September 14, 2020

The Best Laid Plans of Not-So-Nice Madmen

We’re all waiting with bated breath as the world’s finest medical and scientific minds tirelessly work to come up with a vaccine for the coronavirus. When it happens, it will rank among humanity’s greatest medical achievements, right up there with Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.

The difference being that there will almost certainly not be an individual man or woman to point to as the latest hero of the 21st century (although no doubt some politicians will try to take credit). The complexity of the challenges and the resources needed to address them dictate that literal armies of brilliant minds work cooperatively and collectively, versus leaving it up to an eccentric lone wolf scientist burning the midnight oil in a secluded lab.

Still, Lon Chaney Jr. and Lionel Atwill, Man Made Monster (1941)
"It's okay doc, I'm feeling much better now... really I am!"

Society is deeply ambivalent when it comes to brilliant lone wolves. On the one hand, we say we cherish individualism, ambition and initiative, and yet also seem to be smugly satisfied when some modern-day Icarus flies too high and comes crashing back down to earth.

One of the purest expressions of that love-hate relationship is the B-movie mad scientist. Whether they’re busy stitching together body parts and animating them with life, or concocting serums that can turn human beings into mind-controlled zombies, there’s nothing more fascinating or more deserving of punishment than the mad doctor dabbling in things better left alone.

It seems as if we value intelligence up to a certain point -- then, when we’re confronted with extraordinary genius, we’re deeply suspicious that such a gift is a license to disregard the value of “normal” human life. The movies help us work out the conundrum and restore order to the universe, at least on celluloid.

The mad doctors and scientists profiled below -- represented by some of the greatest names in classic horror -- are all inheritors of the Frankenstein tradition of lonely brilliance, a tendency to flout society’s norms, and hubris bordering on a God-complex. They up the ante by being willing to experiment on live people; no digging up subjects from the local graveyard for them.

While the mad theories, serum formulas and lab equipment vary from film to film, some plot elements pop up time and again:

  • A brilliant but highly eccentric scientist is denounced and/or ostracized by his colleagues for his mad theories
  • Seething with resentment, he locks himself away in an isolated lab, often in a large, remote mansion, working round the clock to prove himself to the world
  • To anyone who will listen, the scientist compares himself to the great thinkers of history who were misunderstood in their day
  • An innocent woman -- a daughter, niece, sister or colleague -- initially stands by the beleaguered scientist, holding out a slim hope of redemption for him
  • The scientist is not just content to prove his discredited theory, but has to exact revenge on his disbelieving colleagues, even those who still respect him but don’t understand his mad obsession
  • A young man, the boyfriend or fiance of the scientist’s daughter/niece/colleague (and often a newspaper reporter), becomes suspicious and starts nosing around

Please note: Thanks to the amazing Embed-O-Magic process, the full-length movies shared on this page are queued to a clip illustrating each mad doctor’s peculiar modus operandi. If you want to see how he gets his just deserts for flouting the laws of humanity and Nature, you’ll have to watch the full movie.

"It's Magic!"

Boris Karloff in The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936)
The Man Who Changed His Mind
(aka The Man Who Lived Again, 1936)

The Man: Dr. Laurience (Boris Karloff)

The Plan: Dr. Laurience is a brain specialist whose eccentric theories got him kicked out of the research institute he was working at in Genoa. Now on his own, Laurience hires brilliant neurosurgeon Clare Wyatt (Anna Lee) to assist him with his experiments.

Laurience claims that he can “take the thought content from the mind of a living animal and store it as you would store electricity.” This content can then be transferred to another living being. To Clare’s amazement, he exchanges the minds of two chimpanzees, one gentle, the other fearful and aggressive.

Against his better judgment, the doctor takes up the offer of Lord Haslewood (Frank Cellier), a newspaper mogul and patron of the sciences, to relocate his equipment and experiments to Haslewood’s institute.

When Laurience presents his theories to a distinguished group of colleagues and is promptly ridiculed as a fraud, Haslewood fires the doctor and tells him that all his equipment and notes are the mogul’s property to do with as he sees fit. Laurience decides on the spot that he has the means to make the rich blowhard change his mind…

The Man: Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill)

The Plan: When Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney, Jr.) becomes headline news as the sole survivor of a bus crash into power lines that electrocuted 5 other passengers, electro-biologists Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) and Dr. Paul Rigas (Atwill) offer Dan room and board on Lawrence’s sprawling estate if he will agree to let the doctors examine him to find out why he is so immune to electricity (yes Virginia, there really is a branch of science called electro-biology).

