Hey folks, Harry here... And ya know, how hot is the chick that'd send in a report about the 7 FACES OF DR LAO? I mean, this is the gal to father children with. She gets it! Problem with Junior Mintz though... She'd rule you with an iron fist. Junior is that perfect geek goddess, even dresses all sharp and sweet... but ya lay a finger on that left virginal buttock... and CRUNCH, the weight of a metal flashlight crashes upon your head! Shucks. Anyway, this is a great film... one of the ones I have lined up for some point in the future for THE SATURDAY MORNING FUN CLUB that I host once a month here in Austin for kids.... BUT there's a disk I'd like to tell ya about as well... I just got in the mail, my disk for George Pal's THE TIME MACHINE... one of the greatest films ever made. So... pick up both and Pal-out!!!
Hurry, hurry! Step right up, ladies and gentlegeeks! The DVD release of George Pal's 1963 classic 7 FACES OF DR. LAO makes its appearance this week and it's a beaut. For those of you unfamiliar with this mish-mash of a masterpiece, the story centers on a mysterious 7,322 year old Chinese showman and the bizarre effects his circus of mythological creatures has on the residents of a sleepy Arizona town circa 1900. A mixture of fantasy, comedy, western and romance, the film is one of the damnedest things ever thrust out to the moviegoing public under the staggeringly simple misnomer of "kiddie movie."
7 FACES is based on the short novel "The Circus of Dr. Lao" written by Arizona author Charles G. Finney in 1935. A brash and cheerfully caustic work of fantasy, Finney's original story was a slap at stolid southwestern types who wouldn't know a miracle if it slashed them across the shins, as Lao's tame chimera does to one disbeliever. The people of the depression-era town of Abalone were rural dullards who went to Lao's circus expecting to see tigers and acrobats, and were disappointed to find only monsters of antiquity and true miracle-working sorcerers. In his novel Finney presented a mythic menagerie only hinted at in the film - the movies sea serpent and Medusa were there, but so was the aforementioned chimera (sort of a real-life Chinese dragon) as well as a mermaid, a werewolf, and an African tribal god complete with a complement of vestal virgins, (wildly unPC even for 1935) not to mention a unicorn, a baby roc, a dog more cactus than canine, and a bitchy hermpahroditic sphinx. Good luck getting any of that on screen in 1963.
Creature effects aside, the snide tone of the novel, while engaging as fiction, would not have translated well to a film, either. Enter fantasy writer Charles Beaumont (The Twilight Zone, among others) who refashioned Finney's youthful, sarcastic narrative into a parable of an old western town beset by greed, doubt and vanity. The enigmatic Dr. Lao uses the denizens of his circus to impart life lessons to the inhabitants of Abalone, and so leaves the town changed for the better. Not Finney's original by any stretch of the imagination, but not a bad screenplay framework at all.
Naturally the film boasts some incredible special effects sequences. The showpiece features the Dr.'s pet sea serpent who, after being released from his tank by two bad hombres, grows to gargantuan proportions and promptly runs amok. The Loch Ness monster, designed by master creature maker Wah Chang and animated by stop motion genius Jim Danforth is a terrific movie creature. The restoration on the DVD has cleaned up a number of matte lines in this sequence and corrected, to a degree, some of the color inconsistances from the tape version. Though the animated effects Dr. Lao sends forth to subdue the creature still look as cheesey as ever (not unlike Colorforms shapes stuck onto the film stock) the sequence still has lots of thrills and charm.
The best effects in the movie, however, are the performances of Tony Randall as Dr. Lao and virtually every other creature in the circus. It was Pal's inspiration to have one actor play all the main parts, thus adding a greater level of mystery to the proceedings. Is Dr, Lao a quick-change artist? A magician? An extension of all the other creatures or are they all extensions of him? None of these questions are ever answered, which is another one of the film's many charms. As Lao, Randall plays a sage of awesome power and wisdom who frequently masks his true nature behind a condescending Chinese accent. Racist caricature? Perhaps, but Lao always seems to be in complete control of the subtle joke he's having on the townspeople smug in their assumption that he is simply a wacky old Chinese faker. Besides, the depth of the character comes out when he gently speaks to a young runaway about the true circus of life taking place in the world around them. It's a great moment and Randall plays the scene with an equal balance of wisdom and fun.
Randall is also affecting as Apollonius, a blind fortuneteller cursed to reveal the absolute truth of his customer's futures, no matter how painful it may be to them. Impassive, detatched, and yet unbearably sad ("I only read futures, I don't evaluate them" he tells one broken-hearted woman) Randall's performance is a subtle and wonderful study in melancholy.
The other guises Randall assumes, such as Merlin, Medusa, the abominable snowman and Pan are all skillfully realized cameos, each enhanced by the makeup wizardry of William Tuttle. The DVD includes a behind the scenes documentary on Tuttle and his work, required viewing for any geek with an interest in makeup and creature effects. Wrap that up with the flick's original trailer and bio information on Randall and George Pal and you've got as Dr. Lao says, "One hell of a show."