Sideshow: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), John Carpenter, Sequels

Sideshow is a series where, having liked a certain from the Project, I go off and watch something related to that movie, a sequel or another work from the same director, same star, same topic, that isn’t on the List.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a good movie, it stands on its own legs pretty well, but it doesn’t compete for the scale or intrigue or complexity nor even, I think, the quality of its predecessor, The Gambler.

What I’m mostly carrying away from it is the question of what a sequel ought to be, what it can be, and what it generally becomes. Mabuse himself, a role reprised here by a mute but magnificently crazy-eyed Rudolf Klein-Rogge (definitely my favorite figure from the List’s sampling of 1920s cinema), plays a peripheral role in this one. His personal story is pretty well wrapped up in the first movie and, while it’s a bit of a bummer to get so little of him in the sequel, I guess it’s a good and disciplined move on director Fritz Lang’s part that he doesn’t try to force the character back, improbably, into the old schemes.

testament ghost
One of Testament‘s best sequences includes a ghost-like Mabuse hypnotizing a doctor. One of the most striking things I think I’ve ever sen in a movie.

But I don’t think a sequel like this would work today.

I’ve seen Batman Returns (1992), the immediate sequel to Tim Burton’s super-successful 1989 Batman, probably a hundred times since I was a kid but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I noticed, while listening to Kevin Smith’s commentary, that Batman himself doesn’t appear in that movie for almost the entire first hour.

It reminds me of Stephen King publishing Thinner in 1984, when he already had rockstar status as a writer, under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, a name he’d used, up ’til then, to publish the short novels he’d written in college. The stuff he hadn’t been able to sell. With Thinner, a novel he’d written well after the huge successes of Carrie (1974), The Shining (’77), The Stand (’78) and Cujo (’81), he wanted to see, I guess, if his career was a fluke; was it his name or his stories that got people wet? Is it possible, in making a sequel to a movie that attracts an audience on the basis of their interest in a character (Rocky or a Bridget Jones or a Hellraiser), that the filmmaker, insecure, will try to get away from that character so’s to emphasize their own artistry, as a storyteller their skill, over the charms of the character/actor?
John Carpenter seems to’ve gone through something similar with Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). He’d done Halloween (1978), which was freakishly successful (one of the most profitable indie films of all time, it earned $47 million domestically off of it’s $325,000 budget), then added to the Michael Myers/Lorie Strode saga with Halloween II (1981), revealed they were siblings, and I guess figured, afterward, that he was done with it. Michael Myers, who was certainly the attraction of those first two movies if not quite the star, doesn’t appear in Halloween III. Nor does the plot bear any affiliation to those first two movies.

halloween 3.jpg

Maybe Carpenter was looking to try something new but found that he couldn’t get funding unless he called it Halloween (like Francis Ford Coppola realizing he couldn’t afford to keep his vineyard unless he made Godfather III). Or maybe he was fed up with audiences wanting slight variations of the same old thing, and so he wanted to trick them into experiencing something new.

The only sequel on the List so far has been Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is similar to The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in that it’s got the same director as its prequel (James Whale) and its major allure to audiences is the villain/anti-hero. The difference is that Karloff’s monster gets way more screen time in the sequel. Not only that: he’s given dialogue, lots of it, and then a second monster is thrown in. This is Whale knowing what the audience wants, what they’re expecting, and trying to give it to them as best he can, with integrity, something fresh.

Fritz Lang’s is a career I’d like to follow, however, and so’s the story of his Mabus. Not sure I’d recommend this to somebody who wants to see it because they love the character. Maybe I’d recommend it to somebody who likes Hitchcock’s early British stuff, though. Twisty thrillers.

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