(6/10) A quick Universal cheapo from 1941, this was the first of Lon Chaney Jr.’s monster movies, and one of his best. Lionel Atwill shines as the mad doctor who pumps Chaney full of electricity, until he becomes a mindless, glow-in-the-dark monster who kills with a touch.
Man Made Monster. 1941, USA. Directed by George Waggner. Written by George Waggner, Harry Essex, et.al. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Lionel Atwill, Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds. Produced by Jack Bernhard. IMDb: 6.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Universal’s 1941 B-movie Man Made Monster starring Lon Chaney Jr. is one of those films that have grown on me over the years. When I first watched it some years back I think I went into it with the wrong attitude and subsequently gave it a bit of a bad rap in a previous incarnation of this blog. So I’m glad to get another stab at it. I still don’t think it’s a Great Movie, but having re-watched it a couple of times I have come to appreciate its qualities, and it’s what one might call “a nifty little flick”.
The plot follows carnie worker Dan McCormick (Chaney), a kind-hearted, happy, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly kind of guy, perhaps not all too bright, who miraculously survives a bus crash into a high-voltage electricity tower. Turns out Dan has an unusually high tolerance for electricity, something that peaks the interest of researchers Dr. Lawrence (Samuel Hinds) and Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill). The two are anxious to study Dan, as they hope his high tolerance will unlock new ways of treating victims of electrocution. In order to keep up his “immunity” they treat him with daily doses of electric shocks, while providing him with lodgings in Dr. Lawrence’s stately home/lab. However, Rigas has a side project which entails no less than creating an army of mind-controlled electric men – “A NEW RACE OF ATOMIC SUPERMEN – VHICH VILL CONQUER THE VORLD!” No, wait, that was another film. But even if delivered in a less Ed Woodsian manner, the gist is basically the same.
So when the kindly Dr. Lawrence is away for a week on a conference, the madder of the scientists uses the opportunity to secretly supercharge poor Dan, finally succeeding in turning him into glowing monster, who not only electrocutes everyone he comes in touch with, but also becomes a mindless zombie who for some reason obeys the command of Dr. Rigas. He also presents Dan with a rubber suit that covers all but his head, which will not only let him interact with the world, but has the added benefit of preserving the charge in his body. Still, not ready to unleash his superman on the world just yet, he has a nifty device to discharge Dan. Unfortunately Dr. Lawrence happens to walk in on the final stage of the experiment, and when he realises that Rigas has in essence killed Dan in order to turn him into “a shell, an electric being”, he threatens to call the police. Rigas orders Dan to kill Lawrence, and commands him to take the blame for the murder. So zombie-Dan is put on trial, confesses to the murder and is sent to – the electric chair. Naturally the punishment does not so much kill him as supercharge him, leading to a manhunt, as Dan tries to make his way back to the lab to takes his revenge on Dr. Rigas. It’s a race against the clock, as the movie’s newscast narrator informs us that “experts say that McCormick can only survive for three hours at most”. Well, I’m glad that they managed to contact all the experts on supercharged electric monsters and their lifespan expectancies as measured in electric chair units.
The climax also culminates the film’s subplot, which has Dr. Lawrence’s niece June (Anne Nagel) trying to figure out what actually happened to her uncle and what Dr. Rigas has really done to the formerly so lovable Dan. You didn’t think this would be a B horror movie without a damsel in distress, did you? And since the formula also dictated that said damsel had to have a romantic interest, who was preferably a wise-cracking reporter, we get her boyfriend Mark (Frank Albertson). Fortunately, he’s a lot less wise-cracking than was usually the case with these characters, and the script has the good taste of keeping him pretty much in the background. While his and Nagel’s characters are more or less redundant, they are so sympathetically written and competently acted that they never become more than a minor nuisance. Especially Nagel gives a strong performance, inserting some humanity into the proceedings. The screenwriters, in a surprising show of restraint, refrain from creating a triangle drama, dismissing the inevitable sparks (ahem) between Dan and June early on with some light flirtation.
Of course, the script is completely daft and devoid of any logic. But it’s engaging, well-paced and economic. George Waggner directs it with style and efficiency, clocking the movie in at a brief 59 minutes, which works in its favour. Plus, there’s a terrific performance from Hollywood veteran Corky the Dog, which will have any viewer tear up when he lays his head on the chest of the dead Dan in the last scene of the film (no, that’s not a spoiler, they always die in these films).
