Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Film Review: The Undying Monster

"The Undying Monster"  *** (out of ****)

Someone or something is out to get the townspeople in John Brahm's "The Undying Monster" (1942).

This 20th Century Fox release directed by German filmmaker Brahm, based on a 1922 novel written by Jessie Douglas Kerruish, starring James Ellison is a somewhat forgotten horror/mystery film, though its lack of popularity has nothing to do with the quality of the movie itself. In fact, I'm not quite sure why the movie never found a larger audience.

The movie takes place on a frosty night in the English countryside. The first image we see is of one of those old English mansions. The house belongs to the Hammond family. The only two family members left alive are Helga (Heather Angel) and her brother Oliver (John Howard). They live together in the house along with their servants; Walton (Halliwell Hobbes) and his wife (Eily Malyon).

Their is an old legend surrounding the Hammond family dating back to the time of the crusades. The Hammond's have been hunted down by a monster. Once members of the family have seen the monster either it has killed them or the experience of the attack has driven them to suicide. These occurrences only happen on a frosty night, just like the kind of night the movie begins with.

Helga and Oliver, being the modern, sophisticated people they are, do not believe in the legend. While they can't explain it and don't like talking about it, they are convinced there is no such thing as a monster. Science wouldn't allow for such a creature to exist for hundreds of years.

Still, on this frosty night, Walton is worried. Master Oliver hasn't made his way home yet and the clock has struck midnight. Helga isn't worried but Walton's panic quietly builds on her imagination. And before you know it, the creature has struck. A young woman (Virginia Traxler) has been attacked and put in a comma. The last person to see her alive was Oliver. Suspiciously the attack happened in a notorious spot where other sighting have occurred, at the edge of a cliff on the Hammon estate. The creature also managed to attack Oliver, badly scratching him.

Completely stumped, Inspector Craig (Aubrey Mather) reaches out to investigator Robert Curtis (James Ellison) and his female sidekick, Christy (Heather Thatcher) to rule out the possibility of any supernatural element. The two are kind of myth or ghost busters.

Upon their arrival the Hammond family treats them coldly. They don't want outsiders prying into their family history. Even Dr. Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher) is suspicious of Robert and Christy.

"The Undying Monster" is a combination of horror film, murder mystery, suspense film, and werewolf legend. For me that is the problem. It has elements of too many different things and could so easily slip into different genres that it doesn't completely become as effective as it could have been.

More than anything the movie is a mystery, a bit of a Sherlock Holmes story. If you've ever seen the first Sherlock Holmes movie with Basil Rathbone, "The Hound of Baskervilles" (1939), you'll know that movie also dealt with a beast attacking a family.

But I believe this material would have worked better as a horror film. "The Undying Monster" does a lot of things right. It makes wonderful use of shadows. It has a nice musical score. It builds suspense and keeps the violence off the screen, playing more on the audience's imagination of what the creature may look like.

When I first heard of this movie and after seeing it, I feel convinced 20th Century Fox should not have made this movie. Instead RKO should have and Val Lewton should have produced it with Jacques Tourneur directing it. The two men worked on "The Cat People" (1942), "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943) and "The Leopard Man" (1943). Like "The Undying Monster" those were highly inventive "B" movies which made fantastic use of lighting, casting characters in shadows and keeping the violence off screen. "The Undying Monster" like "The Cat People" also hints at psychological undertones, much like "The Wolf Man" (1941). Both "The Wolf Man" and "The Undying Monster" use noir films as visual inspiration.

When I reviewed "The Wolf Man" I said it is about something far scarier than ghost and goblins, it is about the mind, the animal and violent instinct in humans. "The Wolf Man" left open the idea of whether or not the werewolf actually existed. "The Undying Monster" doesn't work at that same level.

As I said I believe the horror elements of the movie were stronger since we are dealing with hidden family secrets, murder, creatures roaming in the night, a possible haunted mansion and the remote countryside setting. Imagine if the movie had had a few more killings, more of an element of danger with Helga and Oliver slowly starting to believe the legend is true. What if there had been more "bumps in the night"? Figures lurking around corners and such.

Director Brahm made a few more films at Fox. The best among them may be "The Lodger" (1944), based on a novel which Alfred Hitchcock also filmed as a silent movie, and "Hangover Square" (1945).

I wouldn't consider "The Undying Monster" a classic horror film but it is good enough that it should not be forgotten either.