Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Doctor Will See You Now -- For the Last Time :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Eddie Saeta's Dr. Death: Seeker of Souls (1973)

Rushing to the emergency room to check on his wife after she was involved in a terrible auto accident, Fred Saunders (Coe) makes it to her bedside just in time as her catastrophic injuries will prove fatal. Thus, before Laura Saunders (Morrow) expires, she vows she will cheat death and return from the afterlife, somehow, and be reunited with her beloved husband. Alas, Laura dies before revealing how she will accomplish this. But taking her at her word, the grief-stricken Saunders arranges for his wife’s body to forgo the usual embalming process and has her remains placed in an unlocked crypt in an unsealed casket, which serves two purposes: it will allow Laura an exit if and or when she comes back, and second, it allows the morbidly obsessed Saunders to visit her, which he does. Constantly -- and to the point where it starts to get a little weird and needles toward full blown necrophilia, which, between you and me, makes Saunders kind of a creep.

But as weeks pass and nothing happens (-- and I'm sure the body is getting a little ripe by now), Saunders decides to get a little proactive on anchoring his wife’s restless spirit, which constantly haunts his dreams (-- including a great skull-shock moment for the opening credits), but this only leads him down an occult rabbit hole of fake psychics, charlatan New Age quacks, and even a demented body snatcher, that essentially goes nowhere. Almost ready to give up on his errant and erratic quest, Saunders spies a strange and cryptic ad in the local classifieds concerning “controlled reincarnation.” Phoning the given number, Saunders arranges a meeting with Tana (Marly), who claims to be an advocate of Dr. Death, who allegedly has the power to capture and transfer souls and reanimate the dead.

Skeptical but that desperate, Saunders agrees to meet Tana again later to witness this Dr. Death at work -- with work appearing to be some form of elaborate stage show cum carnival act. Here, Saunders watches incredulously as Dr. Death (Considine) works his magic with a flare for the Grand Guignol. And with the help of his brutish assistant, Thor (Askin), they actually saw a woman, whose face was horrible disfigured in an industrial accident, in half -- rather messily; and once that deed is done, the Doctor seizes control of the woman’s freed spirit and directs this ectoplasm to enter another fresh, and very buxom corpse (-- origin unknown), which reanimates and is now under the control of this newly inserted ethereal essence.

Rationalizing and justifying away the murder his potential client just witnessed him commit during a post-show personal consultation, Dr. Death claims the victim volunteered and the corpse was liberated from a morgue. He also claims to be over a 1,000 years old, achieved by a dubious alchemy method of transferring his soul from one body to the next over the centuries (-- told in a nifty flashback sequence but neglecting the parts where he openly murders everyone he inhabits along the way). This same service he offers to others, for a price. And so, for the sum of $50,000 he can do the same for Saunders. But there’s a catch. Seems Laura has been dead too long, and so, they will need to find another spirit to occupy the vacated shell. So, essentially, it will not be Laura at all, just her body. Fully aware of this, and knowing full well this will mean another murder, the completely obsessed Saunders decides this will be close enough, chucks his moral objections with nary a backward glance, and quickly coughs up the dough, making him, between you and me and the wall, an even bigger creep.

Anyhoo, for reasons involving mostly being too clingy -- and when I say too clingy, I mean she threw acid into the face of the newly animated corpse in a jealous snit because the good doctor was no longer paying attention to her anymore in a *ahem* ‘biblical’ sense, Tana draws the short straw, winds up bound and gagged on stage, where Thor uses her as a human dartboard, killing her.

