In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in June’s double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Generally speaking, the intended purpose (and hopeful appeal) of the Class of … series is illuminating more incidental, but no less worthwhile, films celebrating an anniversary. (Some friends ask if its purpose is to make them feel old, to which I say we’re all marching toward the inevitable.)
Indulging occasional selfishness, Class of … also lets me catch up with unseen films that, for whatever reason, eluded me back in the day. Sometimes it leads me to a punk biopic of piercing volume and knotty shape. Sometimes it leads me to an exhilarating, enlightening film about artistic expression at its most incandescent. Sometimes it leads me to 1992’s Dr. Giggles.
Directed and co-written by Manny Coto, Dr. Giggles is a mainstream slasher film conceived on the cheap and on the wane of financial viability for that genre. Giving due respect to the effort, it’s a generally uninteresting and unambitious slice of generic horror distributed by Universal Pictures. The only thing remarkable about it is the rigor with which it places every possible double entendre about medicine and death on the lips of lead actor Larry Drake. Despite a photographic sophistication, an all-in turn from Drake that echoes his evil from Darkman and HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, and very fleeting moments to tally a gore score, Dr. Giggles lacks the exploitation or eccentricity essential to distinguish it from anything that went straight to VHS.
Coto has said the Motion Picture Association of America, which determines film ratings, told him he “had a lot of work to do” to get Dr. Giggles to an R-rating. Even accounting for relaxed restrictions 30 years on, its sense of macabre would trigger only the most hardcore hypochondriacs. Among the many medically medieval devices, only Dr. Giggles’ gastrointestinal pump seems primed to prompt nausea for victim and viewer. But even that aftermath is one of many quick cutaways that feels more cartoonish than queasy. (Although it makes not one lick of sense, a flashback features the film’s only fantastically fucked-up moment — related by veteran character actor Richard Bradford, playing a cop, with all the rattled reminiscence of Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech, and featuring a truly creepy Nicholas Mastrandrea as a young Giggles.)
There’s no social subtext of any sort to goose Dr. Giggles. Indeed, it feels like Coto completed nothing more than the job asked of him in hopes of larger-scale film work that never came. This is “meets-expectations” performance evocative of Coto’s deeper résumé on TV, where such efficiency proves more effective over multiple hours of long-form storytelling. The subject matter here was certainly suitable for Coto, who had at the time worked on the resurrection of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Crypt. Later, he joined the writing and production staffs of Star Trek: Enterprise, Dexter (for which he co-wrote arguably the worst TV finale of all time) and, far more impressively, 24 — including a writer credit on the episode in that series’ all-timer fifth season in which President Charles Logan was revealed as the string-pulling big bad. More recently, Coto has returned to his horror roots, working on FX’s American Horror Story and its shorter-form spinoff, American Horror Stories.
Speaking of 24: The name of Coto’s co-writer on Dr. Giggles is Graeme Whifler, which sounds a lot like some CTU flunkie who would have unwisely crossed Jack Bauer back in the day. Together, they crafted the story of Evan Rendell (Drake), a near-lifelong resident of mental hospitals whose real name is somehow unknown by his caregivers. Instead, they call him Dr. Giggles, so nicknamed for the high-pitched titter he emits when observing, or more often inflicting, violence.
In a prologue presented without explanation, Dr. Giggles has somehow commandeered his latest hospital, performing “heart surgery” on a doctor in front of some fellow patients he has also freed before escaping. His destination is Moorehigh, where he grew up as the son of the small town’s doctor — who went off his own hinge when his wife grew sicker and needed a new ticker. The elder Rendell took to carving hearts from his patients in hopes of a transplant, conscripting his son and condemning him to insanity. Decades later, the dilapidated doctor’s office is an eyesore and the source of an urban legend wondering if Evan, Jr. still lives inside.
Dr. Giggles’ eventual victims are anonymous teens boning to celebrate summer’s arrival, nosy neighbors, meddling parents, and what seem to be Moorehigh’s only two cops. And there is an eventual parallel to Dr. Giggles’ past, with the heart condition of final girl Jennifer (Holly Marie Combs) reigniting the Rendell family legacy to perform a successful transplant.
There is a certain relentlessness to the final 20 minutes, largely a battle of wits and will between Combs and Drake. (It’s certainly not a battle against altogether-absent hospital security.) “I’m afraid the news is bad,” Drake intones to one physician after a reflex-hammer sword fight and blood pressure-cuff asphyxiation. “You have about … six seconds to live.” It’s one of few punchlines that pop, simply because of the serenity with which Drake speaks.
Chosen over Matt Frewer (Max Headroom) and the more bizarre consideration of Ted Danson, the late Drake got great mileage out of his pliably placid nature — whether it was in Emmy-winning work as pure-of-heart office manager Benny Stulwicz on L.A. Law or as the fastidiously sadistic, finger-severing crime lord in Darkman. Drake’s bearish physical figure often pulled double duty, too, resembling someone who could just as easily jump from Thornton Wilder to Roger Corman, from gentle giant to hulking brute. Here, Drake pitches Giggles somewhere between Frank Langella and Edward G. Robinson, and although nearly all of Drake’s lines are no more than groaner puns, he seems to relish his second opportunity, after Darkman, to play a Universal monster.
As for how the milieu of this monster developed: If he was institutionalized since childhood, when did he find the time to develop actual surgical skills, as he later demonstrates in self-stitching a bullet wound? Such are the nits you would happily leave alone were Dr. Giggles able to truly surprise, scare or stir up more than the occasional chuffed chuckle.