Dr. Giggles / Otis
It’s the end of the school year and while all her class mates are gearing up for a summer of illicit activities, Jennifer Campbell (Holly Marie Combs) is strapped to a heart monitoring device and under doctor’s orders to avoid drinking, partying and generally having a good time. She has a mitral valve prolapse that may require surgery to correct it and while her doctor assures her that it’s a routine procedure, that’s cold comfort to a girl whose mother died on the operating table during a so-called routine procedure. Add to that a stepmother (Michelle Johnson) who is all of fifteen seconds older than Jennifer and a dad (Cliff DeYoung) who seems generally oblivious to her turmoil and you have one unhappy girl.
Unluckily for Jennifer a heart specialist of sorts has returned after a long hiatus in an insane asylum to the town of Moorehigh (do you think Jennifer attends Moorehigh High?). Known only as Dr. Giggles (Larry Drake) to the staff of the institution he escapes from, he’s actually the son of town legend Evan Rendell. Rendell was a doctor who, in an attempt to cure his ailing wife’s heart condition, made unwilling live donors out of his patient roster. Not surprisingly this didn’t sit too well with the rest of the townsfolk and, in a Nightmare-esque bit of vigilante justice, they killed Rendell. Now Evan has returned to administer his own brand of “treatment” to the town responsible for the death of his father. When Giggles learns of Jennifer’s heart condition he becomes fixated on curing her and, by extension, finishing his father’s work. Unfortunately, in this case, the cure is definitely worse than the disease.
There are a lot of things wrong with Dr. Giggles but it comes up short on its two key selling points. First of all, the creative deaths really aren’t that creative. Giggles swaps out some old biddy’s medication, stabs a girl with a (extremely phallic) thermometer, injects a guy with poison, amputates a guy’s package with a scalpel (not likely fatal, at least not immediately)…all pretty run of the mill. There are a few murders that show a modicum of creativity in playing with the medical theme - a scene where Dr. Giggles pumps a woman’s stomach with a vicious looking auger, for instance - but these are too few and too far in between. There is one genuinely nightmarish moment where the film eschews its campy tone and gives us a truly disturbing image of a young boy performing reverse c-section. The shot of Evan Jr. emerging from his mother’s stomach is almost Cronebergian in its weirdness and is still supremely effective, even after nearly 20 years. This scene is what the whole movie should have been like.
Secondly, the offbeat humor is not nearly as funny as it needs to be. Giggles’ one-liners are pretty obvious and one-note. “I hope you have protection,” before loping off a randy teenagers’ gear. Even at his worst, Freddy was able to come up with better lines than that. Giggles came late to the game after the Friday and Nightmare films had devolved into self-parody and tried to emulate the later films in those series. Problem was, audience tastes had already shifted back to more serious and grim movies: The Silence of the Lambs a year before and Candyman the same year are two examples. Dr. Giggles was behind the curve even before it was released.
Star Larry Drake is an unconventional looking actor with a great range. He has the ability to be sympathetic (Benny in L.A. Law) as well as menacing (Durant in Darkman). Here he’s asked to be both simultaneously, but the script is more concerned in trailer friendly one-liners than creating interesting characters and gory set pieces than suspense. The film wants to have it both ways by giving Dr. Giggles a back-story that earns him sympathy, wanting him to be funny and wanting him to be scary all at once. The problem is it becomes pretty hard to hate him: he’s not evil personified; he’s just a crazy guy who actually has the best intentions at heart (literally). Drake gives it his all, and you can’t help but want to reward his effort.
Holly Marie Combs, on the other hand, is like a second tier Neve Campbell and in this film she’s probably the most dour and downbeat “heroine” ever. She has none of the pluck that a survivor girl needs to be a true scream queen. The writers try to use her medical condition as short hand for actually creating a character. How about making her a pampered bitch with a chip on her shoulder and have her arc be how she learns she can’t hide behind her illness anymore? Any kind of character would be preferable to no character at all.
All this is given a far better visual sheen than it deserves. Cinematographer Robert Draper was still a relative newcomer when he shot Dr. Giggles but he was already a vet of the genre having shot a half dozen of the best Tales from the Crypt episodes, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and Halloween 5 [Ed: Which is still a great looking movie.]. He has a keen eye for moody and atmospheric lighting with lots of dramatic shadows, fog, smoke and shafts of light. He evokes the same kind of atmosphere of the silent German expressionist masterpieces of the 20’s and the classic Universal monster films of the 30’s and 40’s. It’s never subtle, with this kind of material subtlety wouldn’t be appropriate, but it’s almost always effective. His efforts, however, are akin to putting a band-aid on a broken leg.
Dr. Giggles is a trashy, tacky, tasteless and flat-out terrible exercise in exploitation. As crappy as it is, though, it does hold a certain amount of charm that saves it from being a total write-off. I don’t think there was any horror film produced during this time period that feels so much of its time. As a child of the 80s and 90s, I can’t help but have affection for it. Everything about it just screams 1992, from the heavy-handed safe sex message to the shameless Nintendo plug (for Dr. Mario, of course), the cheesy post-T2 CGI, and Twin Peaks references. It even steals the same eye in the key hole gag that Child’s Play 2 used a couple of years prior. Best of all, there’s a brief appearance by one of my favourite 90s B-movie vixens, Zoë Trilling (Zoë, if you’re reading this, call me).
