Saturday, 28 August 2010

Man Made Monster (1941)

Man Made Monster is one of the five movies that comprise the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive, all of them being lesser-known Universal efforts from the 1940s.

With one or two exceptions I have a very low opinion of Universal’s 1940s horror output and the first two movies I watched from this set, Night Monster and Captive Wild Woman, were very disappointing. I therefore approached Man Made Monster with a good deal of trepidation, but in fact it turned out to be reasonably enjoyable.

It has a fairly standard mad scientist plot but with a couple of interesting flourishes and some amusingly zany pseudo-science. Two scientists, one of them a kindly avuncular type with a highly developed sense of ethics and the other a compete raving madman, are working in the field of electro-biology. They are making little progress until one day they get a lucky break. A bus ploughs into a power pylon. Everyone aboard the bus dies instantly, victims of electrocution. Except for one guy. How did he manage to survive?

Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr) survived because he does a carnival sideshow act, as The Electric Man. Having been exposed to so much electricity he’s built up an immunity. Naturally the two scientists are eager to study this human marvel. Dr Rigas (played by Lionel Atwill so you know already that he’s the evil mad scientist) gets a bit carried away. He doses poor Dan with so much electricity that he becomes dependent on it.

Dr Rigas isn’t just interested in advancing science. He has plans for some social engineering as well. He believes that the less capable and less useful members of society can be transformed into willing slave workers by means of electricity. Of course Dr Rigas has to test whether electricity really is an effective form of mind control, so he orders Dan to kill. Poor Dan is now facing a murder charge but as it happens in this state the method of execution used is the electric chair. And Dan is now totally immune to electricity.

Lon Chaney Jr shambles through his role in his usual amiable way and it’s exactly the right approach. His easy-going performance makes Dan McCormick a likeable character and sets him him up effectively as the tragic unwitting villain. But this movie really belongs to Lionel Atwill. He chews the scenery in a most satisfactory manner. The other members of the cast are unmemorable but no-one is going to notice them anyway with Atwill in full flight.

This movie has one huge advantage over most of Universal’s horror films. It is almost entirely lacking in comic relief.

The mad scientist laboratory is pleasingly silly and campy and the special effects are enjoyably goofy and work quite well. The very low budget proves not to be a major problem.

Director George Waggner keeps the pacing very tight and this, combined with the welcome absence of comic relief noted earlier, means that this movie is never in danger of becoming boring. There’s also very little in the way of romantic sub-plots. The focus is very much on the one central plot line and the result is a very efficient and taut little movie that clocks in a fraction under one hour.

It is of course strictly a B-movie, but it achieves what it sets out to achieve. It knows it’s a horror movie and it doesn’t try to do anything else whatsoever. And there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about this movie. It’s pure fun and I recommend it highly.

The DVD transfer is excellent, which also helps.

1 comment:

The Vicar of VHS said...

Nobody did the Mad Scientist like Lionel Atwill. Whenever he's given the role, he knows just what to do, and does it flawlessly. In fact, I think much of our idea of what makes a cinematic mad scientist comes directly from Atwill's performances in these programmers, and the subsequent imitations/variations of them.

And of course this was the first teaming of Chaney and Waggner, who would collaborate very meaningfully later the same year on THE WOLF MAN. Great stuff!