Stars: Richard Basehart, Gloria Grahame, Trish Stewart and Lance Henriksen
Charles Band, the man behind the Full Moon empire, considers Mansion of the Doomed to be his first movie, his first genre film in a career packed full of such creatures. In reality, it's his second. IMDb lists him as the director of Last Foxtrot in Burbank, a 65 minute short parody of Last Tango in Paris released three years earlier, with hardcore inserts in at least one market. He was only 22 at the time of release and he remembers it as an anomaly. 'It's sort of not my first movie,' he told Rogue Cinema in an interview, 'because it was something I did to help Frankie.' Frankie is Frank Ray Perilla, who wrote both that film and this one. Michael Pataki, the star of that film, took the director's chair here. Band himself shifted from director to producer. Unfortunately for us, Last Foxtrot in Burbank is a lost film, a footnote in a long career spiced up by the fact that two of the few who saw it premiére at the Pacific Theater in Hollywood were John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
It's almost surprising that, after a jolt like that, it took Band three years to make another picture. After all, as history has shown, he's a prolific man and he's not known for having qualms about releasing utter crud along with the good stuff. Whatever the reason, this film is a great start to a career, be it a first or second start. It looks forward to the future of Charles Band Productions by looking back at the horror movies of the past, obvious from moment one as the lead character is named Dr Leonard Chaney. Had he still been alive, Lon Chaney Jr would have been a good fit for Len Chaney, but he died in 1973, when Band was making that first film that doesn't count. Instead he cast Richard Basehart, a distinguished actor late in his career who was starting to focus on TV movies and guest slots in TV shows. He'd only make three more pictures for the big screen. Gloria Grahame, a screen siren similarly close to the end of her career, plays his assistant, Katherine.
Fourth in the credits is a future star, Lance Henriksen, in only his sixth role. After an early part in 1961's The Outsider, he'd made a picture a year since 1972 but only got busy after this one, the first of four in 1976. He looks young in an odd way, as if he hadn't quite grown into himself yet but doing that would somehow rejuvenate him. Maybe it's the hair. He plays Dr Dan Bryan, the first victim of what would in a lesser picture be just another mad doctor, but Dr Chaney is a little more complex. He's both a talented doctor and a loving father, but circumstances, in the form of a car accident, take his ethics along with his daughter Nancy's vision. Suddenly, theories he rejected as being a step too far become just a step closer to restoring Nancy's sight, a step he happily takes, even if it means stealing someone's eyes, someone like Dr Dan Bryan, who not only works for him but is also engaged to his daughter, or at least he was. She's not sure he'll continue to be.
And so it goes. He invites Dan over, has Katherine spike his drink, and once he's out cold, takes him to his surgery to extract his eyes and transplant them into his daughter. It even works, the vision through Nancy's new eyes being blurry and needing of exercise but there nonetheless. As for Dr Bryan, he surprisingly doesn't leave the story. As we discover in a neat shock moment, Dr Bryan is still alive, merely locked in a huge cage downstairs. His eye sockets are empty, a freaky look for Henriksen to play up well, as his former boss and future father-in-law doesn't even fit him with glass eyes, just pushes him out of sight and mind. This does bode well for a gruesome horror movie but the final push we need comes when Nancy goes swimming and finds that her vision disappears once more. The increasingly desperate Dr Chaney is therefore forced to rack up more victims with growing levels of sophistication but, conversely, less attention to detail.
Clearly Perilli's script aims at a number of levels. What's less clear is exactly what he was aiming at. There's a lot of looking backwards to the mad doctor films of the past, as we look at the lead character struggling with his ethics as the number of eyeless victims in the cellar cage continues to grow. He honestly has every intention to help them too, once he's helped Nancy, but a number of scenes show him clearly arranging his priorities with them not remotely near the top. The chief influences are surely films like The Face Behind the Mask or Eyes without a Face, but surprisingly, for a movie that doesn't shy away from the grisly, there's a touch of Val Lewton flavour here too. The growing number of eyeless victims in the cellar remind of Bedlam even before the homage to the famous hand scene. Perhaps it's the Bedlam influence that shaped the subtext for me into one of class. The longer the film ran, the clearer this subtext became until it couldn't be ignored.
