The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse (aka, Dr. M schlägt zu, aka, Dr. M Strikes) (Jess Frank, aka, Jesús Franco, 1970)
Just when you thought you’d escaped the 60’s intact, and it was safe to head back into your secret laboratory — with the second cycle of films following that identity-shifting criminal megalomaniac Doctor Mabuse’s not-unimpressive goal of presiding over a world of utter chaos, led by visionary post-war West German producer Artur Brauner, had finally run its course after six quickies shot over four years, with sputtering returns and decreasing excitement seemingly finally having led to the finish line (though to be fair, for anyone whose read any of my previous posts on the Mabuse franchise, even as it was getting harder and harder to distinguish them, there’s little else on the cinema landscape that I know of quite like these weirdo mashups of scifi, James Bond-gadgetry, espionage and the supernatural, before or since… ) – Brauner jumps into the new decade (a full six years after his last official entry, the somewhat weak The Death Rays of Dr. Mabuse) by granting relentlessly prolific, euro-sleaze maven Jesús Franco a tug at the reigns of resuscitating the lore of our shadowy megalomaniac for an — eeghads, man — tenth Mabuse film… and the first — sayeth the Lord (of Oddball Cinema) — in color.
Following a (very) small cabal of nefarious criminals led by the evil hand-wringing Dr. Farkas, who spends most of the film’s running time (which is short – or at least this cut is and – like many a Franco film – there apparently exists plenty of different edited versions of the film out there) barking orders from a cramped, shadowy room cluttered with clunky looking electronic devices that randomly flash and beep seemingly without purpose as if taken directly from the Enterprise’s bridge of “Star Trek” (where they seemed to have served a similar function) deep in a concrete bunker by the sea, as he commands his main henchman, the scarred-faced mindless giant Andros (Moisés Augusto Rocha) and much more look-able henchwoman Leslie (Beni Cardoso, the model-esque beauty with surprisingly few credits to her name, considering how her severe features seem to work so perfectly within the eurotrash world) to weave their way around the rumpled leisure-suit wearing CIA agents and the good natured, if entirely bumbling local police (who, in their cowboy hats and a precinct house in a desert somewhere, are unaccountably treated as if they’re the Keystone Cops in a Spaghetti Western) to try and get their hands on the secret plans for a mind-control ray being developed by one Dr Orloff (Siegfried Lowitz) – which somehow leads to the bulk of the movie playing out as a series of scenes of nubile young women getting kidnapped, imprisoned and occasionally trying to escape (or getting killed).
If the previous “Mabuse” films were a whacky lot, this colorfully eccentric, barely-budgeted and jaggedly-edited piece (with lots of fished-eye lens distorted close-ups and dutch angles) of what I’m suspecting (I haven’t seen enough to be sure) is pure Franco-mania (or at least one of the many forms of the director’s unique work, with I’m guessing the level of filmmaking commitment never changing, but the production financing situations varying wildly, leading to some wildly varied output), in all its awkward and clever (often both at the same time), trashy, jazz-riffing – and ultimately mostly nonsensical — fun, brings the franchise all to a whole new level of absurd parody. While no one in the film is actually identified as the good Doctor Mabuse (though perhaps he is in one of the alternate cuts?), it’s most likely Farkas who is meant to at least represent the character (though, with actor Jack Taylor’s late 60’s hippy-dippy garb and overall cool vibe, he is straying far from the archetype… and moving it into the domain of the Franco/eurotrash world) and the landscape may not quite be littered with the near-indecipherable disguise- and identity-shifting levels the previous Brauner entries did, with a story ostensibly centering about the stealing of a mind-control ray that could control the world, it at least has a skeleton of a narrative akin to the Mabusian universe (though, the fact that the Farkas/Mabuse in “Vengeance” is not only working for some other evil organization – but basically doing it simply for the dough? – is as far from the wildly monomaniacal dreams of any master-criminal Mabuse that I know of, that’s for sure!).
I’m aware of the work of Franco, but I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of his films (something I do plan to rectify one day by picking up the exhaustive, apparently-definitive two volume set on the filmmaker written by Stephen Thrower, whose massive tomes covering Italo-horror maestro Lucio Fulci and the world of American grindhouse exploitation cinema were wonderfully entertaining reads and deeply informative, while simultaneously delving into the fairly substantial collection of Franco films that I’ve compiled on bluray and dvd on my shelves behind me – most of which I blame on Severin films for endlessly putting out such delicious trash). And while “Vengeance” was clearly presented to Franco as a Mabuse film, he obviously went his own way, using the material as a jumping off point — which is something he apparently did with many of his projects, whether it made sense to or not — into his own cinematic peculiarities and interests.
