Man Made Monster directed by George Waggner
In the 1956 film Indestructible Man, the great Lon Chaney, Jr. portrayed a character named Butcher Benton, who is sent to the gas chamber after a botched robbery but is later brought back to life by a mad-scientist type who supercharges his body with 300,000 volts of juice. Benton is thus turned into the seemingly unkillable creation of the title, with skin impervious to bullets and even to a bazooka blast. But as many filmgoers have known for decades, this was not the first time that Chaney had played a character who was dosed with an abundance of electricity and turned into a kind of supercreation. Fifteen years earlier, we find Chaney, in his very first horror picture, playing a similar role, but with far more impressive and artistic results. The film, Man Made Monster (the lack of a hyphen is annoying), was initially released as part of a double feature in March ’41 along with another picture from Universal Studios, Horror Island, both of which were directed by George Waggner and both of which, curiously enough, clock in at a remarkably streamlined 60 minutes. A recent viewing has just revealed to me what a wonderfully efficient and impressive horror outing Man Made Monster is; still another hugely entertaining creation from Universal.
In the film, we witness a horrendous bus accident, in which the speeding vehicle crashes into a utility pole and results in the death by electrocution of the driver and all aboard … all except one Dan McCormick (Chaney), who has somehow miraculously survived. Interviewed in the hospital, Dan reveals that he is a carnival worker; a performer of a phony electrical act under the guise of Dynamo Dan, the Electrical Man. Visiting professor of electrobiology (yes, that is apparently an actual science!) Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds, whose filmography extends all the way back to 1926) speculates that Dan might have thus acquired some sort of immunity to electricity as a result, and invites Dan to his home to study his reactions to various small doses of juice. Dan, a friendly and outgoing sort, and now out of work, readily accepts the offer, and thus meets the other members of Lawrence’s household: his pretty niece June (Massachusetts-born actress Anne Nagel, whose other horror credits include 1940’s Black Friday and The Invisible Woman, and 1942’s The Mad Doctor of Market Street and The Mad Monster); the adorable mutt Corky; and the handsome but sinister Dr. Paul Rigas (horror mainstay Lionel Atwill), who is currently working on his own project: namely, using electricity to create a race of beings who will thrive on nothing but voltage and be subservient to his will. Also stopping by at the mansion frequently is snoopy reporter Mark Adams (Frank Albertson), out for a story and also attempting to court pretty June Lawrence. And if June is used in this film as the voice of common sense and reason, then Adams might be seen as its primary source of humor; as he says of Dr. Rigas upon first meeting him, “I’ll bet he spent his childhood sticking pins in butterflies”!
Anyway, all goes well at first, with Dan settling happily into his life in the Lawrence household, until Rigas decides that he is the perfect test specimen for his experiments, and begins charging him with increasingly heavy doses of electricity. Ultimately, Dan becomes almost like a junkie for the stuff, requiring more and more doses to stay healthy and active, and becoming lethargic and weak as those doses wear off. Finally, after a particularly heavy final treatment, Dan becomes so supercharged with juice that he positively glows with electrical force, and is a virtual slave to Rigas’ will. The mad scientist orders Dan to kill Dr. Lawrence, which he does, admitting to the crime under Rigas’ further dictates. And so, the state has no option but to find poor Dan guilty, and – you guessed it – send him to the chair! But how do you electrocute a man who positively thrives on electricity, and who can then electrocute others with the merest touch?
Man Made Monster, it strikes me, has three main selling points that put the film way over the top and help to make it a winning affair. First, and of great importance for me, is the wonderfully moody B&W lensing by ace cinematographer Elwood Bredell, whose horror and film noir credits would ultimately include The Mummy’s Hand (’40), The Invisible Woman, Horror Island, Hold That Ghost (’41), The Ghost of Frankenstein (’42), Phantom Lady (’44) and The Killers (’46). Bredell takes especial care here with his use of light and shadow, especially in the nighttime and laboratory sequences, resulting in a film that is wonderful to behold. Another primary selling point here are the absolutely first-rate special effects on display, courtesy of (the uncredited) John P. Fulton. The electrical effects in those laboratory scenes are most impressive; just get a look at what Chaney looks like after he is transformed into that electrical monstrosity! Glowing and pulsating like a faulty neon sign, his body shining with a supernal luminosity, he really is something to see here. (Actually, he shines a tad like the Boris Karloff character in an earlier Universal film, 1936’s The Invisible Ray, who becomes saturated with a meteorite’s radioactive energy.) And the impressive work by Universal makeup wiz Jack Pierce (again uncredited) helps to make Chaney look quite striking in these astounding sequences. Viewers who watch Man Made Monster might be a bit surprised to learn, given how impressive the entire affair looks on screen, that the entire affair was brought to fruition at a cost of a mere $84,000!
But the film’s primary selling point, for this viewer, must be the absolutely wonderful acting contributions of those titans of terror, Chaney and Atwill. Chaney had previously appeared in dozens of films in the 1930s, and in this, his first horror role, he is hugely likeable and appealing. We see what a swell guy he is early on, as he plays with Corky and comes off as the all-American, somewhat dim-witted Joe that one can’t help warming up to. But he is equally impressive as the supercharged electrical zombie later on, his face sporting the soon-to-be-famous Chaney grimace while his hulking body advances toward the camera. Is it any wonder that Chaney was immediately given a contract by Universal, signed to play Lawrence “Wolf Man” Talbot later that year, and proceeded to become one of the legends of cinematic horror, in a career that would last for another three decades? Simply put, he is just aces here. And as for Atwill, he is equally marvelous as the crazed Dr. Rigas, a self-admitted madman who looks quite striking in his oversized lab goggles. Atwill had previously impressed horror fans with his turns in such films as Doctor X (’32), The Vampire Bat (’33), Mystery of the Wax Museum (’33), Murders in the Zoo (’33, and an absolutely astonishing pre-Code must-see, BTW), Mark of the Vampire (’35), Son of Frankenstein (’39) and The Gorilla (’39), and here adds still another feather to his already-impressive horror cap. Playing his role absolutely straight and without a bit of overdone camp, he is most convincing as the scientist who is more than willing to sacrifice a human life in the name of his demented calling. For me, watching this great English character actor, and listening to his perfectly modulated voice, is surely one of the great pleasures of Golden Age cinematic horror.
And in addition to its great lensing, wonderful effects, and pair of terrific performances, Man Made Monster also sports some superefficient direction from Waggner, who would go on to direct The Wolf Man later that year and enjoy a long career in 1950s and ‘60s TV. He keeps his film moving at a brisk pace, resulting in a taut and concise experience; that art of concision is a seemingly lost art in filmmaking today. His script (for some reason, under the pen name of Joseph West) is similarly no-nonsense; it really is remarkable how fast moving and intelligent this entire affair is! And for all the dog lovers out there (I know there must be a few of you!), I would be remiss in not mentioning that cute canine who essays the role of Corky here, and whose reactions to Dan before and after his treatments are indicators as to how we should also be viewing him. This adorable mutt is just wonderful, and must be automatically listed in the pantheon of great canine actors in horror cinema. His final embrace of Dan at the end is most touching, indeed. So all told, Man Made Monster really is a winning concoction for both young and old. It would be followed a little over a month later by Universal’s wonderful horror/comedy The Black Cat, and later that year by the eternal glory that is The Wolf Man, thus demonstrating that at this point in time, Universal Studios was surely preeminent in the field of cinematic horror…
great review Sandy!
Gee, thanks for the kind words, Bill!