Thursday, November 22, 2012

7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964)

In the dying old West town of Abelone, Ed, the newspaper editor, has a thing for the young, lovely and repressed widow Angela, though she resists his come-ons. Ed and his sidekick Tim are fighting a two-man battle against businessman Clint Stark and his cronies who tell the townspeople they have two choices:  spend an inordinate amount of money fixing the water system or sell him their land and move on to greener pastures. What the town doesn't know but Stark does is that the railroad is coming to town and he will wind up making lots of money. Enter Dr. Lao, a mysterious old Chinese sage who brings his circus to town. Within the tents, pitched in the desert just outside of town, are strange folks claiming to be Merlin the magician, the ancient Greek blind seer Apollonius, Pan, and Medusa, and more. The townspeople turn out in droves and the circus performers do seem to be able to work magic:  Medusa turns a cranky old lady to stone, Apollonius becomes a truthteller when he tells the fortune of a gossipy old woman, and Pan appears to Angela, taking the form of a bearded, shirtless Ed, and suddenly she's in heat. Lao's agenda seems to be to get the townsfolk to face up to unpleasant facts about themselves, and also to stop Stark from grabbing their land. If a talking serpent can't straighten out Stark, maybe a tiny fish that Lao claims can transform into the Loch Ness Monster can.

This is a charming fantasy with an adult storyline that has been pitched to kids. When I first saw it at the age of 8, I liked the special effects but was confused by the various plot strands. As an adult, I can appreciate the narrative more, but the special effects scenes feel a bit like intruding gimmicks. Tony Randall plays seven roles, as Lao and all the circus denizens, and he's OK, though I imagine that Peter Sellers, for whom the role was intended, would have been much more interesting. John Ericson (Honey West's hunky sidekick on TV) and Barbara Eden are fine as Ed and Angela, Minerva Urecal (a twin for Marjorie Main) and Lee Patrick are fun as two of the town's women, and Arthur O'Connell is very good as the bad guy Stark, who ultimately isn't so bad after all. There’s a Ray Harryhausen feel to the movie, as some of the best effects (the serpent, the monster) are the results of stop-motion animation. This is a gentle Twilight Zone-ish fantasy that plays out almost as a mood piece, best seen perhaps on a quiet summer evening, though it could also work as a chaser after Thanksgiving dinner. [DVD]

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