Schlock Value: The Madmen of Mandoras (1963)
Since the end of WWII, Nazis have been perfect cinematic villains. Whether they’re trying to harness the mystical power of the Ark of the Covenant or launching a full scale assault from the moon, audiences just can't get enough of them. In 1963, Crown International Pictures released The Madmen of Mandoras, a film about a government agent out to stop a group of Nazis hiding out in South America with a secret plan to take over the world. It had a short theatrical run before it was put back on the shelf and forgotten about for a few years when it was bought for TV syndication, padded with an additional 30 minutes of new material shot by UCLA students, and rebranded with the much better title, They Saved Hitler’s Brain. Wait, what? Hitler’s BRAIN? Anyway, for this week’s Schlock Value, I sat down and watched The Madmen of Mandoras from Mill Creek Entertainment’s Gore House Greats collection.
Boasting explosive action, supercharged thrills, and “the most incredible plot ever conceived to conquer the world,” the trailer sets up what looks to be a fairly exciting spy thriller. Mixed in with the explosions, shootouts, and mysterious scientists, we get glimpses at the hero, the handsome undercover agent Phil Day, as well as Professor Coleman, an American scientist who has discovered an antidote to the Nazis’ secret weapon. Mostly, though, the narrator spends his time wondering just what the hell these “madmen” are planning. They really sell the intrigue. The poster is equally effective, featuring an American man (Phil Day, perhaps?) in a ravaged suit, wielding a rifle straight out of a sci-fi movie as a dead man lays before him and an airplane explodes in the background. “What unknown force was created in the diabolical minds of the Madmen of Mandoras?” We’re about to find out.
The film begins with Professor Coleman briefing some government brass about his top secret antidote to a new kind of nerve gas. Also present is our hero, the straight-laced government agent (and Prof. Coleman’s son-in-law) Phil Day. As Phil heads home after the meeting, Prof. Coleman and all of his research are kidnapped by a group of mysterious men. Not long after, Phil and his wife Kathy (aka, K.C.) are approached by a strange South American man who warns them that the Professor has been taken to the (fictitious) nation of Mandoras. As Phil, Kathy, and their new friend drive through town, another car of some black-hatted henchman pull up and shoot the stranger before driving off. Armed only with the knowledge of Coleman’s whereabouts, Phil and Kathy take it upon themselves to fly down to Mandoras and find Prof. Coleman.
Upon arriving in Mandoras, they are greeted by the Chief of Police, who seems to have been expecting them, and not-so-subtly lets them know they are being watched. Once they arrive at their hotel, and settle into their room, they are ambushed by another mysterious stranger, who looks suspiciously like the one who was shot earlier. In the struggle, Kathy accidentally bashes Phil over the head, knocking him out. Moments later, when he comes to, he learns that this new stranger is a man named Camino, and that he is the brother of the other guy (whose name was Teo). This is when we find out what’s really going on. It turns out that years ago, at the end of WWII, a group of Nazis managed to cut off Adolf Hitler’s head (while keeping it alive) and transport it to Mandoras. Now, the Nazis have obtained a dangerous new biological weapon, the nerve gas mentioned at the beginning of the film, and have captured Prof. Coleman to prevent his antidote from being made available to the rest of the world. With a weapon that has no antidote, the Nazis are now free to launch their plans for world domination.
With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Phil and Kathy do what anyone would do in that situation: they go shopping, and stop for a drink at the local cantina where they run into Kathy’s younger sister, Suzanne. Suzanne reveals that not long ago, she and her boyfriend David were kidnapped, brought to Mandoras, and put up in a fancy hotel with the provision that she cannot call home. So, she’s just been partying it up. After a few drinks and some dancing, a gun fight breaks out inside the cantina, and Phil is falsely arrested for the murder of a man who was killed in the crossfire. Instead of being taken to jail, the police chief takes him to the Presidential palace where he is reunited with Kathy and Suzanne, and learns from the El Presidente that he is working with the Nazis and that Mandorans are positioned all over the world, ready to strike. Afterward, Phil, Kathy, and Suzanne are escorted to a jail cell where they are reunited with Prof. Coleman who has undergone all sorts of torture. Not long after this, two Nazi guards appear, one of whom is Suzanne’s old boyfriend David (gasp!). For some indiscernible reason, they give everyone a tour of the facilities, revealing HITLER’S HEAD ALIVE IN A JAR!
With only hours to go before the Nazi nerve gas plan is set to launch, Phil & Co. decide they want out. The next time their cell door opens, they easily ambush the two guards. But before they can escape, they are confronted by the El Presidente and Chief of Police who, in another spectacular plot twist, reveal that they have NOT been working with the Nazis after all. Now, with El Presidente and the police chief in tow, Phil & Co. escape pretty easily, jumping into two cars and driving straight through the front gate. The Nazis, naturally, are in hot pursuit. From here on out, the film kicks into high gear as our heroes rush to stop the Nazi nerve gas plans in a truly face-melting climax. Phil gets to be the big action hero, Kathy gets to be the damsel in distress, and the world is safe for another day.
The most disappointing thing about The Madmen of Mandoras is how average it is despite its potential. What should have been a fun (albeit bonkers) spy thriller is, for the most part, a snoozefest. While the first and third acts move fairly quickly, the entire second act is needlessly slow and convoluted, characters seem to lose or change their motivation (or just make completely boneheaded choices), and the stakes never seem to feel very high. And whenever the film starts to drag, a new character or plot twist is introduced, which only makes it more confusing. There are so many flip-flopping characters, it's difficult to keep track of who is on who’s side, but it’s not all bad. The acting is mostly fine, considering everyone is more-or-less playing a simple archetype, and the production design is surprisingly decent, particularly the Nazi hideout. There’s even a particularly compelling (and beautifully shot) sequence toward the end of the film as David hunts Phil and Kathy in a dark Mandoran alley. The best thing about the film however is that it delivers on the Hitler head in a jar. It makes absolutely no sense, but I'll be damned if it’s not so over-the-top that it works.
In the end, The Madmen of Mandoras is not great, but it's also not bad enough to suggest avoiding entirely (that honor goes to the re-cut version, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, which is loaded with even more unnecessary material). Simply put, there are better uses of your time. If you do feel compelled, you can find it included in Mill Creek Entertainment’s Gore House Greats collection.