The Mysterious Doctor directed by Benjamin Stoloff
A seeming meld of fog-shrouded Universal horror and the rah-rah wartime propaganda films that were so prevalent during the era, the Warner Brothers offering The Mysterious Doctor turns out to be a minor concoction that should just manage to please modern audiences. Released in March 1943, during the darkest days of World War II, the picture provides some chilling escapism while at the same time inspiring its target audience to greater productivity in the war effort. For today’s viewer, the film works as an efficient little chiller and as a showcase for its ingénue female star, Eleanor Parker, who here evinces great charm and ability (and beauty, natch) in this, her second role on screen.
The film manages to engender a chilling mood from its very opening moments, in which the viewer beholds a very tall AND HEADLESS personage stalking through a mist-enveloped woodland. We soon meet the mysterious doctor of the film’s title, one Dr. Frederick Holmes (Lester Matthews, who would go on to appear in the Eleanor Parker film Between Two Worlds one year later), who is taking what he calls a “walking tour” of the Cornwall region. He stops overnight at the lonely little village of Morgan’s Head and learns why the hamlet has been so named. Years earlier, two of the villagers had fought one another over the rights to a local tin mine, and Morgan had been vanquished. He had been killed with a boulder and then had his head lopped off by his opponent.
Ever since then, it is said, his headless ghost has been terrorizing the region, and none of the locals has ever since been able to muster the courage to go anywhere near the mine, a fact that is severely hampering the English war effort. The local, uh, head man, handsome Sir Henry Leland (John Loder), cannot force them to go back to work, and when the murders begin again with the decapitation death of Dr. Holmes, the eternal scapegoat/simpleminded “village idiot” Bart Redmond (Matt Willis) is held to be in cahoots with the ghost itself. Fortunately for Bart, he has a defender in young Letty Carstairs (our Eleanor), the only person who seems to have the requisite grit, spunk and bravery to explore the local mine and get to the bottom of things. (Letty is the niece of the local pub owner, whose face is covered by an executioner’s mask after having been disfigured in a mining accident; another element of horror in the film. Disappointingly, when we DO get to see the supposedly hideous mug of this man, it is not nearly as horrible as we expect.) But will those three admirable qualities be sufficient, as the literal head count begins to rise?
The Mysterious Doctor has been well directed by someone named Benjamin Stoloff, who helms his film in a no-nonsense fashion and really keeps things moving along. Cheaply made as it is, the film looks just fine, abetted by some very nice B&W cinematography from one Henry Sharp. And as I mentioned, this is a remarkably compact affair, clocking in at a mere 57 minutes. (The art of creating a solid motion picture entertainment of so brief a duration seems to truly be a lost art, although it is doubtful that an audience of today would be willing to plop down $15 for a movie that didn’t even last one hour!) It features a similarly taut and briskly moving script from Richard Weil, although its story line is more than a tad predictable. Indeed, it would take the most dim-witted of children to NOT figure out where this story is headed, or what the purpose of the headless ghost is, or even who the main villain of the piece is (the culprit telegraphs evil intentions early on, just with a narrowing of eyes).
Still, watching the film go through its paces remains an enjoyable experience, and the film IS at times quite atmospheric. And a great part of the joy to be had here is watching young Parker, already coming off like a seasoned pro after having been in only one previous film before this, 1942’s Busses Roar. She easily steals the show from her more experienced actors, and even gets to give us one very convincing shriek as she glimpses the headless ghost in a foggy cavern. What a scream queen Eleanor could have been, a la the great Fay Wray! It almost makes one regret that she didn’t do more films in the horror genre, and indeed, viewers would have to wait a good 26 years, until 1969’s Eye of the Cat, to see her perform in anything nearly as spooky. Parker would have another half dozen or so roles to go before finally “breaking through,” in 1945’s Pride of the Marines, but this early film of hers is surely a testament to her great potential.
The Mysterious Doctor is certainly a minor piece of work, all told, but you could surely find worse ways to kill an hour. Still, I can’t help wondering why Mr. Weil did not title his film The Headless Miner, surely a more intimidating proposition…