Monday, October 5, 2020

"We Don't Need No Appointment" - Mansion of the Doomed (1976) - Film #188

Everyone loves prolific actor Michael Pataki, star of Dream No Evil (1970), Grave of the Vampire (1972), and Graduation Day (1981), among many other films. It is now time to dive into one of his few directorial efforts, Mansion of the Doomed (1976), produced by Charles Band with effects work by the legendary Stan(ley) Winston.

Some of your universe's critics are characteristically unkind to Mr. Pataki's directorial debut. For example, reviewer marcburrage writes, "This is trash, pure and simple." Reviewer insomniac_rod writes, "The movie wasn't just done correctly." And reviewer poolandrews writes, "My biggest problem with it is that it's all rather dull and forgettable, and a little bit slow."

Read on for the truth about Mansion of the Doomed...

The film’s opening titles play over imagery of eye surgery, after which a mustachioed man breaks into a hospital ward and gouges out a woman’s eyes. The gouger is played by Richard Basehart (as well as his gorgeous toupee), a scientist conducting vision research who mumbles a lot and flashes back to a car accident in which his daughter Nancy was blinded by shattered glass. After obsessing about her blindness, Dr. Basehart stumbles upon the perhaps not entirely brilliant solution: vision can be restored by transplanting the entire eye from a living person to the patient. “How will I know it won’t work unless I try?” he says.

A few days later, in his basement laboratory, he reveals to his colleague Dan (who is also Nancy’s boyfriend and who is played by a young Lance Henriksen) that he has completed a miraculous and whimsical operation with two dogs: “I have removed one eye of each dog and transplanted it into the its entirety.”

Dr. Basehart’ s colleague feels dizzy because Dr. Basehart drugged his drink. “Give up my eyes?” he says groggily. “I can’t.”

Dr. Basehart says drily, “I think you can.”

With the help of his girlfriend Gloria Grahame, Dr. Basehart performs the rather graphic transplant operation in his basement. 

The operation is a success, though Dr. Basehart gets a phone call about the missing Mr. Henriksen, not to mention questions from Nancy about her boyfriend.

(I must interject that I do not understand why Dr. Basehart felt it necessary to transplant both eyes, which seems inefficient and more than a little cruel.)

While Dr. Basehart gives a symposium describing how he conducted successful eye transplant surgery (but failing to mention the unwilling donor), Nancy suddenly loses her sight while swimming in the backyard pool. She flails and cries out; apparently her loss of vision has affected her swimming ability as well. 

In a chilling scene, Ms. Grahame feeds the test animals in the basement, only to be grabbed by the grotesquely eyeless Lance Henriksen, who calls out for help from the human-sized prison cell that Dr. Basehart has installed.

Reasoning that he needs new eye donors for Nancy, Dr. Basehart picks up a young female hitchhiker/prostitute. The filmmakers cut to the basement operation room where the still-conscious young woman struggles against a leather belt before being anesthetized by Dr. Basehart. 

(Again, I must question his decision to remove two eyes, as using one at a time would extend Nancy’s sight time wise.)

Not one to let moral concerns get in the way of his daughter’s sight, Dr. Basehart begins interviewing nurses for his daughter. When he finds an interviewee without any relationships, he asks a bit confusingly, “When do you start?”

“Tomorrow?” she says.

He offers her a glass of wine and she accepts, sealing her fate. The filmmakers cut to her lying on the operating table as the previous donor is wheeled away. 

Weirdly, Mr. Henriksen and the other two women in the jail cell blame Gloria Grahame for their predicament. “She’s going to kill us all. That bitch. Bitch.”

The operations continue and Nancy’s eye sockets become quite noticeably covered with scar tissue.

Even though Nancy is on the bed listening, Ms. Grahame says, “Get rid of those people, Len.”

“And just how would you suggest we do that, Katherine?”

“Kill them,” she whispers.

“Kill them? I intend to help these people.” He adds, “One more operation. One more.”

Meanwhile, the four eyeless victims in the jail cell in the basement are going somewhat insane.

Dr. Basehart wanders through L.A.’s Farmers Market ruminating in voice over: “There’s one basic factor missing in my work. I must understand why the eyes keep being rejected before I proceed.” Then he sees a young woman in an elevator and the filmmakers cut to her post-operation body being dumped into the basement jail cell. Mr. Henriksen screams out, with a scream more screamy than any other scream that’s ever been screamed, “Katherine, you can’t! No more! No more!”

Dr. Basehart, randomly sitting alone in a tie and blazer at a playground full of kids, realizes that only the eyes of children can be used to restore Nancy’s sight. In voice over, he rhapsodizes, “Eyes wide and clear, unspoiled, new, and young.” He sees a little girl sitting alone reading on a brick fence.

He asks her if she would like to go to Disneyland. “Can we be back by 6:30?” she asks, telling him that’s when her parents get back from work.

Eventually, she realizes he’s not going to Disneyland. She tries to get out of the car, causing a minor fender-bender that allows her to run away. The other man involved in the accident lets the girl run away but jumps in his station wagon to chase Dr. Basehart. With another man in the station wagon, he follows Dr. Basehart home, parking in the driveway. Ms. Grahame tells the men this is Dr. Chaney’s home and asks if they have an appointment. One of the men gestures at her aggressively. “We don’t need no appointment.”

Dr. Basehart invites them into his house. “How much do you want?” he asks. “A thousand dollars?”

The good samaritans discuss it. “I would have taken five hundred.”

He writes them a check made out to cash, then offers them wine. “I would have taken a beer,” one of the good samaritan/blackmailers quips.

