A literary horror film–that sounds like an absurd concept, but Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Leonard Nimoy-like Andreas Teuber bring it off. The most striking aspect of Dr. Faustus are the surprisingly good special effects. The atmosphere, music, and colors combine in an hallucinogenic mix. Yes, it’s stagey, as expected, but it flows well nonetheless; the erudite dialogue enhancing the forlorn creepiness.
I agree with those who mention that Taylor’s make-up is overdone in some scenes. She hardly needs artificial means to look sexy and alluring. It’s remarkable that her character loses nothing despite having no dialogue; a good counterpoint to Faustus and Mephistopheles’s learned verbal jousting. I even appreciate the copious amounts of Latin; I could scope out some of it, and, in general, it added to the Medieval luster.
There’s a lot going on here, both visually and intellectually. As others have noted, Teuber’s description of hell is a sort of existentialist view of the human condition; Burton’s desire to sell his soul has an escapist undertone, like a person on drugs. Like an addict, Burton/Faustus can’t get enough hedonistic pleasures. But he has to ultimately ‘come down,’ literally down to hell.
The ending is perhaps the best scene: hell swallows Faustus up a in a claustrophobic dungeon. Sensual pleasures become scenes of torture and madness. In another macabre scene, this time near the beginning, Burton comes upon a sort of desecrated altar in a hideous forest–the definition of haunted. At the other extreme, watching he and Teuber floating in space among the stars is beautiful, majestic. The rotting corpses are very effective, especially as they shift from dismal images of death to the horrid, all too real depictions of decay.
The movie is entertaining enough with the relentless parade of horror; there’s also the horrible inner tension, as Faustus continues to doubt his switch of allegiance from God to the Devil. One sort of hopes that he will come back to God. He nearly does. It’s interesting that God will forgive him, and take him back; but the devil won’t give him up without retribution.
It’s good that the generally obnoxious scene at the Papal court ultimately turns dark; this comic interlude disrupts the tone, as though being in league with the devil is a harmless prank. Faustus’s trickster ability is much better handled when he exposes the Emperor’s knight as a cuckhold.
I must admit I haven’t read the original play; I read Goethe’s Faust many years ago for a class, but I’m not that familiar with the Faust myth/story. Anyway, a thoroughly enjoyable film for fans of classic horror, and even for those into classic literature. Where else can you hear that fine medievalism from no less a luminary than the Holy Roman Emperor, when he speaks of Faustus’s powers as “cunning arts”? 8/10.