THE FILM 4/5
“Good luck on your murder.”
Columbia Pictures’ last entry in the 1950s 3D craze, The Mad Magician (1954) stars Vincent Price in a trademark role as a round-the-bend illusionist bent on revenge. Delightfully tongue-in-cheek, the film also offers some genuinely frightfest-style moments, courtesy of director John Brahm, one of Hollywood’s foremost stylists of the macabre.
Vincent Price, throughout his career, played a wide variety of roles, but the one that he seemed to revisit the most – probably thanks to what’s called typecasting – was the murderous maniac bent on revenge. Though he’d been acting for fifteen years prior to that point, Price hit it big – make that huge – with House of Wax, an early horror effort and a bonafide classic which managed to ride a diabolical concept and a then-current 3D craze to box office success. And as can happen when the stars align, producers attempt to replicate said success by revisiting similar concepts, or working with the headlining actors, or sometimes marrying them together.
This is how The Mad Magician (in 3D!) came to be.
Somewhat struck from the same mold as its predecessor, Price plays Gallico the Great, an artist (this time of the illusion, rather than of sculpture) who has a promising career ahead of him before a greedy business partner attempts to sever the relationship – permanently. And, like in House of Wax, Price’s spurned artist slowly loses all semblance of right and wrong and begins to seek revenge on those who wronged him, and then later, on those who have grown wise to his scheme and know too much. That these eventual victims of Gallico the Great’s need for revenge are struck down by aspects of his illusion show is yet another callback to House of Wax, in which Henry Jarrod collected his victims, coated them in wax, and turned them into his permanent exhibits. (And as for a final example of similarity, The Mad Magician even includes a scene of a random street showman hitting a paddle and ball directly into the camera – one of the many ways to exploit the film’s usage of 3D presentation.)
Where the paths of House of Wax and The Mad Magician begin to separate would be the latter’s lighter tone, helped in part by Alice Prentiss, mystery writer and amateur sleuth played by Alice Prentiss in a supporting role. Between her and her somewhat daffy husband Frank (Jay Novello), who refreshingly plays the passive role in the coupling, giving Alice the brains and the fortitude to solve the mystery behind her very suspicious house guest, they provide nearly all of the film’s laughs and help to break up the proceedings as they threaten to become just a bit too morbid.
The Mad Magician is a minor effort from the early days of Price’s burgeoning horror career, and yes, it does come off at times as a bit too similar to House of Wax, but it’s still a delight to watch him revel in the kind of role that, even if he did revisit them too often in the latter half of his career, where he was exemplary – that of the gimmicky killer. Future titles to come would revisit this same ground: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (and its sequel), Madhouse, and Theater of Blood, and though each of them would be perfectly entertaining (with an increasing amount of morbidness and graphic murder sequences), Price would prove again and again that this was the kind of role for which he was made.
THE PICTURE 4/5
I’ve always found older black and white titles to replicate beautifully in high-def and The Mad Magician is no different. The more horrific aspects of the film still manage to come alive, even with the absence of color that really suit high-def images. The picture is very strong and stable, with only the occasional blemish or sign of print damage. Some of the shots designed for 3D presentation can seem just the least bit more grainy than other traditionally shot segments, but in no way do they mar the image or present unattractively. Clarity is reasonably good considering the film’s age. Price is as photogenic as ever.
THE SOUND 4/5
For what The Mad Magician requires, its audio presentation does just fine. Dialogue is front and center, easily understandable and delightfully macabre at times. There are a decent amount of segments requiring just a bit more than dialogue, like Gallico’s usage of the crematorium in his act, or his visit to the local university’s bonfire to celebrate their football victory in order to dispose of a dead body. The presentation suits the video just fine without any areas of noticeable damage or concern.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 3.5/5
Twilight Time’s release of this title offers a fair and unexpectedly different gathering of special features, the best being the “Master of Fright!” featurette which sees film historians and friends of Twilight Time discussing all things Mad Magician, along with the early career of its director John Brahm. (Watching it put his Jack the Ripper mystery-thriller The Lodger on my radar, so thanks, TT!)
Other features include the audio commentary and two shorts starring The Three Stooges, originally shot in 3D. I’ve no idea if these two shorts in particular played in front of The Mad Magician during its run in theaters, but the 3D aspect and their horror-comedy tones are definitely appropriate.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Isolated Music Track
- Audio Commentary by Film Historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros
- Master of Fright!: Conjuring The Mad Magician
- Original Theatrical Trailer / Two 3D/2D 1953
- Comedy Shorts Starring The Three Stooges, Pardon My Backfire and Spooks!
Vincent Price’s The Mad Magician is a minor horror effort from the celebrated actor, but certainly not an expendable one. If anything, it manages to conjure an appreciation for the actor who had an uncanny ability to elevate the material around him which may not have been quite worthy of his talents and screen presence. Some critics would describe The Mad Magician as House of Wax-lite, and they wouldn’t be wrong, but that also undoes the entertainment value that the obviously inspired title still manages to bring. Whether or not one might consider this must-see Vincent Price is usually determined by one’s devotion to the horror stars of the golden age. For me, everything Price has ever done is must-see Price, but sometimes offbeat titles like The Madg Magician offer additional reasons for delving into the back catalogue of a beloved actor. Middle of the road though it may be, The Mad Magician still offers a collection of great performances, an intriguing premise, and a handful of ghoulish murder scenes. And that’s enough for me!
(Thanks to Blu-ray Hi-Def Digest for the screen grabs.)
Twilight Time are a boutique distributor who specialize in limited editions of culturally significant films from the world’s finest filmmakers. Founded by and comprised of “collectors and lifelong movie buffs,” Twilight Time’s catalogue of releases are specifically chosen to represent the films that, though beloved, would likely not be released by their own studios: “If we didn’t put them out, it is likely that they wouldn’t come out. And we are going to try to put them out … [with] the best picture and sound that we can.”