Mad Love (USA, 1935)
It can be difficult sometimes to watch a classic horror film and divorce the experience from all the remakes, pastiches and parodies that have followed. As wonderful a film as James Whale’s Frankenstein is, certain scenes evoke the wrong emotions in me now as they have been tainted by the playfulness of Mel Brookes’ Young Frankenstein, and no matter how chilling Bela Lugosi’s perfomance was in Tod Browning’s Dracula, almost every moment of the film has been buried under so much reinvention that I can no longer see it for what it is. Mad Love has almost completely escaped this fate, by merit of being a failure in its day, which has the benefit of allowing it to be enjoyed on its own terms.
Mad Love was a box-office disaster, leading to its relative obscurity compared to some of its more commercially successful contemporaries. One theory is that it was simply too dark for its audience, or at least too strange. While the central theme of transplants carrying the homicidal urges of the donor has been used many times since, the rest of the film is fresh, even to modern eyes.
One of the aspects that helps to mark Mad Love as unusual and exciting from the outset is the use of a Grand Guignol theatre in Paris as its initial setting. This makes the scenes in which the characters and story are established visually striking, and roots the film in the macabre even before any genuine horrors take place.
A young actress, Yvonne Orlac, is finishing her run at the aforementioned theatre, where she is the lead in a play in which her character is horribly tortured for suspected infidelity. Her most devoted fan, the repellent Doctor Gogol, books the same box every night and has become completely obsessed with Yvonne, much to her alarm. Out of desperation, Yvonne plays on the doctor’s obsession with her to gain his assistance when her concert-pianist husband, Stephen, is mutilated in a train crash, threatening his career. Gogol, as a true mad scientist, is unable to resist using this tragedy as an opportunity for experimentation and ultimately a chance to win the object of his affections through foul play.
In less deft hands, Mad Love could have been a minor and tedious melodrama with a few dark flourishes. Largely thanks to the larger-than-life presence of Peter Lorre as Doctor Gogol, rendering the character as both pathetic and sinister, the film stirs a complex mixture of emotions and rises above its absurdities. I simply cannot imagine Mad Love in the absence of Lorre, and while he turned in many remarkable performances throughout his career, this must be the highlight. Even the silliest of dialogue becomes at least plausible when spoken by Lorre, if not outright chilling.
Mad Love is one of a number of adaptations of Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel, The Hands of Orlac. At the time it was written, and even when Mad Love was filmed, transplant surgery was in its infancy. Between the science fictional aspect of transplanting human hands at this time and his delusional erotomania, leading him to fall in love with a waxwork of his beloved, Doctor Gogol is the archetypal mad scientist. Combined with the strength of Lorre’s performance, it is easy to believe Gogol capable of anything.
Mad Love packs its short running time of 68 minutes with an impressive range of strange ideas, stranger characters and twisting action. Not every aspect is successful — the comic relief of Doctor Gogol’s drunken housekeeper and her double-vision grates quickly, for example. These flaws are minor, though, and Mad Love is a half-forgotten classic that deserves to be remembered as a an equal to the Universal horror films of the 1930s.