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Freaky Firsts Day 8: The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus (1962)

Wacky World of Dr Morgus 1963Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Roul Haig

Writers: Roul Haig, Noel Haig

Cast: Sid Noel, Dan Baron, Jeanne Teslof, David Kleinberger, Thomas George, John Ferdon

Plot: Momus Alexander Morgus (Sid Noel), a mad scientist living above the Old City Ice House in New Orleans, is working on his latest project: curing an ailing artist (John Ferdon) of his sniffles with a little old-fashioned brain surgery. As Morgus and his assistant, a mute hangman named Chopsley (Thomas George) attempt to work wonders on his newest patient, reporter Pencils McCane (Dan Barton) is drowning his sorrows in a dance club. Pencils recently turned in a story about Morgus and his “girlfriend,” Zelda, but nobody at the newspaper believed him. Morgus’s latest invention is a machine that can turn a person into dust, then restore them to life, and Pencils is determined to get the story.

Pencils persuades Morgus to take him back to see Zelda again – a beautiful young woman who has been kept in a hypnotic trance for years, preserving her youth eternally. (Because hypnosis does that, you see – stops the aging process. What, you didn’t know that? And you call yourself a scientist.) Morgus informs Pencils that he and Zelda will be married soon, and offers as proof the large diamond fused directly to her finger. Roaming the Ice House, Pencils uncovers Morgus’s new machine, and gets him to demonstrate its use on a cat. It seems to work, but the white cat Clyde comes out black and smaller on the other side.

Pencils submits Morgus’s machine to a United Nations Science Symposium, where a Microvanian national, Bruno (David Kleinberger) learns of it and sees the potential to use it to smuggle spies into the United States. They send a beautiful blond spy, Mona Speckla (Jeanne Teslof) to New Orleans to try to pry the secret from Morgus. Meanwhile, the Doctor is knee-deep in “wedding plans.” Mona convinces first Pencils, then Morgus to join her on the way to the “science symposium” – really a ploy by the Micorvanians. Really, you know they’re going to be evil from the outset based entirely on the ridiculous accent they speak in. Morgus cheerfully begins condensing a squad of Microvanians for them, dumping their powdered remains into a box. Mona, meanwhile, has fallen for Pencils, and wants to defect from Microvania.

Back in the Ice House, Zelda has escaped. What’s more, the crate of dust left from the transformed Microvanians is damaged in transit and the remains are given over to a concrete company. Morgus and Chopsley race to the docks (in a scene that’s particularly entertaining for me – a sort of low-speed “high speed chase” down New Orleans’s Canal Street in the 1960s), but they’re too late to stop them from being dumped into a concrete mixer and poured as part of the last yard of a roadway project: the aptly-named “People’s Avenue.”

Thoughts: Every city in America (or at least every city worth visiting) at one time or another had a late-night creepshow movie host: Vampira, Svengoolie, and Elvira are immortal names, and wherever you are, you can probably recall your own local celebrity of the night. In the New Orleans area, where I grew up, our late night host was Morgus the Magnificent, a mad scientist whose experiments served as the framing sequence for that week’s movie. Morgus ran from the 50s through the 80s, with reruns on the air as recently as 2011, and all horror-loving children of Nola have a deep affection for Morgus, and still consider ourselves members of the Higher Order. When a local company got the rights a few years ago to produce a DVD of Dr. Morgus’s feature film debut (also his final feature film), I had to snap it up. Finally, “Freaky Firsts” gave me the perfect excuse to finally watch it.

As one of those kids, this movie won me over almost immediately. Although it was interesting to see Morgus outside of his comfortable home in the Old City Ice House, seeing him traipsing about the city of New Orleans, taking him outside of the set where we’d watched him for such a long time, made the film a bit more special. Granted, much of the film (at least the parts where Morgus actually appears) feels like an extended episode of his TV show. The opening sequence, where he hopes to cure a painter’s stuffy nose by cutting into his brain, is straight out of the late night antics he got up to throughout my childhood. I’m really rather sorry that Erin was at work when I watched this, because it’s hard for me to tell if this movie would be genuinely entertaining to anybody who didn’t grow up watching Morgus, or if it’s mostly my affection for the character that made watching it so much fun.

