House of Horrors was intended by Universal as a starring vehicle for Rondo Hatton, an actor who suffered from a debilitating condition known as acromegaly. This disease, usually caused by a pituitary tumour, causes severe facial disfigurement. This tragic affliction seemed to make Hatton ideally suited for horror movie stardom but unfortunately medical complications caused his death before the release of the two movies which might have consolidated his stardom. One of these two movies was House of Horrors, released early in 1946.
The movie starts with struggling artist Marcel DeLange (Martin Kosleck) facing another week of deprivation and misery. He was just about to sell one of his statues, until art critic F. Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier) managed to persuade the prospective purchaser that DeLange’s work was utterly worthless. The sale falls through and DeLange, in despair, is about to throw himself in the river when he sees a man struggling in the water. He rescues him. The unnamed man (played by Rondo Hatton) suffers from facial deformities but DeLange doesn’t mind. In DeLange’s tortured mind this man is an outcast like himself, a victim of society’s wickedness.
The artist more or less adopts the man. He wants him to model for his next artistic masterpiece. In the course of conversation DeLange mentions that the reason they are living in abject poverty is the malice of evil art critic F. Holmes Harmon. Soon afterwards the art critic meets with a nasty, and fatal, accident. And it soon appears that such accidents are happening to anyone perceived by DeLange as an enemy.
It’s fairly obvious that DeLange knows what’s going on, but he doesn’t mind. Being an artist he sees himself as a superior being and he thinks it’s only right and proper that anyone who interferes with his glorious artistic career should end up with his spine snapped. If enough art critics are killed his genius will finally be recognised.
There is panic in the city as the spine-snapping killer dubbed The Creeper continues his murderous rampage. The police suspect Stephen Morrow (Robert Lowery), another artist with ample cause to hate F. Holmes Harmon.
Of course there has to be a young glamorous female in the cast. In this case the role is filled by yet another art critic, Joan Medford (Virginia Grey). The police are represented by the wise-cracking skirt-chasing but not very competent Lieutenant Larry Brooks (Bill Goodwin). Joan Medford has found a clue, a sketch of the Creeper, but will she live long enough to do anything with it?
While many of Universal’s 1940s horror offerings are at best marginally related to the horror genre and while this film is structurally closer to being a crime film it does have enough genuine horror elements to qualify as an actual horror movie.
As is the case with even the weakest of Universal’s horror flicks there’s plenty of atmosphere and all the visual trappings of horror that one could ask for. Jean Yarbrough was a competent B-movie director. Universal always had solid technical people working on their B-movies, in this instance the most notable being the legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce.
It’s not a bad story but the principal interest is in the characterisation. This is a movie with two monsters. The Creeper is the obvious monster. He’s almost the kind of vaguely sympathetic monster that so often appears in Universal monster movies although he’s perhaps just a bit too gleefully homicidal to be truly sympathetic. Nonetheless we can see that fate has dealt him a very bad hand and his monstrousness is at least explicable.
Marcel DeLange is more interesting. On one level he is presented as the artistic visionary suffering for his genius at the hands of an uncaring and indeed positively hostile world. On the other hand we have to admit that cynical art critic F. Holmes Harmon is quite correct in his assessment of DeLange’s talent - his only talent is for creating depraved ugliness and in spite of his surface amiability it’s clear that the ugliness of his work reflects the ugliness of his soul. He has a genuine fondness for his cat but he seems to have no real feelings for other human beings. Even his apparent compassion for the Creeper is phony - the Creeper is useful to him but that’s as far as DeLange’s feelings go.
The Creeper at least has the excuse that his behaviour is a result of his deformity and (presumably) the sufferings he has endured as a result. DeLange’s monstrousness is driven by egotism, anger, jealousy and his delusion that his hideous statues are of such towering artistic significance that a human life is of no importance by comparison.
It’s Martin Kosleck’s performance as DeLange that really stands out. It’s a surprisingly subtle performance. He makes us believe at first that DeLange is really a harmless inoffensive and rather gentle man but gradually we come to realise that he is entirely amoral and in fact in his own way more evil than the Creeper. Kosleck played many villains in his career but this remained his favourite rôle.
Robert Lowery and Virginia Grey are perfectly competent while Alan Napier is deliciously nasty as the acid-tongued art critic.
House of Horrors is one of five movies in TCM’s Universal Cult Horror DVD boxed set (the set also includes the Lionel Atwill vehicle The Mad Doctor of Market Street). The transfer is superb and there are at least some token extras.
This is one of the better 1940s Universal horror movies with some genuinely intriguing dimensions to it. Highly recommended.