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Monday, 13 March 2017

NIGHT MONSTER (1942)

October 1942 saw Universal release a horror B-features without the energy and marquee value of their horror monsters. Night Monster is professionally assembled but dumb, and possibly in awareness of this the studio bolstered it with two of its name genre actors: Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. The result somewhat backfires as their wasted presence compounds its unremarkability.

Low-budget stalwart producer and director Ford Beebe had already done both serials and features and had already worked with Lugosi directing the hapharzard 12-part The Phantom Creeps (1939). Before going on to better reflect himself with The Invisible Man’s Revenge in 1944, his only other horror direction was this original script by Clarence Upson Young.

The premise is based around Curt Ingston, (Ralph Morgan) a wealthy man rendered wheelchair-bound after the ministrations of three doctors failed to stem his bodily paralysis. He has invited all three to a presentation of a revolutionary new cure he believes he has undergone. Meanwhile his palatial home is also occupied by a colourful collection of staff and family. There is his sister Margaret (Fay Helm) who is constantly badgered by concerns of insanity, unhelped by the claustrophobic cossetting of her frosty housekeeper Miss Judd (Doris Lloyd). 

Running the home is their swaggering, inappropriately lecherous chauffeur Lawrie played by familiar western actor Leif Erickson (later to find fame as Big John Cannon in TV’s The High Chaparral)  - and Lugosi as Ralf the butler, whose role is relegated to providing furtive reaction shots from the side as each sinister event unfolds. This suggests some murky involvement in the plot and yet he has none; in fact he is no longer even used in the climactic build-up and pay-off, a criminal oversight for his last top billing role for Universal.

Further evidence of wastage arrives in the form of Lionel Atwill as Dr King, along with Drs Phipps and Timmons (Francis Pierlot and Fran Reicher respectively). The three of them are not painted as greatly sympathetic. They attempt some gallows banter about the lucrative financial support of Ingston whilst they has tinkered with them until they remind themselves that “We left him a misshapen thing that must hide even from the servants in the house”. This prepares us for an awful creature and yet when Ingston comes down, he is an invalid of relatively normal appearance, albeit with a genial surface covering a fierce command used to being obeyed coupled with veiled intent towards his reunited doctors: “I don’t think you’ve ever been properly rewarded – but you will be”

Ingston shows the trio that he has firstly used local mechanics to supply him with mechanical arms and then stuns them far more with a demonstration by his yogi, the exotic turbaned Agar Singh (Sweden’s Nils Asther). Swami Singh aims to convince the sceptical men that it is possible to grow restorative tissue by the power of the mind alone. Even the composed Ralf cannot resist a smirk at the preposterousness. Singh materialises a kneeling skeleton holding a box leaking blood, inside of which is a ruby. Just as the medicos try to process this miraculous apparition, it vanishes leaving nothing but a pool of blood.

This souvenir mark then becomes relevant over the course of the film as each of the doctors is systematically murdered. Atwill is actually the first one to die, making his brevity of role as ignominious a waste as Lugosi’s, Opposing the forces of evil are Dick Baldwin (a strong, heroic Don Porter who would later tangle with monsters for Universal in 1946’s She-Wolf of London), Dr Harper (Irene Hervey), who’s been brought in by Margaret to prove her sanity, and an enjoyably irascible turn by Robert Homans as the squinting and cynical Constable Captain Beggs. He is eternally on the verge of blowing his top at the unlikely possibility that their host is somehow equipped with magic legs. When Ingston proves his incapacity by revealing his stumps under the bed-clothes to he and Dick, Beggs is apologetic for the insensitivity of their accusation. Gradually though, after all three doctors, Millie the housemaid) and now Lawrie are bumped off, they’re running out of other suspects. Observing the dead chauffeur slung on a closet coat-hook, he growls: “Well, there’s one thing certain. He ain’t guilty”.
Mercifully, what we have been suspecting for the entire film is true, that Ingston had harnessed his mental powers enough to give himself strangely lycanthropic legs for nocturnal murderous walkabouts. These hairy specimens come to light briefly as they disappear in death after a fatal gunshot by Singh. No explanation is given for why he settled for such weird limbs to be projected. The only overall one that is offered is more genuinely lame than the man himself – he left blood trails because he hadn’t quite mastered his ability. This is the same conclusion reached by a discerning audience – other than ‘Bring back the real monsters' 

A similar glaring omission of not providing decent parts befitting their trumpeted stars was not so easy to rectify for a publicity-conscious studio. 

A few days before the opening of Night Monster on October 15th 1942, Atwill pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years probation instead of jail time for his perjury in the Sylvia Hamalaine case (see my Lionel Atwill entry) . His attorney later read out his defence in court: “I lied like a gentleman to protect my friends”. In retrospect it has the grim finality of an epitaph – and signalled the death-knell for his illustrious career, knocking him off the pedestal of prestigious leading man into a downward slide of diminishing quality projects. The catastrophic shut-out he was subjected to by the hypocritical movie industry was such that by the following April he appealed in court to have the conviction terminated. Since he was now a pariah in the town, he was suffering enough punishment for his error of judgement. The Production Code could continue to have him ostracized while ever he was legally branded a ‘felon’ that brought the studios into perceived disrepute. A kindly judge allowed him to reverse his plea and he walked out of court exonerated. The stain of scandal would dog him and drag him down professionally and privately for the rest of his short life till his death in 1946.

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