Transitioning from low-budget "ghetto horror" to subtle black-and-white scares from the 30's is like leaving Kathy Griffin for Zooey Deschanel. There is no comparison. I've said this before, but it bears repeating. People who refuse to watch anything made before 1970 have no idea what they're missing. I was coveting an old-fangled allotrope of genre cinema, and 1935's Mad Love is just what the (mad) doctor ordered. It's disturbing in a quiet, sophisticated way. It should be regarded as a classic, but MGM has done virtually nothing over the years to keep it fresh in the minds of film buffs. If it had been released by Universal, I doubt that it would be considered a lost gem.
Peter Lorre is usually mentioned in the same breath as Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff, but as his record illustrates, he didn't appear in many fright flicks (he allegedly detested his horror roles). That should tell you something about the potency of his performances. Here, he plays Dr. Gogol, a private practitioner infatuated with an actress who specializes in Grand Guignol-esque theater productions. He sits in the same balcony seat at every show, and when his object of idolatry screams in anguish during a harrowing scene, he closes his eyes in a moment of sadistic eroticism. If that wasn't enough, he has flowers delivered to her dressing room. And he looks like Peter Lorre, so he's already creepy.
The stunning Frances Drake gives life to Yvonne, the lucky girl at the center of Dr. Gogol's attention. Her pianist husband is maimed in a train crash, and her not-so-secret admirer may be the only surgeon who can help him. I'm not going to recant the entirety of the plot, but it involves a guillotine, an unsettling neck brace (seriously, holy shit) and "idle hands." Ironically, Lorre would later star in The Beast With Five Fingers. It just occurred to me that I need to review The Hand and Idle Hands. Okay, here we go...Michael Caine is cool, and Devon Sawa is annoying. Done and done!
I'm getting ahead of myself. Lorre is simply incredible as our lead headcase. The rest of the cast is serviceable (it's worth noting that Colin Clive is no slouch), but they're acting in Pete's shadow. It's not their fault. Karl Freund holds down the director's chair with aplomb. The atmosphere is fraught with dismay and tension of the most gripping kind. As a matter of fact, I caught my remote control sweating at one point. The script is rather clever. Gogol is certifiably demented, and yet, you can almost sympathize with him. I can't say that I was in his corner, but his character is so well-developed, that you can't blame him for snapping.
Universal wasn't alone in crafting first-rate horror films in the 30's and 40's. The proof is in the pudding; the pudding is Mad Love. If you find that your seasonal movie marathon is lacking in the "old school" department, toss this baby into the cauldron. Or you can sit through Halloween for the millionth time. Your choice.
Posted by Dom Coccaro at 9:20 PM