***½/**** Image B Sound B
starring Larry Drake, Holly Marie Combs, Cliff De Young, Glenn Quinn
screenplay by Manny Coto and Graeme Whifler
directed by Manny Coto
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I have a sentimental attachment to Manny Coto's Dr. Giggles. This was the movie I saw the night I lost my virginity--October 22, 2000. (I kept the receipt from the video store.) That was my third viewing of the film, the first being when I was 10. My mother rented it and we watched it with her boyfriend Johnny, who had already seen it on cable and called it "kind of a B-movie." I loved Dr. Giggles so much I showed it to my dad later that summer. Afterwards, I remember him chanting the "Dr. Giggles" nursery rhyme in jest.
Much like losing your virginity, Dr. Giggles is probably better as a memory than as an experience. If ever I've realized that I can claim absolutely no pretense of objectivity, it's with this film. Anybody who doesn't already have a history with it is likely going to be confused as to what the attraction is. And yet, dismissing a feeling as strong as nostalgia somehow seems dishonest. I feel like I'd be a worse critic were I to ignore the feelings of affection I have towards Dr. Giggles simply because they originated largely outside of the film.
There really isn't anything particularly wrong with Dr. Giggles. What's concerning me is that there might not be anything particularly great about it, either. Coto (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Graeme Whifler) doesn't have much filmmaking fervour in him. Scenes rarely evolve beyond photographs of actors performing on the set--they're never transformed into cinema. I'd like to describe his direction as flat and pedestrian, but the malaise maybe goes a bit deeper than that.
I do like a number of individual moments. An interior shot from a victim's mouth (see the screencap below) is wonderfully tacky, as is the opening-credits sequence, which explores the circulatory system in cheesy CGI. (Made in 1992, Dr. Giggles was certainly ahead of its time in exploiting the intrinsic artifice of computer-generated imagery.) I also dug an homage to the camera swirl that followed Janet Leigh's death in Psycho; Coto punctuates this elaborately self-conscious camera movement with a wisecrack from Giggles--a perfectly appropriate substitution for Hitchcock's callous track to the money in Psycho. Immediately following this sequence, Dr. Giggles passes a young boy playing "Dr. Mario" on his NES. (Dude! Remember "Dr. Mario"?) The video games are rotting the youngster's brain and Coto gives us a funny shot where the kid's visage is reflected in the TV screen as though he were imprisoned by his addiction. Giggles decides not to kill him as his condition can only be described as "terminal."
But while I appreciate this stuff in a sort of academic way, the film never quite jells like it should. I've been thinking hard about what went wrong and I've come to the conclusion that Coto is a very intelligent, film-savvy director whose heart just wasn't in it. I don't believe he's embarrassed by Dr. Giggles, yet I don't think he has any real personal attachment to it, either. He's a director using the slasher genre as a means of moving towards something better and not as a medium to express himself. It's perfectly appropriate that he's found a home on "24", a very filmic television serial that nonetheless actively discourages a personal touch.
Still, Coto is miles beyond a condescending hack like Gregory Dark (of See No Evil infamy). Virtually all of the humour in the film is concentrated in the title character. He is (as if I need to say this) a parody of doctors, dispatching his victims with baroque medical procedures and constantly reciting lines like, "If you think that's bad, wait until you get my bill." Very importantly, his victims aren't in on the joke: When Dr. Giggles suffocates a teen with a giant band-aid and displays her corpse in a carnival funhouse, nobody is amused except Dr. Giggles.
Dr. Giggles is undeniably a knock-off of the A Nightmare on Elm Street pictures, but it shares with them an understanding that comedy and horror are hardly diametrically opposed. Both genres exist within inherently unjust universes where suffering is meted out at random. Slipping on a banana peel is only funny (just as getting devoured by a pack of zombies is only frightening) if we know that it's happening to the victims for pretty much no reason whatsoever. The terror and the comedy of life come in acknowledging that human consciousness has lapped its original evolutionary purpose of survival. The purpose of life isn't to wonder what the purpose of life is--what a terrifying thought! It's also a hilarious one, especially when we reflect how coldly and efficiently that erases the meaning of religion and art.
For me, the key image of the Elm Street franchise is from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, when Krueger spears a meatball off a pizza containing the soul of a hapless teen and eats it. "Mmm, soul food," he says. It sounds really fucking stupid in this context, but it plays like a pop art version of Hieronymus Bosch. The meatball is taking its devouring very seriously and the whole thing is depicted through the eyes of one of the victim's friends (the eponymous dream master, I believe), so the tone of it is very serious. We find ourselves reflecting that this person's entire life has led up to the punchline of a cheap post-modern joke.
The difference between comedy and horror is, then, one not of philosophy but of perspective. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, tragedy (horror) is me cutting my finger--comedy is you falling down an open manhole. If our sympathies are with the victim, it's frightening; if we're seeing it from across the street, as it were, it's funny. This is why the meatball scene is ridiculous in concept but marginally horrifying in execution. The Elm Street films are interesting because they occupy this strange middle ground between us empathizing with the characters and seeing them as meat for the grinder. While Freddy Krueger was the star, the movies were "pro-teenager" in a way the Friday the 13ths never were. Krueger represented a force the teenagers were always trying to exorcise and, by the end of each film, always did. The "sex = death" equation, overly simplistic as it is, makes a lot more sense in the Friday the 13th saga. Standing in for the sex act itself, violence in those pictures is inevitable and often hypersexual. By contrast, although the killings in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies are elaborate and staged for the ironic enjoyment of the audience, the characters see death as something they can avoid.
