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The success of Hammer Films in the late 1950s jump-started an explosion of horror filmmaking worldwide. Fine scare films proliferated, along with plenty of mediocre chillers for horror fans to sort through. Although the genre audience would generally accept any picture that came through with the goods -- a good monster, a weird idea or at least a few scary scenes -- horror filmmakers did find ways to miss the mark. Remember, the people who made the perplexing The Womaneater may have honestly thought they had the most exciting scare concept ever.
Doctor Blood's Coffin is a British film, shot on location in bright color and enacted by a quality cast: Kieron Moore, Hazel Court, Ian Hunter. A particularly squeamish variation on the then-popular mad surgery theme, the film has basic potential. The key percursor in this vein is Georges Franju's 1959 face transplant shocker Eyes without a Face. As I've said before, Eyes is the movie equivalent of the rock group Velvet Underground: not all that many people saw it, but everybody who did went out and made a mad surgery movie. Doctor Blood's Coffin is the first feature of Canadian filmmaker Sidney J. Furie, later much praised for The Ipcress File and Lady Sings the Blues.
The story gives us a modern medical school Frankenstein in the person of graduate Peter Blood, who in a prologue is thrown out of an internship for doing unauthorized, unmentionable personal experiments after hours on a corpse. Peter shows up back at his home in a quaint seaside town in Cornwall, where his Doctor father Robert (Ian Hunter) is the general practitioner. A brilliant but misunderstood fellow, Peter sees no reason to pay attention to the law or medical ethics and instead goes right to work kidnapping local alcoholics and layabouts to serve as guinea pigs for his work. He lies about these activities to both his father and nurse Linda Parker, a new romantic interest (Hazel Court). Recently widowed, Linda overlooks Peter's sometimes-odd behavior, and his high interest in a group of abandoned Tin Mines along the cliff edges. Peter immediately goes into action, injecting his victims with curare so they can't move, and cutting out their living hearts while they're still alive!
Doctor Blood's Coffin is a heck of a good title. I remember seeing English pre-release poster artwork that gave rise to every medical nightmare we ever had. The story is credited to "Jerry Juran", who is often identified as Nathan Hertz Juran, the famous art director, and the film director of rather entertaining Z-pix like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman as well as a couple of Ray Harryhausen masterpieces. I suppose Juran could have dreamed this tepid soup of a movie up while working in England, maybe over a couple of pints at a pub. The final script seems to be something cooked up to enable location filming at a seaside hamlet with a minimum of fuss. Nothing else would appear to make much sense. Peter Blood is the craziest and perhaps lamest excuse for a mad doctor one might imagine. Peter is a normal red-blooded guy, except that he's also a complete sociopathic fanatic. He's barely in town, and he's already kidnapped and murdered a couple of unlucky guys. They're kept doped up with curare down in his operating room in a very special Tin Mine, the kind that is often quite brightly lit.
The first 65 minutes of the show sees Peter Blood either acting coy and romantic with Linda, or running around the Cornwall hillsides for minutes at a time. At one point he rushes to find one of his involuntary medical subjects, who has inconveniently crawled away. Dad doesn't understand why Peter doesn't want to take a job at a hospital in a nearby town, to get some seasoning; Peter protests too loudly that he's a lone wolf and wants to go his own way. Peter shows Linda a curare container, perhaps hoping he can share his secret with her. But he hasn't got enough free time to really get serious. He's murdering people and harvesting their organs. When the local undertaker learns too much, he kills him too. Local dumbbell policeman Kenneth J. Warren is faced with multiple corpses and disappearances, yet keeps the investigation low-key. And they all started when Peter came back to town, hmmm.
We're really surprised that some of Dr. Blood's bloody, unpleasant activities got by the censors, who in 1961 had all but clipped the wings of the Hammer boys at Bray. More than once we're treated to the spectacle of a victim on the operating table having his heart cut out, while he's apparently conscious but unable to move. He sweats and his eyeballs twitch, and that's it. These guys are alive and can perhaps feel everything being done to them -- while the paralyzing effect of the curare prevents them from moving or reacting. The real equivalent of kind of medical horror has been documented, when patients are only partially sedated. Peter isn't using any anesthetic at all. That's real horror - -the only other movie I remember that touches on this idea is Tod Browning's old 1935 The Devil-Doll. But, like most everything else in the movie, this macabre idea really isn't explored or exploited.
As it turns out Peter is trying to impress Linda. Their arguments are simply bogus. Peter demands the right to commit whatever abomination suits him because he's a scientist, dammit. Prattling on with his half-baked Nietszche-isms, he reveals no sense of humor. Linda counters with the old 'meddling in God's domain' talk, jumping right to the part where she decides that Peter is the devil and his awful experiments are satanic. There's nothing to latch onto in these non-arguments; the movie abandons all interest on that level. With the cops breathing down his neck, Peter shows that he has zero judgment when it comes to communicating with women. To prove his skill and his love, he exhumes the corpse of Linda's husband, transplants an unlucky miner's heart into it, and brings it to life. And this is not a fresh body he's doing this too, not by a long shot.
Never mind that a human body buried for just a few weeks is going to be a putrid mass of ... never mind. Steve Parker revives as a moss-covered zombie. And whaddaya know, the widow was right: the corpse shows no sign of having the identity of Linda's husband. It instead seems to be possessed with a demonic will to strangle Doctor Blood, its benefactor. So Doctor Blood's Coffin's one thematic idea harks back to primitive superstition: any unnatural living thing is automatically the Spawn of the Devil.
Doctor Blood's Coffin is competently directed; it apparently did well enough not to nip Sidney J. Furie's career in the bud. But face it, plenty of mediocre horror movies did fairly well at the box office, which is why so many got made. The film's one real saving grace is actress Hazel Court. Although all the players take the show seriously, the beautiful Ms. Court gives us a bright personality worth staying around to watch.
And you know, this show is actually a medical zombie movie, of sorts. Too bad that the killer zombie only gets on his feet when there's less than seven minutes of movie left.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Doctor Blood's Coffin looks quite good. The technical work is professional on all counts. The enhanced image is colorful and free of most damage. I've only seen it flat before; the previous home video version was on an expensive laserdisc from at least 15 years ago.
Perhaps Kieron Moore and Ian Hunter were hungry for work at this particular point in time, when many established English actors were being passed up in favor of younger, kitchen-sink-friendly talent. Moore shows up in extra scenes added to The Day of the Triffids, which was probably being filmed more or less at the same time.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Doctor Blood's Coffin rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.