The 30 and 40s saw a tremendous vogue for horror movies dealing with ape-men and other assorted animal-human hybrids. Dr Renault’s Secret, released by Fox in 1942, is one of the classier examples of this sub-genre.
The source material was Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel Balaoo. Leroux is best known today for Phantom of the Opera but he was a prolific and highly successful writer in both the mystery and horror genres.
Dr Larry Forbes is a young up-and-coming neurosurgeon, engaged to Madelon Renault, daughter of the famous brain surgeon Dr Renault (George Zucco). Dr Forbes arrives at the chateau in France where Dr Renault both lives and conducts his research, and is met by Dr Renault’s rather strange-looking servant Noel (J. Carrol Naish). Noel has a vaguely simian appearance and this being a horror movie we immediately wonder if he might not be quite fully human, especially as he seems to have some rather animal-like instincts.
Dr Forbes is not a terribly inquisitive chap though and doesn’t give the matter too much thought. A murder that occurs soon afterwards does raise further suspicions. Noel is not the only unsettling character at the chateau - there’s also the ex-convict Rogell (Mike Mazurki). He’s definitely up to no good.
The horrifying truth about Dr Renault’s experiments eventually comes to light, but not before Madelon’s life has been placed in great danger.
If you were going to make a mad scientist movie in the 1940s then George Zucco was going to be one of your first choices to play the role. And he does a splendid job, combining a very real rather avuncular charm with real menace. J. Carrol Naish does the sympathetic monster thing to perfection as Noel. The other players are quite adequate but they’re inevitably overshadowed.
While this was definitely a B-picture, it was a B-picture made by a major studio so the production values are quite high. It looks classy. It’s also exceptionally well made. Director Harry Lachman never really moved beyond B-movies but in Dr Renault’s Secret he shows himself to have been a highly proficient craftsman.
The make-up effects are subtle but very effective.
All in all this is a slick and highly entertaining little horror flick.
It’s one of three movies included in the Fox Horror Classics volume 2 boxed set. Picture quality on the DVD is superb. There’s a brief but informative featurette.