This overlooked obscurity from the sixties feels like producer Harry Alan Towers knocking together yet another European co-production as a showcase for his (at best) mediocre screenwriting prowess. “House of 1,000 Dolls” is a pretty enticing-sounding title, which sets you up for some kind of kinky proto-giallo affair; but although it’s intended as an exotic mystery thriller, with Vincent Price shoehorned into top billing as part of his contractual obligations to Towers’ partners at AIP, this Spanish-German co-production struggles to keep its head above some pretty turgid waters thanks to the choppy script, and it never finds its anchor as a result. Towers penned it under his screenwriting non de plume Peter Welbeck and Price is joined by a euro pudding cast list of minor players headed by the second division Hollywood stars George Nader (“Nowhere to Go”) and Martha Hyer (“Some Came Running”). The director is Jeremy Summers, who actually does some pretty efficient work with limited materials (in that next to nothing of any note actually happens during the course of this potboiler) as he attempts to generate the odd scene of suspense in the Hitchcock style by shooting some interminable sequences of the non-descript hero being trailed by dark suited heavies through winding streets (every Harry Alan Towers script seems to include this same sequence!) or coming to blows with his pursuers on a spiral staircase in a backstreet apartment, by using imaginative angles and set-ups that fully exploit both the Techniscope screen ratio and Manuel Merino’s excellent photography to maximum effect. Although this bare bones UK DVD release (it does feature a brief slide-show of black & white production stills as well) from Medium Rare features the correct framing (some other releases have been cropped to 1.33:1), the print is pretty faded and disguises just how lush it would have originally looked -- although one still gets a feel for Summers’ style by the fact that this come across for all the world like a slightly less exciting episode of one of the many ITC action series Summers went on to direct in the sixties, before becoming a regular director for British series and weekday soaps like “Coronation Street” and “Brookside” towards the end of his career.
The set-up for the threadbare plot is all very “Department S” but the promise of racy thrills it contains is never fulfilled. The opening scene is suggestive enough of mystery, though, to encourage some hope: a black coffin is ceremoniously delivered to an immaculate town house somewhere in Tangiers. When it is opened it proves to contain an immobilised Maria Rohm, who promptly lets out a scream of terror when Price snaps his fingers. Price plays American magician Felix Manderville – a touring variety performer in a Mandrake-style top hat and opera cape, who takes his act all across Europe with his glamorous blond assistant and collaborator Rebecca (Martha Hyer) in tow, but who is really the seemingly innocuous means of procurement of merchandise for a ‘white slavery’ syndicate, operating out of Tangiers. Led by the enigmatic ‘King of Hearts’ – the tip of a pyramid of vice who’s true identity is unknown even by the other links in the chain – the racket offers pretty European girls to its rich clientele, who visit its House of Dolls by invitation and pay to have sex with them. The exotic cast list of euro starlets who make up the merchandise have been abducted from the audiences of Manderville’s magic show after being ‘disappeared’ on stage, never to be seen again – until they crop up, that is, drugged and scantily clad in chiffon, to be paraded before the clients at the House of Dolls, which is run with brutal efficiency by the black-hearted Madame Viera (Yelena Samarina).
The seedy subject matter is typical of Towers’ often borderline sleazy 'women inprisoned' output (see Jess Franco's "99 Women"), but this middle sixties offering keeps the vice mostly under wraps -- and though a failed escape attempt by one of the half-naked euro starlets midway through the picture is punished with a trip to the dungeon basement for the offending party -- where she is duly chained, stripped and whipped by Viera’s swarthy-skinned, fez-wearing henchman Ahmed (José Jaspe) – the underwear stays on throughout in this particular instance. The first act involves Fernando (Sancho Gracia), the Spanish friend of holidaying couple Stephen and Marie Armstrong (a dignified George Nader and Ann Smyrner), investigating the disappearance of his blonde girlfriend Diane (who turns out to be Harry Alan Towers’ actress wife Maria Rohm, seen at the top of the film). By chance he and a friend come upon the House of Dolls in Tangiers and Fernando discovers Diane’s fate – imprisoned and forced into the world of international prostitution. Fernando’s identity is discovered by Madame Viera, though, and it turns out that the syndicate has some pretty harsh means of dealing with relatives and associates of its valuable stock of girls who get too close to discovering the truth. When Fernando turns up dead, Stephen Armstrong, who is also a police pathologist, is asked to identify his body and discovers his friend was found with a playing card – the King of Hearts – nearby, as well as a small doll (the cryptic invitation clients of the House of Dolls use to gain entry) that his killers forgot to remove from the scene. When Manderville hears about Stephen’s discovery and subsequent investigation, he becomes worried that sooner or later the trail of clues will lead to him. Rebecca persuades him that there is only one way to deal with the problem and, by chance, an opportunity presents itself when the performing couple discover that Armstrong’s Danish wife Marie will be in the audience for their show that very night … alone!
“House of 1,000 Dolls” found itself on the lower half of a double bill with the equally lame Shirley Eaton vehicle from Towers, “The Million Eyes of Su-Muru”. The film is crippled by a poorly constructed screenplay that often throws in irrelevant digressions that appear to have been included in order just to fill up the allotted ninety minutes required of it (the story could have told with a 50 minute TV episode length equally well without losing anything significant) or too add some spice, such as when Nadier, suspecting him of wrongdoing after Marie’s disappearance, joins Manderville for a trawl of Tangiers’ fleshpots and ends up at a female mud wrestling bash! Herbert Fux (“Mark of the Devil”) periodically makes appearances as a sleazy tourist street photographer-cum-pimp but never gets to contribute anything significant to the story other than what turn out to be red herring, would-be comedy digressions. Nader, his career floundering by this point, maintains dignity as the hero of the piece, although his character doesn’t find out anything that the police don’t already seem to know, which makes him more of an hindrance to their investigation that the main protagonist of a ‘stranger abroad’ mystery story should be. There are a few nice touches though and these mostly revolve around the relationship between Price’s magician Manderville and his assistant Rebecca. There’s an effective scene set in a public park in which Manderville affectionately plays with a little girl with a ball and buys her a balloon, cooing sympathetically when she lets go of it by mistake, at the same time as cold bloodedly discussing with Rebecca the elimination of Stephen and the abduction of Marie in front of the child. Manderville is made a much more interesting villain by the fact that he actually wants to give up his involvement in the racket but can’t because its Mabuse-like leader The King of Hearts, won’t let anyone leave his organisation alive, and has spies everywhere who inform him of treachery. Manderville’s weary resignation to the evil he is forced to perpetuate gives his character and the film more potential to do something interesting, but the screenplay never really goes anywhere with it so we’re left with a second division euro mystery thriller that’s attempting to be a racier version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” but struggles to maintain interest for the full stretch, especially when the cape-twirling Price is off screen. The transfer used here is clear but slightly muddy looking and the mono audio is similarly adequate but not stellar. It does the job though, and means that the film will no doubt soon add itself to the collections of Vincent Price completests and vintage sixties thriller lovers.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!