If you have never heard the name “Doctor Mabuse”, then independent film-maker Ansel Faraj’s Doctor Mabuse (2013) and Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar (2014) are the perfect introductions to this iconic but somewhat forgotten twentieth century monster.
But first, a little introduction to the creature in question…
Doctor Mabuse was first cast into the world in Norbert Jacques Weimar era novel Doctor Mabuse, The Gambler. His literary antecedents include Professor Moriarty, “The Napoleon of Crime”, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to rival is hero Sherlock Holmes and Pulp master criminals Doctor Fu Manchu (created by Sax Rohmer) and Fantomas (created by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre). His literary descendants include James Bond’s arch-rival Ernst Stavro Bloefeld, created by Ian Fleming.
Jacques’s novel was adapted for cinema by the writer himself, Thea Von Harbou and her husband, legendary film-maker Fritz Lang, who would direct the two part epic released in 1922. Along with Doctor Caligari (The Cabinet of Doctor Caligar, Paul Weine, 1920), Graf Orlock (Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau, 1922) and Rotwang (Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 1927), Doctor Mabuse became one of the most terrifying monsters of Weimar era cinema – and of German Expressionism. His name is as synonymous with horror in Germany as Dracula or Frankenstein are in English speaking countries – a gothic villain, but with scope for contemporary crime and science fiction gadgetry.
In Norbert Jacques’s novel and Lang’s first Mabuse picture, The Doctor is very much a man – with an abnormal criminal intellect and a peculiar psychic hold over his victims, yes, but still a human being. A strange, symbolic and very expressionistic sequence in Lang’s sequel, The Testament of Doctor Mabuse (1933), however, depicted the death of the original doctor and the embracing by a maddened follower of his criminal legacy – as a ghostly Mabuse entered the man’s form. At the end of the film – the ghost seems to be on the loose again – anyone could become the next Mabuse! This theme of paranoia continued in Lang’s final film for the franchise, The Thousand Eyes of Doctor Mabuse (1960), where a whole new villain was operating under the name.
This gave rise to subsequent Mabuse film-makers interpreting the monster as a strange, supernatural creature – the very spirit of crime and corruption. Even in later films, where Mabuse was a super villain like something out of a James Bond film or comic book, he retained this supernatural element – a criminal ghost seeking to possess hapless individuals. This trend has been criticised by some Mabuse scholars, and it was not what Lang intended by that fateful sequence. Arguably, however, it ensured the longevity of the franchise and gave Mabuse an iconic status that others in the German expressionist rogues gallery have not quite attained. It also brings us up to date with Faraj’s two fascinating new works.
Okay, so the introduction was not so little…
Ansel Faraj’s two new Mabuse films tell the story of a more overtly supernatural Doctor Mabuse. While the older franchise hinted at his supernatural nature through visual cues (such as his ghost moving in and out of bodies), Faraj’s Mabuse (Jerry Lacy) appears to be part of a society of supernatural beings at work in a modern city. As ever, he is at the heart of a conspiracy – he plans to take over the city and transform it into an ideal world. He is aided by a criminal gang, including the noirish femme fatale Christina Novello (Bahia Garrigan), and pursued by the reluctant Inspector Lohmann (Nathan Wilson) – an intelligent young chief of police chief who has his own part to play in Mabuse’s dastardly plan. All the while, three supernatural sisters (Kathryn Leigh-Scott, Lara Parker and Annie Waterman) interfere in proceedings, for better or worse…
The latter film – Etiopomar, sees the arrival of fellow expressionist villain Rotwang (Dane Corrigan), and his robotic minion Maria (Kate Avery), both co-opted from Metropolis. What ensues is a thrilling showdown between Mabuse, Rotwang’s automatons, a resistance movement led by the mysterious Professor Konratz (Christopher Pennock) and the three omnipresent witches.
Ansel Faraj, a director of just twenty-one years of age, shows incredible cinematic literacy – creating a concoction inspired by German expressionism, film-noir, psychedelic horror and Italian horror master Dario Argento all at once, and with Steampunk elements!
The unnamed city at the centre of the story recalls something out of a noir thriller. Expressionistic lighting and photography with its gloominess and stark contrasts, later to be borrowed by film noir, is used heavily throughout. This is juxtaposed and infused with the bold colour and psychedelic visual effects of sixties horror such as The Abominable Doctor Phibes and the works Dario Argento – whose films get a great narrative nod here, as does Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like some of the early expressionists, he has used the limitations that are familiar to independent film-makers to his advantage. Extensive use is made of green-screen here to realise the unique world of the films and the bizarre, stylised tinting of the settings adds a dream-like, disorientating quality to the narrative, reinforcing the themes of madness and paranoia that are pervasive in any good Mabuse story.
In a coup that must be the stuff that young film-makers’ dreams are made of, Faraj has four veterans of the cult gothic soap-opera Dark Shadows playing pivotal roles in his films. Jerry Lacy brings gravitas to this new Doctor Mabuse with a chilling, intimidating presence, but never loses the psychological vulnerability threatens any incarnation of Mabuse. Kathryn Leigh-Scott and Lara Parker are delightfully spooky and antagonistic as two of the witchy sisters and Christopher Pennock brings a sinister, avuncular tone to Konrantz that makes him a believable rival for Mabuse.
The newer players also catch on to the emotionally heightened tone of the narrative with stylish vigour. Bahia Garrigan is seductive, dark and fragile as Christina and makes a wonderful foil for both Jerry Lacy and Nathan Wilson, who plays the challenging role of Inspector Lohmann with a quiet intensity – sometimes painful, but cold and terrifying when the time comes (See the films!). Dane Corrigan brings a manic glee to Rotwang while Kate Avery, as the Automaton Maria, is appropriately cool, but as maniacal as her creator. And they are really Steampunk!
The great things about these films is that you do not have to be au fait with the Mabuse cannon to get them. Faraj’s films stand alone as their own story – and his Mabuse is a new creature. There are plenty of nods to the past for geek-grade movie buffs, but for others, they make a great introduction to the exciting world of independent film making and are thrilling horror-steampunk tales. The pacing is tight, the lurid colours and hints of melodrama are enticing and the narrative defies prediction and will keep you guessing until the end – so check them out!
Doctor Mabuse and Doctor Mabuse: Etipomar, written and directed by Ansel Faraj, are available on Vimeo On Demand can be accessed through Faraj’s company website – Hollinsworth Productions, where you can take a look at his other works – http://www.hollinsworthproductions.com.