“The Man Who Could Cheat Death” (1959)
by A.J. Hakari
Living forever has its perks. You can experience the world at your leisure, avoid disease, and have Queen write songs about you. But when immortality depends upon a steaming glass of Ecto Cooler, one missed swig is all it takes to leave you looking like the sloth victim from Seven. This is the malady that’s befallen The Man Who Could Cheat Death, who just had to dick around in the Almighty’s domain and paid the price for it. It’s the perfect premise for the horror-hungry lot at Hammer, and while it’s not as viable as their franchise about a certain famous mad scientist, the final film is distinctively eerie all the same.
Being a sculptor on the side, Dr. Georges Bonner (Anton Diffring) knows all about the fine art of preservation. But his pals and colleagues in 1890 Paris are unaware of how true that is — for the youthful-looking Bonner is actually 104 years old. As a medical student eager to crack the secret of perpetual life, he did just that, enabling himself to ward off age and sickness for good. But every ten years or so, Bonner requires a special operation, lest he come apart at the seams and have all those years crash down on him at once. This year, however, his accomplice (Arnold Marle) isn’t so willing to prolong Bonner’s existence, sending him off the deep end and forcing him to take deadly measures to stave off the ultimate case of rigor mortis.
I have a soft spot for Hammer’s one-shot genre titles, be they as simple as The Abominable Snowman or deliriously nuts as Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. They weren’t as tethered to tradition as those films committed to a series, which often made for most interesting stories. The Man Who Could Cheat Death can feel a little stiff around the edges, coming off with a staginess that’s no shocker given its roots as a play. But the ideas it has are presented in such a way that your interest is held even during the slower patches. Our story plays like Dorian Gray in medias res; Bonner has been kicking around for a long time when we’re introduced to him, and we come to see how a century-plus has both warped and enriched his mind. He won’t hesitate to kill in order to keep breathing, but he knows that sharing his secret with the world would cause nothing but catastrophe.
Bonner is a desperate dude who knows exactly what he’s doing, which gives The Man Who Could Cheat Death an added layer of menace. You’re in the position of feeling for this poor guy whose soul is being eaten away by his own scientific meddling, but you’re appropriately rattled at the murderous extremes to which he descends in the name of finding a cure. The script could’ve delved deeper into this conflict, considering how good Bonner’s conversations with his partner in crime are, though it gets the job done when all’s said and done. The rest of the plot is pretty self-explanatory, from Bonner’s doomed romance with a lovely model (Hazel Court) to an inspector (Francis De Wolff) who smells something fishy. You know where everyone will be at the end, but the pacing and performances are plenty sound, so as not to make you mind so much.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death never wants for spookiness or any out-there elements to perk up the place. It strikes an engaging balance between the formal and the bizarre, with a pinch of silly, Jekyll & Hyde-style theatrics for good measure. The flick is well worth a shot for vintage horror buffs or anyone who prefers a fog-drenched cobblestone alley to a roaring chainsaw.