Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dr. Giggles

Dr. Giggles came out in 1992, sort of a no man's land for horror movies. The slasher cycle of the eighties had gone down in the flames of censorship and camp, and the mid-nineties post-modern neo-slasher revival was still a ways off. Yet Dr. Giggles seems to be both the last hurrah of the former and the precursor of the latter. It's got all of the hallmarks of a post-Elm Street slasher movie: gimmicky killer (psycho who thinks he's a surgeon), novelty deaths (thermometer through the mouth, roto-rooter stomach pump, giant suffocating band-aid, etc.), themed one-liners ("Are you experiencing any discomfort?"), and oversexed 28-year-old teenagers (designated comic relief Doug E. Doug, that Irish dude from the first season of Angel, the other chick from Charmed). But it also displays a lot of the trappings that would become common in the Scream-a-likes to come: classy high-contrast photography, more expensive sets (as opposed to cheap location work), realistic but subdued gore, a cast of WB actors and actresses (Granted, their shows hadn't actually been created yet, but they still have that WB cute-but-broody look), and, most importantly, an ironic take on the conventions of the genre.

Of course, Dr. Giggles came out a couple years before Pulp Fiction popped the mainstream's post-modern cherry, so rather than going the Scream route and having all of the characters blatantly explain the tenets of the slasher movie so that their later subversion would be clear to the audience, it just parodies them mercilessly and expects the audience to get the joke on its own. Which it most assuredly did not, which is why Dr. Giggles has largely been lost to the ages.

When I first saw it back in '92, I thought it was really, really stupid. Fourteen-year-olds take the things they love pretty seriously, and the way Dr. Giggles kept ruining the illusion of reality with its goofy puns offended me. Since then, I've come to recognize and appreciate the absurdity of most of the things I once took at face value, and after rewatching Dr. Giggles, I have to say that it's an underrated horror comedy masquerading as a cookie-cutter slasher flick. It's a mildly subversive little in-joke that had the misfortune of coming out six or seven years before that kind of thing became popular. Sometimes it's not smart to be ahead of the curve.

Here's the deal: Dr. Giggles is this crazy motherfucker whose father was a general practitioner in a small town named Moorehigh (which is exactly what I got over the course of the movie). When his mom died of heart problems, Pop went crazy and starting cutting out his patients' hearts while little Dr. Giggles just sat there laughing. When the people of Moorehigh found out, they lynched the old man, but Junior escaped by hiding inside his mother's hollowed-out corpse. (If you've never seen a bloody, giggling eight-year-old scalpel his way out from between a pair of rubber tits, you haven't lived.) Then he spent the next forty years in an insane asylum before escaping and coming back to Moorehigh to get revenge on the next generation, giggling like early Daffy Duck the whole time.

Just from this setup, we can see that Dr. Giggles pre-dates the modern "mixtape movie" like Kill Bill and Doomsday by being a grab-bag of the preceding era's dominant horror heroes: He's got Freddy's motivation (lynching leads to murder of teenagers who had nothing to do with it), Michael Myers' backstory (crazy kid spends whole life in institution before returning to his hometown), and Jason's issues (son continues murderous work of insane parent). Dr. Giggles isn't so much a character as he is a collection of clichés, but the actor who plays him makes it work. He's played by Larry Drake, once best known as the retard janitor on L.A. Law but now mostly remembered as Durant from the Darkman series.

(I mean, who gives a fuck about L.A. Law anymore? That's the thing about stuff that normal people like: It has no legs, because normal people have no heart. They don't really love the things they like; they just passively experience them because they've got nothing better to do. In 40 years, do you really think people will still support American Idol the way geeks still support Star Trek? Hell no. When something new comes along, normal people just go with the flow and forgot about the old shit. But geeks remember. That's why we're finally running things. The norms might boost the opening-weekend grosses, but it's the geeks who'll still be buying the DVD [or the 3-D cerebral cortex implant or whatever medium is prominent at the time] in 30 years. There's a lesson to be learned there: Make a product for the masses and you'll eat for two days. Make it for the geeks and you'll eat forever.)

Anyway, Drake is great as Dr. Giggles. Every single word of dialogue he speaks is a medical-themed one-liner ("I'm not really seeing patients yet, but for you, I'll make an exception," "Visiting hours are over," "Open up and say ah," etc.) but somehow, they all seem to come from within the character. They don't make him seem like a slumming character actor; they make him seem like a total fucking nutcase who has his own separate reality running in his head at all times. His façade never breaks down. He never gets angry or threatens to rip somebody's lungs out. He maintains his bedside manner and soft-spoken bemusement at all times, even when he's chasing somebody around with a hypodermic needle or fencing with one of those rubber hammers they use to test reflexes. But at the same time, there's an undercurrent of gleeful sadism bubbling just below the surface, as if, deep down, he knows this doctor persona he's concocted is all for show. It's a hilariously deadpan performance that, in a different era, would have spawned a dozen straight-to-video sequels. Plus, there's one really creepy part where he keeps giggling hysterically while simultaneously whimpering in pain from a gunshot wound. You get the idea that the giggling is a coping mechanism for the good doctor, so even though the pain is very real (he's far from an invincible superslasher), he just laughs it away. He did the same thing as a child when his mother died. With no dialogue designed to develop his character, Drake gives you a little insight into the way Dr. Giggles' mind works. And really, in a movie like this, a little is all you need.

I think Dr. Giggles is ripe for a revival, but there's one part of the movie that just doesn't make sense. One of the teenage couples has doomed itself by playing a prank on the token black couple (the first to buy it, naturally) and retiring to the bedroom to fuck. So while the chick puts on the dude's mom's lingerie (which is creepy in its own right), the dude goes into the bathroom to put on the condom. Did people ever really do that? Were people in 1992 so scared of AIDS that they put on the rubber before the foreplay even started? Getting a handjob with a condom on would totally suck. But then the guy ends up losing the condom in the toilet while his girlfriend is getting murdered, so he says, "Maybe she won't notice." What? How the fuck is she not gonna notice that his pecker isn't encased in slimy latex? Was he just gonna walk out of the bathroom and jam it right in her without preamble? No diddling, no oral, no nothing? What a pig. And even if he had managed to put the condom on, was he planning on stepping out with his dong ensheathed and declaring, "Present vagina! It is safe for me to enter you now!" Man, sex in the early nineties must have been boring. I was only having sex with myself at the time, but I gotta say, I was much more romantic. Of course, it helps if you're completely head over heels in love with your partner.

In closing, watch Dr. Giggles. And practice safe sex, but don't be a fucking Nazi about it. A naked cock is not a lit stick of dynamite.

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