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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2015-Day 27: DR. CYCLOPS (1940)

A publicity shot that's not in the movie but one that ABSOLUTELY gets across the point of its scale-derived horrors.

Visually-impaired Dr. Alexander Thorkel (Albert Dekker) summons a trio of fellow scientists — two biologists and a mineralogist — to his remote Peruvian lab so they can confirm some of his findings that his borderline-blind eyesight prevents him from verifying for himself. Along with an unexpected extra scientist, the visitors are dismissed by the incredibly rude Thorkel once their usefulness to him is done, but they opt to stick around after being intrigued by what appears to be Thorkel's discovery of a rich vein of the radium/uranium ore pitchblende, while questions are raised as to what exactly has happened to the considerable number of experimental animals that Thorkel had imported for his research. When the doctor's native assistant, Pedro (Frank Frank Yaconelli), notes that his beloved horse has gone missing and yet hears the animal's signature whinny, Thorkel reveals just what he's been up to, namely utilizing a radiation process to shrink living mammals down to doll-size. Acting all nice, Thorkel invites the party into the lab's shrinking chamber to see the shrinking apparatus up close, at which point they are locked in and, to their abject horror, reduced against their will. Now around a foot tall, the shrunken victims escape into the doctor's yard, an area surrounded by Peruvian jungle and populated with all manner of wildlife that could easily do them in at a moment's notice. 

Meet the good doctor's cat, Satanus.

But the true menace is Dr. Thorkel, whose general assholism pales in comparison to his amoral, complete and utter madness and evil. When he discovers that the shrinking effect is not permanent and that that his victims are slowly returning to their original proportions, the doctor's veneer of scientific obsession drops away and he stands revealed as a cruel and murderous giant, not unlike the cyclops of classical myth.

The concept of humans being reduced to assorted small sizes is an old sci-fi trope that has been explored endlessly, on 1960's TV in LAND OF THE GIANTS (1968-1970), most recently in ANT MAN (2015), and perhaps to most classic effect in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), but that film's take on the shrinking angle was more about the human/existential experience of such a happenstance, while DR. CYCLOPS goes  straight for the jugular when depicting just how awful it would be to find oneself trapped at a size where virtually every living thing around you is suddenly an oversized apex predator. A small caiman becomes a ravenous dragon and a common house cat gains the gravitas of a rampaging tiger when one is stuck at one foot tall, and the film milks the horror of skewed proportions for all it's worth. Though ostensibly a sci-fi entry, DR. CYCLOPS is at heart a straight-up horror yarn whose impact is like a sledgehammer to the guts. Looking like a vintage pulp magazine cover brought to life, thanks to its early Technicolor process lending it an unnatural semi-sepia effect, the film's narrative provides several sequences of outright terror that are intense even by today's standards and must have been truly shocking some seventy-five years ago. I won't reveal everything but the scene where Thorkel kills Dr. Bullfinch (Charles Halton) by smothering him with a wad of cotton held in calipers is imbued with a sense of no-way-out dread that really messed with my head when I was an under-ten.

Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) prepares to murder rival scientist Dr. Bullfinch (Charles Halton).

Fast-paced and genuinely scary, DR. CYCLOPS is an old school treasure of the highest order that holds up quite well and is suitable for the whole family, though it does contain some material that can warp the kiddies if they take some time to really think it through. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

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