As far as that invention goes, it’s an absolutely ludicrous idea, but the way it works and the fact that it’s actually used in conjunction with a United Nations science symposium can’t help but make me think of The 1966 Batman: The Movie, in which Batman’s foes use a nearly identical device for a similar purpose to that planned by the Microvanians in this movie. It’s almost too close to accept as mere coincidence, and one has to wonder if screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. ever spent any time in New Orleans.

The overall story, on the other hand, is truly scattershot. The subplot with Zelda, for example, is utterly extraneous, adding nothing to the film but time. (It is, to be fair, a pretty quick film – just 83 minutes.) The prologue sequence with the ailing artist and his stuffy nose is an interesting introduction to Morgus, but has nothing to do with the rest of the events of the film. Even the parts that are directly related to the plot, the Microvanian invasion and the powder machine, are loosely knit together at best. There’s no real logic behind Pencils having anything to do with the United Nation Science Symposium, for example, but there you are. Even though the film is branded as a horror/comedy, there’s really nothing horrific about it once you get past Morgus’s makeup and the particularly creepy relationship with Zelda. This is far more Munsters than The Frighteners.

Sid Noel as Dr. Morgus is frankly the only standout in a particularly bland cast. Oh, Bruno has a little bombast in him, but nothing that will stay with you for any period of time. Noel, however, has his usual bizarre allure as Morgus. He’s weird, even a little hideous, but for all his buck teeth and bug eyes, something about him remains absolutely delightful.

I don’t often spend a lot of time talking about the quality of a particular film print here, because I’m mostly about digging out the story and the characters, and frankly, the quality might vary from one print or one transfer to another. But in the case of The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus, I’m going to make an exception. The film was restored as much as possible, but there are still plenty of lines and artifacts on the screen, and somehow, that just makes it all the more charming. It helps with the time capsule quality of the whole experience. It really does bring back the feeling of sitting back late at night and watching an old Universal Monster picture, or some 50s Roger Corman cheesefest.

I had a lot of fun watching this film, but like I said, I can’t be sure if that’s because it’s actually good, or merely because I love the good Doctor. But in truth, does it really matter? Granted, I can’t transfer my experience over to you, but one of the things I set out to examine when I began my first Reel to Reel project was the way our experiences influence the way we take in story. For the brief 83 minutes of this project’s run time, my experiences helped make me very happy, and that’s never a bad thing.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 13: The Haunting (1963)

hauntingDirector: Robert Wise

Writer: Nelson Gidding from the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Cast: Richard Johnson,Julie Harris, Ronald Adams, Claire Bloom, Lois Maxwell, Russ Tamblyn

Plot: Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) and a team of paranormal investigators win the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Hill House, an old manor with a history of tragic deaths amongst its inhabitants. One of them, Eleanor “Nell” Lance, goes behind the back of her overbearing sister to gain access to the car she helped pay for in order to make the trip. Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) is the nephew of the owner of the house, sent along to gain an appreciation for the property he hopes to inherit one day. She befriends a fellow investigator named Theodora (Claire Bloom), whose interest in Nell seems more than academic. As the house begins to “greet” them in its own way, Nell starts to feel a certain attraction to the house, despite its terrors. The spirits seem to be summoning her, even calling to her, taking advantage of a woman who has no real direction in her life following the death of her invalid mother. Luke, meanwhile, is interested in the house only as a moneymaking scheme – what parts he can sell, what parts he can renovate, even to the point of planning to use the spiral staircase scene of a famous suicide as a nightclub.

Nell finds herself attracted to Markway, only to be devastated when his skeptic wife (Lois Maxwell) arrives and insists on joining the hunt. Nell suggests she sleep in the nursery – the sealed-off and most mysterious room in the house – but immediately regrets it. The locked room opens by itself, though, and Mrs. Markway decides to stay. After the rest of the group finds itself cornered in the parlor, loud noises and bulging walls coming in upon them, they find Mrs. Markway missing. As the others begin to tear apart the house searching, Nell (who now believes herself destined to be a part of this house) begins to roam the mansion, joyfully seeking out the spirits, finally finding herself at the wobbly, unstable staircase, climbing to the top. Markway coaxes her down, but Mrs. Markway leaps out and terrifies her, causing her to faint. Markway declares an end to the experiment and orders them all home, but Nell tells them she has no home, refusing to return to her sister and begging to stay at the house. She drives for the gate, losing control of the car and seeing a white figure leap in front of her just before she strikes a tree, killing her. The white figure turns out to be Mrs. Markway, who got lost in the massive, confusing house. Markway reveals the tree Eleanor struck was the same one where the house’s first victim died in an “accident.” He returns to the house to collect their things knowing he’ll be safe. The house has want it wants… for now.