The strange thing is how confident Giggles seems that it will receive a follow up. With its unceremonious introduction of the titular villain- he’s introduced with no fanfare, like we’re already supposed to know who he is - and its delving into the back story of the character, Dr. Giggles feels like the second or third entry in a series, not the film that’s designed to kick off the franchise. In it’s desperation to entertain its teenage audience it doesn’t waste any time getting to the gore and gags, and there’s something kind of cute about that.
With so many hang ups dealing with sex, death and the body – to say nothing of the automatic trust most people have for physicians - there was a real opportunity to make a truly horrifying film that touches on very deep seated fears and exploits the betrayal of trust a murderous doctor would represent. That the filmmakers went instead with a transparent Freddy Krueger clone in a crass attempt to spawn a franchise is a disappointment in the extreme.
Otis Broth (Bostin Christopher) is an overweight 40-year-old who works the night shift delivering pizza. His brother, Elmo Broth (Kevin Pollack) can barely contain his contempt for Otis’ immaturity and slovenly ways and heaps emotional and physical abuse every time he visits Otis. Otis lives only for his fantasy life.
The night he delivers pizza to the Lawson house and meets Riley (none other than Chrissie Seaver herself, Ashley Johnson). To say Otis is a fast mover would be an understatement. He wastes no time and abducts Riley from the front of her home the next morning and imprisons her in his playroom: a garish and grotesque room under his back yard that acts as both torture chamber and tribute to the high school years he never had, but wished he did. There Riley, as many girls have before her, is forced to act out a perverse pantomime where she is “Kim,” the head cheerleader and Otis is star quarterback and her boyfriend (not coincidentally, Kim is the name Otis’s sister-in-law, which may help explain some of Elmo’s hostility).
When Riley doesn’t come home that night, her parents Will (Daniel Stern) and Kate (Illeana Douglas) call in a kidnapping specialist, the obnoxious Agent Hotchkiss (Jere Burns). While Hotchkiss does everything he can to antagonize Will, Kate and their son Reed (Jared Kusnitz) Riley manages, through a combination of luck and guile, to escape captivity on her own. When she contacts her parents and relays the information she gathered about her ordeal, her mother admonishes her to share details with no one outside her family. Riley’s family gathers household weapons and head to ambush Otis and dish out a little poetic justice. Things don’t quite go as planned, however, and the Lawson’s soon have to worry not only about the legal repercussions of their actions but what manner of revenge Otis has in store for them, as well.
Otis takes great pains to try and be all things to all people: a retro horror film with an 80’s vibe, serial killer psychodrama, slapstick farce and media satire. Some of these elements are surprisingly well done, but scenes that have any kind of power or resonance are book ended by scenes oozing with ironic distance and smarmy, self-satisfied cleverness making it hard to take anything in the film seriously. It’s this unwillingness to commit, to try and engage the audience rather than poking them in the ribs and assuring them that it’s all a joke, which really undermines Otis.
Otis’ chief problem is inconsistency. There are several parallel plot lines and each has a completely different tone. As the film switches between them it becomes disorienting to find the right emotional reaction to the film. It’s the kind of movie that gives you gruelling scenes of torture and then follows that up with a gag about an extension cord hotwired to man’s scrotum and the line: “Let’s cut off his fingers and toes, blend them into a smoothie and make him drink it!” It borders on offensive at times, how flippant the film is about serious subjects and how little it trusts its own audience to be able to handle those subjects without a pat on the back assuring us that it’s all in fun.
The title character’s drama is the best part of the film but is wildly divergent in tone from the rest of the film. Otis is painted as a tragic figure and scenes that I think are supposed to be funny just seem sad and pathetic. The drama with Riley’s family is pure slapstick zaniness for its own sake, complete with “wacky” music. The protracted sequence of the Lawson’s revenge is gut wrenching in its graphicness. It seems like they’re also playing these scenes for laughs, but they’re not really funny. The film also intermittently interrupts itself with satiric news clips taking shots at media coverage of serial killers, but the tone is too over the top and the subject has already been lampooned to death. Oliver Stone had the final word on the subject in 1994 with Natural Born Killers and nobody’s had anything worthwhile to add since.
It’s an uneasy mix of different approaches that never quite gels. While that’s a flaw that would sink most movies, strangely enough, Otis manages to hold together until the end. It’s helped immeasurably by a far better cast than you’d expect from a Raw Feed movie. Illeana Douglas brings some the acerbic edge she’s known for, even if Daniel Stern just repeats his performance from Very Bad Things. Comedian Kevin Pollack creates a striking and intense character in very few scenes; he’s unpleasant but we can still empathize with his frustration at his brother. I was surprised to see Ashley Johnson again after all these years and was even more surprised to find that she was actually quite good in a pretty limited role. Bostin Christopher is fantastic as the eponymous Otis. He doesn’t play Otis like a one-dimensional repellent creep, but he brings pathos and sensitivity to the role that it seems like the filmmakers hadn’t anticipated.
