Mad Love opens in the Theatre de Horrors, a Grand Guignol knockoff packed full of chintzy Gothic kitsch — the ticket seller wears a bug-eyed, long-tongued mask, and the coat-check girl walks around without a head so casually you might think she forgot she’s in costume. The original script even says the torture onstage should be more silly than scary. It’s a gauntlet throw of an opening. Oh, you think this shit is scary? director Karl Freund seems to say. We’ll show you fucking scary.
And he does, immediately finding much more intense, everyday horrors. Peter Lorre has never been creepier than he is as Dr. Gogol. He’s at the theater for Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake)’s final performance. She commemorates the occasion by playfully trading kisses for slices of cake. Freund establishes a palpable sense of camaraderie between the actors in just a few minutes. But then Lorre spoils it with a scene that makes you jump higher than any zombie popping out. The actors playfully kissed Yvonne on the cheek, but Gogol goes straight for the mouth for a horribly, intensely long time. And for the rest of its lean hourlong running time, Mad Love will only get scarier.
Freund knew from horror. He was a veteran of the German Expressionist school, with cinematography credits including Metropolis and The Last Laugh. He was at least as influential in the foundation of Golden Age Hollywood horror, shooting Dracula before taking the director’s chair. Photography duties on Mad Love went to Gregg Tolland, who’d apply German Expressionist techniques to Citizen Kane along with inventing a few new techniques of his own. With that in mind, it’s easy to see the film as a torch-passing from one pioneer to another.
It’s easy to imagine Mad Love being made at the height of the German Expressionist movement, but you don’t have to imagine it, since, in a way, it was. Dr. Caligari director Robert Wiene has already adapted its source material, the Maurice Renard novel The Hands of Orlac, about a pianist who’s driven to murder when a doctor gives him an executed criminal’s hands. In some ways, Wiene goes much further than Hollywood would ever let Freund go. His Orlac is twice as long as Mad Love despite having less plot, and maybe you could account for that by how much more sloowwly Wiene’s actors move. Freund can’t get away with that, nor can he get away with the oppressive darkness of Wiene’s film, which enevelopes long scenes in near-total darkness lit only by a single light source, a Lynchian trademark appearing in a film from long before Lynch was born.
But in some ways, Freund goes even farther than Wiene. Neither gambles on the near-abstract sets of Caligari, which are more like giant Expressionist paintings than anything else you can see onscreen. Caligari was a flop, and Freund was bound by businessmen who wouldn’t trust audiences to appreciate something so untethered to reality. But Freund still manages to sneak some things in. Hidden in the background behind Lorre in the surgery theater, there’s a door so warped it’s almost triangular — even if you don’t notice it, its still adds to the sense of unease. So do the other sets, which seem realistic enough on first glance, but which lean at odd angles and have corners that never quite seem to match up. A good chunk of The Hands of Orlac takes place in the Orlacs’ clean, modern apartment, but Freund is more interested in Gogol’s, which looks less like an urban home than a medieval crypt. And Freund carries over Expressionism’s love of long shadows. One unremarkable scene of Gogol’s landlady talking on the phone continues the unsettling the atmosphere by taking place in silhouette. Another scene of Gogol’s shadow silently lurching into frame is jump-scaring at its finest.
Freund handles light just as stylistically as shadow, and the few scenes of the Orlacs in happier times are gorgeously sun-drenched and soft-focused. He doesn’t always live up to his masters’ methods. There’s one striking scene where Yvonne’s visited by all her creditors at once, standing perfectly straight behind her and unnervingly moving in unison. On a literal level, it makes no sense for them to all visit her at once, but it works wonderfully as a symbolic representation of their separate visits in an almost painterly sense. Freund goes for something even more abstract, but much more cheesy and Hollywood-y, with transparent, floating bills. But some of his montage scenes, like Yvonne’s nightmare after her husband’s train crash, do capture the artistic ideals of Expressionism. The series of disconnected but juxtaposed images could almost come from one of Man Ray or Walther Ruttman’s contemporary avant-garde films, most strikingly when a set of piano keys transform into a railroad. No matter what, the style is so assured it’s clear we’re in the hands of a professional — if not too professional to let a boom mic dip into the train station scene.
This is all very technical, but Freund’s technique is necessary to the story he’s telling. The idea that someone’s consciousness could somehow live inside his hands is such medical bullshit it’s barely even pseudoscience. Any surgeon who could make a breakthrough as miraculous as a live hand transplant would be telling anyone who’d listen, but Gogol keeps it a secret to keep the plot going. None of this could happen in our world, but Freund has created a totally different world where, maybe, it could.
The Hands of Orlace focused on Caligari star Conrad Veidt as Paul Orlac, but Freund is more interested in Yvonne and Gogol, who plays a very different role than the morally neutral Dr. Serra in the previous versions. Lorre was blessed with eyes that can do naturally what the actors and makeup artists of the Expressionist films strained to make theirs do. He combines the haunted desperation of Veidt’s Orlac with the all-too-real evil of a man who won’t take no for an answer. And in one scene where he poses as Rollo the murderous hand donor, he’s even more terrifying hidden behind a hat, coat, and eerily opaque glasses, wearing some horrible contraptions that are meant to replace Rollo’s hands with metal gloves and keep his severed head on his neck. The light shining up in his face makes him look downright inhuman. But it’s Lorre who brings it all together with his awful, raspy whisper.
As Yvonne, Drake isn’t the kind of helpless victim you’d expect from this kind of movie. She’s not exactly in girlboss territory either, but she more than holds her own against Gogol, something Freund emphasizes by putting her in masculine clothing (which Drake wears wonderfully) to emphasize her dominance. It’s only when she runs out in the dead of night to fetch Gogol in her nightdress that she’s in danger, even more so when she discovers the depths of his obsession. She finds the wax figure of herself Gogol has bought from the theater and calls “Galatea,” believing that, like the mythological Pygmalion, he can bring her to life. And then, in the white-knuckle climax, he returns home and Yvonne breaks her own image, forcing her to stand perfectly still or be discovered. Freund milks that sheer terror for all it’s worth, and Yvonne almost breaks many times as Gogol reveals everything to what he thinks is his unhearing dummy.
Mad Love’s efficient running time is even more remarkable when you look at how rich it is. The script adds new subplots with Gogol’s landlady and a hardnosed American reporter. Keye Luke even appears as a shockingly un-stereotypical (for 1935) Asian doctor. And they never feel underdeveloped thanks to the wide variety of talented actors playing them. Even an inconsequential character Paul meets on the train is memorably played by longtime Laurel and Hardy fall guy and future Disney dwarf Billy Gilbert. Even reduced to a sideshow, the core plot of Renard’s novel of Paul struggling with his haunted hands remains intense for all its ridiculousness thanks to Colin Clive’s intense, haunted performance. The hair falling in his face deserves an Oscar all by itself.
Despite its release under the studio’s banner, Mad Love never entered the Universal horror canon alongside Frankenstein, Dracula, and the rest. But that’s exactly where it belongs.