Hearing “Vengeance” described as another in a long-line of unofficial quasi-remakes (or perhaps kinda/sorta sequels) Franco himself did of his very first film The Awful Dr. Orlof (one of his very rare box office successes, speaking I guess to why he kept trying to return to it), I took the opportunity to finally pull down the DVD of “Orlof” from my shelf, blowing off the dust and giving it a looksie (always feels good to finally get at another unseen film sitting up there in the archives), not only for its own sake (which I posted my write-up on already a few months back), but to take a peek at how much of an amalgamated progenitor of those mad Doctors both, Orlof and Mabuse, “Vengeance” really is (with the fact that Mabuse was created by one of Franco’s true cinematic heroes, Fritz Lang, just another dive into the labyrinthian landscape that defines the mad, oft-meta Mabusian abyss).
Along with the obvious that Franco names one of the characters in “Vengeance” after his previous titular success — though adding an ‘f’, and making this Orloff a far more tame, kinda low-key Doc (he ain’t no Howard Vernon, that’s for sure), the creator of the death-ray in question who gets offed fairly easy – I discovered that, while there may be no crazy ‘skin grafts’ experiments plot, man, is there a lot of self-borrowing going on –- from the opening kidnapping of a young female stripper coming home drunk as the wide-eyed neighbors watch from the shadows of their windows (though interestingly, in ‘Orlof” the implication is that the poor neighbors don’t intercede because of the fear of what ‘getting involved’ will bring down on them, the lower tier of society, while in “Vengeance” Franco makes it explicit the bored couple next door don’t get involved because of bourgeoise indifference), to the reprobate (accompanied in both cases by mangy barking mutt) fishing in the polluted canal who ends up reeling in evidence of a female victim that leads to where the women are being held (in “Orlof”, it’s a bracelet, in “Vengeance” —in a cheeky nod to the loosening times–- it’s a pair of panties), to the main mute henchman with the ridiculously bad made-up facial scarring (Morpho in “Orloff”, Andros in “Vengeance”), with each character’s eventual falling head over heels for one of the kidnapped women being what ultimately leads them to take down their master’s evil empire, on into the set-piece endings of the mute escaping the burning castle and being shot down by our hero trying to escape with his passed-out girlfriend… and, of course, a sudden musical number in each (though my understanding now is that was a constant in just about every Franco movie for the first decade or so of his career), with a working girl performing in a smoky bar (though the one in “Vengeance” turns into a striptease, allowing Franco a few additional naughty titty shots that the original didn’t have).
So, Mabuse enters the 70’s by getting hijacked by Franco and dropped into a chaotic, barely-coherent quasi-Orlof film. It’s a jumbled, colorful mess, broadly presented (with some seriously iffy physical humor amongst those cops, as likable as the actors doing it are) and low-rent in execution, though carried along by the sense of an obsessive director more than happy to continue shooting, not particularly concerned if any of it really hangs together; so, somehow it works… with a weirdly disjointed karma. And it certainly added a stimulating dash of weirdness to the assembly-line approach that was settling into the Brauner-Mabuse entries.
“Vengeance” is the first in which a filmmaker reformed the Mabusian world into one of his own (weirdly malformed) interests (and without an actual character identified as Mabuse, no less). And while Brauner washed his hands of any further Mabuse tales (I mean, I can’t imagine the box office returns on this one were particularly exciting for the producer), the character wasn’t finished. Oh, no. With what I can tell from the two upcoming (and final) entries on the viewing list – one a 1980’s avant-garde low-budget experiment from a noted underground German visual artist, and the other a 1990 futuristic scifi oddity, with a much larger budget, directed by none-other-than Claude Chabrol – it appears our megalomaniac doc will continue to evolve even further; from the noir-inflected criminal mastermind initially created as a prescient omen of the rise of a fascistic dictator in the face of a despair-filled post-WWI Germany, into his final form as a more indulgence-infused sort of meta-figure, allowing for the post-modern artsy-intellectual musings of some later outsider filmmakers. And, if nothing else, certainly Franco’s peculiar take was the bridge that allowed Mabuse passageway into the modern world.
That’s the way it’s looking, anyway… how it plays out, I shall report back after watching these last two films; and, whether good or bad, what an interesting voyage this Mabuse journey has been.