Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Undying Monster

In 1941, Universal Pictures had such a big hit with “The Wolf Man” that other studios jumped on the werewolf bandwagon. Columbia Pictures had a talking werewolf appear alongside Bela Lugosi in “The Return of the Vampire” (1943), and a woman turns into a wolf (talk about saving on your special effects budget) in “Cry of the Werewolf” (1944). Poverty Row studio PRC’s entry was “The Mad Monster” (1942) which saw mad scientist George Zucco turn handyman Glenn Strange into an overalls-wearing werewolf, as part of his plan to turn American soldiers into werewolves and fight against the Nazis. (Logic was never a strong suit in Poverty Row horror flicks).

Of course, Universal continued their series of Wolf Man pictures with “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” (1943), “House of Frankenstein” (1944) and “House of Dracula” (1945), which saw the doomed, tragic Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) forever in search of a cure for his condition.

In 1942, 20th Century Fox turned out a wonderful little “B” picture called “The Undying Monster” which owes a lot to “The Wolf Man.” It’s not as good as “The Wolf Man” mainly due to the leads, but there’s a lot here to enjoy.

Any mystery/horror film that starts out on an estate on the English moors at the turn of century has already won me over. We hear about a family curse and a monster that is known to terrorize the moors. We then witness a servant girl being chased at night across the fog-drenched landscape, screaming in terror as the camera tracks her across the moors. She is cornered and then attacked via a point of view camera angle where the camera becomes the monster, as she desperately – and unsuccessfully - fights off her attacker. It’s a bravura sequence, way ahead of its time, and beautifully directed by John Brahm.

Brahm was a German émigré director who is best known today for the three films Victorian thrillers he made at 20th Century Fox: “The Undying Monster”, “The Lodger” (1944), arguably the best Jack the Ripper movie ever made; and “Hangover Square” (1945), about a composer who goes psycho when he hears discordant noises. It’s one of the greatest horror pictures of the 1940s.

The family is believed to be cursed and the brother and sister (John Howard and Heather Angel), not believing in monsters, bring in a Scotland Yard inspector (James Ellison) to help get to the bottom of things. The family doctor (Bramwell Fletcher) is also looking for a solution. The servants are a suspicious lot, knowing more than they let on. And what’s with the rattling of chains heard in the family crypt in the basement?

The similarities with “The Wolf Man” are pretty striking, down to the setting and the folk warning that the family intones before they go out on the moor: “When the stars are bright on a frosty night, beware thy bane in the rocky lane.”

That’s OK, but not as good as the similar warning heard in “The Wolf Man: “Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers at night, may be become a wolf, when the wolf bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.”

David Raksin’s score was obviously influenced by the classic one composed by Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter for “The Wolf Man.” This was one of Raksin’s first assignments for Fox as a contract composer, but within two years he would be asserting his independence with his landmark score for “Laura” (1944) and would develop his own voice.

There’s a lot of terrific atmosphere here. 20th Century Fox offered the best black and white photography of the major studios, and this film is a never-ending visual delight. There is one odd sequence, however, where the werewolf is carrying his victim across the moors, and the scene is speeded up, so he walks in a herky jerky fashion. Maybe Brahm thought it would give the scene an air of unreality, but it doesn’t work. Fortunately for the climax, the action occurs without anything being speeded up.

Where “The Undying Monster” falls apart is in the casting of the lead. James Ellison was known for playing Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick in a series of B westerns at Paramount, and he just doesn’t cut it as a Scotland Yard inspector. He likely found the assignment a nice change of pace, and later starred as Alice Faye’s love interest in “The Gang’s All Here” (1943), but never made it as a leading man and soon went back to the B western arena.

Heather Angel and John Howard are fine in the leads, if a bit bland. Bramwell Fletcher will be immortalized forever for his scene in “The Mummy” (1932) where he goes insane, laughing uncontrollably when he brings the mummy back to life in the opening scenes.

Despite some minor reservations, “The Undying Monster” is one of the better “B” horror pictures of the 1940s and I’m delighted Fox saw fit to release it on DVD in such a splendid transfer.

Rating for “The Undying Monster”: Three stars.

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