18 April 2013

Universal Horror Archive: Man Made Monster (1941)

Man Made Monster (1941)
Directed by George Waggner. Starring Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds.

Although a minor film taken on its own, Man Made Monster introduced two of the major stars of the 1940s Universal horror movie factory: actor Lon Chaney Jr. and director-writer-producer George Waggner. Chaney Jr. (born Creighton Chaney) became Universal’s primary monster performer for the rest of the decade, thanks to his success in the title role of The Wolf Man. George Waggner also rode the success of The Wolf Man as its director, and rose to be the studio’s go-to producer and director for the remainder of the classic horror cycle.

Man Made Monster started as an adaptation of a story by Harry J. Essex, “The Electric Man,” which Essex wrote as a film treatment. Universal planned it as a Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi vehicle in 1935 under the title The Man in the Cab, but the studio placed that project on hold. The similarities between the proposed film and The Invisible Ray in 1936 (both concern a glow-in-the-dark killer with an electrical death-touch) make it seem that the execs shelved one to make the other. In 1940, the new Universal management tossed $86,000—as low a budget as anything they were cranking out at the time—to director George Waggner to make another attempt at “The Electric Man.”

Waggner started his career as an actor in silent movies—he had a role in John Ford’s early Western classic The Iron Horse—then switched to writing screenplays in the 1930s. He already had a few directorial credits on “B” Westerns before Universal handed him his first horror assignment. Waggner rewrote the script under the pseudonym “Joseph West.”

I’m not sure what the studio expected from Waggner, although it was certainly far less than what they ended up getting. But their reason for casting Lon Chaney Jr. is transparent: name recognition. The son of the famous silent movie “Man of a Thousand Faces” came to attention as an actor for his performance as slow-witted Lennie in the 1939 version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Universal recognized the marquee value of the Chaney name in a horror film and gave him his first role in the genre with a modest payment of $500 a week.

Man Made Monster feels like a 1950s science-fiction film made fifteen years early, with electricity substituted for nuclear power and a slick studio sheen. Even though produced on a pittance, the movie had access to Universal’s stock sets, wardrobe, character actors, and lush musical cues. Waggner’s investment as director also gave the film a personality that belies how inexpensively and rapidly it was shot. It provides sixty minutes of B-movie thrills with only a brief turn into courtroom drama territory to slow the pace down before the climax kicks in.

Chaney plays Dan McCormick, also known as “Dynamo Dan, The Electric Man,” a circus huckster who does gags with electrical power. But after Dan emerges as the sole survivor from a bus collision with an electrical tower, he attracts the attention of Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), a leader in the made-up field of electro-biology. In a scene bizarrely similar to one years later in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, the doctor arrives in the hospital to tell Dan that he’s curious about why he not only survived the accident that killed everyone else in the bus, but came out of the wreckage without a mark on him.

Dr. Lawrence invites Dan to his mansion/laboratory where he can run tests on his resilience to electricity. Also living at the mansion are the doctor’s cute niece June (Anne Nagel) and another electro-biologist, Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill). Dr. Rigas has more pointed goals in this vague branch of biology than pure research: he wants to take the “less useful” members of society and turn them into a race of supermen who need only electricity to live. Dr. Lawrence doesn’t support his partner’s disturbingly fascist (especially in 1940) approach to their field. He even swaps a line from Bride of Frankenstein: “This theory isn’t science. It’s black magic.” But Dr. Lawrence still glibly lets this nutcase screw around with dynamos in the laboratory attached to his house. I suspect a blackmail deal going between the houseguest and his host, with Dr. Rigas playing the Herbert West part, but ultimately Dr. Lawrence is guilty of nothing more being a gullible old guy. He’s fortunate that Dr. Rigas never tried any experiments on the adorable family dog, Corky, something I expected to happen the moment the pooch showed up.

Dr. Rigas starts testing his theories on Dan, gradually addicting him to electrical charges until Dan changes into a hollow shell of a man. For some reason, this also makes him obedient to Dr. Rigas’s will, although logically he would simply follow the orders of anyone. While Rigas works on creating his electrically powered slave—a “voltage vampire” according to the movie ads—a reporter investigating Dan’s mysterious case, Mark Adams (Frank Albertson), falls down on the job as he romances June. Mark keeps barging into the Lawrence household without an invitation, which shows how lax the doctor is at keeping tabs on what’s happening under his roof.