Cut to the operating table in the basement. For some reason, Dr. Basehart’s thoughts about using children’s eyes have gone out the window, so he uses both of the men who chased him as eye donors, but he is still unsuccessful. The men are tossed into the fairly crowded jail cell.

The eyeless prisoners have been reduced to a savage state, fighting each other, but Mr. Henriksen tries to impose order while he uses a metal rod to dig a hole through the concrete wall. He also uses CPR to try to save one of the women, who dies in his arms.

Meanwhile, Dr. Basehart’s attempt to abduct a wino on the streets goes wrong when the wino hits him with a bottle in a paper bag and steals his wallet. He makes his way home to his mansion (of the doomed), where he is confronted by Gloria Grahame, now an emotional wreck due to her part in his kidnapping/forced operations/illegal imprisonment scheme. She wants it to end, telling him he’s not in control of himself. “Nancy’s going to have one last chance,” he says. “I am in complete control.”

In the cell, Mr. Henriksen breaks through the wall but pipes block part of the way. The thinnest woman squeezes through into a crawlspace under the house, where she avoids a rat and finds a grate leading outside. Unfortunately for her, she makes a lot of noise when she knocks over a trash can, but she manages to stumble onto the lawn before Dr. Basehart and Ms. Grahame grab her and pull her back to the house (Dr. Basehart’s moves his hand in a noticeably unchivalrous manner during this abduction).

During the escape, Dr. Basehart and Ms. Grahame fail to notice a second woman creeping out of the crawlspace. She makes her way across the street (where she is passed by a paperboy on a bicycle who bizarrely drops all his newspapers but continues pedaling away). Unfortunately for the eyeless woman, she is struck by a car  and killed when her pleas for help are ignored by dozens of motorists. Fortunately for the audience, the detective who investigates her death is played by the great Vic Tayback, Gloria Grahame’s co-star in Blood and Lace (1971). Because of the condition of the victim’s eyes, the coroner tells Mr. Tayback that the local expert on eye surgery is Dr. Basehart, so Mr. Tayback immediately interviews the good doctor. “We know how the girl died,” he says, “but if you could tell us how and why her eyes were removed, then maybe we could check out a few hospitals and find out who she is.”

Dr. Basehart laughs. “I’ll do my best, but I can tell you this much, however. The cause could be a case of syphilis, cancer, any one of a number of things.”

“Then you’re telling me that the removal of both eyes is not unheard of?”

“That’s right.” He adds, “Would you care for a glass of wine?”

Mr. Tayback sensibly declines, citing a commitment to his duty as a police officer.

Down in the basement, Dr. Basehart tells his prisoners that the woman’s escape attempt was unsuccessful. He gives a speech revealing his own motivations: “You must trust me. I’m going to give you back your eyes. All of you. As soon as I’ve succeeded with Nancy. As soon as I’ve discovered the truth, I will share that truth with you. With the whole world. I believe in humanity. That’s what it’s all about.”

As he pontificates, one of the prisoners strangles Ms. Grahame.

Of course, Dr. Basehart quickly puts Ms. Grahame on the operating table, somehow operating himself without her assistance.

At night, as Dr. Basehart digs a grave for Ms. Grahame in the backyard, Nancy wakes up in her bedroom. She is able to see. She staggers through the house, heading straight for the basement for some reason. When she sees the eyeless prisoners, she runs screaming out of the basement despite her boyfriend Lance Henriksen’s calls for her to help them.

A few minutes later, Dr. Basehart goes to Nancy’s bedroom, where she is now lying in bed, bandages on her eyes. He cuts the bandages. “I know you meant well,” she tells him. “I love you.”

He pulls the bandages off but she insists she can’t see. Dr. Basehart takes this information hard. He stands in the corner and babbles to himself while Nancy reveals to the audience she can see by leaving the room and going downstairs. She returns to the basement and locks her father out of the laboratory, then finds the keys to the jail cell and opens it. (It is unclear why she did not do this earlier.)

In the grim finale, Mr. Henriksen traps Dr. Basehart in the cell with the other prisoners. One of the good samaritans strangles him to death while Nancy and Mr. Henriksen watch. Then the good samaritan gouges Dr. Basehart’s eyes out with his fingers, resulting in the disturbingly satisfying image of the doctor screaming, eyeless, while the man holds his admittedly attractive blue eyes.

The End

Given the accomplished nature of Mansion of the Doomed, it is unfortunate that Michael Pataki directed only two films (the other was an erotic version of Cinderella in 1977, also produced by Charles Band) and an episode of Nancy Drew in 1977. Of course, the cinema was graced with Mr. Pataki's appearance as an actor in many films and TV shows, so perhaps these appearances make up for his less prolific work as a director.

Mansion of the Doomed represents the convergence of many factors that help to explain its quality. Not only does it feature Gloria Grahame and Lance Henriksen along with the redoubtable (though somewhat tight-mouthed) Richard Basehart, it features cinematography by future action director Andrew Davis (who had previously shot Paul Bartel's Private Parts in 1972 and Jonathan Kaplan's classic Over the Edge in 1979) and excellent effects work by Stan Winston (perhaps best known for the effects in Dracula's Dog in 1977, featuring Michael Pataki, as well as a handful of other films).

Much credit should also be given to the writer of Mansion of the Doomed, Frank Ray Perilli, who also wrote the aforementioned Cinderella (1977) and Dracula's Dog (also 1977), in addition to Laserblast (1978), the story for Lewis Teague's Alligator (1980), and John Hayes's End of the World (1977). Surely Mansion of the Doomed would not be the classic that it is without both Mr. Perilli's script and Mr. Pataki's assured direction.