Lawrence has a normal scientific curiosity with regard to Dan, but Rigas sees the potential for so much more: “I believe that electricity is life, that men can be motivated and controlled by electrical impulse supplied by the radioactivities of the electron. That eventually, a race of superior men can be developed, men whose only wants are… electricity!”

Lawrence’s niece June (Ann Nagel) and her fiance, newspaper reporter Mark Adams (Frank Albertson) are leery of Rigas. Adams sums up his impression of the doctor: “I bet he spent his childhood sticking pins in butterflies.”

While Lawrence is away at a scientific conference, Rigas pumps poor Dan with higher and higher doses of electricity in an effort to create an electro-man obedient to his will. When Lawrence returns and finds out what Rigas is doing, the madman must silence his colleague…

The Man: Dr. Cameron (George Zucco)

The Plan: Cameron’s mad theory -- that you can pass on the characteristics of animals to humans via blood transfusions -- has gotten him denounced by his colleagues and dismissed from his prestigious academic post.

When he succeeds in transforming his simple-minded gardener Petro (Glenn Strange) into a wolf-man, he imagines bringing together all his critics for an “I told you so” session:

“Just picture gentlemen, an army of wolfmen, fearless, raging, every man a snarling animal! My serum will make it possible to unloose millions of such animal men, men who are governed by one collective thought -- the animal lust to kill without regard to personal safety. Such an army will be invincible!”

But Cameron is not satisfied to just deliver tongue-lashings in his daydreams. He devises a diabolical plan to get his chief rival, Professor Blaine (Robert Strange), alone in a room with Petro, and have Blaine himself inject the handyman with the serum that turns him into a mindless killer…

Bela Lugosi and Minerva Urecal in The Ape Man (1943)
The Ape Man

The Man: Dr. James Brewster (Bela Lugosi)

The Plan: Brewster, a famous gland expert but a sloppy scientist, uses himself as a guinea pig in his experiments and ends up as a hairy, hunched over human-ape hybrid. With the help of his colleague Dr. Randall (Henry Hall) and his sister Agatha (Minerva Urecal), he stages his own disappearance and hides out in the cellar of the family manor, desperately seeking a cure for his condition.

There is one hope, but there’s a catch. Human spinal fluid might help him return to his normal self, but it has to be harvested from living bodies, meaning instant death for the donor. When Randall draws the line at killing people, Brewster explodes in a fit of self-pitying rage: “It’s my life against somebody else’s -- I don’t want to live the rest of my life this way, and I WON’T!”

When a wisecracking reporter (Wallace Ford) and his photographer (Louise Currie) start snooping around the manor, the pressure is on. Brewster, with the aid of his pet gorilla, takes matters into his own hands to secure the precious spinal fluid…

John Carradine and Myron Healey in The Unearthly (1957)
The Unearthly

The Man: Dr. Charles Conway (John Carradine)

The Plan: Conway runs a private sanatorium in the middle of nowhere, where a number of people, including the beautiful but vulnerable Grace Thomas (Allison Hayes), are convalescing. They’ve been referred to the sanatorium by a duplicitous crony of Conway’s, Dr. Wright (Roy Gordon), to become unwitting guinea pigs in Conway’s secret experiments with glands (there are those glands again!) None have any family members who will notice if they go missing. Lobo (Tor Johnson), a hulking giant with the mind of a child (and a product of Conway’s experiments), is on hand to make sure the “patients” stay put.

In his research on human glands, Conway has found a way to “control the flow of vitamins” to them in order to create giants like Lobo, but he has also created a new artificial gland that in theory is the key to eternal youth: “I can prolong life for thousands of years, perhaps forever! Think of it, to be always, exactly as you are now. Suppose you could wake up every morning and see your face untouched by time!”

But to prove his theories, he needs a “completely sound physical specimen, mentally and physically perfect!” He thinks he has such a specimen in Mark Houston (Myron Healey), a fugitive criminal that Lobo found lurking around the property, and whom Conway has blackmailed into sticking around.

