The Mad Executioners/Der Henker von London (1963/1965) ***
Like I said while reviewing The Fellowship of the Frog, the Krimis got weirder as the 60’s wore on, accumulating bits of convention from other popular genres until it scarcely seemed adequate anymore to describe them simply as mysteries or suspense films. And as I also said in that review, companies other than Rialto-Film quickly found themselves barred from going directly into the lucrative Edgar Wallace business by Rialto’s deft legal maneuvering. Rialto’s exclusive deal with the Wallace estate didn’t stop anybody from cashing in on the European public’s appetite for Krimis, however— it merely forced their competitors to use their imaginations a little. Artur Brauner’s Central Cinema Company arrived at the most ingenious solution to the problem when Brauner worked out his own exclusive film-rights bargain with Bryan Edgar Wallace, Edgar Wallace’s son and himself a prolific author of pulp detective fiction. Brauner was thereby able to put the coveted Wallace name above the marquee on his Krimis, too, and if we may judge from the indiscriminate manner in which Rialto’s movies and CCC’s have been packaged together in foreign markets ever since, audiences didn’t trouble themselves overmuch about the presence or absence of that “Bryan” at the beginning. The Mad Executioners was CCC’s third Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptation (or fourth if you count the one that got rebuilt into a Dr. Mabuse sequel), marking the midpoint of the cycle. It starkly exemplifies the trend toward escalating weirdness, featuring as it does not only a self-appointed kangaroo court that could have stepped out of The Brainiac’s opening scene, but also impersonators of said court and a decapitation-happy mad doctor who seems to be carrying on the work of Bill Cortner in The Brain that Wouldn’t Die.
Let’s start with the kangaroo court— the movie itself certainly does. They call themselves the Secret Court, and their mission as they see it is to clean up the regular judicial system’s messes by bringing to justice wrongdoers who have escaped the law’s reach, whether through police incompetence, insufficient prosecutorial zeal, or sheer weenie-hood on the part of judge or jury. The Secret Court tries its cases in the catacombs beneath an ancient church somewhere in London, and while their juridical theories are rather barbarous for my taste, I surely can’t fault their sense of showmanship. Black robes and hoods, antique coffins for a bench, skulls for paperweights, black balls dropped ceremonially into a bowl to signify a guilty verdict, a 17th-century horse-drawn hearse to transport defendants from the sites of their abduction to the dungeon where the Secret Court sits— classic stuff all around. And talk about reverence for the history of their profession! It’s not enough for these guys to hang their condemned malefactors in public places (by the dead of night, admittedly, but a few concessions to the illegality of their activities are obviously unavoidable); no, they have to break into Scotland Yard’s Black Museum each time to borrow a noose that was used for countless executions back when Britain still went in for hanging as the preferred method of capital punishment. Naturally the police, the courts, and the government as a whole don’t appreciate it when other people try to do their jobs for them, and “the Executioner of London” (nobody knows as yet that there are really about ten of them) is now the highest-priority perp on the wanted list, edging out even the “London Sex Murderer,” whose tally of headless, semi-nude victims nevertheless leads the Secret Court’s by four to three.
The lead detective on the Executioner case is Inspector John Hillier (Hansjörg Felmy, from The Monster of London City and The Corpse in the Thames). Hillier would rather investigate the sex murders, though, if it were all the same to his boss. That’s because his little sister was one of the latter killer’s victims, but for now at least, Commissioner Smith (Wolfgang Preiss, from Mill of the Stone Women and The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) has the good sense to avoid that blatant conflict of interest. Maybe what happened to Hillier’s sister explains the inspector’s shockingly lackadaisical approach to his current assignment (he hasn’t even told anyone about the repeated break-ins at the Black Museum!)— perhaps he’s hoping that the next body found dangling from the oft-pilfered antique hanging rope will have a docket pinned to it detailing the case against the London Sex Murderer.
Wait— I haven’t mentioned the dockets yet, have I? They’re the closest thing Hillier has to a clue; each Executioner victim’s corpse so far has borne a dossier containing a brief for the prosecution and the reported opinion of the Secret Court, all very professional in style and substance. One might surmise, then, that the Executioner of London was trained as a barrister, which will make us look askance at Sir Francis Elliott (Rudolf Forster, of Liane, Jungle Goddess and Tower of Screaming Virgins) when we meet him shortly. Sir Francis is the father of Hillier’s girlfriend, Ann (Maria Perschy, from The Castle of Fu Manchu and The House of Psychotic Women), and he’s a retired judge. He’s also extremely vocal about considering the Executioner of London the next best thing to a hero, and he’ll be happy to talk your ear off about how much better it was back in his day, before all this nonsense about humane treatment of prisoners, clemency for the mentally ill, and the rights of the accused started up. Even John and Ann’s mutual friend, police medical examiner Dr. Philip Trooper (Harry Riebauer, of The College Girl Murders and The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle), finds the old judge’s ideas horrifyingly medieval, although Hillier seems to sympathize with them more than he’s comfortable admitting.
