“That’s all I ever hear, morning, noon, and night: Plots, plots, plots.”
Today, we’re going to talk about John Brahm. Born Hans Brahm of Hamburg in 1893, he directed movies in Hollywood throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s and mostly moved to television in the ‘50s. His early work has been compared favorably to Hitchcock, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, writing for the AV Club, called him “the Mario Bava and Brian De Palma of the 1940s.”
My discovery of Brahm came years ago when I picked up a Fox Horror Classics DVD set that contained three of his films—though at the time I knew only that they were three horror films of the ‘40s, having no idea that they shared a director. Those films were The Undying Monster (1942), The Lodger (1944), and Hangover Square (1945).
Of those three, The Undying Monster became a personal favorite for perhaps obvious reasons—the book upon which it is based is also a treat, if you ever get a chance to read it. The Lodger is an atmospheric and effective retelling of a Hitchcock silent of the same name, starring Laird Cregar, who also turns in a career-making performance in Hangover Square.
Or rather, it would have been career-making, if it hadn’t killed him. Cregar went on a crash diet for the film, losing a considerable amount of weight—so much so that he suffered from abdominal problems and died in the hospital a few months before the film was released. Think of it a little like the 1940s version of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Why am I writing so much about Hangover Square in a review of The Mad Magician? If Hangover was potentially career-making for Cregar, it should have been for Brahm, as well. While I love Undying Monster more for its creaky set-pieces and dapper paranormal investigators and, y’know, actual monster, Hangover Square seems pretty indisputable as Brahm’s masterwork.
Accompanied by a score from none other than Bernard Hermann—including the original concerto played during the film’s astounding pyrotechnic finish—the picture is a genuine, if underseen, classic, and perhaps the last genuine classic film that Brahm would ever make.
Shortly after, Brahm began working mainly in television, directing several episodes of The Twilight Zone, among many others, including the classic “Time Enough at Last,” which we’ve all been referencing a lot lately, as we find ourselves quarantined in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic.
What makes Hangover Square relevant enough to devote some 400 words to it in the midst of a review ostensibly of The Mad Magician, newly released on Blu-ray from Indicator, is that Brahm remakes much of his 1945 classic a decade later in Mad Magician.
Certainly, the Vincent Price vehicle, released in 3D to capitalize on the success of Price’s House of Wax from the year before, is nowhere near as serious or psychological as its cousin from the previous decade, but certain elements are carried over wholesale, including one of the most striking scenes in either film, in which a body is disposed of in a massive bonfire.
(The bonfire was part of a Guy Fawkes Day celebration in Hangover, which was set in London, while in Mad Magician it’s the result of a football victory.)
It’s one of the biggest set pieces in Hangover Square, and is repeated nearly beat-for-beat in The Mad Magician, a film which ultimately utilizes it more poorly, as it does most every element that it borrows from its higher-brow sibling, while also cribbing a bit from The Lodger and a lot from House of Wax, with which it shares a screenwriter.
So, now that I am nearly 600 words into ostensibly writing about The Mad Magician, let’s actually talk about it a bit. It is essentially House of Wax again, which was already essentially just Mystery of the Wax Museum again but in 3D and with Vincent Price (which, normally, makes everything better).
And certainly, Mad Magician is better than it would have been without Vincent Price, of that there is no question. But is it actually good? Sure. It’s a delight, as many of these creaky movies are. Those who have seen House of Wax and thought to themselves, Yes, I would like to see that again, but in black-and-white and with a magician instead of a wax museum, it’s the movie for you.
Price plays Don Gallico, a consummate mimic and ingenieur of magic tricks with a yen to become a magician himself, who discovers that his contract means that every trick he designs, even in his own time, belongs to his employer. (His boss has already stolen his ex-wife, played by Eva Gabor, and the contract stipulates, as his new detective friend summarizes, that his employer owns “everything but the air you breathe.”)
In a rage, Gallico kills his boss using his newly-designed trick, “the Lady and the Buzz Saw,” and then has to commit a handful of other murders to cover up the first. There’s a sequence with a switched bag that leads to a brief chase around town in search of a severed head, the disposal of the body atop the massive funeral pyre, and the designing of his latest trick, the Crematorium.
“Where did you get the idea?” one character asks him. “From a crematorium,” Price replies dryly, as only Price can.
The Lodger elements come into play as Gallico, disguised as his now-deceased boss, rents a room from a couple. The wife of the pair is a writer of murder mysteries who takes a keen interest in her new tenant, especially after Eva Gabor’s character winds up strangled in the upstairs room.
She and her long-suffering husband provide much of the film’s comic relief, and also ultimately help to solve the mystery, with Price perishing, as he was all-but contractually obligated to do, in a conflagration of his own making.
It’s all very by-the-numbers, and while Brahm’s direction is never anything short of adequate to the task, it is also absent much of the ingeniousness that made his earlier horror films so striking. That it’s a film that feels like what it is – a way to line everyone’s pockets a bit – does nothing to diminish the fact that it is still delightful. We just need to be honest about these things.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.