Saturday, November 28, 2009

Night Monster (Universal, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie we finally did watch last night was the companion piece to Wednesday night’s last movie, Captive Wild Woman, on the Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive collection: Night Monster, a quite engaging 1942 piece of atmospherics produced and directed by Ford Beebe (who’s got short shrift in the histories of Universal horror because he was best known as the director of the Flash Gordon serials, but I’ve loved The Invisible Man’s Revenge so much over the years I took Beebe’s dual credit as a hopeful sign — and I was right) and a rather quirky rewrite of the already quirky film The Old Dark House overlaid with physical disability (or the appearance of same), an (East) Indian swami, a possibly insane woman and a revenge plot directed against the medical profession.

The plot: a New England small town near a fog-shrouded seacoast lives in fear of the so-called “Night Monster,” which emerges from the fog to wreak havoc. Its first victim — at least the first one we actually get to know — is Milly Carson (Janet Shaw), a housemaid who threatens to report the sinister doings at the Ingston Towers, the sinister old pile where she works, to the police. Laurie (Leif Erickson, whose presence here puts the rest of the cast one degree of separation from James Dean — Erickson and Dean appeared together in that rather odd 1951 Roman Catholic TV production called Hill Number One, based on the last days of Christ with Erickson as Pontius Pilate and Dean as the Apostle John, which when we watched it together Charles described as “an infomercial for rosary beads”), the Ingston family’s chauffeur, offers her a ride to town after housekeeper Sarah Judd (Doris Lloyd) fires her for threatening to talk, but midway to town Laurie parks the station wagon and tries to rape her (shown with surprising explicitness for a “post-Code” movie!).

She gets out of the car at the first opportunity and, of course, is a sitting duck for the Night Monster — only as the monster gets her, Dr. Lynne Harper (Irene Hervey) a passing motorist who’s had trouble with her own car, hears her screams. Shortly thereafter Dr. Harper, who’s been summoned to Ingston Towers to treat the mentally unbalanced Margaret Ingston (Fay Helm), gets a ride to Ingston Towers from Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), a mystery/horror writer who’s on his way to Ingston Towers for reasons screenwriter Clarence Upson Young doesn’t pause in his exposition long enough to explain. Ingston Towers is owned by Margaret’s brother, Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan), who has summoned three doctors of his own — Dr. King (Lionel Atwill), Dr. Timmons (Frank Reicher) and Dr. Phipps (Francis Pierlot) — because they attempted to treat him for something or other and committed such spectacular medical malpractice that they left him in a wheelchair and with blackened hands and arms so withered that he can’t pick up anything for himself. (There’s a fascinating scene of the chauffeur Laurie literally picking Kurt up and cradling him like a baby as he carries him from his bed to his wheelchair — and I couldn’t help but think how that goes against everything I’ve been taught about how to transfer a chair-bound person.)

There’s also Rolf (Bela Lugosi, inexplicably top-billed and probably grateful for the chance to be working at a major studio again even though it’s a nothing part and just about anyone could have played it), a sinister butler who pushes down the hang-up button on the house phone just when Milly is trying to call out with her warning to the police; and Agor Singh (Nils Asther), a swami who’s teaching Kurt an East Indian trick of mind-over-matter, as well as Sarah Judd — who runs the household with such fierce authority she makes Judith Anderson in Rebecca seem like Mother Teresa by comparison, ordering about not only the other servants (including a broken-looking man named Torque, played by Cyril Delavanti, who staffs the front gate of the grounds of Ingston Towers and seems to have been the prototype for the equally sinister doorman in Manos: The Hands of Fate).

Night Monster has a plot — several plots, actually — that makes almost no sense at all, but rarely has that mattered less: cinematographer Charles Van Enger’s chiaroscuro lighting and vertiginous moving-camera shots maintain the atmosphere, and the performances are generally excellent — particularly Fay Helm’s; she bathes every line in acid and creates a far more credible villain than the real “night monster” — who turns out, as just about every hardened moviegoer either in 1942 or now would have no trouble guessing, to be Kurt Ingston, who’s been able to overcome his disability by means of the mind-over-matter discipline Agor Singh taught him; in the finale, he’s shot in the back by one of the local cops just as he was about to take out Dick Baldwin and Dr. Harper, while meantime back at Ingston Towers, Margaret Ingston declares that the house and the entire family are evil and she’s going to burn the place down (evoking both The Old Dark House and Rebecca!), which she does, taking out nasty ol’ Sarah Judd at the same time and confounding at least one set of audience expectations: one expected Dr. Harper to be able to cure Margaret instead of Margaret totally losing it at the end. Night Monster is yet another one of those triumphs of style over (lack of) substance and proof that as late as 1942, with the batteries of their original Laemmle-era inspirations running pretty low, Universal could still create a neatly unsettling, entertaining old-dark-house thriller with a fair quotient of chills.