17 November 2010

Tower of London and The Mad Magician

Tower of London and The Mad Magician Spooky, Period Faire Anytime of Year
By Kristin Battestella

Horror maven Vincent Price is at it again in these two stylized period horror pieces from directors Roger Corman and John Brahm.  Though a step down from some of his finer horrorfest collaborations, fans of Price and atmospheric little old pictures can enjoy these spooky shows year round.

In Tower of London, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester (Price) can’t wait for his brother King Edward IV (Justice Watson) to die.  Richard murders his brother George, the Duke of Clarence (Charles Macaulay, Blacula) so he will become Lord Protector to the king’s child heirs: the future King Edward V and Richard, 1st Duke of York (Eugene Martin and Donald Losby).  As ambitious Richard and his wife Anne (Joan Camden) seek the crown, members of the court suffer death and torment- from the discredited Queen (Sarah Selby) to young Lady Margaret (Joan Freeman) and noble Sir Justin (Robert Brown).  No one is safe from Richard’s wrath; and when the ghosts of those he’s killed return to haunt him, justice shall prevail.

With stock footage from Universal’s 1939 Tower of London and plenty of liberties about Richard III, Corman (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) does the best he can with the low budget black and white restraints here.  We open as a straight historical piece, but Corman gets to the heady court deaths quickly and keeps the court intrigue coming.  The true horror stylings don’t really begin until the threats of torture and dungeon machinery enter Richard’s plans. The violence is, of course, not as graphic as the super gore we’re used to in today’s slice and dice pictures.  However, there’s something to be said for old school suggestion.  On one hand, it is shocking to see as much as we do here in 1962- yet the unrevealed hint of a ripped dress and a maiden screaming on the rack does wonders for our dark imagination.  Likewise, speculating on the fates and onscreen deaths of the Princes in the Tower is equally horrorific. Tower of London isn’t a bad medieval horror picture- its just that this particular blended genre isn’t done often, and I’d like to have seen the even finer, scarier film Corman could have made without production restraints and overhead influence. 

Vincent Price is of course his usual period fine, with the proper look and voice for the court debauchery. He looks the part and carries the subdued and sinister delivery to match. Okay, so the hunching and limping to imply Richard III’s physical injuries is a bit much, but otherwise Big V is entertaining as always. I don’t know where his over the top reputation comes from sometimes.  If you see enough Price films, you understand his depth and skill.  Is there a modern young pup today that is so well- respected for his horror shtick? I think not. Joan Camden (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) as Richard’s wife Anne matches his creepy with her dutiful, by his side knowledge of his murders.  She pushes him ala Lady Macbeth in her quest to be queen. We just don’t expect a dolled up Neville noblewoman to be involved in the dark side of power, and the angle adds dimension to Tower of LondonSadly, most of the other cast is a little too interchangeable.  It’s tough to tell who is who at court, and Price is relatively alone with his monologues and ghostly visions.  Joan Freeman (Roustabout), Sandra Knight (The Terror), and Sarah Selby (The Hardy Boys) have precious little to do but be threatened or look pretty.  Michael Pate (Matlock Police, Hondo) seems juicy as Richard’s henchman Sir Ratcliffe, but he isn’t as ruthless as we expect a juicy henchman to be.  Thankfully, the young princes aren’t annoying like so many other child actors of the time can be.

Again, Tower of London suffers much from its restricted production values. The black and white photography adds to the old-fashioned mood and helps to hide some bad model work along with the snips from the 1939 original.  The lack of color, however, hurts the costuming.  Though the frocks look great for a sixties B horror flick, the design doesn’t seem as lavish as similar films then or now.  Thankfully, the music strikes the right blend of ominous horror and historically medieval.  The interior castle design is wonderfully both Middle English and spooky, but the ghost effects and sounds are very weak.  I must also say, I don’t know how accurate those pointy princess hats are either.

Though not medieval, The Mad Magician is nonetheless a period piece.  The Victorian style is 19th century enough, but there’s also a hint of turn of the century New York via 1954 Hollywood.  There’s not a lot of vintage music, but the score knows when to crescendo for the horror. The scary atmosphere isn’t as heavy as I’d like, but the mix of old-fashioned magic adds a good blend to the suspense and mystery at hand. However, I have to say, it is somewhat odd to have a black and white but 3D picture, isn’t it? One would think if you bother with all the in your face across the screen that if would be in color! The magic shows presented aren’t much of a spectacle, either- but ’The Lady and the Buzzsaw’ does have a nice ring to it.

After technicalities over a contract for his illusions, rising magician Don Gallico (Price) is forced out of doing his latest act with his lovely assistant Karen (Mary Murphy).  Karen’s beau, Lieutenant Alan Bruce (Patrick O’Neal) tries to help Gallico legally, but ‘Gallico the Great’ takes matters into his own hands when crooked business manager Ross Ormond (Donald Randolph, Topaz) not only takes his tricks, but Gallico’s ex-wife Claire (Eva Gabor) as well. Soon, Gallico’s vengeance against rival magician The Great Rinaldi (John Emery, Blood on the Sun) turns deadly as landlady and mystery author Alice Prentiss (Lenita Lane, The Bat) suspects the foul play.

Director John Brahm (The Twilight Zone) builds suspense smoothly amid some of the more light-hearted moments and magic mayhem. The Mad Magician is a little short at 72 minutes- even for 1954- but the style isn’t too over the top and the story doesn’t drag. Despite the horror spin, writer Crane Wilbur (Solomon and Sheba, House of Wax) keeps a nice, intelligent mystery with investigative elements, too.  In all our high tech crime shows using cell phones and DNA to crack the case, we forget how the advent of fingerprints technology can make or break an investigation. The masks are a bit much for the time, but the nosey author angle allows for more charm amid the sinister.  The Mad Magician gets to the dismemberments quickly, and the deaths scenes are very well done.  The scary machines, fiery elements, and even some of the mayhem that you don’t see all allude to creepy a plenty.

Wow, Vincent Price looks so young compared to his later Poe work with Corman!  Though the maniacal magician hijinks are great, it’s all a little too similar to Wilbur’s House of Wax, made a year prior to The Mad Magician.  Price, however, adds his elements- the masks and stage make up are quite diabolical looking, making Price almost unrecognizable.  His voice delivery also changes with his masquerades; with subtle inflections depending on if he’s selling his trick to the audience or wreaking havoc on his enemies. The violence and rough stuff towards the ladies looks real, as does Price’s silent rage.  Gallico is perfectly willing to wait and plan his orchestration while others do the talking.  While Patrick O’Neal (Under Siege, The Stepford Wives) is your fairly standard fifties cop, Mary Murphy (The Desperate Hours) a good match to Gallico’s mayhem. Her Karen is a fine friend with a good professional relationship, but you can’t help but wonder if her kindness towards the magician will be her undoing.  Eva Gabor (Green Acres) is of course also juicy in her Victorian feathers, stoles, and splendor. 

The Haunted Palace / The Tower of LondonNaturally, The Mad Magician is not available on DVD, and Tower of London can only be found on low-budget dual disc faire.  Yes, there are better Vincent Price films out there, and the Tower of London is not the bizarre scarefest we expect from Roger Corman.  Likewise, The Mad Magician is hindered by the styles of the time.  However, both provide plenty of entertainment and old school kitsch whilst being family friendly thanks to those same mid-century sensibilities.  Vincent Price fans and horror enthusiasts should definitely give Tower of London and The Mad Magician a chance any time of year.

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