The mysterious Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) rides into the remote Arizona town of Abalone, a place that needs him more than it understands, for there is a tycoon, Clint Stark (Arthur O'Connell), who is trying to win them over so he may buy up their land and homes. He is trying to persuade them to do this under the guise of philanthropy and many of the citizens are being duped, but not local newspaperman Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) who is running editorials in the paper about how Stark is not to be trusted, and little better than a dictator. Unfortunately, public opinion is on the tycoon's side - until Dr. Lao arrives...
7 Faces of Dr. Lao may be fondly recalled today, but unlike many of its producer and director George Pal's other fantasy films, it was not a hit and its failure almost had him giving up movies for a spell. You can see why, as it's a curious concoction of superb effects and makeup (William Tuttle won the first ever Oscar for makeup design for his work here) and a schmaltzy, moralising tone that doesn't immediately speak to all audiences. Maybe a lot of people don't like to be told how to live their lives, and the Abalone folk are such an unlikeable bunch you're tempted to advise Dr. Lao to leave them be.
Yet in the spirit of religious do-goodery that often popped up in Pal's films, the title character is far from content to allow these wayward people to give in to their greed and come out the losers; Stark has a low opinion of humanity, believing them easily manipulated to reveal their worst nature, and for some of the running time of this you might well be agreeing with him. Cunningham, for example, is a fine, upstanding chap, but his attmepts to woo a young widow, Angela Benedict (a brunette Barbara Eden), are thrown back in his face because she, like her fellow locals, cannot see the good in others.
You get the impression if Dr. Lao hadn't happened along to given them another chance then they would have ended up doomed to stew in their own bitterness, but he has brought a circus with him, which is where Tuttle's creations come into play. Although Randall was no fan of the film, he does give an excellent performance here, or should I say seven performances as he appears in various different incarnations, from an Abominable Snowman (looks fierce, but is really just the handyman) to a Medusa (snakes for hair, turning a woman to stone, the whole deal). It's worth watching for the novelty value of these entities alone.
The script was adapted by Charles Beaumont, one of the finest writers of fantastic fiction of his generation, from the novel by Charles Finney, and at times it seems as if he was keener on the more outlandish aspects than the human side of things. Nevertheless, there are attacks on racism (odd for a film which stars a white man dressed up as Confucius, complete with comedy mangling of the English language) and lessons about how we all need guidance, from little boys whose fathers have died to the more grown up but no less deluded elder members of society. And unusually for a Pal film, he is not afraid to reach for some dark territory, with Angela's sexual frustration brought out in a meeting with Pan, or one flibbertigibbet facing her pathetic existence thanks to a sorrowful but stern fortune teller. If it's the effects you want, then there's plenty to feast your eyes on, including an out of control Loch Ness Monster, but the film is less folksy than it initially seems. Not wholly successful, but it is provocative if you care to look. Music by Leigh Harline.