INDICATOR (Blu-ray) TWILIGHT TIME (Blu-ray)
B&W, 1954, 72 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by John Brahm
Starring Vincent Price, Mary Murphy, Eva Gabor, Patrick O'Neal, Donald Randolph, John Emery, Lenita Lane
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Twilight Time (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Sony (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Never, ever try to screw over a stage performer whose proudest trick involves a gigantic buzzsaw. That's the moral at the heart of The Mad Magician, an entertaining stab by Columbia Pictures at the same 3-D success that greeted Vincent Price's breakthrough starring vehicle, the horror classic House of Wax. Here we have Price in a period setting once again slipping on some false faces while offing various members of the cast, this time under the direction of onetime Gothic horror specialist John Brahm who had proven his mettle with The Lodger, Hangover Square (which gets a shout out here with a nocturnal bonfire sequence), and The Undying Monster. Gleefully pulpy and entertaining over the course of its very short running time, this one obviously can't hit the delirious heights of its predecessor but has more than enough thrills and zesty Price moments to make for a solid night of viewing.
Known to the 19th-century public as Gallico the Great, magician Don Gallico (Price) dons a variety of clever disguises and performs show-stopping illusions on the stage including his newest creation, an elaborate buzzsaw routine that appears to dismember his assistant, Karen (Murphy). However, its first performance is interrupted by the unscrupulous Ross Ormond (Randolph), who claims ownership over all of Gallico's illusions even though they're no longer affiliated. Despite the efforts of Mary and her police detective boyfriend Alan (O'Neal), Ross sticks his ground and intends to hand the trick off to Gallico's rival, the Great Rinaldi (Emery), whom Gallico can impersonate for some reason. On top of that Ormond swiped Gallico's materialistic ex-wife, Claire (Gabor), and finally pushes the illusionist off the murderous deep end. However, that's just the beginning as Gallico reaches further into his bag of tricks to strike back at those he feels have wronged him.
Though you can probably figure out exactly where this film is heading about ten minutes in, the real joy here is watching Price strut his stuff and terrorize the rest of the cast wearing a variety of different masks. It's also incredibly strange to a very young O'Neal (who had done lots of TV and theater up to that point) as the romantic leading man, looking very different from his later appearances in Castle Keep, The Stepford Wives, and Silent Night, Bloody Night. The female cast members don't have much to do apart from looking very, very concerned, but Gabor manages to make the most of a modest but juicy supporting role. Incredibly, it took Price a while to capitalize on his newfound horror fame after this one, only dipping his toes back into genre fare with The Fly four years later and diving into a string of roles that would make him one of the genre's greatest stars of all time.
Despite its obvious value, this film was maddeningly difficult to see for decades after its theatrical run with only a few scarce TV airings keeping it around before an eventual bare-bones DVD-R release from Sony in 2012. In 2017, Twilight Time premiered the film on Blu-ray with 3-D and 2-D viewing options; obviously go for the 3-D if you're so equipped as the film has a lot of fun with the process, especially with water and that huge buzzsaw popping off the screen. The DTS-HD MA English mono track sounds pristine, not surprisingly, and optional English SDH subtitles are provided along with an audio commentary with David Del Valle and Steven Peros. They're in good spirits here as they focus on Price (not surprisingly), the fairly rushed production, and plenty of anecdotes including a bit about O'Neal's accidental smashing of the star's nose. An isolated music track showcases the score by Arthur Lange and Emil Newman, and a featurette, "Master of Fright! Conjuring The Mad Magician" (19m49s) with C. Courtney Joyner, John Goodwin, Ted Newsom and Michael Schlesinger covering Columbia's reticent approach to 3-D, the other rival productions at the time, and Brahm's contributions to the production. Also included are the theatrical trailer and two Columbia shorts starring The Three Stooges, "Pardon My Backfire" (15m59s) and "Spooks!" (15m47s), both of which are a blast and offered in both 3-D and 2-D options.
In 2020, long after the Twilight Time edition had gone out of circulation, Indicator bowed the title for the first time on U.K. Blu-ray, again featuring 2-D or 3-D options. It appears to be from the same scan but is a hair darker and slightly matted to 1.85:1 (the theatrical aspect ratio) versus the 1.78:1 of the Twilight Time, though compositionally there isn't a major difference. Again you get the DTS-HD MA English mono track with optional, improved English SDH subtitles. The trailer and the two Three Stooges shorts are ported over, but otherwise this is a different slate of extras starting off with a new audio commentary by Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby. They make for good company as they really burrow into the history of the film including background on the magic tricks, the later horror career of O'Neal, the genre tropes at work including the "laying on thick" of the villains who push Price too far, the hilarious vagueness of the story's time period, and the gradual ascendancy of Price's career as Hollywood got back into the genre groove. In "Three-Dimensional Magic" (15m2s), cinematographer Frank Passingham (Kubo and the Two Strings) and archivist Tom Vincent offer a useful thumbnail guide to '50s 3-D and this film's place in its history starting with the famous but somewhat misleading Bwana Devil, as well as the production equipment involved and tactics used to explore the format to the fullest. Two condensed Super 8 versions are also included (8m34s and 16m22s, the latter with sound) in anaglyphic 3D, along with a gallery of 33 promotional photos and production stills. As usual, the robust insert booklet is a keeper featuring new liner notes by Kat Ellinger, a bio of producer Bryan Foy, an archival text interview with Brahm by Del Valle, excerpts from the promotional campaign, sample reviews, and notes by Jeff Billington on the Stooges shorts.
Reviewed on March 7, 2020
TWILIGHT TIME (Blu-ray)