Halloween Havoc!: THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET (Universal 1942)

The natives are getting restless… and you will too, while watching THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET, which feels a lot longer than its 61 minute running time. The film does have a few saving graces, mainly the great Lionel Atwill as a mad scientist experimenting with bringing people back from the dead, and is an early endeavor for future film noir auteur Joseph H. Lewis . But the extremely lame script by Al Martin, whose inexplicably long career included the Lewis-directed Bela Lugosi vehicle INVISIBLE GHOST, manages to sink this shocker despite Atwill’s and Lewis’s best efforts.

Dr. Ralph Benson offers a man $1000 to let him put the man in a “catatonic state”, and revive him later. Benson has mad dreams about conquering death and disease with his untried (and definitely not FDA approved) methods. When the man doesn’t return home the next day, his wife calls the cops, who come a-knocking, and Benson takes a powder out the window. The man is dead, and an APB is sent out for Benson, who shaves his beard, dyes his hair, and jumps on a cruise ship headed to New Zealand. Here we meet the rest of the cast: lovely Patricia Wentworth and her ditzy Aunt Margaret, equally ditzy boxer Red Hogan, lovestruck young purser Jim, and Ship’s Officer Dwight.

After Benson murders a detective on his trail and throws him overboard, a catastrophic fire breaks out onboard, and everyone abandons ship. Our main cast get stranded on an uncharted desert isle (no, not Gilligan’s), and the superstitious natives (who naturally speak English!) take them prisoner, to be thrown into a fire for bringing “evil spirits” to their happy home. The Chief’s daughter is dead, and Benson says he can restore her to life (which he does with a shot of adrenaline – seems she only suffered a mild heart attack). The natives now worship Benson as “The God of Life” and do his bidding, including keeping the others captive now that they know his true identity. The mad Dr. Benson plans to continue his life-and-death experiments here on this tropic isle, by making Patricia his bride and using her as his latest “experiment”…

Lionel Atwill’s as Mad as a Doctor can be, with that insane glint in his eyes and God-complex in his soul helping him to rise above the weak material. This was his last starring vehicle after a 1941 sex scandal involving orgies and porn at his home ruined his career; he’d be relegated to smaller supporting parts in the future. Nat Pendleton (Red) and Una Merkel (Aunt Margaret) salvage what they can in comic relief roles, but Claire Dodd (Patricia) and Richard Davies (Jim) are as boring as horror movie romantic leads can be. KING KONG’s Noble Johnson is once again an island chief, John Eldridge the officious Dwight, and Anne Nagel , Milton Kibbee, and Al Kikume have tiny cameos.

Lewis uses tight close-ups and shadows to hide the budget limitations, and almost (but not quite) succeeds. The opening scene in Benson’s office is probably the spookiest, but once we get to Universal’s backlot island things go steadily downhill. Lewis does employ a neat trick of having Atwill’s ether-soaked cotton pressed directly into the camera to transition from scenes; other than these few instances he was still a work in progress. THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET is for fans of Lewis and/or Atwill only, an eminently missable entry in the Universal Horror canon, though if you’re in the mood for bad cinema you might just get a kick out of it!

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