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MOVIE REVIEW : Gore and Gags Refresh in 'Dr. Giggles'

October 26, 1992|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Dr. Giggles" (citywide) is one horror comedy that actually is laugh-out-loud funny, a fast and frequently hilarious collision of gore and gags, and a tour de force of smart, sophisticated exploitation filmmaking. It's an exciting feature directorial debut for Manny Coto.

Its opening sequence sets the tone for all that follows. A mental patient ("L.A. Law's" Larry Drake), known as Dr. Giggles because of his obsession with medicine and crazy laugh, breaks loose and performs open heart surgery (sans anesthesia) on an institution physician. It's performed off-screen, a shrewd move, and topped with the first of Dr. Giggles' amusing trademark one-liners, "Laughter is the best medicine," which he yells to his fellow inmates cramming the operating theater.

Cut--you should pardon the expression--to a pretty but troubled high school girl (Holly Marie Combs), facing heart-valve surgery and worried because her mother died during what was described as a routine operation. Obviously, Dr. Giggles and the girl are going to cross paths--especially since they share the same hometown; Coto and co-writer Graeme Whifler make the getting there a lively scare show.

"Dr. Giggles" is an instance of a fresh use of familiar motifs--the old dark house that's a magnet for teens looking for thrills and chills, a colorful carnival that allows Coto to make an unusually deft homage to the famous fun-house mirror sequence in "Lady From Shanghai," and intimations of "Frankenstein" throughout. Coto is especially adroit at playing off normal and appealing small-town American life against Dr. Giggles' rampaging madness, the source of which is revealed in flashbacks that are surprisingly touching.

Throughout, the outrageous and the poignant interact, and when the film inevitably climaxes in a blood bath it's treated in swift, comic flashes of Grand Guignol. Although "Dr. Giggles" (rated R for horror violence and gore, and for language) is definitely not for small children, its violence is not the numbing, ultra-realistic kind.

Reinforced by Brian May's robust, mood-setting score and beautifully photographed with an apt play of light and shadow by Robert Draper, "Dr. Giggles" is a superior work of craftsmanship in all categories. The imposing Drake, whose first villain was in Sam Raimi's "Darkman," could clearly become a horror picture star, at once menacing and witty, and Combs and Glenn Quinn as her boyfriend are notably real teen-agers. The key roles are rounded out capably by Cliff De Young as Combs' loving father, Richard Bradford and Keith Diamond as canny, courageous local cops and Nancy Fish as a local busybody.

Most likely we haven't seen the last of "Dr. Giggles," and the film's final sequence, in which he meets his fate, seems to have been cleverly designed to be treated as but a nightmare should a sequel be in the works.

'Dr. Giggles'

Larry Drake: Dr. Giggles

Holly Marie Combs: Jennifer Campbell

Cliff De Young: Tom Campbell

Glenn Quinn: Max Anderson

A Universal release of a Largo Entertainment presentation in association with JVC Entertainment of a Dark Horse production. Director Manny Coto. Producer Stuart M. Besser. Executive producer Jack Roe. Screenplay by Coto & Graeme Whifler. Cinematographer Robert Draper. Editor Debra Neil. Costumes Sandy Culotta. Music Brian May. Production design Bill Malley. Art director Alan Locke. Set decorator C.C. Rodarte. Sound Jim Stuebe. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for horror violence and gore, and for language).

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