John Brahm, 1954
Starring: Vincent Price, Mary Murphy, Eva Gabor
Gallico the Great, a stage magician and inventor of magic tricks has his first big show stopped midway by greedy producer and manager Ormond, who wants a more famous magician, the Great Rinaldi, to use Gallico’s brilliant illusions. In addition to screwing him out of fame and money, Ormond has also stolen Gallico’s wife, the beautiful but lascivious Claire. In a fit of rage, Gallico uses his newest trick, the Lady and the Buzz saw, the decapitate Ormond. He quickly makes an elaborate and clever mask of Ormond’s face in order to keep up the illusion that he is still alive. Unfortunately Ormond’s decapitated head has gone missing when his bag gets switched with his assistant Karen’s.
After a nerve wracking journey to reclaim the head, Gallico burns Ormond’s body at a local bonfire and rents a room in his name. He is confronted by Claire, who is looking for her husband, and when she guesses the truth, he is forced to kill her too. Unfortunately the room he is renting is in the home of Alice Prentiss, a mystery author who teams up with Karen and her police officer boyfriend to get to the bottom of things. Gallico, meanwhile, must keep murdering people as they get closer to the truth. He has also just invented a new trick, the Crematorium.
Despite its sorely limited budget, The Mad Magician is a lot of fun, thanks mostly to Vincent Price. This was his second horror film after House of Wax and though this borrows heavily from that film, he thankfully gives a very difference performance in The Mad Magician. Like many of Price’s later villains, Gallico is a sympathetic character and we really don’t feel all that bad for the people he kills. They are all cruel, rude, greedy, and have repeatedly treated the quiet, sensitive Gallico very badly.
The other actors sadly pale in comparison to Price. Mary Murphy (The Wild One, The Desperate Hours) does a decent job as the heroine and effectively figures out who the murderer is with Lenita Lane’s enjoyable Alice Prentiss, the female mystery writer who is the first to suspect Ormond/Gallico. Lane would also appear in The Bat (1959) with Price, another film where a female author solves a murder mystery. Eva Gabor (Green Acres), sister of Zsa Zsa, is memorable as Gallico’s gold digging ex-wife, who he murders in a fit of jealous rage. Though the male characters are all pretty forgettable, there are a number of familiar faces from other genre films, including John Emery (The Woman in White) and Patrick Neal (The Stuff).
The Mad Magician oddly borrows some elements from director John Brahm’s earlier, better films, namely The Lodger - a strange man renting a room and coming and going at odd hours; the woman of the house being the first to suspect him while her droll husband laughs it off - and Hangover Square, which introduced the idea of using a community festival to dispose of a body on top of a bonfire. It’s a shame that this film lacks the grim, depressing tone of Hangover Square.
Whether on the part of Brahm or the studio, Columbia Pictures, there is also an obvious attempt to ride House of Wax’s coattails with a carnivalesque atmosphere and somewhat similar sets. Both films were also shot in 3-D, though House of Wax greatly benefits from color and elaborate sets. It’s a shame the same wasn’t done for The Mad Magician, which is black and white. There are some fun illusions and tricks, including Gallico’s masks to impersonate people, the Lady and the Buzz Saw, and his “Crematorium” trick where a person is supposedly burnt alive. Probably not the classiest move.
The screenwriter, Crane Wilbur, would work with Price again in a few years. He wrote and directed their adaptation of The Bat (1959), an equally low budget, but fun horror mystery. It’s strange that both The Mad Magician and The Bat are relatively neglected by Price fans. They aren’t the greatest films in his long career, but they provide plenty of fun for a spooky, October night and foreshadow the delightful films to come. The film is available for free on Archive.org or on DVD.