DOCTOR DEATH: SEEKER OF SOULS (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 490). — J.R.

U.S.A., 1973
Director: Eddie Saeta

Before dying from an accident, Laura Saunders’ last words to her husband Fred are, “I’ll come back”. Unable to accept her death, Fred visits a number of fake spiritualists and death cultists until a classified ad (“Control your own reincarnation”) leads him to Tana, a friend and former lover of Dr. Death who brings Fred to one of Death’s ‘demonstrations’: a girl scarred by an accident is willingly sawed in half so that her soul can pass into the undamaged body of another women. Death dubs the reawakened corpse Venus and promptly becomes her lover, incurring the jealousy of Tana, who subsequently throws acid in Venus’ face. At a later meeting with Fred, Death explains that he discovered his power — based on a formula kept in an amulet around his neck — 1000 years ago, and his soul has survived ever since by passing into a succession of bodies of various races and both sexes belonging to his murder victims, He offers to revive Laura’s corpse with another woman’s soul for $50,000 and Fred agrees; but when Tana is garishly murdered for this purpose, Fred is appalled, and after Death fails to animate Laura’s body, asks him to keep the money and abandon the project. But stung by his first failure, Death persists, and with the aid of his henchman Thor proceeds to murder a series of women, including Venus, failing in each case when Laura’s body ‘rejects’ the soul.

Deciding that only a “strong soul” and a “non-violent” murder will turn the trick, he settles on Sandy, Fred’s secretary and prospective girlfriend, whom he kidnaps, ties to Laura’s coffin, and cuts on the wrist. When Fred and the police arrive just in time to save Sandy, Thor is shot but Death escapes. Laura’s coffin is taken from her tomb and transferred to the graveyard proper, where Death subsequently finds it; dying of a knife wound inflicted by the boyfriend of a former victim, his soul successfully passes into Laura’s body, and he/she returns to the world triumphant.

Possibly no better recommendation (or warning) can be offered for Doctor Death than the above synopsis, which conveys a fair measure of its general outrageousness. Whether or not this vulgar necrophiliac comedy is actually meant to be consistently funny seems almost beside the point: the spectator who brings a properly black frame of mind to it may well be entertained. Along with a muzak score which is more than appropriate to the muzak hero and his muzak secretary, the movie displays a kind of pleasure in its own strident dreadfulness that occasionally hoists the material beyond its apparent intentions into a realm of semi-absurdist delight: the decision, for example, to present the deadly doctor as an archetypal California-cultist con man in jazzy dress and oily manner (his amulet recalling a popular Scientology emblem), in goofy contrast to his thousand-year background; or lines like the advice of Fred’s psychotherapist friend during a visit to Laura’s tomb in Eternal Rest Cemetery (“I really don’t think these daily visits are doing you very much good”); or Fred’s no more than momentary hesitation in coughing up $50,000 after he discovers — pragmatic materialist that he is — that it will only pay for the revival of Laura’s body, not her soul; or the note from Death enclosed with Venus’ severed head in a gift box delivered to Fred (“This is to let you know that I’m still trying”). An early hint of the film’s mindless enthusiasm appears in a gag at a fake seance: when the medium informs a visitor that his grandmother is present, only to be rebuked by, “My grandmother’s still alive !”, one is more prone to laugh at the scriptwriter’s forgetfulness of the fact that each of us has two grandmothers, not one. A comparable lack of self-consciousness and forethought about the monstrous (in more ways than one) animates the rest of the film into a giddy form of half-life, and is undoubtedly responsible for such demented passing details as the guest appearance of one of the Three Stooges (Moe Howard) at Death’s initial ‘demonstration’, a hulking blob with misshapen face and missing tongue named Thor, and Death’s repeated, exasperated imperative to a long string of ’souls’ beside Laura’s corpse: “Enter that body! I command you! Enter that body!”

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