The film clearly alternates between two utterly different tones, and it's not a stretch to classify them by class. Upstairs and downstairs, to use the classic euphemisms for masters and servants, are completely different worlds. Upstairs, everything is so old school that it could easily have been shot in black and white. Dr Chaney is the sort of respected professional who took the lead in the old Universal horrors. He's driven and dedicated, periodically justifying his actions to himself, but he's civilised and polite throughout. He uses drugs to subdue his victims, not crude weaponry. He doesn't kill any of them. Occasionally he even plays at being the saviour he feels that he really is, like when he tries to help a bum who has been literally kicked out of a spot to sleep, only to get mugged for his trouble. When he's caught abducting a little girl, he leads the two men chasing him to his house to politely bribe them before adding them to the donor pool.
Yet downstairs, it's new school seventies grue, painted in dark but lurid colour. Like the servants in an Edwardian manor house, these victims are promptly forgotten about once they've served their purpose. Katherine feeds them but Dr Chaney doesn't visit. He may honestly believe that he'll help them some day, but he never does. There's no post-op treatment. Their sockets remain empty. There's no sanitation and little opportunity to exercise. One girl even dies in the cage. It becomes a constrained society where these victims struggle to stay human while listening to the monkeys next door, an obvious comparison. In addition to Bedlam, this feels like a throwback to Island of Lost Souls, the Universal take on The Island of Dr Moreau. Ironically Basehart's next film wouuld be the 1977 remake of this story, in which he played the Sayer of the Law, the character in charge of maintaining the rules the human/animal hybrids must follow.
I enjoyed Mansion of the Doomed a lot more than I expected to. It's hardly one of the great horror movies but it is suitably creepy and surprisingly deep. Basehart had worked for the best, not least Federico Fellini for La strada, so he knew how to play with nuance. His performance here is rather disconnected, but I'm sure that was deliberate, highlighting how disconnected Dr Chaney gets as he descends into a more subtle form of madness than mad doctors usually reach. Gloria Grahame was experienced in film noir, from In a Lonely Place to The Big Heat, so the darkness she channels here was hardly a stretch, especially in a surprisingly small part. She still looks great at 53 years young, but the immobility of her face is striking. Plastic surgery back in the fifties had paralysed her upper lip and it's very noticeable here. She was also in remission for breast cancer, which sadly returned in 1980. She died a year later with four more pictures under her belt.
As Nancy, Trish Stewart gets third billing behind the two Hollywood stars in decline. Mostly known for a recurring role on daytime soap, The Young and the Restless, she's also surprisingly sidelined here, but this time it's appropriate. Initially we see a lot of her, literally, swimming around in her skimpy suit and having a great time, telling her daddy that she loves him in a blatant setup that explains why he's so driven to return that love by saving her eyesight. A more subtle scene is the sympathy shot as she laments that her fiancé may not care for her as much now that she's blind. We look down on him for being so shallow and not paying appropriate attention to her in her time of need. Yet, frankly, Perilla suckers us into doing exactly the same thing as he turns her from the leading lady into the MacGuffin of the piece. Our realisation that we've been suckered is another point where we realise that this is a much more subtle script than it might initially seem.
Where it really keeps us on the hop is in the juggling of tones, which plays out like a battle for the tone of the future. In one corner is Dr Chaney, whose very name is a throwback, still transplanting organs in secret as if it might prompt villagers to come a-knocking with torches and pitchforks. In the thirties, that was still a viable plot, especially in period pieces, but Christian Barnard's famous heart transplant was in 1967. In fact the first successful transplants were with eyes, Eduard Zirm successfully transplanting a cornea as far back as 1905. In the other corner are the victims in the cage in the cellar with their gruesome empty eye sockets. Perhaps the fight was always going to be won according to whether those victims, who look like monsters from the outset, actually lose their fight with sanity and become actual monsters. To discover the result, you'll have to watch yourself. I'll just point out that it ends with a neat irony, the film itself a surprising winner.