The movie’s origins lies in a story treatment called The Electric Man by Harry Essex, Sid Schwartz and Len Golos, written down as early as 1935. The interesting name here is Harry Essex, who would later go on to write screenplays for classics like It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), as well as the Z-movies Octaman (1971) and The Cremators (1973), which he also directed. In Tom Weaver’s book Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes he reveals that the three of them were sitting around an office at The Daily Mirror, where Essex and Schwartz worked, and bounced off ideas for a screen story, when Essex came up with the notion of an electric man. According o him, the idea came from a newspaper article about some government organisation doing research on the electrical charge in the human body, “how we use it up during the day and how we ‘recharge the batteries’ by sleep at night. Out of that was born the idea of The Electric Man — if there was some way to recharge the body’s electricity we wouldn’t have to eat or sleep.”
According to Essex, it was him and Schwartz who did most of the writing, and Golos – a press agent – was “just in for a free ride”. The story was submitted to an agency and snatched up by Universal. In another of his books, Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films 1931-1946, Tom Weaver writes that the story was originally intended to be used for a film called The Man in the Cab, with Bela Lugosi as the mad doctor and Boris Karloff as Dan the Electric Man. The project was scrapped, however, possibly because it was too similar to another Karloff-Lugosi team-up, The Invisible Ray (1936, review), where Karloff plays a glowing radioactive killer.
The story was dug up again in 1940 and adapted into a screenplay by George Waggner himself. According to Lon Chaney Jr. biographies, Universal intended Man Made Monster as a test run for Chaney, as the studio badly needed another prime ghoul now that Karloff was distancing himself from playing monsters, and there was a lucrative market for B movie horrors. Chaney, who’s real first name was Creighton, had been making a rough living as a mostly uncredited bit-part player in several dozen films for ten years, and had reluctantly agreed to change his artist name to that of his famous father’s in 1935 in order to get bigger parts and feed his family. His breakthrough role came in 1939 when he did a truly memorable turn as Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s Steinbeck adaptation Of Mice and Men. This role of the innocent child trapped in the body of a giant suited his limited acting abilities perfectly, and Man Made Monster further cemented the “aw shucks” character he went on to play in dozens upon dozens of films. That Man Made Monster was made with the possibility in mind that it could easily fail is supported by the fact that with a budget of only 86,000 dollars, which was cheap even for a Poverty Row production, it was Universal’s lowest-budgeted film of 1941. The film wasn’t a major hit, but a minor success at the box office, and apparently both Waggner and Universal liked what they saw, as Chaney was given the lead in Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) after doing this film. Chaney stayed on at the studio, ultimately taking over the roles of the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy and Dracula, with varying degrees of success and quality.
I personally think that Man Made Monster is one of Chaney’s finer performances, especially in the first fifteen minutes, when he actually gets to act. As Bruce Eder at AllMovie puts it: “Where most directors would be hampered by Chaney’s limited acting range, Waggner manages to play to the star’s greatest strength — his earnestness — and effectively glossed over his limitations, and evoked audience sympathy for the actor and the character that he plays”. Richard Scheib at Moria agrees: “the role required here is that of a simple-minded lunk, a role that Chaney excelled in, whereas he didn’t have the range required of a more complex part like that of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man“. I know this will sound like heresy to a lot of monster movie fans out there, but I wonder if Man Made Monster isn’t actually the best monster movie that Chaney ever did for Universal.
Man Made Monster received mixed to good reviews upon its release, with most industry outlets noting the preposterous cheapo nature of the film, but praising its execution. Variety wrote: “Man Made Monster is a shocker that’s in the groove for horror fans. It makes no pretense of being anything but a freakish chiller, going directly to the point and proving mighty successful. Film is a well executed programmer.” Variety also praised the cast, noting that Chaney was “well on his way” to take over his father’s ghoulish mantle, and noted that “Unbilled pooch, used importantly, also deserves mention”. Bosley Crowther at the New York Times gave the movie a bit of a humorous ribbing, writing about Chaney’s character: “Silly? Of course he’s silly, and the picture is low-grade shocker fare. But what a killer he is when he’s ‘lit’! And he’s always good for a laugh.”
At one point in the film Lionel Atwill’s Dr. Rigas goes into a rant about creating an army of mindless superhumans which, obeying his command, will him the master of the world. Tom Weaver draws parallels to Dr. Josef Mengele, but of course, in 1940 no-one in the US knew of Mengele, and in fact his infamous human experiments didn’t start until he was stationed at Auschwitz in 1942. But no doubt George Waggner drew some inspiration for the dialogue from current affairs when writing the script and if the spoutings of Dr. Rigas sound like Nazi rhetoric, it probably isn’t a coincidence.
