The Mysterious Doctor (1943) **
Hokey, silly, derivative, and not even an hour long, The Mysterious Doctor is a film that never could have existed were it not for the peculiar structure of the moviegoing experience in the 1940ís. Once the industry moved away from the newsreel-cartoon-A-picture-B-picture format, there was simply no reason to make movies like this anymore, which were nowhere near fulfilling enough to fend for themselves, and which no one in their right mind would ever pay money to see on their own. The B-movie, in the original sense of the term, was essentially a freebie, one of the bonus features you got when you ponied up for the headlining film at the box office. And so itís hardly surprising that The Mysterious Doctoró and hundreds if not thousands of movies like itó vanished practically without a trace after leaving the theater, and now ekes out an obscure, twilight existence in the netherworldly limbo of late-night cable TV.
Thereís one thing you simply cannot do in a 57-minute movie, and thatís fuck around. Consequently, The Mysterious Doctor gets moving immediately, with an establishing shot of a headless, black-clad man roaming the foggy moors after dark. (Well, the movie calls them moors, anyway. But since real moors are boggy, treeless expanses of infertile scrublandó rather than boggy, creeper-choked forestsó that shows only that the filmmakers have never set foot near a moor in their lives.) A man in a horse-drawn carriage sees something between the trees, and brings his horse to a halt in terror. This is really a pretty well-done scene; we think the driver has seen the headless ghost, and so, for that matter, does the driver himself, but both character and audience learn at the same time that the figure picking its way through the woods is merely Dr. Frederick Holmes (Lester Matthews, from Werewolf of London and Man in the Attic), out on a hiking tour of Cornwall. Holmes convinces the driver to give him a lift to the nearest town, which goes by the rather unusual name of Prestonís Head. On the ride into the village, the driver lets on that the place has a bad reputation, but he is cryptically evasive when the doctor asks how that reputation came to be. All the other man will say is that he refuses to stay the night in Prestonís Head, and that if Holmes knows whatís good for him, heíll do likewise.
He doesnít, of course. The first person Holmes meets in the village is Bart Redmond (Matt Willis, from Invisible Agent and The Return of the Vampire), the local loony. Then when he finds his way to the Running Horse Inn, he is greeted at the door by a big man with a black hood on his head. This man, Simon Tewksbury (prolific bit-player Frank Mayo, who also appeared in The Return of Doctor X and Bewitched), is the innkeeper, and despite his formidable appearance and gruff demeanor, heís really pretty much harmless. He wears the mask to conceal the scars he received in a mining accident many years ago. All this Holmes learns from an obsequious drunk named Hugh Penhryn (Forrester Harvey, of The Invisible Man Returns and the 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), who gloms onto the doctor the moment it becomes evident that he has money, and might be willing to trade rounds of drinks for information about the village. It is also from Penhryn that Holmes finally hears the grim story behind Prestonís Head. The only real resource in the area is tin, and in the early days of its settlement, the region was so sparsely inhabited that it was possible for a man simply to stake a claim among his neighbors, and be accepted as the owner of the land in question, along with any tin ore it might contain. Obviously this system became more than a little anarchic, and did so quite rapidly. Eventually, the struggle for productive mining land came down to two shrewd and ruthless men, one of whom was the Preston for whose head the town is named. The contest led to a duel, during which Preston was killed and decapitated; ever since then, the village has lain under a curse, haunted by the murderous shade of the dead man, ever in search of new heads to replace the one he lost in the duel. And of all the land in and around Prestonís Head, the single most haunted place is the Wickham mine, outside of which that long-ago battle took place. Itís the richest mine in the county, but there isnít a man in the village who will risk setting foot inside.
That last point, as you might imagine, is an especially thorny issue now that Britain is fighting for its life against the Third Reich. The local squire, Sir Henry Leland (John Loder, from The Unholy Night and The Man Who Changed His Mind), is grudgingly resigned to letting the mine lie idle, but Holmes seems to think present national security concerns demand that somebody open the place up, an opinion he shares with a young soldier named Lieutenant Kit Hilton (Bruce Lester, of Flesh and Fantasy and The Son of Dr. Jekyll). With that in mind, the doctor makes plans to visit the mine the next morning, but there appears to be a catch. Up in his room, out of sight of the locals, Holmes removes a minutely rolled slip of paper from inside the stem of his pipe, on which he begins writing notes about his arrival in town. Not only that, a group of villagers soon appear at the inn, claiming to have seen a parachute come down from the sky, right toward the stretch of wilderness where Holmes was picked up by the carriage driver. Sure, the doctor has receipts from other inns to back up his hiking-tour story, but as Tewksbury tells the squire, heís never once given a man a receipt in all the years that heís been operating the Running Horse, nor has he known any other country innkeeper to bother with the practice. Could Holmes be a Nazi spy?
That question fades into the background the next day, when the doctor is killed and beheaded in the Wickham mine. Two townspeople had been trying to keep tabs on him at the time of his death, and so there are witnesses of a sort. Simon Tewksbury lost track of Holmes in the maze of tunnels, but Bart Redmond (who was put up to the task of spying by Lieutenant Hiltonís girlfriend, Letty Carstairs [Eleanor Parker, from The Naked Jungle and Eye of the Cat]) says he saw the headless ghost in the mineshaft shortly before Holmes was murdered. Hilton is too much a rationalist to credit Redmondís story, however, and the simpleton soon finds himself the prime suspect in the case. But since weíve seen the headless specter with our own eyes, we know Redmond must be telling at least some species of the truth. I wonít tell you just whatís going on, but I will say thisó The Mysterious Doctor was made in 1943, so itís a safe bet that the Nazis are involved somehow.
On the plus side, the level of technical accomplishment in The Mysterious Doctor really is quite high. The movie has a far more atmospheric feel to it than any wartime propaganda piece masquerading as a mystery about a fake ghost truly deserves, and it looks much better than you would expect from an hour-long B-picture. Iím guessing a fair percentage of the sets and props used in The Mysterious Doctor were recycled from some other, more expensive production. The acting is passable all around, and one or two of the characters are colorful enough to maintain a small degree of interest. What keeps The Mysterious Doctor down among the rabble is its script, which is laden with terrible dialogue, and which toggles back and forth between the drably predictable and the utterly ludicrous. And naturally, thereís a scene in which the real villain pauses to explain every detail of his scheme to Hilton and Letty, the captive heroes. After all, 57 minutes really doesnít allow any time for the protagonists to figure out whatís going on by themselves. As a two-bit time-waster, it does its limited job well enough, but wasting time is really all The Mysterious Doctor is good for.