The Mad Magician (1954) Directed by: John Brahm . Starring: Vincent Price, Mary Murphy, Eva Gabor.
Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film is notable mainly for being the only collaboration between two masters of the macabre: Vincent Price and John Brahm. While Brahm isn’t nearly as well-known as Price, he’s a fantastic director who essayed several classic (though under-seen) horror and suspense films of the 40s. We previously talked about his unusual werewolf picture The Undying Monster here at the Vault of Secrets, but his other films that are collected with it in the Fox Horror Classic Collection are as good or better, with Hangover Square being a true genre classic. Brahm would go on to become a prolific television director, helming episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone, to name a few, but his early film work shows incredible skill, and more than a touch of Hitchcock.
Unfortunately, as a collaboration between Price and Brahm, The Mad Magician is bound to disappoint, at least a little bit. A word of advice: If you’re planning to catch tonight’s film, be sure you watch Hangover Square first. It’s the superior flick and there’s at least one scene in The Mad Magician that’s literally just a less-impressive retread of one of that film’s key moments.
In fact, “derivative” is an easy label to stick on The Mad Magician. Even more than Brahm’s earlier work, it’s reminiscent of its better-known elder sibling House of Wax from just one year before. The films share a star in Price, screenwriter in Crane Wilbur, a cinematographer in Bert Glennon, and a storyline, if you just replace a wax sculptor with a stage magician. They were also both released in 3D and have all the gimmicks you might expect from the earliest of that format’s many booms in popularity. There’s even an extended in-your-face yo-yo sequence in The Mad Magician, just like the one in House of Wax, albeit less impressively staged.
Perhaps it’s that obvious quality of cashing in that renders Brahm’s directing less dynamic here than it was in, say, Hangover Square or The Lodger. But just because Mad Magician isn’t a classic, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its charms. Vincent Price is great, as always, playing opposite the lovely Mary Murphy, as well as Eva Gabor as his gold-digging ex-wife. He even gets to put on makeup and play a couple of other characters (His would-be magician is also an expert at impersonations, we’re told), including donning some delightfully devilish hair and beard as a rival magician (which is how you generally see him in the promotional materials).
There’s a chase for a missing head early in the movie, an amusing lady mystery writer and her husband who provide the film’s comic relief – and also prove instrumental in solving the crimes – and while the bonfire scene was much better in Hangover Square, even a watered-down version of it is still pretty fantastic.
As far as I know, The Mad Magician is currently only available as part of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Sony Pictures Choice Collection of never-before-released on DVD titles. I got it as part of a batch of screeners they sent over, but you can get your own copy if you want from Amazon, TCM, or the Warner Archive (at the above link).
That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time, or else the Boogeyman might get you!
BIO: Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters. He’s the author of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, and the co-editor of Fungi. He can be found online at orringrey.com.