I’d been told that Night Monster was the best of the five movies in the recent Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive boxed set. All I can say is that if this is the best of them I shudder to think what the rest are like.
Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) is a fabulously rich recluse. He’s become a recluse since undergoing a disastrous course of medical treatment for a serious illness. He’s been left a helpless twisted wreck of a man, confined permanently to a wheelchair.
The doctors who treated him are a little surprised to receive an invitation to his house (which is of course secluded and gothic). But their doubts are overruled by their greed for funding for their research, Mr Ingstrom being a generous contributor to the cause of advancing medical science. Also present in the house is the young and beautiful Dr Harper, a psychiatrist summoned by Ingstrom’s sister. The sister has become half convinced that she is going insane, after witnessing strange events. There’s also an Indian yogi, who is employed by Mr Ingstrom. He gives a demonstration of his powers. that allow him to dematerialise and rematerialise objects by the force of his will.
The doctors start to get themselves murdered, and in fact there have been a couple of other recent murders in the area as well, one of them being yet another medical practitioner.
It’s basically an old dark house movie with a few twists. The ideas are very good, and the potential is there But the the 40s Universal just didn’t care. Horror movies were reliable money-makers but were regarded by the studio with contempt, and the contempt shows all too clearly. The script by Clarence Upson Young is embarrassingly inept. It’s obvious who the victims will be, and it’s equally obvious who the perpetrator is. There is zero suspense.
The only actors to demonstrate even a glimmer of interest or ability are Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill, and both are relegated to insignificant minor roles.
The production values are reasonably good and technically it’s moderately impressive. Universal were a major studio and were still capable of making even their most despised B-movies look pretty good. There’s an extravagant but fairly effective use of fog.
Director Ford Beebe had done serials and was able to give the movie a certain sense of urgency. Nothing interesting happens, but at least it happens quickly. Mercifully there’s not too much in the way of comic relief. The big problem is the dismal script, and Beebe lacked the finesse to add the atmosphere and the tension that the writer had failed to include.
Universal have done a more than acceptable job with the DVD release. The movie looks and sounds extremely good.
By this time (the movie came out in 1942) if Universal managed to produce a truly great horror movie (as they did with Son of Dracula) it was purely accidental and was not intended. Night Monster is for Universal, and Bela Lugosi, completists only. It highlights the wisdom of Lugosi’s decision in the 40s to abandon Universal in favour of Monogram. Monogram may have been a Poverty Row studio but their 1940s horror/thriller movies were more interesting than this creaky snoozefest and they were prepared to offer him much more interesting roles.