31 DAYS OF HORROR – “The Mysterious Doctor”
Published on October 6th, 2013 | by Paul Anthony Johnson1
The waning sunlight of October is upon us; All Hallows’ Eve is nigh. And so, with the chilly, sober onset of autumn, Cinespect is reflecting on all the nastiest, campiest, shit-your-pants scariest horror flicks from the near and distant past that we think are worthy of a rewatch.
So as you await the premieres of the teen slasher flick “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” (10/11), the theme-park creepfest “Escape from Tomorrow” (10/11), and the talent-packed “Carrie” remake (10/18), scare yourself stupid with Cinespect’s countdown to Halloween: 31 DAYS OF HORROR.
Yesterday, Cole Hutchison revisited Michele Soavi’s 1985 supernatural thriller “The Church”; today, Paul Anthony Johnson makes a house call on 1943′s “The Mysterious Doctor.”
“The Mysterious Doctor” (1943) is a delightful nothing of a movie, a fog-shrouded Warner Brothers programmer that does a nifty job of being both a cheapjack horror flick con job and an example of WWII propaganda at its most cheerfully absurd.
With its Cornish setting and affection for broad English stereotypes, the movie fits awkwardly into the mini-tradition of know-your-ally productions such as 1942 Best Picture winner “Mrs. Miniver” and the Irene Dunne vehicle “White Cliffs of Dover” (1944)—though we’re a long way away from Nazis hiding out in Greer Garson’s kitchen.
The quaintly abstract backdrop gives notice that Warner Brothers had been paying attention to Universal Studios’ contemporaneous monster movies. But whereas the likes of “Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942) and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” (1944) were set in a mythical Europe stuck in a dream time that split the difference between 1838 and 1938—in which the world wars manifested themselves in the innocuous allegorical forms of vampires, werewolves, and reanimated corpses—“The Mysterious Doctor” conscientiously locates its story in the middle of WWII.
But despite its stabs at topicality, the iconography and mood remain ersatz Gothic, resulting in an air of casual anachronism that proves the most suggestively supernatural aspect of its scenario. Warner Brothers wasn’t known for its horror pictures (the studio hadn’t released one since 1939′s “The Return of Dr. X,” in which Humphrey Bogart played a skunk-haired mad scientist vampire), but they did rah-rah jingoism better and more poetically than anyone else (they did give the world “Casablanca,” after all). “The Mysterious Doctor” consequently fascinates for its awkward but imaginative effort to stuff horror movie commonplaces into a standard-issue homefront morale-booster.
Ably directed by Benjamin Stoloff (a minor but talented director whose best films, such as this and 1936′s “Two in the Dark,” were graced by a faintly melancholic whimsy), the film opens on the not-so-mysterious Dr. Frederick Holmes (Lester Matthews), likely to be confused with his Baker Street namesake every time the plot pilfers a twist from “Hound of the Baskervilles,” as he conducts a walking trip of the English countryside and finds his way to a Cornish village haunted by a headless ghost who scares denizens away from the local tin mine.
Holmes soon makes his way to the local inn, manned by a bartender forever clad in an executioner’s hood that hides the results of an accident that took off most of his face. The doctor’s arrival corresponds with the appearance of an enemy parachutist seen dropping from the blighted skies earlier in the evening, leading the inn’s colorful habitués to speculate that the doctor is in fact an Axis infiltrator. Dr. Holmes protests his innocence and dismisses legends of the headless ghost, and insists on investigating the mine himself to clear the mystery and his good name (the movie waits a bit to explicitly tie the two mysteries together, but it’s clear at the outset that the purported ghost and the enemy agent are connected).
After the doctor’s supposed run-in with the headless apparition leads to an off-screen decapitation, a young army officer (Bruce Lester) and his girl (Eleanor Parker) tackle the mystery themselves. Though the denouement provides explanations that are more banal than a horror movie purist may prefer, Stoloff’s attention to genre manner and form makes up for the expository deflation of the last act. The resolution ultimately anticipates a future film history in which Nazis always trump ghosts, vampires, and any other Victorian relics likely to menace your misty neighborhood backlot.
“The Mysterious Doctor” won’t traumatize you or change your life, but its obsolescence is compellingly poignant. It’s thoroughly a product of its time, and that’s precisely what makes it interesting: The goofy nonchalance of its patriotic impulses grants it a lack of hysteria that’s inspirational in this age of political melodrama, and its cheery nods to Grand Guignol ebullience make it tonally unlike just about any horror movie made in the last ten years. It’s horror movie as bedtime war story, as the images of incandescent ghosts and overworked fog machines provide the pure, principled pleasure of watching movie clichés play out on auto-pilot.
“The Mysterious Doctor” doesn’t have the ambition or grace to count as a lost masterpiece, but its stylish eccentricity makes it a worthwhile curio for any devotee of classic horror at its most exuberantly haphazard.