After a half-hour of build-up, Dr. Rigas at last unleashes his man-made monster: “The worker of the future, controlled by a superior intelligence!” (Oh, so perhaps this is a Marxist critique as well?) However, Dan quickly ends up in jail for murder, and despite June and her reporter boyfriend feeling suspicious of Dr. Rigas’s hand in all this, Dan ends up sentenced to death… in the electric chair!

Ah, see? See what’s going to happen?

I don’t know if this was all part of Dr. Rigas’s long-term plan, but it does lead to a good action-filled finale with glowering menace from a purely mad Dr. Rigas, and Dan delivering a few satisfying electro-shock deaths. To add Gothic-movie flavor, the climax takes place on the foggy moors. We know this because of a shot of a sign identifying it as “The Moors.” Ah, the 1940s—when your location (and/or time period) didn’t need to make any sense.

Lon Chaney Jr. never had his famous father’s versatility, but he could play a slow-witted Midwestern chump as well as anybody in Hollywood at the time. “Dynamo Dan” is an ideal part for him: a dense, plain-folks fellow who needs the word “immunity” explained to him. Chaney has a genuine and unforced charm in his early scenes, telling June that she looks “mighty purdy with those flowers,” and enjoying bonding time with the dog. His thick build and imposing stature give him physical presence as the electro-zombie of the second half of the film, even if the part doesn’t demand much acting aside from glowering and stumbling around. It seems strange Universal didn’t immediately cast Chaney as the replacement for Boris Karloff in the Frankenstein movies based on what he does here. They got around to it not long after the success of The Wolf Man, however, with Chaney getting into the famous makeup for The Ghost of Frankenstein.

Special effects supervisor John P. Fulton is as much the monster co-star as Chaney. The technical wizard who made The Invisible Man so astonishing pulls off minor miracles on almost no budget. The opening bus crash features model work that looks surprisingly realistic, and the electrical effects on Chaney, which resemble the glowing optical tricks Fulton used on Karloff for The Invisible Ray, jump off the screen. We get to see plenty of this effect, which is surprising for a low-budget film. Usually a movie would go out of its way to find excuses to hide expensive superpowers, but long stretches of Man Made Monster go on with the glowing Dynamo Dan front and center.

Although Universal aimed to get a marketing jolt from the Chaney name, Lon Chaney Jr. is not the headliner. For top billing, Universal turned to Lionel Atwill, a dependable character actor familiar with mad-scientist roles. Atwill is one of the most underrated members of the Universal horror bullpen of actors. Considering that he took the role in Man Made Monster just to get a paycheck to fund his ambitions to enter film production, Atwill attacks his role with delicious zeal. Chaney may have gotten the boost up to horror stardom, but Atwill owns the film. His commitment to making Dr. Rigas insane but without seeming like a ham is commendable. “I’ll bet he spent his childhood sticking pins in butterflies,” one character remarks about Dr. Rigas, and damn if Atwill doesn’t project this to perfection. The camera is on Atwill’s side as well, giving him increasingly moody lighting effects as the film progresses toward his leering finale. In these last scenes Atwill gets to cut loose with the villainy, and even in these moments he still won’t go into full scenery-chewing mode; it’s a pleasant and appreciated amount of restraint.

Waggner brings considerable style to the film, particularly in the second half when the flat photography and staging turn more baroque. The squeamish Production Code forced the electric chair execution to occur entirely off-camera, but the scenes in the jail leading up to it compensate with noir-ish lighting that lends gravity to the remainder of the running time. Waggner gets a few powerful emotional beats from small moments, particularly with the dog Corky, who first appears as a cute gimmick to make Chaney look charming and harmless, but turns out to be the film’s emotional kicker. It’s the kind of old-fashioned audience manipulation that audiences don’t mind even when they’re aware of it.

Man Made Monster led to bigger and sometimes better things for Waggner and Chaney, although poor Atwill’s career was almost at its end. A sex scandal that broke during the production of this film crippled his goal of getting into film production. He died a few years later in 1946.

Waggner’s film-directing career declined with the horror movie at Universal, but he later became active in television, when for some reason he re-christened himself “george waGGner.” I have no idea why. Was he trying to imitate the Wolf Man’s growl? That’s the best explanation I can come up with. WaGGner’s most prominent television assignments are episodes of the 1960s Batman, and he even got to boss around famous director Otto Preminger on the set of the two episodes in which Preminger played Mr. Freeze. That must have felt good.

The next film on the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive is appropriately Waggner’s next assignment: Horror Island, shot to fill out a double bill with Man Made Monster.