Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mad Love was that I’ve nearly reached my 40th birthday without ever getting around to seeing it – despite the fact it has sat on my shelf for at least three years, staring at me and shouting “watch me”. I finally gave in a few nights back.
My first thoughts were surprise at how some parts of it managed to escape the censors. The film does open, after all, with a shot of a hanging body (albeit a wax one), which helps to unnerve the viewer even more than the rather ingenious credit sequence. It is an unsettling film, especially during the first half of its running time. Obviously, many people coming to the film for the first time today already know the story in advance. That wouldn’t have necessarily been true for most audiences in 1935, despite the fact that this was a remake of a German expressionist classic from a decade earlier.
As with The Mummy (1933), Karl Freund’s direction is often very eerie and adds a genuine chill to the whole proceedings. However, the film also seems to borrow lots from other films of the period. The “kindly” Dr Gogol seems to be reminiscent of Dr Mirakle from Murders of the Rue Morgue (1932). And Peter Lorre, with his bald head, heavy eye-lids and protruding ears, often seems to glide towards the camera resembling a well-nourished version of Count Orlok from Nosferatu (1922). Eerie waxwork models had already been utilized in The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and the journalist in Mad Love has a similar role to the journalists in that film – but is simply more annoying.
Peter Lorre is superb in this, his American film debut, and Francis Drake is also very good in the role of Yvonne Orlac – although there are times when she seems more manly than Lorre. Sadly, the same can’t be said for Colin Clive. Just 35 at the time the film was released, there are moments when he looks twenty years older than that. His performance is rather one-dimensional, and at times he appears to be channeling Dr Frankenstein so much one expects him to start yelling “they’re alive!” when he sees his hands again after the operation.
The first half of the film works extremely well – it is an eerie experience and the story unfolds at a relatively leisurely pace, building up atmosphere as it rolls along. I thought the second half was less successful, however – as is the case with so many horror films even today. Lorre’s character goes from “a little creepy” to “raving maniac” rather abruptly and, more importantly, there are far too many gaping plot holes at the end to make the whole enterprise satisfactory – it’s all too full of coincidences and the fantastical to make it work in the “normal world”, but doesn’t take this far enough to make the film “supernatural”.
I confess that I enjoyed the film, as I do most horror movies from the period, but I expected more given the film’s reputation. By this point in 1935, the first horror cycle was coming to an end, and Mad Love shows signs of that tiredness. Lorre is great, and it’s worth watching just for his performance, but the rest of the movie fails to make it A-grade 30s horror.
The film can be purchased in the Hollywood’s Legends of Horror boxed set of six classic horror movies – which is currently less than half price over at Amazon.com.