Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Trance has us hallucinating.
7 Faces Of Dr. Lao (1964)
Charles Finney’s 1935 National Book Award-winning novel, The Circus Of Dr. Lao, is a deeply trippy book, somewhat akin to what would have happened had Peter Beagle set an entire novel in Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival from The Last Unicorn. The titular circus lets the blinkered inhabitants of a small Arizona town encounter a unicorn, a werewolf, a sphinx, and a medusa, among other things, but mostly, they encounter truths about themselves and their lives, which some of them want and some of them distinctly don’t. It’s a surprising choice for a ’60s major-studio film adaptation, given that it’s dark, surreal, episodic, and more than a little sexual, ending with a grand ritual celebrating an imaginary pagan god. (Well, it actually ends with a lengthy, tongue-in-cheek catalog of the characters, which couldn’t possibly play well onscreen.)
But legendary director George Pal (The Time Machine) took on the book as his final directorial project, and while his take on the material is quaint and comedic rather than Carnivàle-serious, it’s a must-see madhouse of a movie. In a little Western town, sneaky, wealthy Arthur O’Connell is about to bilk everyone out of their land and make a huge profit. His only opponents are ethical newspaperman John Ericson (who resembles a young Robert Redford) and prim librarian Barbara Eden. But then a spritely, ancient Chinese man (Tony Randall) comes to town to invite everyone to his circus, and it rapidly becomes apparent that he has a weird, magical plan to help with the situation.
Randall’s performance as the titular Dr. Lao reads very oddly to modern eyes. He starts off as a distressing Mickey Rooney-in-Breakfast At Tiffany’s yellowface caricature, all “Ah so, velly solly!” accent and cherubic squinting. But that emerges as a phony personality and accent that Lao drops at will; whenever the moment calls for gravity, he speaks perfect, unaccented English, or puts on a number of different accents. And Dr. Lao is just one of a variety of faces Randall wears over the course of the film: Thanks to William Tuttle’s Oscar-winning makeup, he also morphs into Medusa, a fangy Abominable Snowman, and other characters, including a furry, naked satyr who seduces Eden with a sweaty, whirling dance and some come-hither pipes that leave her panting, pawing her blouse open, and forgetting her propriety. That’s just one of the trippy, hallucinogenic setpieces throughout the film, as O’Connell faces his own puppet-snake doppelgänger (with Randall’s voice), Merlin tries to prove his bona fides to a skeptical audience, and a goldfish swells into a stop-motion sea monster, which eventually becomes a hydra with seven Tony Randall heads. It’s a crazed nightmare of a movie, but in all the best surrealist ways, and it matches the dreaminess to such a conventional good-vs.-evil Western plot that it makes tired old tropes fresh and funny.
Availability: Digital rental or purchase on Amazon, and available for rental through Netflix, or purchase on DVD.