“DOCTOR MABUSE”: Ansel Faraj and the Return of German Expressionism (Movie Review)
FANGORIA #322 featured my interview with Ansel Faraj, the young writer/director of the new thriller/noir film DOCTOR MABUSE. The no-budgeter, literally shot in the filmmaker’s backyard, attracted a good deal of attention due to the casting of three major players from the classic horror-themed soap opera DARK SHADOWS.
On Saturday, April 27, DOCTOR MABUSE premiered at the historic Coronado Theater in San Diego CA. There was quite a buzz in the air, as an enthusiastic crowd of primarily DARK SHADOWS fans, including this writer, packed the house.
To say that the film startled people is an understatement.
Made on a shoestring budget with a tiny crew, Faraj’s DOCTOR MABUSE might be the most ambitious home movie ever produced. The filmmaker pulled it off beautifully. Shot primarily in front of a blue screen, Faraj added most of the backdrops digitally in post production. The young director’s fierce determination and precise vision created a haunting netherworld reminiscent of the glory days of German Expressionism.
Set in an unnamed city in an unspecified time period, DOCTOR MABUSE is primarily a battle of wills. As he did in prior cinematic incarnations, Mabuse (chillingly played by Jerry Lacy) exudes strange powers over mind and matter–the arch villain can achieve almost anything with a mere thought. Lacy, fondly remembered as the fanatical witch hunter Reverend Trask on DARK SHADOWS, is a frightening visage as Mabuse. Brilliantly powerful and cold as ice, he plays a bizarre game of cat and mouse with the tormented Inspector Carl Lohemann (Nathan Wilson).
Wilson, an actor I’d never heard of prior to MABUSE, more than holds his own against seasoned character actor Lacy. There are moments in their battle of wills that made this viewer’s skin crawl. One scene that stands out, and which I can describe without giving away too many spoilers, involves Loehmann talking to Mabuse through a curtain. They challenge each other on opposite sides of that curtain, but one never sees the other. When the curtain is pulled back, Loehmann discovers that he’s been conversing with an old fashioned record player. The evil genius Mabuse was able to pre-record his end of their conversation, leaving spaces on the record where Loehmann could respond. Mabuse’s recorded responses tie in perfectly with everything Loehmann says to him.
Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker, who played adversarial roles on DARK SHADOWS, are herein cast as the creepiest pair of sisters since Joseph Kesserling wrote ARSENIC AND OLD LACE more than a half century ago. Scott, often seen as a damsel in distress on the TV series, plays Madame Von Harbau, a strange mystery woman. Is she helping Mabuse or Loehmann? Parker plays Madame Carrozza, a tarot reading psychic. Parker gives a deliciously over the top performance, reminiscent of her role as the evil, love sick witch Angelique on DS–when she did her trademark Angelique laugh in MABUSE, several viewers in the Coronado audience applauded. Parker is an old hand at playing these kinds of roles. Though she’s been absent from acting these past two decades (she’s now primarily a college professor and a published novelist) Parker glides right into her role as Carrozza. When Madame reads the cards, it’s as though a demon were possessing her.
Scott, whose DS roles were somewhat timid, is an acting revelation in DOCTOR MABUSE. Madame Von Harbau (named after the real life wife of director Fritz Lang) is an alluring woman of mystery. Now of a “certain age”, the still gorgeous Scott, clad in a long, black velvet dress with matching cap, becomes a spooky figure in her own right. More chills are induced when Madame turns to the Inspector. “These are strange times,” she tells him in a foreboding voice. In this scene, and others, Scott conveys an acting range she was never allowed to display on DARK SHADOWS.
Director Ansel Faraj, only 21 years old, possesses a talent and a maturity that’s inspiring. He knew exactly what he wanted for his film. In a Q & A after the screening, he stated that DOCTOR MABUSE is set in the same universe as the Universal monster movies. That the time and place is never specified was wholly intentional. The film’s backdrops, which include huge, angular, shadowy rooms with a noirish looking city outside, create a dreamlike atmosphere not seen since directors such as Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang created their own cinematic masterpieces in 1920s Berlin. Lang is one of Faraj’s major influences, and DOCTOR MABUSE contains more than a few references to Lang’s METROPOLIS (1926). (look closely at Mabuse’s blueprints when they’re seen onscreen). It’s particularly impressive how effective the visuals are when one pictures the auteur sitting at his computer, creating them largely on his own. To further recreate the cinema of long ago, Faraj deliberately employs the use of the rear projection technique that was often seen during Hollywood’s Golden Age. This recreates the illusion of watching a film that was made two generations ago.
No doubt there are people who would put DOCTOR MABUSE down because of it’s shoestring budget. They would be wrong. What Ansel Faraj has achieved, with limited resources and at such a young age, is astonishing. His love for what he does, and for the cinema of yesteryear is infectious. One can only imagine what Faraj might be able to achieve if someone were to give him a million dollars.
It should be noted that after the Coronado screening, many present, including Lara Parker, expressed a desire to see Faraj direct a DARK SHADOWS movie. Faraj, they felt, was the one filmmaker who could recreate the Gothic ambiance, and the soul, that captivated millions when the series first aired. It was agreed that while Tim Burton’s recent film might have been visually breathtaking, it lacked an emotional depth or a cohesive story. Ansel Faraj, DS fans felt, could make the DARK SHADOWS film everyone had hoped for.
On Friday and Saturday, May 3, 4, 10 and 11, Ansel Faraj’s Doctor Mabuse will screen at Midnight at the Los Feliz Theater in Los Angeles CA. More screenings, and a DVD release, are TBA.
More info: www.doctormabuse-themovie.com