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.