In the surprisingly poignant A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, the heroine becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, whom Freddy promptly kills in a death fabricated to look like a drunk-driving. She learns that Krueger is trying to take possession of her unborn son's soul and make him into his protégé. At one point in the film, she's asked if she wants to abort the child. She considers it for a moment and then says no--that would let Freddy win. Freddy Krueger, conceived in a gang rape by a pack of asylum patients and raised in the broken foster care system, is rendered a symbol of all the reasons to have an abortion (i.e., poverty, a home of maternal resentment, the overtaxed adoption/foster care system, etc.). He's the cynicism of the adult world incarnate and eventually defeated, as only the younger generations can truly determine what the future will bring.
Dr. Giggles serves a similar purpose. This film's heroine, Jennifer Campbell (Holly Marie Combs), suffers from a heart condition that doesn't allow her to drink, smoke, or have sex, putting her on the sidelines as far as normal teenage shenanigans go and frustrating her boyfriend Max Anderson (Glenn Quinn) enough that he allows himself to be seduced by one of their mutual friends. Giggles himself was orphaned after the townspeople discovered his father was murdering his patients and stealing their hearts in an attempt to resurrect his dead wife. Placed in an insane asylum for most of his life, Dr. Giggles breaks out and searches out Jennifer. He wants to fix her "broken" heart and retroactively save his mother, thus succeeding where his father failed.
The character of Jennifer is underwritten and overly passive. Aside from killing Dr. Giggles at the end of the film, she doesn't really do anything other than cry. Combs imbues Jennifer with some needed complexity and backbone, though, simply by playing her the same way she played her roles on "Picket Fences" and "Charmed": perpetually angry and vaguely dissatisfied with how her life has panned out. Combs is a limited actress, but what she does is marvellous here. I recognized in Jennifer the irrational moodiness you often see in female adolescents but that almost never shows up in movies. It's appropriate in that the character rejects everything Dr. Giggles represents and Dr. Giggles represents two inherently contradictory ideologies.
Dr. Giggles embodies sexual repression and sexual permissiveness. His early victims tend to be sexual beings Jennifer either envies (two horny couples that populate her circle of friends) or hates (the tart who seduces Max; her young stepmother, whom she overhears moaning during marital sex the night she caught Max cheating). In the case of the former, there is an overt AIDS-era joke when the guy goes into the bathroom to put on a condom. He drops it in the toilet and tries to fish it out with his girlfriend's toothbrush (he's a real class act) before deciding, "What the hell, maybe she won't notice." Of course, as soon as he crawls under the covers with what he thinks is his honey, he encounters Dr. Giggles, who tells him, "I hope you used protection," and stabs him with a scalpel. These are "traditional" slasher film mores (sex = death, the slasher as product of the virgin's id) depicted with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Dr. Giggles is the hygiene-film villain from Hell.
But then we learn about his past and get a better idea of his designs on Jennifer. Giggles begins to become a real character with actual psychological motivation. In a flashback, we see him as a seven-year old cutting himself out of the corpse of his mother. There are disquieting sexual overtones to this tableau--a seven-year-old boy shouldn't be that comfortable with his mother's naked body. (This is the one scene that scared me as a kid.) We infer that Giggles wants to save his mother in order to have sex with her and is mainly interested in Jennifer as a surrogate. Dr. Giggles is revealed as a sexual predator whose acts of vengeance on Jennifer's behalf are a means of gaining her trust. Soon after she catches Max cheating on her, Giggles examines her with his stethoscope and declares that she has a "broken" heart--figuratively as well as literally.
The reason the "sexually repressive doctor" gimmick is played as camp is because Giggles is essentially insincere about it. Dressing up like a doctor and killing people with surgical instruments is a kinky turn-on for him, and in a sense, his whole bag--masochism, incest, medical paraphernalia--is an extension of the rudderless hedonism enjoyed by the fornicating teenagers. In rejecting Dr. Giggles, Jennifer is rejecting any attempt by either peers or adult society to claim her sexuality. The last shot of the film is surprisingly sweet: Jennifer reconciles with Max and the camera pans to her electrocardiograph as it begins to rapidly beep and spike up and down, implying that even if she's not going to lose her virginity at that exact point in time, she has decided she isn't going to let her condition slow her down anymore. This is a genuinely optimistic ending, on a par at least with that of The Dream Child, promising that the choppy waters of sexual initiation can be successfully navigated.
Out of print since 2001 (Good Times' fullscreen DVD was fetching upwards of $50 on auction), Dr. Giggles returns to the format courtesy Warner. Opening up the Super35 aperture to 1.78:1*, the new disc's 16x9-enhanced presentation sports a nice, filmlike sheen of grain, though the transfer suffers from oversaturation, with flesh tones looking particularly flush. The accompanying Dolby 2.0 surround audio is best described as lethargic. There are no trailers, cast bios, recommendations, or anything else that could be classified as a special feature, alas. Dr. Giggles is available by itself or as part of the studio's affordable "Twisted Terror Collection," which includes The Hand, Someone's Watching Me, From Beyond the Grave, Deadly Friend, and Eyes of a Stranger. Originally published: October 30, 2007.
*Currently the only way to see the film with its 'scope dimensions intact is via Universal's 1993 LaserDisc.