Night Monster directed by Ford Beebe
1941 had been a very good year for the Universal horror film, during which time the studio released Man Made Monster, Horror Island and The Black Cat in the spring, and the eternal glory that is The Wolf Man in early December. And as America geared up for war at the beginning of 1942, the studio continued to crank out impeccably crafted horror films to entertain the masses. March would see the release of the fourth film in its Frankenstein franchise, The Ghost of Frankenstein; July would feature the well-nigh-forgotten picture Invisible Agent (a very loose Invisible Man sequel); and October would witness the release of two new films, Night Monster and The Mummy’s Tomb (the third of six Mummy films from the studio!). The only one of those four that was not part of a Universal franchise, Night Monster was one that this viewer had never previously seen before, and it was with great anticipation that I recently plopped it into my DVD player at home. I had very high hopes for this particular picture, starring as it does two of Universal’s greatest horror icons, Bela Lugosi (who had already appeared in some two dozen horror outings for Universal since Dracula in ’31) and Lionel Atwill (the great English actor who had already appeared in Universal’s Mystery of the Wax Museum in ’33, Son of Frankenstein in ’39, Man-Made Monster and The Ghost of Frankenstein, and who would go on to appear in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in ’43 and House of Frankenstein in ’44). And it also featured Irene Hervey, whose work I had previously only enjoyed in one of my favorite TV programs of the ‘60s, Honey West, playing Aunt Meg, and in a very small role in Clint Eastwood’s wonderful horror film, ‘71’s Play Misty for Me (one of this viewer’s all-time faves), and who I had long wanted to see in something more vintage. So yes, my hopes were very high for this one. And as it turns out, the film did not disappoint.
And yet, as it turns out, although Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill are the top-billed actors in this film, they are actually relegated to fairly minor roles in it. The film introduces us to the residents of an elegant yet creepy abode called Ingston Towers, which stands hard by a foggy and frog-infested swamp. In the house we find its owner, Curt Ingston (Ralph Morgan, the look-alike brother of Frank “The Wizard of Oz” Morgan), a quadriplegic with completely paralyzed arms and legs; his sister Margaret (Fay Helm, who had appeared in The Wolf Man and would, in ’43, be featured in Universal’s Captive Wild Woman), who may or may not be insane; Agar Singh (Swedish actor Nils Asther here portraying a man from India), who is teaching Curt the mind secrets of the Far East; Mrs. Judd (Doris Lloyd, whose filmography extends all the way back to the ‘20s); Lawrie the chauffeur (Leif Erickson, who many may recall as the Dad from ‘53’s Invaders From Mars), a leering and licentious sort who seems to hit on every female he comes across, including old Mrs. Judd (!); Rolf the butler (our Bela); the crusty and treacherous gateman Torque (Cyril Delavanti, who would also appear in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, ‘43’s Son of Dracula and ‘44’s The Invisible Man’s Revenge, and whose work I recently enjoyed in several episodes of the great ‘60s anthology show The Twilight Zone); and pretty blonde Millie, the maid (Janet Shaw, who also appeared in The Mummy’s Tomb that month and would be featured in Universal’s House of Horrors four years later), who flees the house to report some terrible goings-on there to the law and is soon found dead, strangled, in the nearby swamp. And the household soon grows even more populated when the three doctors who Curt blames for his present condition are summoned to the house.
Those medical men are Dr. King (Lionel Atwill), Dr. Timmons (Frank Reicher, here practically unrecognizable as Capt. Englehorn from the classic King Kong of a decade earlier), and Dr. Phipps (Francis Pierlot). Coincidentally, another doctor has just been summoned to the abode, one Dr. Lynn Harper (beautiful Irene Hervey, 33 here), a psychiatrist who has been desperately called in by the lunatic (?) Margaret. And to round out this cast of characters, also appearing on the scene is a horror writer and friendly neighbor of the Ingstons, Dick Baldwin (Don Porter, who would be seen in Universal’s She-Wolf of London four years later), and the crusty police captain investigating Millie’s murder, Beggs (Robert Homans). With these dozen disparate sorts under one roof, an uncomfortable dinner is gone through, after which Singh demonstrates one of his uncanny abilities, materializing an ancient Greek skeleton from its tomb, from thousands of miles away! But this parlor game turns far more serious when the three male doctors start turning up dead in their respective bedchambers, strangled like Millie, and with a strange pool of blood found next to each of them! Who could the crazed killer be?!?!
