Along with the more outlandish attempts on the part of
William Castle, this film remains among the most memorable
of the gimmick film cycle that assaulted the box office
in the late fifties. Just as Castle was emerging as Hollywood's
most notable exponent of gimmick cinema, the producers
of The Hypnotic Eye were
determined to pull out every horrific stop in order to
compete at the box office.
Consider the opening scene: a woman
enters her apartment, massages a flammable liquid into
her hair, leans calmly into a roaring gas stove burner
and immolates herself. It gets grizzlier from there.
This has been described by many
fright film devotees as a terrific party tape. Have fun.
Bring me a piece of cake. I won't be going to that party.
Horrific disfigurement might be a compelling way to launch
a horror film, but as a party theme it strikes me as something
less than festive. The film is entertaining without a
doubt, but I can't imagine enjoying it with a roomful
of hooting drunks.
The audience-grabbing gimmick is
introduced by way of a smarmy stage hypnotist played as
your stereotypically amorous Frenchman by the impenetrably-accented
Jacques Bergerac. Rambling through an abbreviated American
movie career, Bergerac found time to marry both Ginger
Rogers and Dorothy Malone. As The Hypnotic Eye's
'Great Desmond,' Bergerac's vaudeville routine includes
demonstrations of mass hypnosis which include flashing
a blinking eyeball at the crowd, inducing them to perform
mind-numbing shenanigans in unison. This is the mysterious
"Hypno-magic" process that, it was hoped,
would seduce so many ticket buyers. The audience lifts
their arms -- they lower their arms. They lift their legs
-- they lower their legs -- faster -- faster! Supposedly
it was hoped that movie audiences would participate in
this mesmeric form of Simon Says.
By means of post-hypnotic suggestion, Desmond brings
voluptuous female "volunteers" to his apartment.
Invariably, the following day, they turn up horribly mutilated
by various methods. One steps up to her medicine cabinet
and douses her face with a bottle of acid. Another is
lured to a scalding shower.
The etched beauty of Allison Hayes is seen to good advantage
as the hypnotist's wife and stage assistant. In several
puzzling shots she's seen in close-up, leering daggers
at Desmond's shapely audience participants. This heavy-handed
foreshadowing leaves little room for surprise when she's
revealed as the disfiguring murderess. Her motive, however,
is reserved for the film's lurid yet curiously anticlimactic
Merry Anders, a reliable veteran of numerous B film heroine
roles, is an acid-scarred victim who spends much of the
film mummified. When the force is helpless to halt the
disfigurements, her best friend, who happens to be dating
the chief investigator, devises a renegade plan of her
own. Stringing Desmond along with her false affections,
the pair do the town, ending up in a seedy sub-culture
bar where the "king of the beatniks" recites
some dumbfounding poetry to a bongo backing.
Naturally, this strong-willed woman ends up in dire peril.
She eventually succumbs to Desmond's gaze and is promptly
led by Hayes to the aforementioned scalding shower. In
the nick of time, her cop amour pounds on the door and
the killers flee.
Desmond's next performance proves to be his swan song.
Cornered by cops following one last ludicrous show, he's
easily captured, as his wife flees to the theater catwalk.
Frantically she claws away the lovely rubber countenance
of Allison Hayes, revealing the ghastly, scarred face
To say the very least, the film's horrific elements are
unrestrained. But just when it has a hope of building some
genuine suspense, all shock value is undermined by another
protracted segment showing gullible theater patrons making
fools of themselves.
How many audience members actually gazed into Desmond's
blinking eye and tumbled helplessly
before his seductive power? Perhaps the same patrons that
bolted the theater when William Castle's "fright break"
stopped a film dead in its tracks.
Hollywood's affection for the Svengali
theme is undying. Producers have long been intrigued by
the plight of desperate males resorting to mental means
in order to possess the woman they love:
A quirky film enhanced
by eerily effective photography and surreal miniatures representing
the Paris rooftops. Barrymore is at his fruity best as the
master mentalist, but the movie as a whole is a precarious
mix of chills and broad humor.
The Mad Genius (1931)
Michael Curtiz directed this stylish follow-up
to Svengali, which centers around Barrymore's obsessive
control of his dancer son. A strange and eminently watchable
film with a great cast featuring Karloff in a smallish role
as a brutish father.
The Black Cat (1934)
Much has been made
of the sexual and psychological aspects of this undeniably
bizarre classic. Its twisted scenario concerns, in part,
satanist Boris Karloff driving Bela Lugosi to madness by
stealing his wife and daughter and enslaving them in a trance-like
She Creature (1958)
Chester Morris is
the great Carlo Lombardi and lovely Marla English the woman
he seeks to enslave. Through hypnotic regression, he produces
her prehistoric alter ego, a scaly, fanged killer of Paul
Blaisdell's making that's at once ludicrous and endearing.