Monday, 22 September 2014

The Face of Marble (1946)

The Face of Marble is a 1946 Monogram horror flick starring John Carradine. It’s a mad scientist movie, but it’s a whole lot more than that.

John Carradine is Dr Charles Randolph, a brilliant brain surgeon whose research is veering far into uncharted territory. In other words he’s a mad scientist. Dr Randolph and his assistant Dr David Cochran (Robert Shayne) believe they are on the verge of conquering death. Needless to say their experiments involve electricity and a secret formula.

Robert Shayne would go on to play a fully-fledged mad scientist in The Neanderthal Man. In The Face of Marble he’s just the assistant, but if you’re a trainee mad scientist you really couldn’t have a better teacher than John Carradine.

One interesting twist is that it’s not Dr Randolph who wants to keep pushing on despite the evidence that his experiments are flawed, it’s his assistant who insists that they go on.

Their experiments are almost successful, but prove to have terrible consequences.

There are further plot complications - Dr Randolph’s young wife Elaine has fallen for Dr Cochran. And the Randolph family’s housekeeper Maria (Rosa Rey) is a voodoo priestess.

This one throws just about everything imaginable into the mix - there’s a mad scientist, there’s voodoo, there’s vampirism and there’s a dog who walks through walls. There’s also a nosy police inspector causing trouble about the dead body of a sailor washed ashore on the beach. It seems the sailor had been exposed to massive amounts of electricity, which is not the sort of thing you expect with a drowning victim. The romantic triangle alluded to earlier will also cause major problems, as romantic triangles usually do when they’re aided by voodoo.

It’s a Monogram movie so it’s a very low-budget affair. That doesn’t prove to be to much of a problem. Dr Randolph’s laboratory is a perfectly adequate if not spectacular mad scientist’s laboratory. The special effects are obviously very cheap but they work well enough and they certainly don’t detract from the fun.

While the story is a real mixture of elements the screenplay (by Michael Jacoby) deserves credit for managing to combine them quite effectively. The romantic triangle forms an integral part of the plot. Even the juxtaposition of science and voodoo works surprisingly well. Dr Randolph and Dr Cochran are trying to do exactly what the voodoo priestess Maria is doing - interfering with the course of nature. The fact that the movie seems to be shuttling back and forth between science fiction and supernatural horror also becomes more acceptable once you realise that that’s the whole point, that the movie is saying that science and voodoo are more or less interchangeable. You might not agree with that view but it’s a perfectly valid one for the movie to take.

John Carradine is always fun. In this sort of movie you expect his performance to be outrageously hammy but in fact he underplays his rôle slightly (or at least it’s underplayed by John Carradine standards) and adds some actual emotional depth. One of the intriguing things about this movie is that the mad scientist isn’t a good man who slowly becomes corrupted by playing God - in this case he actually becomes less crazy as he realises what the consequences are.

By the standards of 1940s Monogram horror cheapies this is a movie that tries to be a bit subtle and a bit ambitious, and surprisingly it’s at least party successful in these efforts. 

This is one of the four movies (all on a single DVD) in the Shout! Factory / Timeless Media Movies 4 You: Timeless Horror set. The print used for the transfer of The Face of Marble was clearly not in great condition but it’s quite watchable. There are occasional minor sound issues but nothing to get too worried about. Considering the ludicrously low price of this set and the fact that the other transfers are pretty good there’s not much to complain about. These are movies that are unlikely ever to get full restorations so they are probably never going to look any better than this. The set also includes The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, The Snake Woman and I Bury the Living.

Those who start with the prejudice that all Monogram pictures were junk may be inclined to dismiss The Face of Marble with a sneer. If you don’t suffer from that prejudice or if you’re prepared to put it aside then you might find yourself enjoying this movie quite a bit. It’s obviously not in the same league as the Val Lewton movies of the same era but it’s really a lot better than its reputation would suggest. Recommended.

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