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Strange Illusion (December 1/03)

Strange Illusion marks prolific filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer's trip into Hitchcock territory, with often underwhelming results. Though the film is peppered with stylish interludes, the whole thing never adds up to more than a mildly entertaining curiosity.

Starring James Lydon as Paul, Strange Illusion takes the familiar Hamlet storyline and brings it to the 1940s. The movie opens with a bizarre dream sequence, featuring Paul recalling the violent death of his father. After talking to an old family friend about it, Paul concludes that his mother is somehow in danger from an unknown source. As it turns out, Brett, the man she's about to marry, just might have had something to do with the death of Paul's father - and now has his eye on the family fortune.

Strange Illusion is prototypically melodramatic, as one would expect from a film of this era. There's not much subtlety going on here, from the overwrought performances to the almost comically histrionic musical score, the movie is chock full of 1940s excess. And since the film was shot on the cheap (this is Ulmer we're talking about, after all), the ambiance of Strange Illusion is one of shoddy haste; the walls of certain sets look as though they were plastered that morning.

Given that the film is a loose update of Hamlet, there's also a good amount of predictability running through the story. It's revealed fairly early on that Brett is in cahoots with a shady psychiatrist, though Paul doesn't realize this until it's too late. After remarkably little prodding, Paul's convinced to check himself into the institute where said shrink presides. Not surprisingly, Paul soon discovers the truth and finds himself committed against his will. It's all pretty standard stuff, but admittedly, there are several sequences that - primarily because of Ulmer's innovative direction - manage to elicit some thrills.

The climax, featuring the various characters emerging on a cabin, is particularly effective - though not enough to make one forget the tediousness of virtually everything that came before it.

out of

About the DVD: All Day Entertainment presents Strange Illusion in a full-frame transfer that is as good as one can expect from such a film. The primary supplemental feature is a 16-minute documentary on the history of PRC, the studio that produced Strange Illusion. With appearances by Ulmer's daughter Arianne Ulmer Cipes and film historian David Kalat, "The King of PRC" proves to be a fascinating and intriguing look at the way films used to be made. Also included are a photo gallery and several bonus trailers.
© David Nusair