It’s also worth mentioning that there’s some truly horrible ADR that is so distracting it derails what should be some of the film’s best moments. The scene where Kate tells Otis exactly what she’ll do to him if he hurts her daughter should have impact, but the viewer is just left slack jawed at how incomprehensibly terribly dubbed the line is. There’s no excuse for technical shortcomings that glaring in a film you intend to charge people money to see.
Otis is a mediocre movie, but while most mediocre films are consistently so from beginning to end, Otis averages out great and bad moments to arrive at its mediocrity. It actually has quite a bit going for it but is never able to capitalize on its stronger elements. Too many fingers in too many pies and too desperately trying to emulate the feel of an 80’s horror flick, it never forges its own identity. Bostin Christopher makes an impression in his debut but his character is out of step with the rest of the film. It’s not exactly a waste of time to watch, but I can’t help but feel it was waste of talent to make.
Dr. Giggles was issued on DVD in 2007 as part of Warner’s Twisted Terror boxed set. While it was certainly the best the film have ever been presented, fans of the film (yes, both of them) were dismayed to find that the films theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35 had been cropped to 1.78. While the Blu-ray packaging indicates this has been corrected and the video restored to 2.40, it is in fact presented in the same, cropped version as the DVD. The LaserDisc is still the only way to see Dr. Giggles in its original aspect ratio. I don’t have a copy of the LD, so I can’t do a direct comparison to tell what’s missing. For what it’s worth, the compositions don’t look that bad in 1.78, although headroom does seem cramped from time to time.
Comparison of the picture quality to the DVD version, however, sadly shows that the Blu-ray release of Dr. Giggles doesn’t offer the kind of quality upgrade one would expect from an HD release. Colors are a bit brighter, contrast is better and fine detail is improved, but only slightly. The image is still soft, with the same moiring and blocky artifacting in the darker scenes that were present on the DVD. I’m not sure if this was due to a half-assed job being done on creating the HD master or if putting two films on one disc created a shortage of gigglebytes. Considering Dr. Giggles’ very limited appeal, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a solo release to answer that question.
Unusual for a direct-to-video film, Otis is presented in 2.35 scope widescreen. Consistent with its homage to 80’s horror films, most of the movie looks like it was shot through a soft focus filter. Brightly lit scenes smear and look blurry amid a perpetual haze and there’s a lot of video noise for something presented in 1080p. The darkly lit scenes fare a little bit better, but there’s still a real lack of the detail you’d expect from a movie in a high def format. It’s really hard to evaluate the video quality since the creative decision is one that tends to obscure details and fade colours. If the filmmakers were trying to make it look as shitty as a VHS tape from the 80’s, they came pretty close. Good going…I guess.
The giggles, at least, see a more noticeable upgrade from the DVD release. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is no aural assault but it does offer more expansive range and clearer, crisper dialogue. The score is well represented and there are never any issues with audibility of dialogue. No barnburner, but it gets the job done.
On the other hand, Otis has been given a full-on Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, though you really wouldn’t know it. It’s certainly better than the audio track for Dr. Giggles with the 5 channel sound field offering more ambience than the 2.0 stereo track is capable of. Dialogue is clean and audible and the score and 80’s rock ‘n roll tracks are well represented. Low end is present without ever being obtrusive. Again, nothing to phone home about, but it does its job.
No supplements are included for either film.
When all is said, I’d by lying if I claimed there wasn’t some prurient entertainment value to be had in these Z-grade slasher flicks. I can’t find much good to say about either yet I know that, occasionally, a dose of these lame, tacky and tasteless movies will be exactly what the doctor ordered. Given that both films are unspectacular and presented in only passable home video treatment with no supplemental material for either film, this double feature disc is far from a recommend. However, if you’re in the market for one or both of these films on Blu-ray, the low price tag ensures you reasonable value for your money.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Bizarre that Warner would mess up the aspect ratio a second time on Dr. Giggles. I can't think of any other films they've put out in the last few years that have been similarly cropped.
I definitely agree on that reverse c-section scene...as campy as Giggles is, that scene always stands out as unsettling.
And what a weird pairing of films, too.
"The sicko and the creep-o make for a big UH-OH!"
Yeah, the person who wrote that blurb has to be the same one who wrote that "Hottie McSmarty" line on the Elm Street Blu-ray. Yech.
Oh, and not a single mention of Doug E. Doug in your Giggles review? For shame!
Hey I wouldnt remove that "Hottie McSmarty" line for anything now - its so corny its classic <:
Dr. Giggles is underrated. D+? That's shameful!
I recall seeing a screenshot comparison with the Dr Giggles LD and it showed that the DVD was not cropped, it just had the matte opened up.
I also recall seeing those screen comparisons from the LD and DVD showing no extra picture on the sides of the 2.35, just more top and bottom on the 1.78. I wouldn't be shocked if it was shot for 1.33.
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