Thursday, October 3, 2013

Dr. Giggles

(R, Universal Studios/Largo Entertainment, 95 mins., theatrical release date: October 23, 1992)

"Get ready to take your medicine, Moorehigh. The doctor is in!"

At the beginning of the 1990s, the slasher film was truly on life support. The defining horror subgenre of the previous decade, and the source of much profits and pontification, had already run its course and started to drill itself into a shallow grave. Such was plain to see in the development of many of the era's biggest franchises. Freddy died, Jason went to Hell, Michael took a vacation to Planet Druidia, and Chucky was experiencing the kind of diminishing returns brought on by a hasty venture to military school. But there was still a market, and undaunted producers attempted to fill the void by any means necessary.

So along came sadistic leprechauns, cuckolded dentists and, for the purposes of this review, the serial malpractitioner known as Dr. Giggles.

His real name is Evan Rendell, Jr., the son of a once-respected surgeon who was lynched by his fellow small town residents of Moorehigh after his wife's heart disease brought about a psychotic new M.O. He was orphaned at the tender age of seven and recently lived as an inmate of the Tarawood State Mental Hospital. But this psychotic prodigy finally pulled off a bloody breakout and is coming home with a vengeance.

He's a depraved homicidal killer, and he makes house calls!

Dr. Giggles, the movie, directed by Manny Coto and co-written with Sonny Boy scribe Graeme Whifler, gathers together all the classic tropes of its forebears like a Now! hits compilation. "The night HE came back" from Halloween? Check. Hedonistic horn dog teenagers too late for Friday the 13th? No matter, as they're all right on time for their appointment with death. Ominous spooky house and nursery rhyme mythology from straight outta Springwood? One, two, Freddy's going to sue. The methodical murders and post-mortem zingers of Krueger's later years also surface. And the mad doctor's loony chuckle is as distinct as that of Charles Lee Ray.

Akin to Robert Englund and Brad Dourif's iconic work as Freddy and Chucky, maverick character actor Larry Drake brings the right kind of aplomb to the role of Dr. Giggles. Fresh off his rogue supporting performance in Sam Raimi's Darkman and in the midst of his televised L.A. Law fame, Drake resembled a modern day Peter Lorre and is exquisitely sarcastic in handling his over-the-top penchant for medically-themed wisecracks. Coto frames Drake with enough cock-eyed angles and plenty of imposing ground-up P.O.V. shots to preserve the illusion of menace. But there's also a refreshing humor in seeing his grotesque funhouse mirror reflection as well as the oddball camera placement from within a victim's mouth as Rendell inspects her tonsils. The combined playfulness of director and star proves irresistible and is certainly a step above the likes of Child's Play 3 or Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.

But Drake was also known for two separate appearances on HBO's Tales from the Crypt, particularly the Robert Zemeckis-directed pilot "And All Through the House," wherein Drake took on the axe-wielding Santa suit. Coto was responsible for an episode as well in 1991's "Mournin' Mess," about a killer of hobos. Dr. Giggles feels like its ideal home would be on paid cable television, even if it was originally filmed in 2.35:1 Panavision (currently only available on a 1993 LaserDisc release). Given the plot's lightweight sense of pulpiness and reliance on familiar scenarios involving make-out spots (Breeder's Hill), isolated houses from which Rendell springs from out of nowhere and, of course, the use of a crowded fairground in a chase sequence (this time it plays as a direct homage to Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai), this has the distinct appearance of a late-blooming if then-modern shocker.

The titular maniac's canny, campy perversion of Hippocratic Oath is exploited to its fullest potential. Armed with a handbag full of makeshift instruments and familiar hospital paraphernalia, Rendell systematically makes his rounds butchering the locals with syringes, scalpels, otoscopes, and thermometers. His most novel method of dispatch involves a de facto wicked stepmother played by 1980s starlet Michelle Johnson (Blame it on Rio, Waxworks) and a hydraulic portable liposuction machine with lethal blades inside the tubes. Regurgitated ice cream and blood flows with grisly glee.

Future Charmed coven member Holly Marie Combs, predating Sidney Prescott in her Plain Jane pluckiness, is the sullen survivalist/female teen lead, Jennifer Campbell, who is given parallels to Rendell by virtue of a dead mother's specter and hereditary cardiac woes. Trying to adjust with the help of an attentive if wayward boyfriend, Max (Glenn Quinn), her frail heart is in danger of breaking thanks to the machinations of sardonic siren Coreen (Sara Melson), who flirts with Max over saxophone lessons. Jennifer's concerned father (Cliff De Young) blows off his trophy squeeze Tamara (Johnson) when his daughter disposes of her EKG tracker and ventures off into the cruel world at her most vulnerable. When Rendell discovers Jennifer's illness, he sets his twisted mind on capturing the girl and finishing what his daddy started.

Plenty of shameful secrets are exposed, the origins of Rendell's madness are recounted via flashbacks and a final confrontation ensues in which Max and young policeman Officer Reitz (Keith Diamond) attempt to rescue Jennifer before she goes under Rendell's knife. Coto and Whifler adhere to formula slavishly, complete with a waiting room full of Rendell's rotting victims, but the gallows humor is consistent and more clever than expected. In one of the film's queasiest scenes, one of Jennifer's oversexed friends forgoes putting a condom on before making out and crawls into bed to find not his lingerie-clad girlfriend, but 42-year-old Rendell awaiting with a pithy one-liner and a circumcising scalpel. Even better and sicker is the sight of Rendell ailing a gunshot wound in a manner which brings twisted élan to the old adage "Physician, heal thyself," which is sure enough written into the script.

Dr. Giggles does manage to believably entertain better than a lot of the films of its ilk. It's not cutting-edge by a long shot, but it certainly is a cut-up. By all rights, this film should've signaled the death knell for the mainstream slasher film until Wes Craven defined irony amidst all the dicing. And its paltry gross of $8 million demonstrates just how unassuming Coto's film really is. Larry Drake went on to reprise Robert Durant in the DTV world, but his Dr. Giggles was perceived as a one-joke routine. That's such a shame considering how committed Drake is to his performance and that it helps turn an also-ran into an admittedly minor cult favorite. It's a minor blessing that Drake, playing a loon in scrubs more hazardous to your health than Drs. Howard, Fine & Howard combined, manages to incise a path into your heart only to tear it out and leave you with enough of a spasm to jolt your funny bone.


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