With the success of “The Wolf Man,” Lon Chaney Jr. was officially a horror star. Near weeks after that film wrapped, most of the same cast and crew were assembled for “The Ghost of Frankenstein,” the fourth film in the increasingly long in the tooth series. If “The Wolf Man” showed what was possible if Universal put some money behind one of their monster movie, “Ghost of Frankenstein” is a very typical example of the studio’s horror output at the time.
I’ve never much warmed up to Lon Chaney as the monster. He should have been perfect, right? No one could bring pathos to a monster like Chaney and Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” was just a few levels removed from the Monster. And yet Chaney’s Monster is robotic. It seems he found the make-up constraining. Lugosi and Glenn Strange are traditionally credited (Blamed?) for the cliché of the Monster shambling around, arms out, legs stiff. Turns out Chaney did that first. His interpretation of the creature is stiff and blandly murderous. Karloff was right to drop out when he did. The make-up is still good, for what it’s worth, even if Chaney’s round, saggy face is very different then Karloff’s thin, bony structure.
“The Ghost of Frankenstein” is fairly by-the-book, though not totally without its moments. Erle C. Kenton’s direction is quite strong. There are several creative camera angles, such as a little girl’s eye-view of the Monster towering over here or a brain in a jar wheeling directly into the camera. We get a few moments of weighty atmosphere, such as Ygor and the Monster’s face peering into a window at the daughter, lightening casting their shadows on the wall. Similarly, the Monster’s shadow looms huge on the small girl’s bedroom wall. Speaking of which, the movie links with the first film by having a little girl befriend the Monster. She isn’t afraid of him, seems unaware of his murderous steak, but at least knows when to ask to go home. The sets are fantastic. Despite the modern setting, Visaria still has more in common with the village in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” then actual Germany. The doctor’s laboratory is all domed ceilings and half-moon arches. The Monster’s final, fiery rampage through the lab is satisfying and the shots of his face slowly burning in the flames are cool. Chaney’s ramping physicality is his best contribution.
Night Monster (1942)
Going into “Night Monster,” I was expecting a typical old dark house flick. It certainly has the hallmarks of the genre. You’ve got a group of people gathering in a mansion in a spooky location when a few bodies piled up, with secret passageways naturally being used at one point. At the very least, Ingston Tower has a staff of maids and butlers that keep the place from getting too dusty. While the movie is never hugely surprising, and certainly doesn’t deliver on the monster promised in the title, it at least deviates a bit from the established formula.
The movie’s main problem is that there are a few too many characters. The mansion belongs to a quadriplegic millionaire. He blames his paralysis on the three doctors who botched the surgery. For reasons I can’t remember, the three doctors (Among them Lionel Atwill. Man, that guy didn’t suffer for work in 1942.) along with a female psychologist are invited to stay at his home for the weekend. That would probably be enough for most films, but “Night Monster” also throws in a swami, a love interest for the lady shrink, a bumbling old detective, the millionaire’s mentally ill sister, a high-strung maid, a handsy groundskeeper, and Bela Lugosi in another small butler role. There might be a few more as well. The movie does an okay job of balancing this extended cast. The handsy groundskeeper is at least memorable, Irene Hervey makes a decent heroine, I like the maid and the mentally ill sister, and Lugosi does his best to distinguish what he’s given. The best performance in the film belong to Ralph Morgan as the crippled man. It’s obvious how bitter he is yet he never gets overt, instead letting his resentment and bitterness simmer under a mask of civility.
|This poster is mostly unrelated.|
The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)
After playing so many supporting roles in Universal horror movies, it was nice that Lionel Atwill got to star in one. It’s just a shame that “The Mad Doctor of Market Street” isn’t much better. It’s an odd hybrid of a film. While there’s a mad scientist obsessed with putting people in a state of suspended animation (a horror/sci-fi element) and a group of detectives hot on his trail (a mystery element), the movie is mostly a jungle-adventure flick. So, no, the mad doctor isn’t on Market Street for very long.
Atwill plays Dr. Ralph Benson, one of the more unassuming names you could give a mad scientist. After doing great with the “creating a death-like state” but less well with the “bringing them back to life” part of suspended animation, Benson flees onto a cruise ship headed for the north Pacific. His brilliant disguise involves shaving his beard. After killing one of the cops onboard, Benson causes a fire, somehow wrecks the ship, and gets himself along with a selected group of characters stranded on an island. Once he pulls off his reanimation trick, Dr. Ralph is treated as a god by the hilariously stereotypical island natives, forcing the other white folks to put up with his mildly threatening reign of terror.