Monday 21 January 2013

Doctor of Doom (1979)

Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Tim Burton, Harry Sabin, Cynthia Price and Michael Giaimo

The companion piece to Tim Burton's Luau is Doctor of Doom, shot three years earlier and clearly influenced by the sort of Mexican horror movies that were released to American audiences in English dubs by K Gordon Murray. René Cardona, who directed many such films, even made one called Doctor of Doom in 1963, though it goes by many names and is perhaps best known as The Wrestling Women vs The Aztec Ape. This isn't a direct take on that film, more of an attempt to tap into the mindset of its genre generally and create something fresh with both homage and parody in mind. As with Luau, this was never intended for a public release, serving instead as catharsis through creative outpouring for Burton and his frustrated colleagues at Disney Animation. It's a difficult film to follow because the sound is terrible and the voices deliberately obscured. I'm not even convinced that some of the dialogue isn't gibberish.

That said, I think I enjoy it more than Luau, even though it's a third the length, shot in black and white and with only a fraction of the frenetic insanity of the later film. In fact, perhaps I enjoy it more than Luau for precisely those reasons. While there's nothing at IMDb to back this up, it's clearly Tim Burton himself playing the mad doctor, Don Carlo, and the character is perhaps the same one that Burton reprises in Luau as a disembodied head, given their similarity in dialogue. Here he visits a wealthy man with a smoking jacket and long cigar and no need for a name; the usual mansion is replaced through necessity by the apartment of Jerry Rees, Burton's partner in crime on Luau. Don Carlo doesn't enjoy dinner, rambling on instead about his poor upbringing as an organgrinder's monkey or some such, and threatens this family with destruction as he leaves. Next day he sends a monster from his lab to destroy all beauty, starting with them.

While there's much here that's awful, most of it is deliberate. The details of Don Carlo's lab are quite obviously taken from another source, not only because it was cheaper but because of the effect. Similarly the monster is clearly meant to be cheap with a terrible mask; the seams are supposed to show. All the voices are deliberately dubbed and with comedic intent, to the degree that Randy Cartwright dubs both male and female characters, as well as the monster. He didn't aim for impeccable lip synching. It's also notable that none of the actors dub the characters they actually play, presumably a deliberate decision. Cartwright doesn't voice everyone, so Jerry Rees takes care of one other character and Brad Bird, who would go on to direct The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, a couple more, including dubbing Burton as Don Carlo. I wonder why he didn't return for Luau. Perhaps he was less in need of catharsis at that point.
Not everything is awful. The sleight of hand in the opening scene is well handled and the various archetypal characters are capably riffed on. Harry Sabin is suitably decadent as the rich Mexican with the best line: 'My wife died ten years ago,' he says at the dinner table and everyone cracks up laughing. He was also a surfer in Luau, but went on to do a lot of character design for animated TV shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power and BraveStarr. Cynthia Price is suitably simpering as his daughter Rosita, mostly in close up gazing into mirrors but she surprisingly never earned another credit. Michael Giaimo reminds of Graham Chapman as her fiancé, Bob Garcia, long before he became art director on Pocahontas. I'm not sure which of the characters is Pepe, but that's Chris Buck, two decades before he directed Tarzan and eight more years before earning an Oscar nomination for Surf's Up.

Many of the names behind both Doctor of Doom and Luau also worked on Fun with Mr Future in 1982, a short film that combined live action with animation and starred Vincent Price as a mad scientist. Had it not begun work as an Epcot television special, perhaps it would inevitably have involved Tim Burton, who had long idolised Price and had befriended him that year while making Vincent. It was the directorial debut of Darrell Van Citters, who is concealed beneath the terrible mask of the monster in this film but would go on to be known for The Mr Men Show and Emmy-nominated Noah Comprende. All these connections are eye opening to me, as are these short films. Both Luau and Doctor of Doom are just home video curiosities, though fun ones that get better with repeat viewings and serve as a fascinating glimpse into a set of creative personalities, most of whom would go on to great things, satisfying the urge to satiate their creative needs.

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