Film: Very Good
Label: Twilight Time
Released: January 11, 2017
Genre: Horror / 3D
Synopsis: Robbed of his chance to shine as a solo artist, a magician goes MAD! and kills anyone who thwarted his greatness.
Special Features: 2D and 3D versions of “The Mad Magician” / Audio Commentary with film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros / Isolated Mono Music Track / Featurette: “Master of Fright: Conjuring The Mad Magician” (19:49) / Theatrical Trailer / Bonus 1953 Three Stooges Shorts (in 2D and 3D): “Pardon My Backfire” (15:55) + “Spooks!” (15:43) / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
The Mad Magician was one of the most successful 3D films during the format’s first theatrical wave, but it also felt like House of Wax’s lesser but not quite idiot cousin, and expectations for the former film to match the latter’s success in energy, quality, and ghoulishness tend to be high among fans of the format and star Vincent Price, whose role seems initially muted by the lesser array of effects and lack of colour.
It’s a film that Columbia rushed into production to beat / ride on the success of Warner Bros.’ House, porting over the latter’s star, writer Crane Wilbur, cinematographer Bert Glennon, and producer Bryan Foy, with way too many echoes of House’s elements, yet Magician proved a hit, solidifying Price’s stature as a new horror icon, and over time elevating the film’s stature as a must-see 3D hit.
When 3D returned for its second wave in the 1980s, independent TV stations were offered packaged 3D events that consisted of a 3D classic that home viewers could enjoy using red-blue anaglyph Polaroid glasses available from participating corner stores.
Among the packaged films were Gorilla at Large (1954), Hondo (1953), and The Mad Magician (1954), which was preceded with a set of Three Stooges shorts originally shot in 3D. Warner’s held back on TV airings and saved their House gem for a theatrical run, riding on the popularity of Friday the 13th 3D and many other mediocre, modestly budgeted horror and sci-fi films, but after the 1980s wave withered almost as fast as the 1950s wave, Magician vanished from circulation; prints of Warner’s House and Dial M for Murder (1954) could still be found, as well as Universal’s own monster shockers like It Came from Outer Space (1953), but Price’s second 3D outing as an artistic, murderous loon only emerged on DVD as a flat on demand title from Sony – first as a standalone MOD, then compressed on a 4-film, single disc Classic Horror 4 Movie Collection from Mill Creek.
Twilight Time’s disc features not only the 2 shorts + feature presentation on Blu, but all films restored to perhaps their sharpest condition since their original theatrical run. The print sources are impeccable, and the 3D shocks in Magician, while tamer compared to House, are nevertheless sharp and imbued with lovely depth. It’s a superb restoration that showcases a maligned mid-scale knock-off in a much brighter light, but it’s not without its problems.
Unlike House, the strange thing with Magician is that it’s a film that requires multiple viewings to temper the disappointment with the production’s failings in script, logic, and lack of colour. The B&W tone does match the turn of the century setting, but so did the robust & elegant House; Price doesn’t have an assistant or two to help in some master plan to rebuild a shrine to wax magic using freshly killed people; and although director John Brahm directed the moody Hangover Square (1945), he restrained his visual panache, perhaps because attention had to be directed to the needs of 3D, in terms of bright lighting and special placement within frames to ensure the effects had depth and the visual spectrum wasn’t cluttered with too many distracting objects and moving figures.
A cursory viewing might characterized the production as overlit, rather flat, and shot like a TV production; and a lesser music score presented in flat mono, lacking the oomph and Grand Guignol richness of David Buttolph’s stereo House score; it’s not an unfair critique, but a revisitation reveals a bit more to Columbia’s cash-in.
Instead of playing a wax sculptor driven mad by a greedy business partner, Price has way more room to plant mounting beats of lightly cured ham (often signaled by a skittering piano motif by composers Arthur Lange and Emil Newman) as ‘Gallico the Great’ loses his one chance of independence, and loses his cool when boss / vassal Ross Ormond (slimy Donald Randolph) claims ownership of all of Gallico’s creations past, present, and future, and whines about wife Claire (Eva Gabor), the woman he wooed with money and machismo from Gallico.
