LIST CANDIDATE: 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964)

DIRECTED BY: George Pal

FEATURING: Tony Randall, Arthur O’Connell, Barbara Eden

PLOT: A mysterious “Chinaman fakir” rides into a small western town of Abalone and shows the cartoonish townspeople a variety of colorful wonders to teach them that life is a mystery and a marvel. Still from 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although a sappy message-movie about the power of imagination, any film that shows you a faun in cutoff shorts drawing out the lust in a priggish school teacher, and then minutes later unveils a mustachioed serpent telling his human likeness that the man is the most imperfect creature he’s ever seen, at least deserves some consideration for the List of the 366 best weird movies.

COMMENTS: “Ye ever see a catfish ridin’ on a yellow jackass before?”

Although at first glance 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a contrived, tedious “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”-esque story of the purity and wonder of a young boy befriended by a whimsical fantasy-lander among the hee-hawing bumpkins and self-absorbed dowagers, that message gets lost in the excessive phantasmagoria that suffuses the film. We see a bunch of campy characters in western attire living contentedly in the realm of stereotype: there’s the domineering husband and wife (“No no, dear. I don’t mean to give you the jitters”); there are the bigoted goons (“only good Injun’s a dead Injun!”); then there’s tight-lipped prude of a librarian, Angela Benedict (“the section on courtesy and good manner is over there”), destined to fall in love with the blockheaded newspaperman, Ed Cunningham, who’s found a home among the plastic cacti and tumbleweeds. The solution to shake up these trite archetypes appears to be another one: a comedic white man playing a Chinese mystic, with a painful vehemence lacking in Sidney Toler’s Charlie Chan or ’s Fu Manchu. The sound of Chinese bells and Pipa strings replace the music of banjos and harmonicas. Dr. Lao shows up to awe and confound the Abalonians with a variety of disguises, including an organ-grinding yeti and a Medusa in a stop-motion-animated wig. Inside his circus tent (that’s much bigger on the inside, naturally) Dr. Lao turns women to stone and tells the sad futures of blithering widows. He opens his show with a stock footage barrage of fireworks that represents the colorful but tame cabinet of wonders. A wavering-voiced Merlin makes flowers grow instantly and an inch-long sea serpent swims in fishbowl. But then things get crazy: behind one curtain a seductive faun beguiles the librarian with a dizzying tune on the pan pipes, and behind another, the evil real estate mogul encounters a serpent with his face. After yokels pause their “What in Tom Thunder?!” astonishment or skepticism, we return to the strained message movie when Dr. Lao befriends a torturously acted little boy, Mike, in whom he sees an active imagination and appreciation for life. That sickeningly artificial message encapsulates the film, and dismisses the genuine weirdness of Lao’s creations.  However, stop-motion animator turned director George Pal seems far more interested in the lavish set pieces than teaching kids life lessons. The film most drastically diverges from kiddie-matinee flick with the sexual awakening of the librarian love interest who unbuttons her shirt, panting while the well-oiled faun twirls lasciviously. The film further ignores the corny confines of the message with a climax that includes a rocket-powered rain making machine and some drunk bumpkins fighting an ever-growing Lochness monster in the desert, all underscored by a soundtrack of anarchic bagpipes. When Lao leaves in a plume of smoke, much to the dismay of Mike, we’re left stranded with the Abalone bumpkins wondering: “What in the heck was that all about?”

But who is Doctor Lao anyway? Is he a whimsical Chinese guru capable of transforming into six circus entertainers, or is his “Chinaman” persona a role like all the others? At times he drops the “velly solly” accent when speaking to Mike, explaining that he talks in “whatever dialect the mood requires.” This statement explains his divine talent for manifesting himself in a form specifically attuned to whoever’s observing. It is only to Mike that he drops his cadre of disguises, because he sees no need for artifice in the presence of a boy fertile with imagination. His role as master of deception to the dull-minded Abalonians explains his need for fantastical disguises, but the reason for Dr. Lao’s brief stay in the middle-of-nowhere burg remains a mystery left unsolved, due to his seeming lack of effect on the town. Instead of leaving the Abalonians blessed with ability to see life as a circus despite their mundane lives, he leaves the desert ruffians dazed and spouting the same tiresome exposition as always. The only changes Dr. Lao makes in Abalone are galvanizing the townspeople to vote against selling their land to Stark, and chemically developing a romance between Ed and Angela. Lao has the power to catch fish in dry rivers and render the local bigots senseless (with the help of some twinkling music), so obviously he has some ulterior plan beyond running a fabulous circus. Why did he come? Why does he care about Abalone? Why does a man with supreme power charge five cents for fortune telling? Dr. Lao, false god or just brilliant entertainer, leaves us with only a phony moral and the memory of a phantasmagorical circus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a curious concoction of superb effects and makeup (William Tuttle won the first ever Oscar for makeup design for his work here) and a schmaltzy, moralising tone that doesn’t immediately speak to all audiences.–Graeme Clark, “The Spinning Image” (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by kengo, who said that the movie “has a lot of weirdness in it.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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