As for that sex murderer, he’s a surgeon by the name of MacFerguson (check out that double patronymic!), and Scotland Yard is even further off-track in the hunt for him than they are in their pursuit of the Secret Court. MacFerguson (Dieter Borsche, from The Black Abbot and The Dead Eyes of London) isn’t actually interested in sex at all— the cops just assume that he’s a pervert because his victims are always young females, and their clothes are always partly cut off along with their heads. What Smith and his minions fail to understand is that MacFerguson strips the girls only to make it easier to monitor their vital signs while he operates on them. You see, the doctor believes that humankind has maxed out its evolutionary potential within the confines of nature, and that the body has now become an impediment to the further development of the mind and spirit. He has therefore invented a sort of mechanical body— little more than a respirator and an artificial heart at the present stage, but this is merely the experimental prototype— onto which he attempts to graft the heads of his victims. A successful transplant will supposedly uplift the subject to a new plane of existence in which the life of the mind will no longer be encumbered by the gross demands of the flesh. Consequently, MacFerguson doesn’t select just anyone to be his guinea pigs. He seeks girls whom he perceives to be of high mental and spiritual caliber, ones who might properly appreciate being liberated from all those gushing hormones and needy viscera. It’s just a pity the machine doesn’t actually work yet…
Oh— and there’s a third criminal on the loose, too, this one with a vendetta against Sir Francis Elliott personally. His name is Pickaxe Joe, and he is brought to the protagonists’ attention by Gabby Pennypacker (Chris Howland, from The Secret of the Black Trunk and The Wanker), a writer for True Police Stories Magazine. Pennypacker wants very badly to be part of a high-profile criminal investigation; he’s been pestering Hillier for days about how his mastery of disguise could help crack the Executioner case, but the inspector understandably sees only mastery of Odious Comic Relief when he looks at Gabby. Nevertheless, the reporter keeps trying desperately to prove himself, and the first time his meddling becomes undeniably useful is when he foils an assassination attempt on Sir Francis by warning (while disguised as a bobby, so that someone might actually listen to him) that the package just delivered to the judge’s mansion contains a bomb. After revealing his true identity (this strangely doesn’t get him instantly arrested, even though he unmasks in front of Hillier— surely impersonating a police officer is illegal in Britain too?), Pennypacker explains that the bomb was a present from Pickaxe Joe, whose trial for all manner of gangsterism Sir Francis presided over many years ago. Pickaxe Joe was just released from prison today, so His Lordship can presumably expect more of the same in the future. What even Pennypacker doesn’t realize, though, is that revenge against the judge who put him away isn’t the only iron the mob boss has in the fire right now. While he was locked up, Pickaxe Joe learned that some of his old associates were capitalizing on his absence in ways that were clearly inimical to his interests, and he as a plan to use the Secret Court (about which London’s criminal underworld apparently knows considerably more than Scotland Yard) as cover for a campaign of retribution against his betrayers.
Impressively enough, all three of those seemingly unrelated plot threads— the Secret Court, Pickaxe Joe, and Mac the Snipper— do eventually tie together. They don’t always tie together in ways that make any sense (no police commissioner worth a fraction of his paycheck would even consider transferring John Hillier to the unit charged with catching his sister’s killer, and the Awful Dr. Orlof-like subplot in which Ann volunteers as bait in a trap for MacFerguson is absurd on several levels simultaneously), but they undeniably do intertwine. I know I keep saying that’s the way of the Krimi, but it keeps grabbing my attention just the same because it’s so very much not the way of comparably convoluted movies in other, closely related genres. Hell, the intersection of MacFerguson’s story and the Secret Court’s is practically elegant in how it reveals that they were really the same tale all along. That’s a pretty neat trick, considering how often The Mad Executioners feels like two different movies (Pickaxe Joe is obvious nearly from the outset as a sideline to the Secret Court business) vying for control of the same 90 minutes of screen time.
What makes The Mad Executioners enjoyable even when it seems like the subplots will never meaningfully converge is that each of the two main aspects would make for a sufficiently compelling film all by itself. The Secret Court sections carry forward a trend that was always visible in Edgar Wallace movies, the tendency to wrap what could have been a conventional crime story in the trappings of horror for added impact. Earlier Wallace interpretations like The Human Monster and Chamber of Horrors had gone out of their way to emphasize the ghoulishness of their villains’ crimes and/or the macabre atmosphere of their settings, and were thus amenable to cross-promotion as both spook-shows and crime thrillers, depending on the perceived tastes of particular audiences. Indeed, the film most often cited as the very first all-talking horror picture was a Wallace adaptation, Warner Brothers’ 1928 version of The Terror. In The Mad Executioners (and so far as I can tell, in CCC’s Bryan Edgar Wallace movies generally), the line between mystery and horror is blurred more enthusiastically than ever before, with the Secret Court adopting the mien of the sadistic witch-hunters already familiar from Italian and Italian-influenced gothics, even as their vigilantism reflects a thoroughly modern and down-to-Earth concern with the fraying of traditional methods of social control. It’s as if Paul Kersey and Matthew Hopkins had teamed up to take back the streets, however anachronistic the comparison might be with respect to a movie made in 1963. Meanwhile, the decapitation killings align The Mad Executioners with a completely different tradition, Mediterranean mad medicine as codified by Eyes Without a Face. I have a soft spot for even the worst films on that model, so it came as a welcome bonus when the London Sex Murderer turned out really to be the Malefic Dr. MacFerguson. Again, I’d have been happy with either one of those stories, so getting them both at once was a treat even if they did occasionally trip over each other’s shoelaces during the more complex handovers.
This review is part of a B-Masters Cabal’s look at the multifariously weird world of movies derived from the writings of Edgar and Bryan Edgar Wallace. Click the banner below to read my colleagues’ contributions: