House of 1,000 Dolls

Synopsis: Two professional illusionists Felix Manderville (Vincent Price, Madhouse) and his wife Rebecca (Martha Hyer, Houseboat) help abduct unsuspecting female victims with their magic tricks for an international ring of white slave traders. While vacationing in Tangiers, American businessman (George Nader, The Million Eyes of Su-Muru) and his wife (Anne Smyrner, Reptilicus) are drawn into a kidnapping plot when their friend (Maria Rohm, Count Dracula) becomes the underground ring’s latest victim. Running against time, they only have a couple of days to find her before she’s gone for good. Harry Alan Towers (The Mangler) under his usual pseudonym Peter Welbeck wrote the screenplay for this top-notch thriller directed by Jeremy Summers (The Vengeance of Fu Manchu).

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House of 1,000 Dolls 6.5

eyelights: its location filming. some of the cinematography.
eyesores: its logic gaps. its lack of excitement. its day/night lapses.

“(I want) My wife back, alive.”

When I sat down to watch ‘House of 1,000 Dolls’, I honestly expected a hoaky horror movie; given Vincent Price’s predilection for starring in such fare during the ’60s, it’s only natural. But I was probably also influenced by Rob Zombie’s ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ – imagining that he borrowed the title, being a big horror fan.

Alas, ‘House of 1,000 Dolls’ may be horrifying in some regards, but it’s not a horror film.

The 1967 motion picture instead revolves around a white slavery ring that kidnaps young women from around the world and stables them in an illicit, upper class bordello. Run by the mysterious King of Hearts’ syndicate, it’s fronted by the traveling magician duo of Felix and Rebecca, who regret but can’t escape their dealings.

When Diane disappears, her boyfriend Fernando traces her back to Tangiers and begins to investigate, leading him back to the House of 1,000 Dolls. When he ends up in the morgue, his friend Stephen, also in Tangiers, feels compelled to uncover the truth about his death. But this puts him and his spouse, Marie, in grave danger.

‘House of 1,000 Dolls’ isn’t a horrible film, but it’s a dull and predictable one, pretty much unfolding as one might expect from the genre – but without the excitement one would hope for. Even though there are action scenes, even though it has a lurid subject, even though there’s a (paper-thin) mystery to solve, it’s dullsville.

This is partly due to a bland-as-cardboard b-grade cast that ultimately puts all its money on George Nader in the part of Stephen, our hero. Unfortunately, he’s about as inspiring as his bacon-crisp perma-tan. Even Vincent Price appears uninspired, though he did have a great moment in his first scene, looking detached and sullen.

I’m not convinced that he was acting.

Though the script is cookie-cutter, it still manages to have gaping holes in it: For instance, Felix shows Stephen around Tangiers to help him find Fernando – even though he saw his friend’s charred body in the morgue. And Stephen is attacked and then given instructions to go to the bordello – instead of just killing him there and then.

Um… why would they lead him straight to heart of the operation?

There’s this absurd scene in which Felix and Rebecca whisk Marie off by making her disappear during their magic act… but have to return her when Stephen makes inquiries; they tell him that Marie had a fall – and, for some reason, she concurs. Stephen even finds a pile of King of Hearts cards there and doesn’t make the connection.

There are also these heavy-handed attempts at exposition, in which characters ask each other things that they surely must already know. For instance, Felix casually asks Rebecca how the rest of the plan will unfold, even though they’re partners in the operation. Um… talk about the left hand not know what the right one is doing!

The picture is also rotten with technical problems, like the presence of a peculiar background noise (sounding very much like a plane landing. But tinny. Very tinny) when the cabaret crowd is clapping. WTF. Or the picture’s inability to consistently pick its time of day, being daytime one moment and nighttime in the next frame.

Ugh.

Of course, there’s always Tangiers, which is a lovely location for the movie – though much of it is spent in the bordello, which is oddly located in a cemetery. And there are a few creative shots that are fun, like a POV perspective from inside a casket, or Madame Viera’s response to Felix being wholly reflected in his sunglasses.

And there are few action scenes of note, like Diane’s friend, Liza, beating the crap out of the hoods in a couple of instances – sadly before being recaptured. And another in which Fernando is chased after by hoods, hides in a car in a scrapyard and the hoods set it on fire, blowing up the whole pile of cars to drive him out.

I’d never seen that on screen before.

And I do appreciate the film’s attempt to spotlight the plague of sex slavery, which I didn’t realize was such a problem in the ’60s, well before online pornography made sex lucrative beyond most people’s dreams. It’s too bad that it’s not really addressed in any significant way, other than showing the young women in captivity.

Perhaps showing the abuse and conditioning that these women are subjected to would have made the picture grimmer than its producers intended, but it’s hard to fathom taking a shallow approach on the subject; seems to me that tackling it more seriously would have added much-needed poignancy and urgency to the picture.

Still, at least it was spotlighted.

But it’s obviously not enough to redeem ‘House of 1,000 Dolls’, which leaves its audience with the impression that it’s just been witness to a half-hearted, unimaginative exercise in movie-making. Ultimately, it’s a motion picture that fails to convince anyone -including its apathetic participants- that it has any reason to exist.

There’s certainly worse, but it’s forgettable.

Date of viewing: July 4, 2017

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