Eddie Saeta’s DOCTOR DEATH (onscreen title: DOCTOR DEATH SEEKER OF SOULS) fits right in with that unmatchable period of low budget early 1970s drive-in horror films. It has a similar atmosphere to the COUNT YORGA and BLACULA pictures (a mysterious, centuries-old fiend on the loose in modern day Los Angeles) while containing the black humor and inventive killings akin to the DR. PHIBES films. It’s ironic then that American International Pictures (AIP) turned down this independent production for theatrical distribution, so instead it was picked up by Cinerama (they failed to have another success on their hands in the vein of WILLARD or TALES FROM THE CRYPT). If you’ve never seen this one (and especially if you love your horror with that admittedly dated early 1970s style), you owe it to yourself to catch up with the mad Doctor, and Scorpion certainly does him justice with this Blu-ray overhaul.
Fred Saunders (Barry Coe, LOVE ME TENDER) has just lost his lovely young wife Laura (Jo Morrow, 13 GHOSTS), though she promises on her deathbed that she shall return to him. Fred attempts to instigate her return with professional help, but it’s fruitless in the hands of a spiritualist charlatan and a crazy old man who just dug up his wife’s bones (obvious satire aimed at modern Californian cultism). A newspaper classified ad promising reincarnation leads Fred to an encounter with Tana (Florence Marly, QUEEN OF BLOOD) who convinces him to meet up with Dr. Death, who supposedly holds the power to transfer souls. Doctor Death (John Considine, THE THIRSTY DEAD), who also happens to dabble in magic, performs a stage act where he removes the soul from an unfortunate deformed woman (he saws her body in half for the sake of theatrics) and transfers it to the corpse of a statuesque blonde, who then returns to life with her new essence. Seeing this grisly display as murder, Fred still asks Doctor Death to revive his wife by transferring a soul into her resting body for $50,000 - the problem being that dear dead Laura doesn’t want to accept the foreign entity. Fred gives up on any further attempts, but Doctor Death doesn’t, combing the streets for pretty young victims including Fred’s pretty secretary Sandy (Cheryl Miller, THE MONKEY’S UNCLE) in a last ditch effort which is to involve blood draining.
Although Saeta had never directed a horror film before, he shows some flair for the genre, never taking the campy material too seriously yet allowing things to be played straight pretty much throughout. There are some haunting sequences within, including Fred following his dead wife’s ghost into her open tomb, and the film should satisfy most gorehounds, especially when Doctor Death is stabbed by a young punk, who in turn gets sprayed with a black ink-like liquid which dissolves his face into a bloody pulp. The film has some noteworthy make-up and optical effects, and the script by TV actor Sal Ponti is surprisingly multi layered and allows the characters, especially Doctor Death, too have more characterization than what is usually called for in a low budget exploitation programmer. Doctor Death is keenly portrayed by Considine, sinister and suave and not quite totally over the top, but delivering his heavy-handed dialog with relish. The character’s existence and otherworldly abilities are explained in a sepia flashback that shows him as an elderly sorcerer who assumes the body of his young apprentice, subsequently transferring his soul in a number of different personas of various races and sexes over a period of 1,000 years. According to the original pressbook, DR. DEATH was meant to be the first in a series of films, with the director quoted as saying, “This character is such an interesting development that we are trying to find new ways of going with him. We feel we can create a residual interest among horror fans who will adopt Dr. Death as a new man in the field.” Although paired with the Amicus gothic chiller AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS on its American theatrical run, the film failed to connect with horror fans and no sequels were demanded (though the ending was certainly set up for a follow-up).
At the very least, the film’s casting should have upped its cult reputation somewhat throughout the years (you have to give credit to any picture that casts Florence Marly as a malicious crossed lover). The players include familiar golden age TV character actor Jim Boles (THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN) as the graveyard caretaker, THE BAT PEOPLE star Stewart Moss as Fred’s concerned doctor, Leon Askin (“Hogan’s Heroes”) as the Doctor’s brutish Igor-like mute assistant, and TV horror host Larry "Seymour" Vincent as a cinematic strangler in a clever film-within-a-film bit. Most notable of all is an appearance by the legendary Moe Howard, which turns out to be his final film role. The leader of the Three Stooges was a long-time pal of Saeta (who worked at Columbia Studios and was an assistant director on some of the Stooges' shorts and feature films), and here he appears as an audience volunteer during Doctor Death’s on-stage transfer of souls. Moe has a great line as he's asked to check for the heartbeat of lovely Sivi Aberg, putting his ear to her ample bosom. Richard LaSalle’s music score is grandiose enough, though it definitely shows his expertise in episodic television (LaSalle did score a number of other horror films including DIARY OF A MADMAN, TWICE-TOLD TALES and SUPERBEAST).
DOCTOR DEATH was rarely seen since its 1980s issue on VHS by Prism Entertainment, that is until Scorpion Releasing issued a DVD of the film in 2009. The company is now bringing it to Blu-ray with a new transfer, a 2k scan from the original camera negatives. Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio in 1080p HD, picture detail is excellent (a very noticeable upgrade over the previous DVD), fleshtones look very natural and colors are strikingly vibrant. The results here are more than impressive, with deep black levels, solid grain structure and no significant blemishes on the print source. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is very clear and robust with no noticeable defects. No subtitle options are offered on the disc.
All the extras from Scorpion’s 2009 DVD have been picked up here, all but the audio commentary with star Considine (where he relayed such anecdotes as when Motown honcho Berry Gordy, one of the film’s backers, came on the set to direct a scene!). But we do get Considine in a video interview (9:50) discussing his auditioning for DOCTOR DEATH in a black cape, the dialog-heavy script and his impressions of director Saeta, appearing at a Monster Times-sponsored “Monster Ball” in the guise of Doctor Death, and more (including comments on other films such as THE THIRSTY DEAD). Steve Saeta reflects on his late father in another featurette (10:03), mentioning that his dad did research into the horror genre while preparing for the film. Among the many aspects of the elder Saeta’s career that are touched upon, Steve mentions the friendship his father had with Moe Howard (and that he met Moe and Larry Fine as a child) as well as his disappointment when AIP turned down the distribution of the film. Considine and Scott Spiegel are on hand for a brief gag introduction, and the extras are rounded out by the film’s 30-second TV spot.
Scorpion Releasing's Blu-ray of DOCTOR DEATH is limited to 1000 copies and is available for pre-order at Screen Archives Entertainment. (George R. Reis)
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