The double feature is cinema appreciation at its most basic. The mere act of pairing two films together – whether the bond be subject matter, central theme, a certain actor or filmmaker, or something outside-the-box conceptual – causes them to take on a different sort of life. A new relationship is formed with the viewer. You pay attention to new aspects and journey down unfamiliar avenues when you view films through Double Feature Goggles. Even when the linking bond is comically tenuous, the double feature magic is there. And I’m the kind of guy who derives just as much pleasure from creating a double feature as I do from watching one. Aside from amusing myself, hopefully I can give some people ideas for their next movie night.
The Double Feature: Mad Love (1935) and Body Parts (1991).
The Connection: A loving husband with a hot brunette wife and a prosperous career. A horrible accident. Lost limbs. A creepy doctor. A radical operation. Replacement limbs! Strange impulses. The limbs seem to have a mind of their own. A horrible discovery! The limbs came from a murderer!
Both films are also adaptations of French novels.
Film 1: Karl Freund was the big hotshit cinematographer in Germany during the silent era, lensing some gorgeous whoppers like The Golem, The Last Laugh and Metropolis before emigrating to Hollywood where he racked up a few more noteworthy films, like Dracula and Key Largo. Eventually he was talked into shooting the first season of I Love Lucy, which goes a long way toward explaining the monumental leap that show signified in TV production quality — Freund invented the flat-lighting system which sitcoms are still using today, allowing a live three-camera set-up to function without any pesky shadows. Oddly Freund only directed ten films himself, but one of those was Karloff’s The Mummy, and another was Mad Love. Both of which are awesome. Mad Love is a tweaked adaptation of the classic French sci-fi/crime novel Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) by Maurice Renard, which had previously been adapted as the silent film, The Hands of Orlac by Robert Wiene; Mad Love itself was later remade in the 1960’s starring Christopher Lee.
The film follows the twisted love triangle between the married Orlacs and the affluent Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre). The Orlacs are both artists. Stephen (Dr. Frankenstein himself, Colin Clive; it is fun seeing him on the business end of mad science this time around) is a concert pianist. Yvonne (the strangely named Frances Drake) is an actress at a Grand Guignol theater of horrors. Gogol is obsessed with Yvonne, attending her shows every single night from a private box, and going so far as to reprimand a drunk patron he finds blurting sweet drunk nothings to a wax replica of Yvonne that sits in the theater’s lobby. Gogol is a surgeon famous for his philanthropy and miracle work, but he aches for Yvonne, who understandably finds him off-putting and creepy (I mean, it is Peter Lorre). When Gogol finds out that Yvonne is leaving the theater he is devastated, and buys her wax statue from the theater to keep in his bed room; making his drunk housekeeper brush the statue’s hair nightly. Meanwhile, while Stephen is returning from his latest concert to see Yvonne, his train derails and he ends up losing both his hands. Fortunately for him, Gogol is eager to please Yvonne. Gogol buys the corpse of a recently executed murderer, and, well, I think you can see where this is going. At first Stephen is overjoyed to have new hands, until he discovers that not only is he unable to play the piano anymore, but now he seems to have developed the nasty habit of throwing knives at people. When Gogol discovers this, he starts trying to push Stephen towards madness and murder in the hopes that he may win Yvonne’s heart once Stephen is in jail.
This film marked the American debut of Peter Lorre — though not the English debut; that was Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Film 2: Body Parts is a loose adaptation of Et mon tout est un homme (released as Choice Cuts in America) by Boileau-Narcejac, who also wrote the novels that inspired Les Diaboliques and Vertigo. The film was written and directed by Eric Red, who also wrote modern horror classics Near Dark and The Hitcher. The film was dealt an unlucky blow when an overly cautious Warner Bros pulled the majority of the film’s advertising weeks before its release in the wake of the Jeffrey Dahmer media frenzy. The inevitable poor performance of the undersold film unfortunately put Red’s directing prospects on the skids in the 90’s, before a 2000 car accident in which Red killed two people – and the messy civil suit that followed – effectively ended his career. If you’ve ever wondered… What happened to Eric Red? That’s what happened.
