Mainly due to the success of Vincent Price’s star turn in the color, three-dimensional spectacular that made him a bonafide horror star—HOUSE OF WAX—Columbia Pictures commissioned this quickly made imitation, also in 3D and also from the same producer (Brian Foy), screenwriter (Crane Wilbur) and cinematographer (Bert Glennon). THE MAD MAGICIAN is an often overlooked and a decidedly minor effort, but it’s still well worth revisiting mainly due to its lovable iconic leading man, as well as the fact that Twilight Time has now made it available on Blu-ray (in both 3D and 2D).
In the late 19th Century, Gallico the Great (Vincent Price, MASTER OF THE WORLD) is an innovative creator of elaborate devices used by other illusionists in their successful magic acts. Gallico very much wants to be a stage magician himself, about to debut his own handiwork in front of an audience. As the show is underway, the man he works for, Ormond (Donald Randolph, THE DEADLY MANTIS) legally shuts down his opening night performance before the frustrated artist can showcase the highly anticipated, climatic buzz saw trick with his lovely assistant Karen (Mary Murphy, THE ELECTRONIC MONSTER). Ormond later visits Gallico at his studio flat and painfully reminds him of his exclusiveness under him to create stage tricks (to be performed by more established magicians) and that he stole his wife from under him; this sparks the madness within, and Gallico castrates his tormentor with his buzz saw.
After nearly letting Ormond’s bag-enclosed head fall into the hands of police, Gallico—also a master of disguise and voice mimic—is able to convincingly make himself up as the man he just killed. He conveniently tops a celebratory town bonfire with Ormond's body and then rents a room (disguised as his victim) at the boarding house of a crime novelist (Crane Wilbur’s wife Lenita Lane, THE BAT) and her docile husband (Jay Novello, THE LOST WORLD). The rented room is the perfect murder scene to off Ormond's inquisitive wife and his former lover (Eva Gabor, “Green Acres”), who comes looking for her missing husband. Now that Gallico has made it look as if Ormond has killed his wife and is somewhere on the run, he concentrates on impersonating the well-known magician Rinaldi (John Emery, ROCKETSHIP X-M), a rival who is also murdered by him. But Karen’s beau, a young lieutenant (Patrick O’Neal, SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT) utilizing new fingerprinting techniques to pinpoint suspects, is hot on Gallico’s trail and will likely arrest him; that is if he doesn’t end up in his deadly crematorium contraption.
The comparisons between HOUSE OF WAX and THE MAD MAGICIAN are all too apparent (the film even had the same make-up man), and there are several scenes and plot devices which are remarkably similar, yet MAGICIAN falls short as a kind of cheaper retread/imitation. Shot in black and white (though originally intended to be in color), the modest production does at least make nice use of Columbia Studios' handsome sets to recreate the period setting, and although Brahm’s (THE LODGER, HANGOVER SQUARE) direction is fairly run of the mill, there’s a nice shadowy atmosphere that permeates the film’s mildly suspenseful scenarios. The horror angle is minimal, with most of the murders barely being witnessed on screen or rushed to get to the next bit of business, and there’s a bit of comic relief (which is what you’d expect with supporting actor Novello—known for his guest appearances on “I Love Lucy”—playing his usual timid character). The supporting characters are at least given some depth, including O’Neal’s astute policeman (the soon-to-be-graying actor would have his own campy horror starring vehicle more than a decade later with CHAMBER OF HORRORS), Lane’s domineering wife turned amateur sleuth, and (even though she’s given nothing to do) Gabor’s turn as Gallico’s superficial ex wife screams “spoiled bitch”, and the actress is able to adequately convey that even with her limited screen time.
Performance wise, it’s Vincent Price who gives the film any kind of real appeal. Although he had essayed a number of sinister roles since the 1930s, Price was yet to become the king of horror. With HOUSE OF WAX being a major stepping stone in this direction, THE MAD MAGICIAN furthers the trend of the actor portraying humble, devoted men turned to homicide and insanity after being betrayed in some way either by a lover, colleague or friend (similar themes would later carry over in one of Price’s best Edgar Allan Poe entries, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM). With the film running a rather swift 72 minutes, Price has to turn from mild mannered inventor to homicidal nutcase almost instantly, so his usual ham is sliced thick when enacting Gallico’s frequently visited acts of rage. Unfortunately, when Gallico is impersonating Ormond or Rinaldi, Price’s voice is dubbed by someone else, and it would have come off a lot better if he’d camouflaged their voices himself (especially judging from Price’s excellent work in THEATRE OF BLOOD and the different inflections and accents he exhibited there). As far as appearance, Price is most memorable here when Gallico is impersonating the tuxedoed Rinaldi, as he gets to sport a devilish goatee and little curls on the top of his raven hair which resemble Satan horns.
