Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Monster (1925)

Directed by Roland West
Starring: Lon Chaney
             Johnny Arthur
             Gertrude Olmstead
Run time: 86 mins
Studio: MGM
Black & White

Picture the scene: It is a dark and stormy night. Betty and Amos, a young, carefree couple have just left a party together and are driving through the woods in Amos's car. An accident forces them off the road and into a ditch. Owing to the relentless downpour and the fact that the car is wrecked, they are forced to take shelter in the only building for miles around - an old dark house whose lights they have spied through the trees...

This could be a scene from any number of horror films; but there had to be a first time, and The Monster is probably it. Of course, like many horror films of the '20s and '30s, The Monster was based on a successful stage play, so this particular plot device may already have been familiar to its audience. Even so, The Monster is notable for being the first to present, if not necessarily originate, a number of elements that would later become some of the most recognised conventions (oh ok, cliches!) of the genre.

The Monster is a horror comedy, one of several that followed in the wake of D.W.Griffith's haunted-house spoof One Exciting Night (1922); but the haunted-house elements in The Monster are taken to a much more surreal level than in Griffith’s film, and they feel more authentic, for all that they remain non-supernatural. It’s also the first horror film to present us with a particular kind of Mad Doctor in the character of Dr Ziska (Chaney).  Of course, Doctors Caligari and Jekyll were mad as well (or, at the very least, misguided), but Ziska belongs to a different class of Mad Doctor all together – that of the raving, white-coated variety: a deranged scientist who conducts his evil experiments in a laboratory that looks more like a torture chamber, and whose cinematic descendents will one day include Henry Frankenstein, Herbert West, and, yes, Dr Frank N. Furter.

The story begins, however, with a variation on the scene described above. The wealthy Farmer Bowman is driving his car through a lonely nocturnal wood.  Lurking in the trees up ahead is a “human monster”, a hunched and caped figure with a corpse-like complexion, who lowers a huge camouflaged mirror down onto the road so as to confuse the approaching motorist into believing that he is about he collide with another car. It’s an unwieldy but effective device, and Farmer Bowman does indeed swerve to avoid hitting his reflection, sending his car crashing into a ditch.  At this point another figure emerges from the ground, like some precursor to the zombies that would claw their way out of their graves decades later, and the good farmer is snatched away. It’s a great opening scene that moves at a rollicking pace and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Farmer Bowman’s disappearance is a cause of much excitement in the local town of Danburg. A reward is posted for information leading to his safe return and a detective, Jennings (Matthew Betz), is employed by the missing man’s insurance company to clear up the disappearance. Our hero, however, is not Detective Jennings, but the earnest and resourceful Johnny Goodlittle (Johnny Arthur), a clerk at the local general store. Johnny has ambitions to become a detective one day and has enrolled on a correspondence course accordingly. Naturally, he is excited at the prospect of meeting a real detective, but when he discovers the only solid clue at the crash site -  a single scrap of paper with the words ‘Dr Edwards’ Sanatorium’ written on one side and the word ‘help’ written in reverse on the other - no one is interested. Dr Edwards is travelling abroad and his sanatorium has been closed for months, so how could they possibly be connected to Bowman’s disappearance?

Johnny’s love interest is the pretty Betty Watson (Gertrude Olmstead), whose father owns the store where Johnny works; but while Betty is fond of Johnny and feels sorry for him when people don’t take him seriously, she prefers the suave and sophisticated Amos Rugg  (Hallam Cooley). Amos is manager of the store and Johnny’s boss. More importantly, he has a car! Betty suggests to Johnny that if he wants to be taken seriously then he will need to do something big to impress Detective Jennings. Johnny frets, because he doesn’t feel that he can legitimately do anything until he receives his diploma from the Correspondence School of Detectives. But guess what? No sooner has Betty left the store than a package arrives for Johnny containing an oversized pair of handcuffs, a sheriff’s badge, a gun (!), and – yes, you guessed it - his diploma.

At a party that night Johnny is able to monopolise Betty and all seems to be going well, until the inevitable moment when Amos turns up and steals her away. Feeling sorry for himself, Johnny leaves the party and encounters the mysterious figure last seen climbing out of the earth following Bowman’s crash. Intrigued by the stranger’s odd behaviour and cryptic comments (“Do you know who I am? No? Neither do I.”) Johnny follows him into the woods.

Meanwhile, Amos and Betty have decided to ditch the party and go for a drive. As if on cue, the heavens open. Barely able to see the road ahead through the downpour, Amos is easily fooled when, again, the caped “human monster” – whose name we learn later is Rigo (George Austin) – lowers his mirror down onto the road. Amos and Betty end up in the ditch, just like Bowman.

Fortunately, having followed the stranger to the site of the crash, Johnny is able to warn Amos and Betty of the danger they face; but when the stranger turns on him, Johnny is forced to flee and falls into a concealed hole in the ground. A slide takes him down a secret tunnel and deposits him in the parlour of the old sanatorium. How this is possible is never explained; but it hardly matters, because it’s at this point that the film throws all logic to the wind.

