Thursday, December 2, 2010

In short: Man Made Monster (1941)

Thanks to his abnormal tolerance for electricity, the electrical one-man circus act Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr.) is the only survivor of the collision of a bus with a high-voltage tower. Unfortunately, this talent awakens the interest of mad scientist Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill), who soon uses the affable and friendly Dan as a helpful guinea pig in his plans for creating his own private electricity-driven zombie slave. Just imagine what an army made out of such men could achieve, etc.

When Rigas' experiments are successful, and Dan is all a-glow with dangerous electricity, Rigas' much more moral friend and sometimes partner in science Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) steps into the lab and is so aghast he loudly exclaims that he will have to call the police on Rigas. That won't do at all, of course, and so the mad evil one commands his electro-slave to kill his friend. The murder done, Rigas orders Dan to confess to the killing.

Then follows a quarter of an hour of courtroom drama that of course concludes with Dan being sentenced to death - on the electric chair. Sometimes, the sadistic ways of the death penalty really bite its fans in the ass.

Directed by George Waggner in the same year in which he also made The Wolf Man with Chaney, Man Made Monster is certainly one of the more tolerable of the non-classic Universal films of the 30s and 40s. That doesn't mean it's anything like an ignored classics. Rather, the film is a professionally made, yet somewhat unenthusiastic revue of scenes you might know from other Universal films - sometimes in slight variation, sometimes not. Compared with the downright hate for its own audience and the genre it was working in that can be found in much of the studio's output besides their well-known classics, Man Made Monster seems at least willing to entertain the idea that it owes its audience at least a bit of coherence, maybe even a movie worth watching.

Waggner was never one of my favourite directors of Universal's horror films. He lacked the visual flair people like Browning (when he bothered to), Freund or Whale brought to their films, and had only a dogged professionalism to put into that hole, which is not much of a replacement. At least in Man Made Monster's case, Waggner manages to keep things comparatively well-paced (with the overlong court-room stuff and surrounding things as an exception that pumps a part of the film that should take five minutes at most up to fifteen - for no good reason whatsoever; and some sentimental mawkish stuff with an unnecessarily cute dog for whose inclusion I don't see much reason either). It's all very inoffensive, but also a bit dry.

That is, it's dry as long as Lionel Atwill doesn't start on one of his lengthy, mad-scientific rants. Once Atwill gets going, the "tampering in God's domain" (alas, not used in this exact form here) phrases are thrown around with abandon, and plans that make no logical sense at all are explained with much relish. The ten minutes or so of Atwill doing his thing are the main reason to watch the movie, and would deserve - as would one of Junior's better turns as monsterized everyman - to be part of a film that knows what it has in them.

But, as I said, it's all perfectly watchable, which is more than I can say about a lot of Universal's movies from the 40s.


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