Monday, February 23, 2009
In its opening minutes, Dr. Cyclops promises something incredibly rare in the annals of trashy B movies: a lurid, creepy tale of sci-fi horror shot in gorgeous, eye-popping Technicolor, its sickly green hues and expressionist lighting schemes enhancing the schlocky horror of the premise. The film opens in a dark laboratory where strobing lights send ever-changing shadows flitting across the walls, while the mad scientist Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) bends down over strange glowing tubes. The whole thing is bathed in green light, and the atmosphere is eerie and unsettling even before Thorkel's confrontation with his morally outraged colleague Dr. Mendoza (slumming character actor Paul Fix), who demands that Thorkel halt his mysterious experiments with radiation. Mendoza quickly meets a gruesome and horrifying end, with Thorkel using radioactive materials to mutate the other doctor's face into a skeletal death mask. It's a creepy, beautifully handled special effect, and this opening scene is just about the best horror movie introduction possible. Already it's apparent that the acting is stiff and the script ridiculous, but this scene seems to promise at least a film that takes full advantage of its Technicolor format and the possibilities of bringing color to an ordinarily low-budget shocker.
I think you know where this is going by now, though. The opening scene of Dr. Cyclops unfortunately seems to be where all of the ingenuity and imagination of the cinematographer and lighting crew were focused. The rest of the film provides plenty of for-the-time dazzling special effects and trick shots, but nothing with the aesthetic jolt of that unforgettable opening, nothing that provides the same frisson of sloppy, almost accidental beauty that characterizes the best B pictures. The remainder of the tale takes place in bright sunlight in a backlot jungle, eventually becoming a "shrinking" adventure story of the kind that would become so popular in 50s sci-fi cinema. The first scene turns out to be merely a prologue, with the bulk of the action taking place two years later, when Thorkel suddenly summons together a group of three scientists to assist with his research at an isolated South American lab: the proud Dr. Rupert Bullfinch (Charles Halton), pretty young Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan), and the lazy mineralogist Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley). Before arriving at the mad doctor's lab, the trio meets up with the mule driver Steve Baker (Victor Killian) and Thorkel's Spanish assistant Pedro (Frank Yaconelli).
Upon arrival, the group is insulted to find that Thorkel wants them not so much for their scientific expertise, but only because his failing eyesight has prevented him from doing much of his routine lab work himself. He has them peer into microscopes for him, confirming some test results without explaining what he's doing, and then tries to send them off. Of course, the curious scientists stay on, and as such fall victim to Thorkel's crazed experiments: using radioactive materials, he is shrinking living beings, getting off on the God-like control he exercises over nature. He shrinks the whole group of scientists, including Pedro and Baker, and then tries to experiment on these new subjects. But despite the horrific opening, the premise plays out more like a light, even farcical adventure, never generating any genuine horror or thrills out of its shrunken heroes and towering villain.
The film has an odd, cheery tone that's reinforced in its incongruously bouncy score, and in the silly ethnic humor provided by Pedro's caricatured character. Once the group is shrunk down, they look ridiculous dressed in toga-type garments that Thorkel apparently made for them out of handkerchiefs; Pedro, on the other hand, seems to be wearing a diaper beneath his paunchy belly, accentuating his status as comic relief. Even more absurd is the sequence where, when the group gets some time away from Thorkel to plot and think, the men get to work customizing weapons and tools from whatever they can find, while Mary begins sewing and is apparently able to make whole new, more colorful outfits for the group while Thorkel is sleeping. This film is nothing if not intent on confirming stereotypes, often in the most ludicrous ways.
Thorkel himself hardly proves to be a particularly intimidating villain, either. His jovial manner with his victims is faintly absurd and funny, but he certainly never again seems like the creepy force of evil that he was in his first appearance. The film's appeal lies largely in its Oscar-nominated special effects, which were surely revolutionary for the time, combining rear projection and various double printing techniques with judicious use of miniatures and over-sized sets. These effects often convincingly portray the miniaturization of the doctor's victims, though the rear projection shots simulating attacks by chickens, alligators and cats are laughable today. Even the best effect shots — like the one where the mad doctor grabs the squirming Bullfinch in his giant fist — can't distract from the essential dullness of the film, its meandering plot basically just providing an excuse to get from one flashy effects sequence to the next.
Director Ernest B. Schoedsack, most famous as one of the masterminds behind King Kong, can't manage to bring any depth to this inherently thin material, despite some clumsy attempts to reference the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops. Too much of the film is spent following around a group of miniaturized over-actors through one trick shot after another, all at a plodding, deadened pace. This would be par for the course for a lousy B-movie if it weren't for that opening scene, which for a few brief minutes promised something much greater.