Exploring his surroundings, Johnny encounters an actual skeleton in a closet and a hulking Arabian manservant, who emerges ghost-like from a trunk in the corner of the room. This is Calliban (Walter James), and he has risen in response to knocking at the front door. It is Amos and Betty, who have spotted the sanatorium’s lights through the trees and have come in search of a telephone. When the door swings shut behind them Calliban has mysteriously disappeared. Further spookiness ensues: eyes peer down at them from secret panels high in the walls and doors open and close of their own accord. Ever the rivals, Johnny and Amos resort to bickering, but are forced work together when they discover a dead body sitting in a chair.

It is at this point that we are introduced to Dr Ziska, who emerges from a dark room at the top of the stairs looking like some undead aesthete, dressed in a Noel Coward-style dressing gown and brandishing a long cigarette holder. He introduces himself, claiming to be in charge of the sanatorium while Dr Edwards is away. Amos asks if he can use the phone, and not for the first time one is reminded of Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show (I'd be surprised if O'Brien didn't have The Monster somewhere in the back of his mind when he dreamt up his musical). Dr Ziska explains that unfortunately there is no phone. Besides, he couldn't possibly permit them to leave on so wild a night. The set-up is thus complete and our heroes' night of terror is assured.

It turns out that the corpse in the chair is in fact Rigo. Dr Ziska, who deals in “strange cases”, explains that Rigo is a mental patient that he keeps in a death-like trance to prevent him from getting out and doing “terrible things”. (How Rigo managed to get from the woods to the parlour from before Johnny’s arrival is something else that is never explained)

Calliban reappears and is told by Ziska that the guests are to get "the usual attention". Quite what Ziska means by this is open to interpretation, but one gets the impression it's not good news for Betty: on hearing these words, Calliban's eyes light up and a lecherous grin spreads across his face. A lethal glare from Ziska puts him back in his place. 

Ziska excuses himself and floats back up the the stairs, trailing cigarette smoke as he goes. When asked if they will see him in the morning, he replies: "Who knows if one will ever see morning" and vanishes. The three guests are shown to a cavernous bed chamber and quite sensibly decide to barricade themselves in. 

What follows could be considered a crash course in how to construct the perfect amusement park funhouse. The action never lets up as West throws every trick he can think of into the mix: secret trapdoors and passageways; creeping shadows; clutching hands; poisoned wine; a bizarre steel trap that lowers onto the bed to enscase its sleeping victims; a pile of corpses in the cellar...our heroes are essentially given the haunted-house ride of their lives. None of it makes the remotest sense, but it's good, creepy fun nonetheless.  One extraordinarily surreal moment has a pair of arms emerging from a couch to wrap themselves around our heroine while the couch sinks into the floor, taking Betty with it.

It turns out that the lunatics have taken over the asylum (no great surprise there, then; but might this have been another first?). Dr Ziska, we are told, was once a “fearless surgeon” who now has the inmates, including Calliban and Rigo, under his control and playing his devilish games. Johnny discovers that Dr Edwards, Farmer Bowman, and other victims of Ziska’s car crash policy, are being kept in an oubliette beneath Ziska’s basement laboratory. With the aid of his "death chair" Ziska hopes to learn the secret of life by transporting a male soul into a female body (a fate worse than death, one assumes, for a manly man like Amos) and to this end ties Amos to the lethal looking chair while bemoaning the fact that his assistants have been unable to supply him with a female body. Apparently women don't do much driving around Danburg (or go mad,it seems, as there are no female inmates at the sanatorium). It takes him a surprisingly long time to remember that he's actually got a female guest in the house.

With Betty strapped to the operating table and Amos struggling in the chair, Ziska prepares his great experiment. Quite how the process will work - and why it should reveal the secret of life  - is anybody's guess; but we do know that it will involve tightening Amos's straps "until he squeals" and slicing poor Betty open with knives.

Meanwhile, Johnny has managed to escape from the sanatorium and in a chase sequence that further displays West's technical virtuosity, we witness Johnny tight-rope walking across telegraph wires, swinging Tarzan-like through windows, and sliding down an impossibly long bannister rail. Fortunately, while evading Rigo on the roof, Johnny is able to signal to the police with the roman candle firework that he always carries with him in case of nocturnal emergencies. While waiting for them to arrive, he somehow disposes of Rigo and, donning the lunatric's cape, is able to smuggle himself into the laboratory and free Amos from the death chair. Together the two men overpower Ziska and strap him into the chair. Calliban, mistaking Ziska for Amos, flicks the lethal 'on' switch and the Mad Doctor meets his doom.

The Monster is tremendous fun, an early example of what we would nowadays call a 'roller coaster' movie. The pace never lets up -  which is just as well given the multitude of plot holes (here's another: how did Dr Edwards get his message to the outside world, and what was the point of writing the word 'help' in reverse?) - and neither does the inventiveness. Everyone involved, especially Chaney (who must have relished the chance to play against type) seems to be having a whale of a time. There is something undeniably camp, even perverse, about it all (exactly why does Ziska want a man inside a woman's body?) and it's this strain of perversity that would later flourish in the films of James Whale. It's a great shame that Roland's West's career as a director imploded in the '30s after the death of his mistress, Thelma Todd. He clearly had a lot more to offer. 

Of course, there were many more haunted-house spoofs to come, including Paul Leni's superlative The Cat and the Canary, but for its pure unadulterated funhouse thrills and chills, and for the template it helped to create, The Monster deserves to be remembered.

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