Exploitation films were thriving in the ‘70s, and everything was excess. Why have one naked woman when you could have four, or settle for one onscreen flaying when clearly several are in order? Maybe watching Mansion of the Doomed (1976) you’d be content with a single case of eye transplant surgery instead of the six offered? Well, you’d be wrong. This is a film that leans heavy on the nihilism and nastiness of the times, with nary an existential answer yet plenty to talk about.
Doomed seems to be the key word in the title that permeates nearly every frame; other titles include Eyes, Massacre Mansion, and The Terror of Dr. Chaney, with the latter perhaps being the most apropos considering the moral dilemma lies completely on his shoulders. But Mansion of the Doomed works because, well, that mansion is packed with the doomed, protags and antags alike.
Let’s pay a visit and see what we find: Meet Dr. Chaney (Richard Basehart – Moby Dick), noted eye surgeon and a man slowly unraveling. After his daughter Nancy (Trish Stewart – The Young and the Restless) loses her eyesight in a car accident caused by Chaney himself, he turns to groundbreaking research that some would call extreme – transplanting both entire eyes from a living “donor” to his daughter. Needless to say, no one is lining up to help.
Therefore, Chaney sets up a system with his wife/assistant/drinking buddy Katherine (Gloria Grahame – The Big Heat) wherein he will lure people to their home, drug them with laced wine, and start operatin’. After he’s done, the patients are guided to an all-inclusive jail cell in the basement; and yes that’s plural because Chaney has only limited success with the procedure – Nancy can see for a bit and then falls back into darkness. When one of his patients escapes and is plowed down in the streets by a car, a police detective (Vic Tayback – Alice) starts to snoop around Chez Chaney. Will the doctor be able to restore his daughter’s eyesight before he has to find a bigger basement?
Much like the film’s inability to resolve the subplot with Tayback (he’s curious, and then gone), Mansion of the Doomed isn’t too concerned with standard story construction; the tale is very simple – kidnap, pluck out peepers, shove them in the basement – and its repetitive nature holds a trance-like appeal instead of lapsing into monotony.
Why does it hold sway when so many other films would collapse under similar weight? I think it’s because Chaney is very clearly set up as the lead character, and is fascinating as played by Basehart in a low key performance that threatens to evaporate off the screen. This isn’t a weakness of acting, but rather the joining of a soul in mid free fall; confusion and desperation are his markers throughout the film, with little hope of getting back even if he does find a cure for his daughter. Basehart just eschews the normal scenery destruction and focuses on the inner turmoil.
Mansion of the Doomed was one of those productions that was a stepping stone for several notable artists, in front and behind the lens. Besides Basehart, Gloria Grahame was also old Hollywood; unfortunately she isn’t given much to do here but lock up the eyeless and bring her husband wine (not poisoned – that’s in a different bottle for guests). Lance Henriksen (Aliens) plays Nancy’s doctor fiancé and colleague of Chaney’s, and the first to be tested on. Don’t worry; you’ll see him plenty throughout the film, even if he can’t see you.
On the back end, director Michael Pataki was primarily known as an actor; horror fans will know him from The Baby, Dracula’s Dog, Dead & Buried, and many others, non freaks probably recognize him as Dolph Lundgren’s trainer in Rocky IV. This was the first of two films he directed, the other being a soft-porn version of Cinderella released the same year that did quite well. He’s actor-engineered, so naturally the focus is there; however, between himself and cinematographer Andrew Davis (future director of The Final Terror, Above the Law, The Fugitive) they manage to come up with a look that’s gritty while still steeped in a sort of dreamlike languor – a fitting feel for a character trapped by his existence.
And he really is; no matter how many times Chaney does the procedure it fails, the same gruesome results occur, leaving him to repeat the same mistakes over and over – is this the definition of insanity, or Hell itself? (This may be a to-MAY-to, to-MAH-to deal.) One thing is for sure – Chaney’s obsession is to the detriment of everyone.
A warning I should have offered upfront: eye trauma folks stay away from this one. It’s almost nothing but, whether Chaney is operating, or whether we’re peering into the orbital sockets of his victims (great work from a young *checks notes* Stanley Winston). This one is not for the squeamish.
Now, I’ll probably be run out of town for not yet viewing the film this was inspired by, Eyes Without a Face (1960), but that’s the great thing about horror: a Mansion of the Doomed can lead me down other adventurous and exciting avenues. As long as I keep my eyesight, that is.
Mansion of the Doomed is available on DVD from Full Moon, because you guessed it, this was one of Charles Band’s first productions.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: UNMASKED PART 25 (1988)