) review


Vincent Price (Don Gallico), Mary Murphy (Karen Lee), Eva Gabor (Claire Ormond), John Emery (The Great Rinaldi), Donald Randolph (Ross Ormond), Patrick O'Neal (Lt. Alan Bruce)

Directed by John Brahm

"...It was your head, Karen...the dummy head I made for the buzzsaw trick. Do you remember how its eyes rolled and the mouth opened and it screamed when the teeth of the saw ripped into its flesh? That was the most life-like thing I ever made. Do you think I'm going to let Rinaldi take that away from me, too? Oh, no, my dear, they'll never find that lovely head of yours."--Gallico morbidly discussing one of his elaborate "head pieces".

The Short Version: Rare Vincent Price vehicle was a quick cash in hot off the success of HOUSE OF WAX (1953) and even though it was put together in fast fashion, the set pieces are accomplished and offer several choice moments of ghastly mayhem during its scant 70 minutes. Considered a lesser Price, the man still delivers an energetically evil performance as he always did. Elements of this film (and of course his previous 3D effort) were incorporated into the PHIBES series and THEATER OF BLOOD (1973). Any Price is good Price and this obscure and rarely discussed production is essential for the cinematic Godfather of the ghoulish and the Grand Guinol.

Gallico the Great is an illusionist and master of disguise who also invents the dangerous devices used in the performances of other magicians. On his way to hitting the big time with his new and lavish invention, his unscrupulous and duplicitous boss--whom also stole his wife from him--pulls the rug out from under Gallico giving his idea and invention to a rival magician, The Great Rinaldi. Gallico is sent over the edge and plots gruesome revenge on those who've wronged him using his elaborate death devices as his murderous methods. Meanwhile, a resolute police Lieutenant and other interested parties get closer to discovering Gallico as the Mad Magician.

Absolutely ghoulish and sadistically entertaining horror revenge thriller starring one of the genres greatest and most celebrated actors, Vincent Price. Having solidified himself as an icon of horror with the previous years 3D spectacular, HOUSE OF WAX (1953), THE MAD MAGICIAN is essentially the same movie also in 3D (the first to be televised in the format), but in B/W. Price is put through pure hell here and this scenario would be repeated multiple times throughout his career most famously in the gory black comedy THEATER OF BLOOD (1973).

There's a great scene where Karen--Gallico's assistant at Illusions Inc.--accidentally leaves her bag and picks up Gallico's identical bag by mistake. The kicker is that the now murderous magician's bag contains a man's severed head! Upon finding her, he learns she left it aboard a horse drawn cab. Gallico tracks down the coach, but learns to his horror that the driver gave it to a policeman! Strangely enough, the cop never opens the bag. Even still, this is one of the best sequences in the movie containing a macabre level of humor about it.

Speaking of the authorities, there's also a determined Lieutenant who will stop at nothing to find the murderer which causes our title madman no end of grief. With each succeeding murder, Lt. Bruce gets closer to the truth as Gallico's means of covering up his deeds soon becomes known. The usage of fingerprinting is utilized here and according to some dialog, this practice was in its infancy and was viewed as hardly reliable. If there's one minor weakness of the script, it's in Gallico's modus operandi. It has the potential to give him away a lot sooner than it actually does in the movie. It's known from the beginning that his career up to that point has been impersonating others and designing exquisitely crafted masks. So when various individuals disappear or become prime suspects in a murder case, it isn't long before the trail leads straight to Gallico.

Eva Gabor played a likable lady with money on GREEN ACRES. In MAD MAGICIAN she plays a similar wealthy woman but is anything but likable here playing a blood sucking leech, sponging off the men in her life.

Most all of Gallico's victims are scuzzy, less than honorable people and it's these kinds of individuals that set Gallico off. Like HOUSE OF WAX before it and his other vengeance seeking tragic heroes that came after, Price's character is essentially a Frankenstein's Monster in that his enemies made him what he is. Eventually, though, Gallico turns his hatred towards innocent people whose only crime was learning of his homicidal tendencies. The climax is a suitable example of poetic justice, but isn't as good as the finale of the widely recognized HOUSE OF WAX (1953). The budgets and shooting schedules were on opposite ends of the spectrum but you would scarcely notice anything lacking here aside from the relative cheaper price of shooting on B/W film stock.

Vincent Price is his usual boisterous self essaying a tragic figure in one of his earliest horror movies. He was often referred to as a champion of hammy performances, the king of these no doubt being his intentionally OTT role in THEATER OF BLOOD in 1973. With him having previously been a stage actor, orating beyond the audience perfectly suited the often stagy nature of his horror pictures. It was a natural fit and Price made it sing his entire career. As in many of his other movies, Price's masterful delivery of dialog is in evidence here, too. It's almost as if he's occasionally reading us a passage from a book with the rich descriptiveness of the words that roll off his tongue. While it's a lesser affair on his resume considering it came so swiftly on the heels of the much more well known and prestigious HOUSE OF WAX (1953), THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954) seems to get a bad rap. It actually makes a nice 'B' side to its more famous progenitor.

Notice Price's legs in view within the mirrors hidden between the table

The film also carries a grand showbiz style atmosphere with its handful of magic trickery and the behind the scenes goings on in preparation for the shows as well as revealing a secret or two. Camera placement unintentionally reveals one piece of business where Gallico, impersonating his rival Rinaldi, raises his female assistant from a flower pot. You can see Gallico's legs reflected in the mirrors placed between the legs of the table holding the flower pot. This Columbia production also closely mimics its source material from rival Warner Brothers by copying not only the WAX remakes plot, but also some of its scenes. One of the 3D shots from the Warner picture had an entertainer flicking a paddle ball at the audience. For MAGICIAN, it's a guy and his two yo yo's flying at the screen. Old TV show lovers look out for Eva Gabor (Lisa Douglas from GREEN ACRES) as Gallico's gold-digging ex-wife.

Director Brahm also directed the 1944 Jack the Ripper horror thriller THE LODGER. He later dabbled in a dozen TWILIGHT ZONE episodes as well as several other sci fi and horror themed shows like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THRILLER, THE OUTER LIMITS and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. His direction here for THE MAD MAGICIAN is efficient keeping this very early Vincent Price horror thriller moving at a fair clip. The score is lively and is one of the pictures best assets. Barring its modestly brutal climax (we even get to see Price do a Karate chop!), THE MAD MAGICIAN is recommended solely on the fact that Vincent Price is its star as well as taking into consideration that this movie has pulled a disappearing act for far too long.


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Just last night I slotted the BD of WITCHFINDER GENERAL into my player and enjoyed Vincent Price's sadism in all its medieval glory. I haven't seen this particular title, but Price is eminently watchable. I don't however hold him in the esteem that others do. Only a select handful of his films do I hold in high regard;


The rest I can take or leave.

Maynard Morrissey said...

Hey, I remember seeing this a very long time ago.
Pretty cool flick which btw is/was available on DVD in Germany under the title "Magier des Schreckens" (= Magician Of Horror)

venoms5 said...

@ Shaun: I'm still pissed that my computer crashed right after I'd finished my WITCHFINDER review. Great film that one, Shaun. I hold your list in high regard, as well only mine would have a few more on there!

@ Maynard: There's this Italian DVD site I've used to pick up a lot of movies that haven't come out here yet. More than likely this one will come out here on that Movie On Demand service. I think Columbia has one now. They all seem to be doing it. There's another Price flick I have on DVD-R that just surfaced in the On Demand format--DIARY OF A MADMAN.

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