An endearing, if thoroughly loopy horror picture, seemingly conceived (by one-time director Eddie Saeta and producer-writer Sal Ponti) as a way of getting AIP-style drive-in/grindhouse action and boosting unblinking, black-bearded, nattily-dressed John Considine as a horror star to compete with Vincent Price. Or Robert Quarry, Mike Raven, William Marshall, Jonathan Frid and Ben the Rat. Considine went on to be in The Thirsty Dead, but also co-wrote and appeared in Robert Altman’s A Wedding: he doesn’t seem to take Doctor Death very seriously, but avoids obvious camping-up and just plays the most ludicrous aspects of the script very forcefully.
In contemporary Los Angeles, sports-jacketed businessman Fred Saunders (Barry Coe) is upset by the passing of his wife Laura (Jo Morrow), who insists on her death-bed that she’ll be back. He inters her in a tomb he insists remain unlocked at all times, which turns out to be important to the plot – as does the surprisingly tolerant night-watchman (Jim Boles). Fred has visions of Laura looming large with a skullface and transparently wandering (in a doubly see-through nightie) around the cemetery. A fraudulent medium (Athena Lorde) fails to put Fred in touch with Laura, and furthermore runs a poor scam. ‘I have contacted your grandmother,’ she tells a sitter. ‘My grandmother? But one of them’s still living,’ he responds. ‘That is not the one I have contacted.’ Still searching for afterlife connections, Fred attends a theatrical performance by the title character, who never owns up to being actually called Dr Death though no one calls him anything else. The Doctor’s act involves transferring the soul of a disfigured woman (close-ups of mutilated faces recur) into barely-cold dead babe Venus (Sivi Aberg), which means the soul donor has to be killed first, prompting the Doctor’s unique take on ‘the old sawing a woman in half trick’ where he actually saws a woman in half. After the bloody bisection, managed with a two-handed saw wielded by the Doctor and his mute scarred minion Thor (Leon Askin), the soul transmigrates and Venus is revivified to become the Doctor’s latest sex toy (implied). All the coverage this film gets mentions that a bit-part in the magic show scene is played by ex-Stooge Moe Howard (with whom Saeta had worked as an assistant director); few are mean enough to admit that Howard flubs his only line.
The Doctor tells Fred he can’t restore his wife’s soul, but he can bring her body back to life by putting another soul into it — the result would apparently retain some of his wife’s habits like, say, kissing him in the morning. It’s part of the film’s dead-faced charm that the supposedly sympathetic Fred doesn’t even think this is a poor deal, and – though he hesitates – commissions the satanic quack to perform the trick, which of course involves murder. Fred’s secretary Sandy (Cheryl Miller) has a crush on him and his best friend Greg (Stewart Moss) advises that he move on, but he can’t give up on Laura. Neither, as it happens, can the Doctor. After an origin flashback in sepia, as the Doctor admits to being a thousand year-old alchemist who has learned to hop into new bodies (of various races and sexes), the occult practitioner sets about finding a soul for Laura. First up is Tana (Florence Marly, the alien vampire from Queen of Blood), his slightly raddled ex-girlfriend, who has pissed the Doctor off by pettishly tossing acid in Venus’s face (more disfigurement). However, Laura’s corpse resists being invaded by a superimposed soul, despite the Doctor’s very insistent repetition (‘I command you … enter that body!’). Undaunted by this failure, he cruises around town in the world’s most conspicuous white Rolls Royce, killing other tempting lovelies for their souls (‘this child kisses better when she’s dead than Tana did when she was alive’) but persistently failing to persuade Laura’s corpse to open up. Though he’s a contemptible serial killer, lech and ham, one can’t help admire the villain’s sheer stubbornness in not giving up – indeed, this character trait turns out to be key to the expected 1973 twist ending (if you’d seen the Yorga films or any Karen Black TV movie, you knew someone would be possessed in the shock punchline).
The murder spree is repetitive, but runs to self-aware touches: two victims in a lovers’ lane talk about being in a horror film and the girl practices her scream even before the evil figure appears (Dr Death dresses and stares a bit like José Mojica Marins’ Zé do Caixão), and another is watching a late-night horror film (a newmade one, starring TV horror host Larry ‘Seymour’ Vincent) on TV and describing a scene on the phone to a friend even as it’s happening to her. An interesting development is that one of the victims stabs the Doctor, whose wound spits magical corrosive oil all over him which renders him a shrivelled, melted corpse (this is almost Cronenbergian), but means that the Doctor is dying in this body for the rest of the film (thanks a lot, Fred!) and will need someone to possess if his career is to continue. Meanwhile, dreary things are happening with dimwit Fred and blonde Sandy, momentarily enlivened when the Doctor sends has Venus’s boxed, severed, disfigured head (a very good prop) delivered to Fred’s office as a gift to remind the client that he’s still on the case. Reasoning that soul donors need to be killed gently, the Doctor abducts Sandy the Secretary and slowly exsanguinates her. Blood the colour and viscosity of cherry sauce drips into a pyrex container (Doctor Death does product placement) rising to a mark on the jar which the Doctor says will be Sandy’s point of death. Will Fred get there in time to save her? Does he even want to? And, seriously, what’s in all this for the villain? All his murders have been committed to further Fred’s wishes, even if the Doctor’s arrogant refusal to admit he can’t provide the service he has advertised seems to be his primary motivation.
Saeta doesn’t seem as inspired as Robert Kelljan or Paul Wendkos were with similar productions, and there are obvious signs of cheapness – the costumes in the thousand-years-ago flashbacks are laughably wrong – but the film has that likeable Rockford Files After Dark feel of much early ‘70s California horror going for it. Check out the groovy threads modelled by the Doctor throughout, like a mod Dr Phibes or a white pimp, and details like the tiny, flower-painted Volkswagen bus driven by hippies the Doctor hypnotises to get him to the cemetery for the finish. Richard LaSalle contributes a catchy, eerie, exciting score, which seems to have influenced (ahem) the theme of the TV series The Monster Squad.