Night Monster, as might be expected, looks just great in beautiful B&W and is well played by its large and professional cast of players. The fact that Lugosi is given a smallish part to play – and a fairly nonsinister one at that, although Millie is quite correct in pointing out that he “looks like something you’d find under a wet rock” – and the fact that Atwill is the very first doctor to get snuffed out, do not work against the film’s favor, happily, and it turns out that there are a lot of other things to enjoy in it. The film is often quite eerie, and features at least three exceptionally well-done scenes: the one in which the frogs that infest the nearby swamp stop croaking suddenly, immediately before the attack on Millie; the suddenly advancing shadow that obscures the camera lens as Timmons is attacked; and the revelation of the titular “night monster” at the end, a major surprise that few viewers will see coming. (And speaking of “eerie,” I would like to say a quick word on the character of Lawrie making lustful passes at not only the young and pretty women in the film, such as Millie and Dr. Harper, but also at the older Mrs. Judd. At first blush, the character’s attempt to seduce the much older woman strikes the viewer as a bit, uh, icky, but on further consideration, I decided that the film was actually being quite PC and ahead of its time in this regard, recognizing the fact that a hunky and virile man might indeed find a much more mature and “over the hill” woman an object of his prurient fancy. I cannot recall, offhand, another film of the era in which this obvious fact is so taken for granted. So additional points to Night Monster for this slight but unusual bit of business!) The film’s conclusion is admittedly a bit far-fetched and hard to swallow, but not enough so to torpedo what is otherwise a very fine horror outing.
Director Ford Beebe, who had previously helmed those wonderful Flash Gordon serials in the ‘30s, and then the Universal serial The Phantom Creeps (’39) and The Invisible Man’s Revenge, does a wonderful job here at keeping things moving along briskly (the entire film runs to a streamlined 73 minutes), and the camera work of cinematographer Charles Van Enger (who would go on to shoot the greatest horror-comedy of all time, Universal’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in ’48) really is a thing of artful beauty here. Van Enger makes great use of the film’s many outdoor nighttime locales, the fog-shrouded swamp becoming a thing of ghostly beauty via his lens. And the cameraman makes the scene in which Lynn and Dick discuss their mutual concerns in a dark, candlelit room an instance of almost noirish intensity. Throughout the film, the use of light and shadow is meticulously well designed, giving the entire affair a creepy miasma that it would surely not have enjoyed without it. The film builds nicely to a bravura and flaming finale, when one of the characters utters the fateful and memorable words “…It was inevitable. A little knowledge of the occult is dangerous. Unless it’s used for good, disaster will follow its wake. That is cosmic law…”
So yes, though it is seldom discussed today and surely remains only a minor product of the great Universal horror factory, Night Monster still has much to offer to the modern-day viewer. It is seldom outright scary, but as mentioned, does yet sport three or four well-done scenes of fright. The film would be perfect fare to watch with your favorite 10-year-old nephew, who might get a kick out of the spooky swamp scenes and the outrageous and unbelievable monster to be seen at the film’s tail end. And of course, it is essential viewing for all completists of the horror greats Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill, and for those who wish to see what lovely Irene Hervey was all about in her youthful prime…
BTW, coincidentally, Bela Lugosi would have turned, uh, 139 years old today….
So, Happy Birthday, Bela!
I think Singh should have been arrested for antiquities theft for manifesting that Greek skeleton.
No worries…he materialized it back to its resting place….
Well, good, at least he’s polite!
available to stream on Peacock–your review has me eager to check it out!
Hope you enjoy it, Bill!
I did enjoy it— nicely filmed as you said!
Very happy to hear that you had some fun with this one, Bill. Hope you didn’t find that way-out ending too far-fetched….