A mad scientist is forced to leave San Francisco when his experiments become known. He lands on a tropical island, takes control and terrorizes the local populace. The survivor of a ...
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A mad scientist is forced to leave San Francisco when his experiments become known. He lands on a tropical island, takes control and terrorizes the local populace. The survivor of a shipwreck washes ashore on the island, sees what is happening and determines to free the natives from his rule. Written by
The Mad Doctor Of Market Street (Joseph H. Lewis, 1942) **
As some of you may know, for the longest time I was only familiar with the more popular of the classic Universal horror/sci-fi films; recently, however, I managed to get my hands on a number of their lesser and/or non-monster outings – needless to say, few if any of these proved as rewarding in the long run…though they were never less than entertaining, something which the vintage Hollywood product could always be relied upon to deliver.
This, then, marks Lionel Atwill’s last starring role as a result of his fall from grace in a trial which exposed scandalous behavior in private – and which would subsequently relegate him to Poverty Row or virtually nothing parts in Universal chillers! In any case, he gives the titular role his all – in fact, I don’t think I’d seen Atwill being so arrogant (spouting lines such as “I’ll be the most important man to have ever walked the earth” with complete immodesty, as if it was second nature to him!) and wild-eyed since the delightfully Pre-Code MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933). Incidentally, I may be attributing undue importance to the fact but I wonder whether the script intended to give his character’s ‘control’ over death a religious undertone – at one point, Atwill mentions that he’ll be able to bring back to life someone who’d been dead for three days (a reference to Jesus Christ?), while the unwilling ‘guinea pig’ hero is buried in the rocks and the entrance to the tomb covered by a huge stone (as we’re told in the Bible that Lazarus was)…!
Not knowing all that much about the film beforehand, I was surprised to see this turn out to be more of a jungle adventure (especially given the title) – following the opening moments set in the city and a brief stint on board ship which, pretty soon, ends up submerged and the only six survivors eventually land on a tropical isle. Atwill is a “pseudo-doctor” whose notorious experiments with suspended animation (recalling the Boris Karloff vehicle THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES ) has landed him in professional disrepute, not to mention in hot water with the Law – I’m sure the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on the beleaguered actor!; anyway, he flees on a cruise-liner traveling all the way to New Zealand and, as I said, ends up ashore in uncharted territory with a bunch of other passengers. This doesn’t stop him from continuing his experiments (for one thing, finding the locals convenient and gullible subjects) – actually, he’d been traveling incognito but, when the native leader’s woman goes into a coma from a heart attack, he can’t resist impressing them with his life-giving ‘magic’…after which they name him “God Of Life” and, naturally, he appoints himself there and then supreme ruler of the island (these obvious Fascist attributes more than anything expose it as a product of the war years)!
The film falls into a category best described as comedy-horror or, if you like, horror comic; neither element is really all that successful – though the former (provided by Una Merkel, top-billed despite her character being clearly of secondary interest[!], and Nat Pendleton) isn’t overly intrusive, the latter is too familiar to generate much suspense…while the jungle setting eschews the fog-laden atmosphere usually representing the ‘in-house’ Universal style! The remaining members from the civilized world are a selfish ship’s officer who leaves the others behind when attempting to flee the isle in a canoe – only to be killed by a native, and the obligatory romantic couple (Merkel’s niece and another former crew member of the sunken liner) – typically, the two had gotten off on the wrong foot but are slowly drawn together…especially after Atwill is persuaded into taking a wife by the native woman he ‘resuscitated’ and, naturally, singles out the heroine for this role. By the way, the film’s biggest laugh is an unintentional one: during Atwill and Claire Dodd’s marriage, following the native custom, some doubt is deliberately thrown by his companions on the unethical activity he leads, which causes the celebrations to cease abruptly – at which, perplexed, Atwill asks the native leader to order his men to “dance…or something” (as delivered by the actor in his inimitable high-strung fashion, it not only shows all too clearly the character’s disdain of their lot but definitely edges the film into camp territory; I know I couldn’t stop giggling for a good five minutes afterwards!).
His status on the island takes further beating when the native who killed the escaping officer also turns up dead; the hero – belatedly introducing himself as being well versed in medicine himself (a plot point so contrived as to smack of lazy scripting!) – knows that Atwill’s miracles were performed on people who only had the semblance of death, so that he’ll never be able to reap results in this particular case (though, up until this time, it was never intimated that he could be a charlatan but rather came across as typically misguided but genuinely obsessed!) and the natives will turn on him as a result…which they do in a fiery climax that barely registers (incidentally, some rather important exposition in the fast-paced 61-minute film is entirely by-passed or taken for granted). Tying with my comments about the same director’s CRIMINALS WITHIN (1943), which I’ve also just watched, Lewis’ hand is apparent here via his choice of odd angles on a number of occasions (though the shot of an intense Atwill approaching the camera, holding a chloroformed cloth to subdue an intended victim, is unfortunately diluted through sheer repetition!). By the way, the music for the film – credited solely to “Musical Director” Hans J. Salter – includes recognizable cues from Frank Skinner’s classic SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) score (Universal shamelessly, and habitually, re-cycled these…as hardened genre fans are surely aware!).
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