❉ Ever find yourself lying awake in the wee hours inexplicably troubled by one question; when is an Ed Wood film not an Ed Wood film?
Trouble sleeping? Find yourself wondering around in the dark during the wee hours? Missing the days when network TV would fill their graveyard slot with obscure cult movie tone poems? Our irregular feature, Cinema at 3 AM is for you. Now screening: The Revenge of Dr X (aka Venus Flytrap, aka Akuma no niwa, 1967).
Pretty much everything about The Revenge of Dr X (1967) is wrong. Literally, and metatextually, wrong; thanks to a bizarre mix-up with the film it was paired with on a double feature, the actual opening credits for all known copies of the movie belong to The Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968)! The IMDB even lists it twice; once in its American version as Venus Flytrap (incorrectly dated to 1970), the other in its Japanese version as Akuma no niwa.
In actuality, and despite what the credits say, the film was directed by choreographer and occasional supporting artist, Norman Earl Thomas, who only has two directorial credits to his name, and considering they’re both, in fact, the same movie, it’s hardly surprising that his inexperience shows. No; there is in fact, a real auteur he at work, albeit one not directly involved in the actual production. Like some Mabusian mastermind, pulling the strings from an asylum cell, the events in the film were orchestrated by a man steeped in shadow and made of legend.
I speak, of course, of none other than Edward D. Wood Jr.
It’s unclear as to how much of Wood’s original screenplay was retained. Apparently he shared a writing credit with Thomas, but there’s a familiar ring to the histrionic dialogue and the narrative certainly bares the feverish vodka-logic of the anti-maestro’s work. Wood’s poetry and prose is as distinct as a finger print. Presumably, Thomas’ changes were limited to relocating the story to Japan. What is known is that Wood sold his screenplay–written at some point during the height of his career in the 1950s, and probably for Bela Lugosi–on spec (which he often did for as little as $200 a pop) but wasn’t involved in the actual production. This has been disputed, but according to Wood expert Rudolph Grey and those who knew Wood directly, it’s definitely his. Former B-movie western star, war time Clark Gable replacement and I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Brian-Donlevy James Craig was cast as the eponymous Dr X, who isn’t actually called Dr X at all, but Dr Bragan, and since he’s the one getting the revenge and possesses some sort of doctorate that qualifies him as a rocket scientist, botanist, geneticist, marine biologist and brilliant surgeon, we can assume he’s the titular practitioner of all things Hippocratic and beyond. It’s never explained against whom he’s getting his revenge.
Anyway, Dr Bragan is a bit on the daft side. Not so much mad (at least not to start with; it’s mainly the plot that needs its head examining), but certainly someone with anger management issues and a caffeine addiction. When we first see him in his office at NASA, he’s suffering violent mood swings and generally chucking a Benny all over the shop. He greets people by feeling himself up and announcing that he’s run out of cigarettes, or screaming things like, “Maybes I cannot use!” to men in white coats who try and get him to look at vital calculations. Occasionally, he’ll clutch his temples, loosen his tie and fall over. In other words, the rocket project he’s supposed to be in charge of has tipped him over the edge, and you get the impression NASA runs along just fine without him, but they still keep him on the payroll because they can’t afford his severance package. Dr Bragan soon packed off to Japan for a nice holiday by his friend and colleague Dr Nakamura. Whilst driving to the airport in a region of “Florida” that looks suspiciously like the countryside surrounding Mount Fuji, our hero suffers a bit of engine trouble and pulls into a conveniently located gas station / poisonous snake petting zoo / Venus flytrap. Whilst the chuckling mechanic and herpetologist unclogs the good doctors fuel line, we are treated to Bragan’s meet cute with the film’s leading lady, the Venus flytrap of the film’s original title.
Pet plant lovingly boxed, Bragan promptly buggers off to Japan, carrying his prize like it’s the discovery of the century. Once in the Land of the Rising Sun, he’s met at the airport by Noriko, Dr Nakamura’s beautiful cousin, who immediately triggers Dr Bragan’s craggy middle aged fading b-movie star’s oily letch motor, despite reading her banter phonetically off of cue cards. She takes him up to one of her father’s properties in the mountains. Her father is a millionaire hotel developer, she explains, only this particular building remains abandoned since the road is in a horrible state of disrepair and there’s also an active volcano located nearby, so we know where everyone is going to end up at the movie’s climax. Naturally, the place comes with its own hunchbacked, organ playing caretaker whose every appearance is accompanied by the opening bars of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, because this is a horror movie, you see.
The majority of the films is then taken up with Dr Bragan and Noriko faffing about in a greenhouse with mad lab equipment, although when they’re off duty they’re either engaged in horrifically awkward flirting or a weird toxic exchange in which Dr Bragan verbally abuses Noriko and she acts like everything is her fault because it’s the 1960s, and despite the fact that they are conducting Dr Bragan’s experiments on her father’s property, she only reminds him of this precisely once and not whilst he is verbally abusing her but as a result of him feeding a stray dog to his creation. Why he’s doing all this is only ever vaguely explained; something to do with proving the evolutionary link between plants and animals, as if sea anemones didn’t do that already. At one point, their enquiries do take an aquatic turn, but Dr Bragan gets it into his head that he needs a tube worm finish his creation and he and Noriko spend a good ten minutes retrieving one from the ocean with the aid of some female spear fishers, mainly because the film needs tits.
When the monster is finally revealed, strapped to one of those swivelling operating tables so favoured by Frankenstein and his imitators, it looks like a nightmare of boxing gloves with a 90s hairdo; all vagina dentate for hands and arse-mouths for feet. Naturally, with the creature finally complete, Our Dear Dr X goes full mad scientist and starts screaming things like, “Your mother was the Earth! The rain your blood! The lightening your power! AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!” before clutching his head in pain. It’s a wonder no one thinks to get Dr Bragan checked for a frontal lobe brain tumour.
This all happens a good way into the second half, and the last act rampage is very brief, and it’s no surprise that the volcano is involved, although the cliché is subverted masterfully by the director’s bold choice to have Dr Bragan spend the climax awkwardly carry around a small mountain goat. You’ll be on the edge of your toilet seat.
Watch ‘The Revenge of Dr. X’ on YouTube:
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.
❉ Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022