Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Monster Walks (1932)

As you may have noticed I’ve been watching a lot of Old Dark House movies recently. It’s a genre I’m slowly warming up to. The Monster Walks, dating from 1932, is a frustrating missed opportunity - it had the potential to be an excellent example of the breed but the potential is largely wasted.

It opens in time-honoured style. It is a Dark and Stormy Night. A rich old man has died and the relatives and hangers-on are gathered for the reading of the will. Will the old man’s fortune go to his daughter Ruth (Vera Reynolds) or will his invalid brother Robert(Sheldon Lewis)  inherit part (or possibly all) of the estate? Will his faithful family retainers, Emma Krug and her son Hanns (Mischa Auer), be properly rewarded for their long service?

Ruth and her boyfriend Dr Ted Clayton (Rex Lease) are more worried about the ape in the basement. The ape has always hated Ruth. Perhaps he just finds her insufferably dull and insipid. I can understand that.

Also on hand is the family lawyer, Herbert Wilkes (Sidney Bracey), and the chauffeur Exodus (Willie Best).

Of course we know that there will be murder, and there is. And we expect some Rampaging Ape action. We also know that the house used to belong to smugglers and is honeycombed with secret passageways.

So we have everything needed here for a fine Old Dark House movie. What went wrong? The main trouble is that we’re given way too much information too early in the movie. The will is read too early. The motives are therefore too obvious and the suspense falls flat. The secret passageways do play a part but they should have been utilised more fully. There are not enough red herrings.

On the plus side Mischa Auer is terrific. It’s a very silent film-like performance but it works surprisingly well. He’s spooky and scary but we can’t help feeling some sympathy for him. Sheldon Lewis is quite good as the crippled brother. The other players are mostly somewhat on the bland side although Willie Best as the archetypal black servant has some amusing moments.

There are also a few effective visual touches. The violin scene (I won’t reveal any more about it) is suitably creepy. The constant thunder and lightning and the candle-lit scenes are clichéd elements but when they’re combined with the screaming of the enraged ape they work rather well.

Frank R. Strayer was a prolific if undistinguished director of B-movies but he handles this assignment efficiently enough. Given a better script he could have turned this into a pretty enjoyable little movie. Robert Ellis’s screenplay really is the stumbling block. He’s like a trainee chef who has all the right ingredients to hand to make a delicious mean but he can’t get the timing right. The meat is underdone while the vegetables are overcooked, and he hasn’t added quite enough spice.

This is a fairly low-budget production but fortunately Old Dark House movies don’t require much in the way of elaborate sets.

This movie is public domain and I found my copy in a Mill Creek set. The transfer is actually quite good, better than you would expect in such a set. Even the sound quality is quite satisfactory.

Despite its flaws The Monster Walks is still reasonably good fun. It’s a lesser Old Dark House movie but worth a look if you’re a fan of the genre.

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