"Hello? Doctor Blood's office."
Most British horror films from the late 1950s through the early '60s fall into one of two categories: Hammer films and imitation Hammer films. A few, however, were bizarre throwbacks to an earlier age, most commonly to the low-budget mad scientist movies of the 1930s and '40s, particularly the threadbare offerings of Poverty Row studios. A couple of these mostly terrible British movies were entirely homegrown, such as the dreadful The Woman Eater (1958). Most, however, had American input, which probably accounts for their old-fashioned genre trappings. The gloriously loony The Man Without a Body (1957), for instance, was co-directed by Hollywood-based W. Lee Wilder (Billy's untalented brother), while the awesomely bad Konga was produced by Detroit-born Herman Cohen.
The story and screenplay for Doctor Blood's Coffin (1961) is credited to Jerry Juran, who under the name Nathan Juran began as an esteemed art director in the 1940s before switching to directing in the early 1950s. Either his taste-meter was broken or he liked to keep busy, because as a director he alternated between good and rotten movies. For instance, the same year he made The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), his best-remembered film, he also directed his most infamous, Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman. His late-'50s cheapies were made under yet another name, "Nathan Hertz" and at least once he used the name "Nathan Hertz Juran." It's not clear how Doctor Blood's Coffin ended up as a British film directed not by Juran but rather by Sidney J. Furie, a London-based Canadian at the beginning of his long career, but the poor script certainly bears Juran's stamp.
The movie is unusual in a number of ways, and at 92 minutes, overlong, boring, and generally uneventful. It works from a scary, even disturbing premise, but that's lost in a misguided and ludicrous approach to medical matters and science generally. Despite the nonsensical if provocative title - there's a coffin in the movie, but it's not Doctor Blood's, nor does it have any significance in the story - it's not a neo-Gothic in the Hammer mode. The setting is contemporary, with picturesque Cornwall exteriors.
As a movie it pretty much stinks, but for completeness sake I'm glad MGM chose to release it; personally, I've wanted to see it for many years. Their "Limited Edition Collection" disc offers a nice 16:9 enhanced widescreen presentation with no extra features.
Biochemist Dr. Peter Blood* (Kieron Moore), having been kicked out of Vienna for secretly testing his wild theories on human rather than animal subjects, returns home to Cornwall, where his doctor father, Robert Blood (Ian Hunter), is the local G.P.
The movie unwisely tells its lurid story from Peter's perspective, as he kidnaps local villagers, whisking them to an abandoned tin mine in order to experiment on them, while at the same time trying to divert the criminal investigation. He pretends to cooperate with local policeman Sgt. Cook (Kenneth J. Warren), and in an overused device, he bluffs his way through one tight spot after another by offering to do exactly the thing that would expose him. And each time Sgt. Cook declines what to him seems like an overly generous offer of assistance.
Basically, the movie tries to build suspense in the same way Alfred Hitchcock does in many of his films (Rope, Psycho, Frenzy, etc.). The audience doesn't sympathize with the killer but gets caught up in the suspense anyway, wondering how/if the villain gets away with the deed. This works not at all in Doctor Blood's Coffin for various reasons. Robust Irishman Kieron Moore lacks the vulnerability of Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates in Psycho, for instance, and the screenplay takes forever first to reveal the obvious, that Peter is up to no good, and then more time to expose exactly what it is he's up to. The movie is nearly half over before the audience has any idea what Peter hopes to accomplish.
(Mild Spoilers) Peter's intentions are to employ curare, the poison famously used on the tips of arrows by South American natives, to paralyze humans for live organ transplants. According to Peter, the heart and other organs of a so-called worthless person (a homeless bum, for instance) could replace the weak heart of an esteemed scientist or great artist. Peter's Nietzschean attitudes are never explained nor dramatically justified. His father, for instance, seems warm and loving (Hunter himself played King Richard the Lionhearted in Adventures of Robin Hood), so this inhumanity springs out of nowhere (as does Moore's thick Gaelic accent while father Ian Hunter speaks with a mild British one).
The concept is certainly ghoulish: a few simple shots of panicked but completely immobile victims watching helplessly as Peter operates on them (without anesthetic?) is squirmily unsettling, drawing also on the common fear of waking during surgery. Late in the film, Peter revives a long-dead corpse and partly thanks to Furie's blood-and-thunder direction there's something of a payoff for the long wait. However, hand-in-hand with this interesting idea is the absurdity of its non-science. To what end, for instance, does transplanting a fresh heart into a corpse serve when every other part of the body is completely rotten?
But, overall, neither Moore nor the story generate much interest. It has its good points: the Cornwall locations are visually interesting, especially since cheap British horror films rarely ventured far from metropolitan London. Kenneth J. Warren is fine, and Hazel Court, prim but sexy in a nurse's uniform, is a big asset as Robert Blood's nurse and Peter Blood's love interest, a romantic subplot the audience knows from the start leads nowhere. Overall though, Doctor Blood's Coffin is quite mediocre.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen format with 16:9 enhancement, Doctor Blood's Coffin looks quite good, its Eastman Color cinematography pleasant if not terribly apt here. The mono English audio (no subtitle options) is adequate on this region 1 disc. No Extra Features.
This is one of those movies genre fans are glad to see released though even hard-core monster fans aren't likely to rush to its defense. The transfer is very good, so for that audience Doctor Blood's Coffin is Recommended.
* As Bill Warren notes in Keep Watching the Skies!, with a name like that, "he has only the choice of being a mad scientist or turning pirate."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary is Godzilla vs. Megalon (with Steve Ryfle).