*** 1\2 (out of ****)
Haunted house movies may be the most popular sub-genre of horror films currently made. Popular examples of the genre include "The Haunting" (1963), "House on Haunted Hill" (1959), "The Amityville Horror" (1979) and "The Shining". In recent years we have seen "The Conjuring" (2013), "Paranormal Activity" (2009) and "The Innkeepers" (2011). Many of these movies owe a lot to some of the great films made during the silent era like "The Monster" (1925) starring Lon Chaney.
Haunted house movies are probably the most scary to us because they take place somewhere we generally feel the safest, our homes. Ghost and goblins may roam on the outside but inside our homes would be a sanctuary from all the evil on the outside. But, what happens when your home is haunted? Now where can you seek safety?
"The Monster", based on a stage play by Crane Wilbur, is a combination of the haunted house genre, mad scientist movie and comedy / horror. It easily belongs in a class of the most influential haunted house movies made during the silent era and early talkies. I would place it alongside "The Cat & the Canary" (1927) and "The Old Dark House" (1932).
The "hero" in "The Monster" is Johnny Goodlittle (Johnny Arthur), a shy, socially awkward young man who works as a clerk in a local general store. Johnny dreams of becoming a detective and is currently enrolled is a mail corespondent class. He keeps his trusted "how to become a detective" book with him at all times and believes the disappearance of a wealthy farmer may be his opportunity to prove himself as a serious detective.
Johnny is also in love with Betty (Gertrude Olmstead) but she seems to pay more attention to Johnny's boss, Amos (Hallam Cooley). Perhaps if Johnny could solve the disappearance he will get Betty to pay more attention to him.
Much of this may remind some viewer of the Buster Keaton classic comedy "Sherlock, Jr" (1924). But the movie also hits on one of the oldest themes found in American comedies of the 1920s through the 1940s - masculinity. There is always a shy, timid man who loves a pretty girl who doesn't notice him and instead loves a more popular, wealthier more muscular man, who doesn't treat her as kindly as the timid man would. We can clearly see this theme played out with the Johnny character and his relationship with Betty.
The haunted house aspect of the movie occurs when Johnny suspects the missing farmer may have been taken to a sanatorium, which has been closed for months. Johnny found a piece of paper with the name of the sanatorium written on it near the crime scene. The local constable (Charles Sellon) believes Johnny should mind his own business, since he knows nothing about police work. One way or another Johnny is going to investigate the sanatorium.
This leads us to our mad scientist, Dr. Ziska (Chaney), who is in charge of the sanatorium, who may or may not be conducting strange experiments and seems as strange as some of the patients, one of whom walks around smoking invisible cigarettes and is always asking for a match.
What makes "The Monster" so enjoyable to watch is how easily it combines these different genres. The comedy naturally blends with the haunted house aspects of the movie and provides a lot of opportunities for humor. Johnny, for example, is presented as being afraid of his shadow but must prove himself as a heroic figure in front of Betty before Amos does. The humor, as a result, never feels forced or out of place. It naturally arises from the situations created. The movie also takes its time establishing characters, setting up their personalities, so the audience can anticipate how each character will react in a given situation. The viewer may be able to predict certain moments in the movie because of this and know where everything is headed but that is only because the movie influenced so many following movies, the formula has become well known to us.
Although Lon Chaney is billed first it is Johnny Arthur whom I feel gives the best performance. Mr. Arthur carries the movie and is unquestionably the character whom the audience is meant to sympathize with most. All of his comedic touches work. A majority of the humor found in the movie is a result of Mr. Arthur's performance. It is the kind of role one might see Bob Hope play. Mr. Hope was in a pair of comedy / horror movies himself; "The Cat & the Canary" (1939) and "Ghost Breakers" (1940).
The casting of Mr. Chaney I believe was done to add respectability to the movie, especially since his name was associated with horror and the creative work he would do with make-up. By the time "The Monster" was made Mr. Chaney had already appeared in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and in the same year would be seen in "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) and "The Unholy Three" (1925). In "The Monster" he isn't really playing a "character". The performance is over-the-top. I wouldn't call it funny, in the same way Mr. Arthur's performance is, but some might say it is exaggerated for comedic effective. I personally didn't find it funny but wouldn't say Mr. Chaney delivers a bad performance.
Like the best comedy / horror movies, "The Monster" correctly splits the movie in half. It does an effective job creating an eerie atmosphere in the sanatorium and creates a story which could have worked on its own as a horror movie, But, "The Monster" also gets the comedy right. So many comedy / horror movies aren't able to do that as they often focus on the comedy and spoofing the genre while not blending the two genres together.
Strangely though it is the humor though that keeps this from being something truly great. Compared to the silent version of "The Cat & the Canary", "The Monster" falls slightly short. "The Cat & the Canary" had some imaginative visuals, which did much to create atmosphere and go for scares. "The Monster" feels like if it had the choice between comedy and scares it would rather go for comedy.
Still, one can't deny "The Monster" is a well made movie and influential. The humor in the movie works and it creates an eerie atmosphere. The performances are effective as well and hit all the right notes. This is a movie audiences should see.