The story follows Bill Chrushank (Jeff Fahey), a criminal psychologist with a happy home life (who wouldn’t be happy with 1991-era Kim Delaney as your wife?), whose life is nearly cut short by a terrible car accident. Bill’s entire right arm is amputated, but fortunately an enterprising surgeon, Dr. Agatha Webb (Lindsay Duncan), manages to give him a replacement arm. Yup, Bill starts having weird murderous impulses and dreams. He even chokes hot, hot Kim Delaney! No bueno, Bill. But Bill’s a smart guy. Suspicious, he goes to the police station and has them run the prints from his donor arm. Well what do you know? Arm of a murder. Not only that, but Bill learns that Dr. Webb has been handing out the dead murderer’s other limbs to a variety of needy patients, including a painter played by Brad Dourif – who has actually been enjoying the crazy visions his arm has given him, as it has brought on a wave of new inspiration for his art. Will Bill be able to fight against the evil will of his new arm?
HERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!
Double Feature Goggles: Interestingly enough, the details of Boileau-Narcejac’s original story are much closer to Mad Love than Eric Red’s Body Parts, as the novel’s original story focuses on the mad doctor and Jeff Fahey’s character is merely a supporting role. But Red was wise to make the changes he did. While Mad Love is a great showcase for Peter Lorre, objectively speaking it really buries the lead. A man getting the hands of a murderer and discovering to his horror that the hands still want to murder… this is a subplot? If you pitched me the idea for Mad Love I’d tell you to make Stephen Orlac’s story the focal point of the narrative — which I believe is the case with Maurice Renard’s original book. So in an eerie sense, these two films are actually adapting each others source material.
It is always interesting comparing two similar films from drastically different time periods. In Mad Love Orlac’s accident occurs off camera. In Body Parts it is a major (and awesome) set-piece. Considering his meager and lackluster directing career, Red really demonstrates a keen grasp for building tension and jarring violence, and one can only wonder how awesome a modern Mad Love double-hand-losing train accident might be — possibly twice as awesome as Michael Caine’s hand-capitation from another Les Mains d’Orlac inspired film, Oliver Stone’s comically intense, The Hand.
The idea of your own body parts rebelling against you is just inherently interesting, and can be played for both laughs (such as Homer’s evil hair-piece from a classic The Simpsons “Tree House of Horrors” episode) and scares, and generally for both (Evil Dead 2). Inevitably both Mad Love and Body Parts are at their most compelling when Stephen and Bill are first discovering their limbs have a mind of their own. Mad Love takes a much more ridiculous route, with Stephen having the hands of a knife thrower and now finding himself constantly throwing knives at people who anger him. Though you also can’t help but laugh when Bill haymakers his 12yearold son across the living room in Body Parts, so I suppose they’re both ridiculous.
My favorite moment of overlap with these two films is an area in which they don’t actually overlap at all. Both films deal with our protagonist learning that the dead murder from whom he received his donor limbs is… not in fact dead! In Mad Love this is a trick played by Dr. Gogol designed to push Stephen over the edge and believe that he murdered his own father, when in fact it was Gogol who committed the crime. It is great moment, with the supposedly still-living killer now wearing creepy metal hands. But we know it is Gogol. A more devastating plot twist is found in Body Parts, when we discover that Dr. Webb has attached the head of the donor murderer to a new body, and the newly reformed psycho is now on a mission to reclaim all his original limbs. Having to battle the psycho Frankenstein’s monster whose arm you currently own – that is just a wonderfully bizarre idea, hands down (boom! pun!) Oddly enough, the get-up Gogol wears while in disguise is echoed by Body Parts, possibly intentionally; although a neck brace is a neck brace, I suppose.
Previous Double Features
The Commitments/The Blues Brothers | The Set-Up/High Noon
The Plague Dogs/Secret of NIMH | The Old Dark House/Dolls
The Fury/Firestarter | Alligator/Q
Where the Buffalo Roam/Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas