Color, 1967, 93m. / Directed by Richard Burton and Nevill Coghill / Starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Andreas Teuber / Columbia (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Almost never discussed as a horror film, this Italian-influenced vanity project from Richard Burton just before his drink-sodden decline in the '70s reveals a startling collision of genre cinema including the Hammer gothics, Roger Corman's Poe cycle, and particularly the colorful fever dreams of Mario Bava. Though hamstrung by Burton's theatrical excesses, the film merits a closer look for genre fans and stands as one of the more peculiar marriages between Hollywood and horror cinema.

Based on Christopher Marlowe's most famous play, the story is yet another twist on the usual Faust legend as the aging academic Doctor Faustus (Burton) pores over his texts with dissatisfaction and decides to strike a deal with the bald, seductive Mephistopheles (Teuber) exchanging his soul for youth, high times, and carnal pleasures with the beautiful Helen (Taylor) who reappears in a number of guises. With his satanic conspirator at his side, Faustus embarks on a prank-laden journey through kingdoms and the Vatican, mocking government and religion while ignoring one sinister clause in their pact: at the end of 27 years, Faustus' pleasure will disappear as he descends into Hell.

Streamlining the original text, this adaptation begins with an overabundance of stagebound soliloquies from Burton but soon offers a number of striking visual delights, some obviously inspired by Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World and Black Sabbath (note the forest designs, striking red/blue lighting, and mobile camerawork). The project was born from a stage version mounted by Burton for the Oxford University Dramatic Society, whose members comprise most of the other cast members. The one notable exception is Taylor (married to Burton for the first time during filming), looking magnificent and even popping up with green skin (a la The Crimson Cult's Barbara Steele) for the memorably hellish, fiery finale. The gorgeous cinematography was handled by pro Gábor Pogány, best known for such Eurotrash delights as Night Train Murders, Stateline Motel, Bluebeard, and Double Face, while composer Mario Nascimbene (One Million Years B.C.) contributes a haunting, lyrical score complete with moody female vocals.

Rarely seen in prime condition, Doctor Faustus looks fairly good on Columbia's worthy but overpriced DVD. The transfer is remarkably colorful and often saturated with eye-popping hues, though the element looks a bit worn and dated (perhaps due to dated film processing effects at the time). If you have access to a 16:9 display, this is a rich visual experience well worth seeking out, at least for a rental. Alas, the DVD is essentially bare bones, sporting only trailers for other largely irrelevant titles like From Here to Eternity, Suddenly Last Summer and The Eddy Duchin Story.

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