And once Dr. Death seizes control of her spirit, they haul her to the cemetery and Laura’s tomb where things run into a bit of snag during the imbuing process. Seems this new spirit refuses to enter Laura’s body no matter how loudly Dr. Death yells at it to do so. And this he does. A lot. Like, A LOT a lot. Eventually, the smirking spirit dissipates, leaving everyone back at square one. At this point. Saunders comes to his senses and calls the whole thing off (-- I mean, What's just ONE dead body, amIright?), tells Dr. Death to keep the money, and vacates the tomb. And while I thought at first this was just Tana giving her ex-lover the middle finger from beyond the grave, turns out it’s much more serious than that. Apparently, something like this has never happened before and has our mad doctor on the prod and somewhat worried that he’s losing his power, and thus, coming to the end of his long road. And so, money or no money, he is soon bound and determined to hammer a spirit into Laura’s recalcitrant corpse. And to do this, of course, he will need another fresh body. And another. Aaaaaand another...

Eddie Saeta’s Doctor Death: Seeker of Souls (1973) is a fairly interesting idea told rather clumsily that results in a kind of a tonally inconsistent mess of a movie. The 1970s were a strange time for horror films. After a spat of psychos and slashers things were getting old school again with science gone amok and Gothic chills with a post Blood Feast (1963), murder as art, gruesome twist with the likes of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theater of Blood (1973). There were even attempts of Gothic contemporaneity by bringing these monsters to the modern day suburbs with Count Yorga (1970), Blacula (1972), and their subsequent sequels, resulting in a clash of crimson blood and avocado earth tones, the cock-eyed curiosity of coffins and shag carpeting, and a frisson of fangs, wide collars and bell bottoms.

Strangely enough, as originally conceived, first time director Saeta (-- who worked as an A.D. since the 1930s --) and former bit-actor turned first time scriptwriter Sal Ponti (-- whose biggest role was in George Pal’s last hurrah, Atlantis the Lost Continent, back in 1961 --) had envisioned a whole series of films starring the recurring character of Dr. Death to join the ranks of Mamuwalde and Dr. Phibes. “This character is such an interesting development that we are trying to find new ways of going with him,” said Saeta in the film’s press materials. “We feel we can create a residual interest among horror fans who will adopt Dr. Death as a new man in the field."

This, of course, did not happen. And I think the fact that Dr. Death: Seeker of Souls would be the sole directing and screenplay credit for both Saeta and Ponti goes a long way in explaining why the film floundered and was initially turned away from American International for distribution. And while the film did get picked up by Bing Crosby’s Cinerama Releasing Corporation -- who had scored a modest success by importing several of Amicus’ horror anthologies, including Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Asylum (1972), and released the two-punch killer rat combo of Willard (1971) and Ben (1972), doesn’t change the fact that after a fairly solid opening act, Dr. Death completely falls apart in the second, leaving it reeling in the third.

Yeah, once Dr. Death starts stalking more victims the film kinda slips the clutch a bit and stalls out as the doctor and Thor go on a killing spree that isn’t all that exciting and goes from kinda funny, to annoying, to kinda funny again, to really annoying, to just get on with it already as each lather, rinse and repeat murder ends with a crash-cut back to the cemetery with Dr. Death berating each spirit to get into Laura’s body (-- “GET in there. Get IN there. Get in THERE! Dammit. C’mon, please, pretty please? C’moooooon. I command you! I’m Dr. Deeeeeath. No. Really. I can do this. GET IN THERE! FINE. Thor, get me another victim.”). All refuse to recombobulate, much to the occultist’s consternation, which means he gets to do it all over again. And again. Aaaaaaand again. Sensing a pattern here.

This whole interlude wasn’t a complete waste of time, however. There was a nice little meta-moment when one victim watches a horror movie on TV that mimics her own pending demise. And the faux strangler on the tube was played by noted LA horror host Larry 'Seymour' Vincent. Mention should also be made that Moe Howard showed up earlier in the film as a volunteer at Dr. Death’s show to confirm a corpse was actually dead. Howard was apparently an old friend of Saeta, who had worked on several Three Stooges features and shorts. This would be Howard’s last screen appearance. But the coolest thing that happened is when a boyfriend of one of the intended victims comes to her aid, stabbing Dr. Death with a switchblade, causing a disgorging of blood that covers the stabbers face, which promptly disintegrates due to the caustic properties of the compressed liquid until his skull detonates. *kablooey*

