Terence Fisher, 1959
Starring: Anton Diffring, Hazel Court, Christopher Lee
Georges Bonnet, a sculptor and womanizer, has a strange secret: he’s been alive for over a century, keeping up a youthful appearance by killing women and harvesting their parathyroid glands to use in a serum that restores his appearance at occasional intervals. But unfortunately, Bonnet needs to have a delicate surgery to keep him alive and he seek out an old colleague to perform the operation. Though the man unfortunately is not able to, but Bonnet finds a new doctor — Pierre Gerard — who he is able to blackmail. Gerard and Bonnet also share a love interest, a model named Janine, and Gerard hopes to save her from Bonnet.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death is one of Hammer’s most neglected early entries and unites much of its classic team: star Christopher Lee, beauty Hazel Court (The Mask of the Red Death, The Curse of Frankenstein), director Terence Fisher, and writer Jimmy Sangster. Based on Barré Lyndon’s play, The Man in Half Moon Street, this includes a number of horror tropes — both the mad doctor and the murderous artist — and falls somewhere between The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This unsteady divide is probably the film’s weakest point and the plot wanders haphazardly all over the place.
For starters, nothing of Bonnet’s background is explained. How did he figure out that he needed to use the parathyroid gland? If he’s an artist, an not a doctor, how did he even invent a serum for himself in the first place? And maybe I missed something, but why does this only have to come from beautiful women? Couldn’t it come from any body or, better yet, a corpse? And not to get obsessive about it, but the parathyroid glands are located in the neck, near the thyroid, not in the abdomen as this film seems to suggest. You literally do not need to eviscerate someone to remove them, but merely do a bit of specific neck surgery. And the parathyroid regulates calcium and phosphate levels in the body, so I don’t know why in the hell it seemed a likely target for this cockamamie plot.
But despite the messy use of science and logic, the film has its charms, its villain chief among them. The role of Bonnet was apparently initially intended for Peter Cushing — and wouldn’t that have been marvelous? — but the star claimed exhaustion and bowed out of the production just before it began. He was replaced by the sinister-looking German actor Anton Diffring, of the superior Circus of Horrors (1960) and often forces throughout his career to play a Nazi (most famously as in the wonderful Where Eagles Dare). Icy yet sympathetic, Bonnet is the same character type as Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein and is much an anti-hero as he is antagonist.
Perhaps surprisingly, Diffring’s Bonnet is put up against Christopher Lee as romantic hero Pierre Gerard. Lee is dashing, but also perhaps a little stiff and cold, though he makes a lovely pair with Hazel Court. I wish Lee had been cast in more of these roles and, to be honest, I wish he had been given a little more to do here. And that’s the main problem: even Diffring is limited by the script and would perhaps be more memorable if he had been allowed to descend into full blown hysterics. As it standards, there’s some memorable scenery chewing and a lot of dialogue-heavy scenes, but the film still jogs through its running time.
I can’t give The Man Who Could Cheat Death the highest recommendation, as it’s definitely an acquired taste and is not an ideal place to begin for the Hammer newbie. But I did really enjoy the film and anyone who likes subtle, Dorian Gray-influenced Gothic horror will probably feel the same way. Plus, you don’t want to miss an opportunity to see a particularly dashing young Christopher Lee. Certainly Peter Cushing’s inclusion would have bumped this up to minor classic status, but there’s still plenty about it to love. You can find it on DVD in the US or on Blu-ray from Eureka, as long as you live in the UK or have a region-free player.