Saturday, February 8, 2014

In short: The Undying Monster (1942)

aka The Hammond Mystery

In the English countryside. Oliver Hammond (John Howard), the family's maid, and a spaniel are attacked on a frosty full moon night by what can only have been an animal. The dog is killed, Oliver slightly hurt, and the maid so badly wounded she falls into a coma the family doctor Jeff Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher) does not expect her ever to recover from. Oliver's sister Helga (Heather Angel) is disturbed enough by the attack she's making a trip to London and Scotland Yard for help instead of just calling in the local police. Scientific detective Robert Curtis (James Ellison) and his partner, the rather less scientific Cornelia "Christy" Christopher (Heather Thatcher), clearly two specialists in the rather more curious sorts of crime, get on the case.

Once arrived at the Hammond mansion, it quickly becomes clear to the intrepid investigators that the crime at hand might just have something to do with the family curse which has supposedly caused death and destruction for the Hammond family through the ages. But everyone except Helga seems rather reticent to cooperate with the detectives, as if they'd hide some terrible secret.

I find this adaptation of Jessie Douglas Kerruish's novel rather more interesting than good and effective; in fact, I'm a bit disappointed I didn't actually enjoy watching The Undying Monster more than I actually did, for the film does some things which are rather uncommon and unexpected for its time. There's the clash between John Brahm’s moody gothic expressionist direction and art direction that is clearly brother to the spirit of the Universals, and a pair of detectives with a quite modern and scientific bent (let's look at this werewolf hair under the spectrometer!), the fact that said detectives really feel like an early attempt to take fantastic literature's occult detective - or at least a detective interested in the outré and improbable - into the world of the screen, an effort that would still take a few decades after this to actually lead anywhere. "Not leading anywhere" is the film's main problem I think, with a mystery plot that's so obvious a drunk monkey understands what's going on after the basic situation is set up, the whole science versus the supernatural angle first opened up pleasingly enough but then not really getting explored at all (with added bonus of a "natural explanation" scene that makes little sense after the audience has seen an actual werewolf transformation scene), and actors like John Howard and Heather Angel not being allowed to do much of anything.

Like many minor horror movies of its era, The Undying Monster is just a bit too slight to be really effective on an intellectual level, and seems to lack any courage to follow its own ideas where they lead, resulting in what at times seems more like a series of wasted opportunities than a complete movie.

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