Since THE MAD MAGICIAN was originally shown in 3D, various objects are propelled towards the viewer, including swinging yo-yos, a sword spearing some playing cards, and a program held by a barker in front of a theater whose false arm extends out extremely long (he’s played by character great Lyle Talbot, who was Luthor in the serial ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN and appeared in several Ed Wood films). Actually, the film absolutely works best in 3D, and if it ever comes to a nearby repertory theater screened in 35mm format, do go see it (Sony Repertory still has a fairly new 35mm dual-strip 3D print in circulation). The film was actually shown in 3D on television back in the 1980s, but more modern airings (such as on TNT and more recently, TCM) were broadcast flat. When Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released THE MAD MAGICIAN on home video for the first time as part of its manufactured-on-demand DVD program (“Choice Collection”) in 2012, it was just a 2D presentation, as was the more recent Mill Creek “pressed” DVD release (on a multi-movie package).
Now Twilight Time has licensed THE MAD MAGICIAN from Sony for this splendid Blu-ray, presented here in 2D (flat) and 3D for those who have both 3D televisions. We are not able to screen the 3D version since we only have a standard setup at present, but here’s the rundown on the 2D version: it’s presented in 1080p HD in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and looks quite scrumptious throughout. The contrasts on the black and white picture are strong, it’s very sharp and grain is evenly organic. Even though most are used to seeing this open matte on television, the widescreen framing appears accurate in every shot and compliments the compositions a great deal. There’s also very little in the way of dirt and debris on the print source. The audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track and sounds excellent, with clear dialogue and sound effects, and the music also having nice distinctness to it. Optional English DTS subtitles are included, and the score by Emil Newman and Arthur Lange has its own isolated track.
An audio commentary is included with film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros who discuss how quickly this film went into production (after the success of HOUSE OF WAX), that Price loved the script (especially that he made himself up as other characters) and that the actor was disappointed at it not being shot in color as originally intended. The commentary nicely documents the film’s place in genre cinema, and the conversation is engaging and pretty much stays constructive and on point throughout. Del Valle of course knew Price, and also met O’Neal (who accidentally broke Price’s nose during the shoot) and director Brahm, and he tells a fascinating story of his encounter with the latter. “Master of Fright!: Conjuring The Mad Magician” (19:49) is a featurette produced by Daniel Griffith and Ballyhoo Pictures which included interviews with C. Courtney Joyner, Ted Newsom and Michael Schlesinger, and make-up artist John Goodwin. The piece touches on producer Brian Foy and his B-movie partnership with Crane Wilbur, leading up to their collaboration on HOUSE OF WAX and then THE MAG MAGICIAN. This is a great mini documentary that covers pretty much everything about the film in the 20 minutes allotted, and the four interview subjects were well chosen.
A real exciting bonus here—as many classic monster movie fans also love The Three Stooges—is the inclusion of two 1950s era Stooges short subjects featuring Moe, Larry and Shemp: PARDON MY BACKFIRE (1953) and SPOOKS (1953). When Columbia Pictures was jumping on the 3D fad of that time, they brought the Stooges into the action, and these were the only two shorts they shot in the process. Both shorts absolutely exploit the gimmicky 3D tactics to the max, with a lot of weapons, pies and other items being hurled at the camera (usually the perspective of somebody’s unfortunate head) with the wires more visible than ever in HD! BACKFIRE mostly takes place in an auto garage, which calls for the expected amount of chaos, but SPOOKS has the edge since it’s of a “scary” nature (there’s a creepy old house, a kidnapped cutie, a guy in a gorilla suit and the great Philip Van Zandt as mad scientist). Both PARDON MY BACKFIRE and SPOOKS were available in 3D (the old fashioned kind with the red and green glasses) and 2D on original DVD pressings of “The Three Stooges Collection, Vol. 7: 1952-1954”, but needless to say, they look fantastic here, even when viewed in 2D only. Presented here in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio is the original theatrical trailer (“The screen’s greatest SCREAM SESSION since ‘Frankenstein’”) and included in the packaging is a booklet featuring liner notes by Julie Kirgo. (George R. Reis)
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