NIGHT MONSTER (1942)
aka HOUSE OF MYSTERY
Directed by Ford Beebe
Written by Clarence Upson Young
Starring Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Leif Erickson, Irene Hervey, Ralph Morgan, Don Porter, Nils Asther, Fay Helm, Frank Reicher, Doris Lloyd, Francis Pierlot, Robert Homans, Janet Shaw, ddy Waller, Cyril Delevanti
While I love modern horror, it’s fun to sometimes jaunt back to the beginning of it all and take in some classical horror. While the production was low and the drama was amped to the rafters, those old Universal fright flicks might be light on bone-chilling scares, but seeing horror in its early stages is all kinds of fun.
The first in this Universal Horror quadru-feature is NIGHT MONSTER, about a group of doctors who gather at an old dark mansion to view a unique new version of science called the cosmic law! The head of the house is the crippled Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) who believes a form of yogism administered by the mysterious Agor Singh (Nils Asther) is the key to a bold new frontier in science. The process involves the transfer of matter from one place to another, unfortunately it leaves an unseemly puddle of blood behind every time one uses it. While the doctors are chin-tugging about the new process, someone is picking the doctors off one by one. Is it the crippled head of the house? The shady guy in the turban? The pervy chauffeur (played by Leif Erikson)? The shifty eyed butler (Bela Lugosi)? The haughty maid who screams “How dare you?!?!” over and over? The suspects are many as the bodies falling out of the grip of the Night Monster’s mitts.
NIGHT MONSTER is a solid little locked room mystery with a large cast of soon-to-be victims and suspects. Fans of mystery will have fun trying to figure out who the killer is before the sheriff assigned to solve the case. There are outlandish clues, but the film still plays by the rules of mysteries; placing the evidence for all to see, tossing out motives, and lining up the suspects. Even though this was the early days of filmmaking, the mystery elements are strong. The atmosphere is amazing as well with the gothic castle, the foggy moors, and imposing shadow-play on the tall mansion walls—though some of the more impressive shots were lifted from THE WOLFMAN and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN.
What really entertained me was imagining how this film played to audiences back then. Though the gore is minimum, the black and white film sheds a lot of blood, as the murderer leaves giant bloody footprints in its wake and huge pools of the red stuff by the bodies. It is also sort of precious the way every time there is a murder, instead of showing the body, the film zooms in on a limp hand covered in a few trickles of blood. I wonder if that was received as the equivalent to a modern-day gorefest like TONIGHT SHE COMES, THE NIGHT OF SOMETHING STRANGE, or the latest EVIL DEAD remake.
The film also has some fun lines like “Well dog my cats!” a phrase I am definitely adding to my verbal repertoire. All of it plays out rather innocently compared to today’s horror fare, but manages to still have a rather sinister tone. Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill are top billed, but only have roles that might be considered beefed up cameos. Leif Erickson’s role is more substantial, but much less likable as a horn-dog driver who doesn’t like to take no for an answer from the dames. It is even hinted at that he tries to get handsy with the uppity elder maid and gets a scratch to the face to prove it. NIGHT MONSTER isn’t one of the best of Universal’s early horror films, but it is downright infectious in the way it schmelds wonky science and dastardly murder.