Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Dr Cyclops (1940)

Dr Cyclops is yet another mad scientist movie. Which is fine by me - I happen to love mad scientist movies. This 1940 Paramount release is a fairly worthy example of the breed and it looks better than most.

Dr Thorkel (Albert Dekker) has been conducting some very secretive research deep in the jungles of the Amazon. Now he has asked a number of fellow scientists to join him in his jungle laboratory to assist him in his experiments. Dr Bullfinch (Charles Halton), Dr Mary Robinson (Janice Logan) and mineralogist Bill Stockton set out for the Amazon. Along the way they are joined by mining engineer Steve Baker (Victor Kilian) who has more or less invited himself along - they need to hire his mules and where his mules go he goes.

Dr Thorkel has long had a reputation for being irascible and temperamental. His new colleagues soon come to the conclusion that he is now quite mad. Perhaps he is, but he has certainly achieved something startling. It turns out he only wanted his new collaborators for a few minutes’ work after which he intends to pack them back off to civilisation. They are however reluctant to leave, having figured out some of what Thorkel has been doing, and having figured out that there might be money and fame in it. They might have been wiser to have simply left.

They should have had a clearer idea of what was going on when Dr Bullfinch discovered the bones of a native pig. A very small native pig. A very very small native pig!

Of course what Dr Thorkel has been working on is miniaturising animals. Since his now unwelcome guests refuse to leave he decides he might as well find out if his technique works on people. It turns out that being shrunk to twelve inches in height isn’t much fun when you’ve fallen into the clutches of an insane megalomaniac scientist. There’s one piece of information that might have made survival an easier proposition for our heroes but unfortunately that’s one item of information they don’t have.

Mad scientists are occasionally purely evil from the start but more often they start out as idealists who are then seduced by the lure of forbidden knowledge, and the power that such knowledge can bring. We get the impression that Dr Thorkel was probably somewhat unhinged right from the outset and that it was never going to take much to push him over the edge into full-blown mad scientist mode.

When one thinks of movie mad scientists of this era one thinks of Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill or George Zucco, or perhaps at a pinch Basil Rathbone. While Albert Dekker might not be so well known for such roles he does a pretty fair job. A Lionel Atwill might have gone further over the top but Dekker does the dangerous obsessive scientist blinded by ambition very effectively.

The supporting players are very much in Dekker’s shadow but they’re all more than adequate. Charles Halton is good as the kindly responsible but pompous scientist who is also susceptible to the lure of ambition. Janice Logan is mostly there because without her the movie would not have a beautiful glamorous female cast member although she is perfectly adequate. Thomas Coley might seem destined to play the conventional hero role, being young and good-looking (very important attributes in a hero), but he is at least a reasonably interesting character. He’s incurably lazy and selfish and is not the sort of fellow who has ever seriously considered doing anything noble or heroic.

In 1940 it was pretty unusual for a movie of this type, a movie that would normally have been regarded merely as another B-picture, to be made in Technicolor. Warner Brothers had made a couple of horror films using the two-strip Technicolor process in the early 1930s (Dr X and Mystery of the Wax Museum) but Dr Cyclops must surely be one of the earliest B-pictures to be made using the three-strip Technicolor process. Given that this is a cross between a science fiction and a jungle adventure movie it proves to be more than just a gimmick - this really is quite a visually arresting film. The special effects are mostly quite impressive and there’s some cool mad scientist gadgetry. The subject matter required the use of a lot of process shots and in 1939 when the movie was filmed using such techniques on a large scale in colour was still something fairly new. Some work extremely well while others suffer from the perennial problem associated with such techniques - the rear projected image looks much too flat. On the whole though the effects are bold and fairly successful.

The big problem is the tone. The early part of the movie builds up an effective atmosphere of menace and terror but then the film seems to switch gears and becomes whimsical fantasy. An even bigger problem is the music, which would have been perfect for a Disney cartoon but is much too bright and cheerful and playful. Scenes that should have been effectively scary are ruined by the music. It’s fairly obvious that Paramount had no clear idea of the kind of audience they were aiming for. Were they trying to make a kids fantasy movie or a science fiction/horror movie? 

Ernest B. Schoedsack’s main claim to fame as a director is King King, and he was therefore well qualified to helm a science fiction adventure movie with a jungle setting. Merrian C. Cooper, producer of King Kong, was also involved in this production. 

Universal have done a splendid job with the transfer - it’s quite stunning.

I’ve now seen all five movies in Universal’s Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection: Volume 2 DVD boxed set. The Cult of the Cobra is great fun, The Land Unknown is a terrific sci-fi adventure romp complete with dinosaurs and The Leech Woman is creepy in a camp sort of way. They're all well worth seeing. It has to be said that this has to be one of the best cult movie sets ever released, and it’s so cheap that it represents fabulous value for money. An absolute must-buy.

Dr Cyclops is a bit of an oddity. Being shot in Technicolor would of necessity have made it an A-picture rather than a B-picture but it was the sort of movie that was unlikely to attract a large enough audience to justify the expense. It has some nicely sinister moments early on (the opening sequences are wonderfully atmospheric) but then becomes a lightweight fantasy. It’s not a complete success but it’s not without interest. Recommended, with reservations.

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