Directed by George Pal
Expectations: Moderate because of George Pal’s involvement.
From the depths of my Netflix queue comes this George Pal directed cult classic. I remember hearing about this movie years ago, but I could never muster up the energy to care enough to watch it. A few weeks back I became somewhat enamoured with the idea of watching some other George Pal films because when I was a kid The Time Machine was the absolute shit. It was one of my favorite films during my childhood and it’s one that I will always love. With all this love you’d think I’d have seen some more of his work, but nope! That is, until now.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao is about a mysterious Chinese man who rides into a town in flux. Mr. Stark, a wealthy landowner (Yes, this is a Western of sorts), wishes to purchase the town from its inhabitants, but Dr. Lao arrives just in time. His circus serves as something of a distraction for the townspeople during the two days that they have to decide on Mr. Stark’s “generous” offer. It’s immediately clear to the audience (and to a couple of do-gooder characters) that Stark’s up to no good, but most of the townspeople have only dollar signs in their eyes.
Besides the disturbing portrayal of Dr. Lao, the film does have a lot going for it. The special FX are particularly great, with all manner of effects on display for your enjoyment. Everything from puppets to animation, stop-motion and clever makeup work, it’s all featured here and they all pretty much look great for the time. Nowadays it’s all gonna look primitive and kitschy, but there’s a charm to it all. My favorite is the serpent puppet with Mr. Stark’s face, who is doubled in quick stop-motion sequences to perform actions, such as a wink, that the puppet would be completely incapable of performing. It’s pretty seamless and I can only imagine how magical it would have seemed if I had watched this as a child.
Pal directs the film with a confident camera that does nothing exceedingly special. In fact, the film looks very close to a 60s television show during the dialogue scenes, but when the magic begins, and the camera tricks take hold, they are wondrous to behold. Tony Randall does do a great job portraying all seven of Lao’s faces (including the female Medusa!) and truly transforms his body language and voice for each character. While watching the film I found his performance to remind me of Peter Sellers’s work with multiple characters on Dr. Strangelove, so I was not surprised to learn afterwards that Sellers was Pal’s first choice for the role. Randall does well though, and I think he fits the film better than Sellers would have.
I’ve heard lots of great things about this cult classic, but I can’t say that I really thought it was all that great. It’s fun, and it has its moments, but overall it’s fairly boring and I had a hard time getting over the racist depiction of Dr. Lao. I did enjoy the film though, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who wishes to see a different take on fantasy in film. A love, or at least an enjoyment, of 60s film will help greatly as it is rather dated and full of that flavor that only 60s filmmaking can deliver.