Dr. Giggles. 1992. Directed by Manny Coto. Screenplay by Coto & Graeme Whifler.
Starring Larry Drake, Holly Marie Combs, Cliff De Young, Glenn Quinn, Keith Diamond, Richard Bradford, Michelle Johnson, John Vickery, Nancy Fish, & Sarah Melson.
Dark Horse Entertainment / JVC Entertainment Networks / Largo Entertainment
Rated R / 95 minutes
Comedy / Drama / Horror / Mystery / Thriller
★★ (out of ★★★★★)At this point, mommy trauma in horror has jumped the shark. There have been endless traumatised little boys in the horror genre who turn into murderous misogynists as grown men, blaming all their slashy, slicey rage on what their mothers did, or didn’t do, when they were children. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—one of the proto-slashers that gave birth to the sub-genre—is an early example, though 1980’s Maniac and its 2012 remake are likely the most (in)famous of them all. And there are plenty of other horror films, particularly slashers, which use a similar setup to explain the killer obsessions of their villains.
Dr. Giggles is one of those mommy trauma horrors, a slasher comedy that’s more concerned with one-liners from its villain than it is with actually interrogating his misogyny and Freudian trauma.
Evan Rendell, Jr. (Larry Drake), also known as Dr. Giggles, has a traumatic past. His father, Dr. Rendell, was a madman, who started ripping the hearts out of patients in an effort to revive his mother, the doctor’s wife who perished from a heart condition. Evan’s father was eventually pulled into the streets and killed by the citizens of Moorehigh, but little Evan disappeared. Years later, Evan’s in a psychiatric hospital, and he manages to escape, slaughtering his way back to Moorehigh and his old Gothic home. He begins killing people from his father’s old files. Then he comes upon Jennifer (Holly Marie Combs), a teenage girl with the same heart condition as his mother, and everything comes unglued.
Although the maniac Dr. Giggles is carrying on his father’s work he isn’t quite showing love for his mother. Instead, the giggling slasher actually expresses a fear of his mother, though not explicitly. What he fears is the psychoanalytical concept of the archaic mother—the mother that threatens to obliterate the subject, the mother that will eventually consume what it once gave life. That fear Dr. Giggles has of his mother as archaic mother is epitomised by his backstory and how his father effectively put him back inside his mother, placing him into the womb again: he was “born again,” according to the cop who saw him emerge from his mother’s dead belly, as a traumatised Freudian slasher.
One throwaway scene ends up connecting the villain’s mommy trauma with other Freudian concepts regarding the figure of the mother. A horny guy is on the way to having sex when he delivers this queasy line: “Ever since I found my mom‘s Victoria‘s Secret catalogue I have been dying for this.” While it’s hilarious, it’s also covering every Freudian base by linking sexuality with another male character’s mother.
While the trauma Dr. Giggles associates with his mother speaks to Freudian concepts, the film’s treatment of the mother is misogynistic. If the plot actually addressed the crazy doctor’s misogyny, incorporating that into the screenplay, that’d be one thing, but it never does anything except play further into misogynistic themes. During one scene, the police receive a call from a certain address and one cop says it’s not worth checking on: “That crazy broad sees rapists in her haemorrhoid cream.” Even Jennifer seems to have internalised misogyny, lamenting that she’s holding back her father and his love life: “My dad‘s trying to move on with his life, and all I do is bitch and moan“; her use of the word bitch is especially interesting here. The most striking misogynistic imagery involves the mother’s body. Her body’s treated as nothing but a shell through which Rendell’s son was born and is later hidden to fool those looking for the boy, she’s a uterus to give birth and a carcass for escape. She’s never a fully living presence in the film, only an object.
One of the film’s most inexplicable moments, that just deepens the film’s misogyny, is when Dr. Rendell and his boy giggle together over the mother in her bed; she’s either dying or already dead. It does nothing to help the idea that Dr. Rendell, or his grown son, was killing people to save his wife, especially considering he romanticises her condition, calling it “a broken heart,” like she’s ill from love and not a physical ailment. When the mother’s body gets used as an escape vessel for Little Giggles we truly see Dr. Rendell’s misogyny, as well as the misogyny of the film itself. All that loathing of women isn’t confronted in the screenplay. The mother’s body being cut open, and the eerie horror of her son hidden in her corpse, is all fodder for shock and awe, not for a critique about the misogyny of slashers.
“Laughter is the best medicine.”
While the misogyny’s never dealt with in Dr. Giggles, the trauma is, as we see the titular character return to the scene of his greatest trauma(s) at his childhood home. A slasher villain going back to their old stomping grounds, whether a childhood home or an old campground (etc), is a recognisable trope in the slasher sub-genre, though it’s all about the Gothic signifying a return of the repressed trauma the villain experienced. It makes for one of the more memorable Gothic houses in horror, even if the film as a whole isn’t spectacular. A disturbing image pops up when a cop is searching the old Rendell house, in which the doctor had his own clinic, and comes across a Gothic waiting room, complete with cobwebs everywhere and sliced up corpses sitting in the seats.
Dr. Giggles is like an urban legend come to life. We see the typical young people telling stories and visiting the old house, not unlike many young folks in Halloween or Friday the 13th, going back to where those legendary slasher icons stalked and murdered their prey. What makes the Dr. Giggles character feel more like an urban legend is the cop reciting the nursery rhyme borne of the real horror and tragedy in Moorehigh’s history. The nursery rhyme is fantastic with the opening line: “Our town has a doctor, his name is Rendell / stay away from his house, he‘s a doctor from Hell.” For others it’s an urban legend teens discuss, for the cop it’s been decades of alcoholism and insomnia trying to forget actual traumatic memories haunting him since he witnessed the unthinkably macabre act of Rendell Jr. being rebirthed from his mother’s belly.
This was my first time watching Dr. Giggles while writing this essay. When I was growing up I used to see the film’s poster and its VHS cover in a rental store called Allan’s Video in my hometown. I’d always heard about the nasty twist concerning the mother’s corpse; by the time I finally saw the film recently I only vaguely remembered the details, quite a shock. Not something I’ll watch again much, aside from when in need of a cheesy horror, yet I see how some find it a lot of mindless fun.
Dr. Giggles is one of those horrors you can still enjoy even if it’s far from remarkable, because it has interesting kills, a silly premise, and even sillier one-liners from the eponymous character as he carves his way across Moorehigh. However, underneath the surface are troubling, and cliched, themes that make Manny Coto’s film mostly forgettable, if it weren’t for Drake’s unsettling giggles and his character’s hideous backstory. The Freudian horror of Dr. Giggles doesn’t make it misogynistic, it’s one of the film’s better aspects because of the horrific imagery involved. But there’s no critical thinking in regards to the villain and his Freudian trauma, and the role his father played isn’t examined enough at length. The shocking imagery falls into the category of misogyny, winding up as nothing but more horror using women’s bodies as plot devices and a literal vessel for a male killer’s violent narcissism.