This incident adds a ticking clock element to the third act as this wound appears to be mortal, giving Dr. Death a limited amount of time to get his soul-swapping mojo back, and yet the film is still plagued by startling lack of urgency. Meanwhile (-- see what I mean?), Saunders has been efforting to put Laura and Dr. Death behind him, thanks in most part to his secretary, Sandy (Miller), who kinda carries a torch for the widower. And as romance blossoms between these two, Dr. Death believes he’s finally found the answer to get a spirit into Laura: seems the victim must not die violently and in sudden terror like the others but must suffer through a slow and somnolent death through exsanguination. And, he’s tagged Sandy as the perfect candidate for this experiment, which I guess makes sense in that he wants to fulfill the original contract, which, in a sense, makes him more ethical than his client.

And once he and Thor kidnap her and haul poor Sandy back to his theater, they strap her down and tap a vein. Thankfully, the bleeding out process takes awhile, allowing dunderheaded Saunders to figure out what happened to his new girlfriend and track her back to Dr. Death’s lair with the cavalry. And while Sandy is saved and Thor is killed in the ensuing shoot-out, Dr. Death manages to escape, leaving the film with one final twist before the closing credits roll that I won’t spoil but will say it would probably have been better served and come as more of a shock if they hadn’t given the possibility of it away four reels earlier in that flashback.

You know, despite all the snark, Dr. Death: Seeker of Souls wasn’t all that terrible nor a complete waste of time. Honest. I believe they barely had a week to get the film in the can so retakes were out the window. If the actor got their lines out, it was printed and they moved on to the next shot. And the way it was shot, edited and scored, this thing really came off as a bizarre Halloween episode of Adam-12 or Emergency -- or, more apropos, a rather wackadoodle Made for TV remake of H.G. Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore (1970) with gore inserts added in for a European release. 

And the F/X, courtesy of Van Der Veer Photo Effects, are really quite good for the time. I especially dug the dismembered head sent to Saunders in a box and that detonating skull. But again, when you plug those in it only adds to that tonal inconsistency I mentioned earlier.

Star John Considine salvages a lot out of this mess and is a bit of a hammy hoot, injecting all kinds of morbid and gallows humor as this ersatz carnival huckster; as does Florence Marly, to a lesser extent, as the bitchy and kooky Tana, who gets killed out of this thing way too soon. In fact, I thought it would’ve been interesting if her spiteful spirit had stuck around to be the root cause of Dr. Death's sudden spiritual impotence and then continue to short-circuit all attempts to integrate another spirit into Laura’s body. (One also has to wonder if that first transferred soul with the acid-scarred face was also a victim of Tana’s jealousy? I know I wouldn’t put it past her.) However, it takes someone like Vincent Price to find the harmonious balance between camp and the macabre, and Considine, though valiant in his effort, is no Vincent Price.

Saeta and cinematographers Emil Oster and Kent Wakeford have a few moments, too. I’m thinking specifically of an earlier scene when Laura’s spirit lures Saunders into the graveyard, whose set designs and mood lighting and final punch easily bring Mario Bava to mind. Alas, their combined efforts weren’t quite enough to push Dr. Death: Seeker of Souls over the hump but it’s definitely an interesting misfire to endure, whose blow-back probably won’t cause any permanent damage. Maybe.

Dr. Death: Seeker of Souls (1973) Freedom Arts Pictures Corporation :: Cinerama Releasing Corporation / P: Eddie Saeta / AP: Sal Ponti / D: Eddie Saeta / W: Sal Ponti / C: Emil Oster, Kent L. Wakeford / E: Anthony DiMarco / M: Richard LaSalle / S: John Considine, Barry Coe, Cheryl Miller, Florence Marly, Leon Askin, Jo Morrow, Moe Howard

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