Thoughts: From the very beginning, it’s interesting to note how different filmmaking and storytelling is today compared to 1963, when the movie was made. The film begins with Markway narrating an extended flashback sequence, detailing the history of the house and the gruesome deaths of those who have been associated with it. All this before we know who Markway is or what his association with the house actually is. A modern film is far more likely to begin with Markway begging for permission to go to the house, with the backstory being uncovered later. It’s debatable which approach is better, but since this is my little project I’ll tell you: it’s the latter one. Kicking things off with a infodump – scary as it is – takes some of the momentum out of the film from the very beginning.

The events that happen inside the house are exactly what you come to expect in Haunted House stories – odd noises, doors that close themselves, doors that open thanks to convenient gusts of wind, cold spots, and strange writing that appears on the wall (specifically “Help Eleanor come home,” a message that scares poor Nell half to death.) We deal with exceedingly creepy statues, the skeptics who try to debunk the supernatural nature of the house, the caretakers who refuse to stay in the house at night and so forth. Theo seems unnaturally perceptive about Nell, making offhanded comments about her and her life that border on the telepathic. Nell’s sensitivity to the ghosts of the house also mark her. Characters in these stories with special gifts or powers has become another trademark of the genre.

You know all of these tropes because every haunted house story uses them, but all the others were really mimicking this original. Basically, if you’ll excuse the pun, this story is the blueprint from which all other haunted house stories are built. It’s one of those stories that has been redone – in whole or in part – over and over again over the years to the point where the original almost seems derivative, even though it’s exactly the opposite. Not to say that all of these elements were 100 percent original even when Shirley Jackson wrote the novel in 1959, but her novel and this movie pulled them all together and fused them into a genre in a way that no other film had.

Interestingly, this is one of those movies where it’s what you don’t see that’s most effective. There’s no blood in the film (although I understand there’s one scene in the novel with a message written in blood which the filmmakers excised), and although you see the evidence of the spirits, you never see the spirits themselves. Even the “ghost” that startles Nell at the end turns out to be the very living, very confused Grace Markway.

In one bit of infodump that actually works, Markway takes some time to explain to the ladies why the house is so confusing – it’s constructed specifically to be that way. The doors are off-center, none of the angles are at 90 degrees, and the entire structure is built in such a way to make it nearly impossible to find your way around. Watching the film, it’s a credit to the set designers that you really do get that sense. It’s hard to tell for sure, watching only those elements the director wants us to see from the angles he wants us to see them, but the house looks incredibly confusing. There are so many doors that anybody could get confused quickly, the mirrors are all hanging at strange angles that give you peeks into obscure corners of a room that you wouldn’t expect to see in normal circumstances. Purely from a visual standpoint, the director has more than succeeded in making the house look bizarre as hell, and it’s very easy to imagine yourself getting lost in its halls.

Some of the simplest scares work the best. While the entire cast is assembled in the parlor, tremendous rumbling noises elsewhere begin to torment them. It gets worse when the doorknob begins to rattle (easily accomplished by a crew member tinkering with it slowly from the other side), then the door itself begins to bulge inward impossibly, stretching like rubber instead of wood. It’s a very simple effect, but far more effective than the expensive CGI version of the effect we saw in the 1999 remake of the film.

The ending is suitably bleak for a haunted house film, no happy ending and no real chance at redemption for the house or for the sad, broken characters. It’s not a bad film, but not nearly as good as some of the other films we’ve discussed recently. (It’s not much of a follow-up to Psycho, for instance.) Still, I think it’s notable in and of itself. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a good movie, and it leaves a cinematic footprint that is clear, vivid, and continues even today.

Next is Audrey Hepburn in a classic chiller, Wait Until Dark.