Cheap, brief, daft, and blissful fun for old B-movie spelunkers, The Mysterious Doctor is jerry-built pulp fiction from the midst of WW2, combining mild horror spun from already long-hoary story tropes and regulation wartime messaging. The setting is the perpetually foggy corner of a Warner Bros. approximation of Cornwall. The eponymous doctor, Frederick Holmes (Lester Matthews), comes lurching out of the mist, supposedly on a walking holiday, and fetches a ride from a peddler driving a wagon to get him through the murk. The peddler is, naturally, nervous about the locale and won’t tarry long in the nearby village of Morgan’s Head, home to a legend of a roaming headless ghost who has staked a deadly claim to the local tin mine. The doctor is greeted at the door of the town inn by the proprietor, Simon (Frank Mayo), who wears a black hood and doesn’t provide the warmest of welcomes: Holmes purchases the amicable company of local blabbermouth Hugh Penhryn (Forrester Harvey) when he buys the inn’s clientele a round of drinks, and learns the hooded host was badly disfigured in an accident with dynamite. Reports of a German parachutist landing somewhere out on the foggy moors brings the yokels to the door of Holmes’ hotel room demanding to know who he is and where he comes from, with eminent local personage Sir Henry Leland (John Loder) taking charge. The good doctor’s explanations satisfy them for the moment, and he thrills and perturbs the crowd by announcing he will plumb the mystery of the silver mine.
The actual plot involves one of those fake hauntings so popular in the comedy-thrillers of the ‘20s and ‘30s – The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Bat (1926), The Phantom Light (1935), Oh, Mr Porter! (1937) – where the guises and tropes of supernatural melodrama are both exploited and subverted, by having those tropes prove to be masks for more earthly nefarious ends: this sub-genre would have its most famous day transmuted into animated television for Scooby-Doo. In the heyday of that mode, it was a blatant metaphor for dispelling irrationalism in the face of modernity’s glare, making light of the darker fantasies inherited from European traditions and plied so memorably by the continental Expressionist cinema of the time. But the baddies of most of those movies – usually smugglers, gangsters, jewel thieves and the like – were much less urgent villains than Nazi spies. The theme is only really adjusted to the epoch insofar as the ore from the mine is a valuable war resource and so the motives of the bad guy involve keeping the resource from being exploited, and the doctor proves to be a mineralogy expert sent by the authorities to assess the mine’s worth. What makes The Mysterious Doctor interesting lies in the way it plays with the mode's conventions by playing some twisty games. Richard Weil’s scant script fills out the film’s incredibly crisp 57 minute running time with a surprising number of sharp turns, in a model of the kind of narrative economy this kind of filmmaking could offer.
Most engagingly, Weil’s screenplay keeps changing expectations of who the protagonists are going to be. The “mysterious doctor” at first seems to be a likely villain, then prospective hero, but seems finally to fall prey to the headless ghost. Other potential heroes and villains rise to the fore. Leland, who seems to be the solicitous squire, has some questionable family roots. Lt. ‘Kit’ Hilton (Bruce Lester) and Letty Carstairs (Eleanor Parker) are introduced as the regulation clean-cut young lovers, with Hilton speechifying to the miners about wartime duties and leading the hunt for the doctor’s killer. Letty protects the town’s unstable loner Bart Redmond (Matt Willis, best known for playing the hapless werewolf slave of The Return of the Vampire, 1944), who’s been beset by mental troubles since his parents' mysterious death and has become a favourite butt of teasing by schoolkids, and becomes Hilton’s main suspect for the killing of the doctor, in a sub-plot that stumbles into proto-Ryan’s Daughter (1970) territory. The viewer, however, already knows that somebody or something inhabits the guise of the headless ghost, seen stalking through the mist and tracking the doctor in the mine, as does Simon, who momentarily bares his disfigured face to put on a gas mask to follow the doctor in the mine. The film then pulls a neat, if not exactly surprisingly switch about who proves to be under Simon’s hood by the end, after the bluff of just who does get killed in the mine and who eventually saves the day.
The headless ghost itself is wonderfully goofy, with torso jutting high to hide the head of the actor, but at least it is supposed to be fake insofar as it’s a villain’s costume rather than an actual wraith, and its attacks do have a certain charge, particularly when it stalks the heroes in the depths of the mine with silent, remorseless progress. 21-year-old Parker, stunningly beautiful, is obvious star material playing a likeably defiant heroine who combines elements of the classic Gothic romantic heroine, of the type Parker would essay four years later in The Woman in White, and the chipper, can-do wartime woman like Penelope Dudley Ward played so well in The Demi-Paradise (1943), or Elizabeth Allan in Went the Day Well? (1943). Her instincts alone prove correct in a narrative that makes, in its quaint and incongruous fashion, an urgent point about being too quick to attack strangers, outsiders, and scapegoats in the context of such a paranoid epoch. Letty has the spunk to protect Bart not just from angry townsfolk who want to lynch him, but also from her pompous boyfriend’s self-righteous manhunt, in a manner that amusingly undercuts his status as appointed military patriot, even interfering with a shot he takes at the fleeing Bart. As with a lot of movies actually made during WW2 rather than retrospectively, there is no single, infallible leader: the social context and part to play for all is emphasised. The finale is breathless and ridiculous, involving secrete passages into manor houses, the young lovers held captive in a room full of dynamite, and superhuman heroism on the part of unlikely characters. Former comedy short and Fox quickie director Ben Stoloff gives you all the menacing silhouettes and dry-ice mist swathing fake trees you could possibly ask for.