In the meantime, Conway continues to experiment on the other patients who have been lured to the house of horrors…

September 5, 2020

Labor Day Weekend Travel Advisory: Avoid Roadside Tourist Traps

Poster - Tourist Trap (1979)
Now Playing: Tourist Trap (1979)

Pros: Adds a layer of surreal eeriness to the slasher genre; Pays clever homage to traditional horror tropes.
Cons: Based on your tolerance, it may require more suspension of disbelief than usual.

As the Covid-19 quarantine has ground many of us down to frazzled nubs of human beings, it’s perhaps not surprising that some sources are predicting that millions are going to say “screw it” this holiday weekend and hit the open road like it’s still 2019.

Well, maybe not exactly like 2019. Predictably, airline, rail and cruise ship bookings are way, way down. AAA estimates that when Labor Day closes the books on the summer of 2020, 97% of Americans’ travel will have been by car. Oil company executives are no doubt rubbing their bony, rapacious hands with glee as people in droves climb into cars and RVs to escape cabin fever.

There are just so many Netflix shows you can binge, boxed mac and cheese meals you can eat, and four grimey walls you can stare at before your brain and body rebel. It’s perfectly natural to want to mix things up, but hopefully people’s travel plans include prudent social distancing, mask-wearing and avoidance of maniacal killers.

Of course, there are plenty of homebodies who won’t be joining the fevered flight down America’s highways and byways. We all know the type (or maybe we are the type) -- hearth, home, family and familiar routines are reward enough. They (we) may even be relieved to be in quarantine, as there’s no pressure to leave the comforts of home.

And then there is that tiny fraction of homebodies who have built their comfortable surroundings on top of the bodies of unfortunate travelers and itinerants who have happened to wander into their lairs.

We tend to think of serial killers as predators in constant motion, stalking their prey and striking in deserted streets and victims’ homes. But a significant number of killers have been more like spiders patiently waiting for the next meal to stumble into their carefully crafted webs.

H.H. Holmes infamously built an ostensible hotel and “murder castle” near the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where people would check in, but never check out. Lavinia Fisher, reputed to be America’s first female serial killer, slyly interviewed travelers staying at the roadhouse she managed with her husband to determine if they were worth murdering.

Similarly, Tourist Trap is all about the spider waiting for the fly, but in this case at a dilapidated roadside attraction sitting on a forgotten stretch of road.

When one of the cars in a two-car caravan of vacationing young people gets a flat tire, Woody (Keith McDermott) goes looking for help, but stumbles upon a deserted gas station fronting a shabby roadside museum, “Slausen’s Lost Oasis,” that looks like it hasn’t seen a visitor in years.

The film quickly gets down to business. Woody becomes trapped in a room at the back of the gas station that seems to have life of its own. The door is locked as if by an invisible hand, and then suddenly grotesque mannequins are hurling themselves through windows and out of closets and even bottles on a shelf shoot out at the panicked youngster. As he tears at the door trying to get out, a hollow pipe shoots across the room like a missile, embedding itself in his back, and everything becomes eerily quiet.

Keith McDermott as Woody in Tourist Trap (1979)
Woody is having no fun in the "Lost Oasis" escape room.

When Woody doesn’t come back, the rest of the group -- Eileen, Becky, Molly and Jerry -- pile into Jerry’s jeep to search for their friend.

They too end up as the “Oasis,” where the Jeep mysteriously breaks down. They meet the proprietor, Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors), who seems like a garden-variety hayseed eccentric, complaining to the kids about the decline of his business since the opening of a new expressway.

Slausen takes the group over to the museum, where they gape at a bizarre assortment of mannequins dressed in costume, including a western gunfighter, a civil war soldier, and even General George Armstrong Custer in his own special alcove. When the group splits up (never a good idea in a horror movie) -- Jerry (Jon Van Ness) going with Slausen to fix the jeep, Eileen (Robin Sherwood) taking off to the main house behind the museum in search of a phone, and Molly (Jocelyn Jones) and Becky (Tanya Roberts) staying behind with the creepy mannequins -- the trap is set.

Slausen (Chuck Connors) gives a tour of his museum, Tourist Trap (1979)
Slausen gives the gang a tour of his house of horrors, er, wax museum.