Wilbur’s script still harkens back to his House template – an artist driven mad by a greedy shit; murderous deeds; a carny barker volleying an object into the laps of 3D audiences; and an end shot involving waxen severed heads – but the new additions have Gallico losing the head of Ormond, a weird tangent in which he masquerades as his dead partner and rents an apartment from a couple, of which the Missus happens to be a popular mystery novelist; and dialogue not lifted from House nor its direct antecedent, the original Mystery in the Wax Museum (1933); many lines and whole scenes were lifted by Wilbur from Mystery to House.
A second viewing reveals the tight, economical yet precise compositions that contain lovely spatial dimensions between figures and objects. And without colour and sexy death showpieces, Price delivers one of his strongest roles: Gallico’s ability to craft latex masks which he uses to impersonate two victims gives him he chance to play four characters – two victims, Gallico the earnest wannabe magician, and Gallico the nut, whom we actually share sympathy; this is pre-full ham sandwich Price, so the moment Gallico snaps, torments, and ultimately beheads Ormond is played straight, bringing us on Gallico’s side as the blade bisects a gloating wife-stealer from his wiry frame.
Also in the cast is Patrick O’Neal as a young cop spouting the newfound technique of “fingerprinting,” Gabor playing a delicate snob for whom we do feel a few ounces of pity when the end comes, Wilbur’s wife Lenita Lane as mystery writer Alice Prentiss, and Mary Murphy (Beachhead).
TT’s extras include an isolated mono score track of the previously unreleased score, and a packed commentary track in which historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros cover the film’s production, its place in 3D history, its talent, and its pros and cons and moments of sheer nonsense.
(The duo also cite a specifically abrupt transition in which the chase for Ormond’s severed head in a satchel builds but comes to a screeching halt after a sudden dissolve, suggesting a cut scene or a scene unfilmed because of time & budget. A still in TT’s booklet with Price, and assistant, and a canary is either straight publicity or another magic vignette from Gallico’s hobbled debut that landed on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, the booklet’s reprinting of the original poster features plenty of bullshit: Eva Gabor is NOT put under the spinning saw, and the cheesecake dame in 1950s attire in pure invention.)
The two Stooges shorts offer scenarios designed to poke objects and fun at already ridiculous stories and effects. Spooks! has the pie-tossing trio ultimately rescuing a damsel from a planned human-gorilla brain transplant by mad scientist and his goon; and in Pardon My Backfire the boys fight crooks in a garage for reward money, tossing and aiming all kinds of objects at the camera. The latter short features some amazing practical effects (asses of fire! sparking asses!), and no doubt the Stooges were having fun and ridiculing the gimmicky side of 3D by tossing objects and fluids at audiences – giving them all the money shots in less than 20 mins.
A featurette by Ballyhoo Productions covers the film’s production in more compact vignettes, and similarly spotlights the film’s director, star, producer, and screenwriter. TT’s resident film historian Julie Kirgo penned lighthearted notes on the film’s position among Columbia’s early 3D efforts, which include Man in the Dark and Miss Sadie Thompson, and a rare moment in which ‘still handsome’ Price has a sleeveless moment as Gallico blacksmiths away, which Del Valle brands as a rare ‘beefcake’ moment in Price’s otherwise fully clothed, make-up enhanced horror career.
This is a lovely presentation of a decent 3D horror classic that now delivers striking 3D composition, moments of grisly madness, and a solid Price performance often overshadowed by House.
Actor Patrick O’Neal would continue a lasting relationship with TV, but his film work includes From the Terrace (1960) as a wife-stealing shit, The Cardinal (1963), and the lead loon in Chamber of Horrors (1966), a failed TV pilot modeled after House by Warner Bros. and released theatrical with gimmicky “fear flashes” and “horror horns” that inform audiences with pebble-sized I.Q.’s of imminent grisly death.
Director John Brahm made few films in the following years, choosing the safety and steady work of TV, and becoming a massively prolific director between 1955-1967. Crane Wilbur’s later work includes the underrated crime thriller The Phenix City Story (1955), Solomon and Sheba (1959), and Mysterious Island (1961), and as writer-director, re-teaming with Price in the goofy The Bat (1959).
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review