Tourist Trap
checks off all the elements of the traditional slasher: a group of fun-loving, naive kids; car failure; characters heading off by themselves in spite of warnings; a final girl; and of course, a masked homicidal maniac. But the film adds a surreal, sci-fi element to the proceedings that makes it stand out from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s pack of slashers.

Per form, healthy young people die in a variety of grisly ways at the hands of a batshit crazy killer, but the film adds a fever dream layer to the proceedings. Everyday objects can seemingly move around on their own volition. Nothing and no one can be trusted, including scarves, chairs, bottles, lead pipes… 

And then there are the mannequins. They’re everywhere in the museum and main house, sitting in parlors, standing in hallways, situated in every nook and cranny and seemingly preferring the shadows. Some are uncannily realistic, others generic department store, but by sheer numbers they up the creepiness factor by several orders of magnitude. Plus, some of them have the disconcerting ability to follow you with their eyes and drop their jaws and scream at climactic points. Director (and co-writer) David Schmoeller cleverly inserts live actors among the dummies in the shadows to keep the audience off-guard.

He also pays homage to films like Mystery of the Wax Museum and House of Wax with an intense scene located in a basement workshop. Jerry and Becky, who have been captured and tied up, watch helplessly as the madman, wearing a chilling mask and bizarrely dressed in ill-fitting formal attire complete with top hat, attends to an unidentified girl strapped to a table (apparently the vacationing youngsters aren’t the only ones who have fallen into the Lost Oasis trap). The maniac slathers plaster over the face of the terrified girl, all the while describing what will happen to her as the plaster hardens and dries. Yikes!

The harrowing basement scene, Tourist Trap (1979)
The Phantom of The Lost Oasis channels Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price.

Another scene -- the obligatory chase through the woods at night -- ups the weirdness factor considerably. It’s one thing to be chased by your standard ax-wielding maniac. But poor Molly gets a double dose of terror by being pursued and tormented by the masked weirdo and his friend, a detached mannequin’s head that has a demonic life of its own. It’s a ventriloquist act from Hell, and Molly is not amused.

As the film races to its climax and the ranks of the youngsters thin out, the ranks of the mannequins seem to multiply into a veritable army. They surround and almost smother the final girl, who is rapidly losing her mind.

Slausen seems to be everywhere too, giving aid, comfort and sympathy to the innocent youngsters even as they’re cut down one by one by a force they can’t begin to comprehend. At each juncture, he provides a piece of backstory -- a beautiful wife who died young; a troubled, jealous brother -- that provide clues to the insane mystery.

Chuck Connors as Slausen in Tourist Trap (1979)
Slausen and his star attraction.

Oldsters like myself will no doubt take note of Chuck Connors’ presence in the film, which is a long way, chronologically and thematically, from his signature role as the upstanding Lucas McCain in The Rifleman TV series (1958-1963).

Jack Palance, among others, was reportedly offered the role before Connors. While a lot of fans apparently believe that Palance would have been a perfect fit, he was a very intimidating (not to mention urbane) figure, and from the very beginning would have been a bright red flag signalling danger ahead. Connors’ rough-hewn folksiness is not only a better fit for the backwoods setting, it lures the protagonists and the audience into a false sense of security and familiarity, making the ensuing developments all the more ominous and effective.

The other notable name is Tanya Roberts (Becky), who, shortly after Tourist Trap, joined the cast of Charlie’s Angels in the show’s last season. She leveraged that fame into becoming a Bond girl in A View to a Kill and securing a role in the cult favorite The Beastmaster before taking the acting escalator down to the direct-to-video market and the occasional TV appearance.

The terrifying chase through the woods, Tourist Trap (1979)
"Say hello to my little friend!"

This was director David Schmoeller’s first feature-length film. He would go on to other horror projects, most notably the very creepy Crawlspace with Klaus Kinski, and the franchise-spawning Puppet Master for Charles Band.

Tourist Trap is a low-budget cinematic attraction that has something for everyone (at least in the horror community): slasher fans will appreciate its concessions to and variations on the genre, and conventional horror fans will appreciate its masterful handling of surreal suspense and weird set pieces. Especially the mannequins, the creepy, creepy mannequins.

Where to find it: Tourist Trap is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray, and to rent; a new “VHS Retro Big Box collection” (Blu-ray & DVD) is due out in November, 2020.