Lionel Atwill had already made something of a name for himself in the horror genre, first at MGM in the titular role of Doctor X (1932, review) and then as the mad doctor in Mystery of the Was Museum (1933), the Poverty Row production The Vampire Bat (1933, review) and Paramount’s Murders in the Zoo (1933). He played police inspector in Mark of the Vampire (1935), and most memorably in Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), in which he developed the trope of the wooden arm. Under contract for Fox, he played an array of doctors, mad or otherwise, in 1939 films like The Hound of the Baskervilles (teaming up again with Basil Rathbone), The Gorilla (with Lugosi) and Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (with Peter Lorre) and in 1940 in Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise. By 1940 the former British stage star was a successful movie actor and a household name in Hollywood. He terminated his contract at Fox with the ambition of becoming an independent producer. Atwill saw his occasional horror film as a fun distraction and a quick cash-grab, still oblivious that these would become his lifeline when his life and career collapsed soon after the release of Man Made Monster in 1941.
First came the news of the death of his son in the war, and later in the year a widely publicised allegation of a “sex orgy” in his home during a 1940 Christmas party, in which an underaged (16-year-old) girl was allegedly raped. In short, while Atwill wasn’t accused of having any part in or knowledge of the rape, he was accused of showing porn films to his guests with a minor present, and was later sentenced for perjury, as he had lied about the nature of the party in order to protect his friends (“like a gentleman”). Worse than the sentence of five years probation for perjury, was the unofficial Hays Code edict that encouraged all the major studios not to hire Atwill, who in effect became a persona non grata in Hollywood, and had to soldier on in Poverty Row and some of the minor major studios’ B movies, often in the capacity of mad doctor to this or that ghoul. He died in 1946 of pneumonia related to lung cancer.
In Man Made Monster Lionel Atwill is at the top of his game, chewing scenery with gusto. As Weaver points out, Atwill actually seemed to relish his work as madcap doctors, as opposed to peers like George Zucco, Cedric Hardwicke or even Boris Karloff, who sometimes had a hard time concealing their opinion of the films they appeared in. Instead, writes Weaver, Atwill seemed to “take to career slumming with an unwholesome glee”, perhaps seeing the roles as an outlet for the dark side of his personality (he was a man who held sex parties in his home, which I have difficulties imagining Karloff doing).
But Atwill is also flanked by a very good cast of stock actors, an enthusiastic Chaney notwithstanding. Samuel Hinds is reliable as always as the kindly professor type, and as stated, both Anne Nagel and Frank Albertson both carry their unassuming roles with grace and bring some much-needed humanity into the second half of the picture. Nagel is especially good as the caring and wholesome niece, and manages to present the staple role of “worried scientist daughter/wife/niece” as an unusually well-rounded and realistic character. Part of the credit for this must naturally go to Waggner’s writing and direction. Albertson’s role is really just cardboard, and present only in order for the film to have a romantic leading man, but at least Albertson manages to not be overly annoying. But the film has good, sometimes even striking performances down to the unbilled bit-parts: William Hall and Victor Zimmerman as the electric chair operators who are affected by their grim work, the reporter on the phone who scalds his colleague on the other end for accusing him of being emotional: “Have you ever covered an execution?!” and so on.
Anne Nagel had a fairly long and moderately successful career as far as female B actresses go. She appeared in almost ninety films over a period of 25 years, including the female lead in the serial The Green Hornet (1940), a supporting role as a model in The Invisible Woman (1940, review), a female co-lead in Black Friday (1940, review), another support in The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942, review), another lead in The Mad Monster (1942, review) and a bit-part in Mighty Joe Young (1949). She was often seen in B westerns, and was became something of a serial queen for Universal in the forties. Eventually she tired of Universal treating her like a second-rate actress and left the studio — only to see herself falling even further down the career to Poverty Row. Estranged from her conservatively Christian family, she suffered through the suicide of her first husband, who turned out to be gay, and the divorce from her second. Nagel’s acting career more or less imploded in the beginning of the fifties, she developed an alcohol problem, and died penniless in 1966 at the age of 50.
Man Made Monster is a film that wears its inspirations on its sleeve without obviously ripping off any film in particular, which is probably one of the reasons it has stood the test of time and is regarded as a minor classic among horror and SF aficionados. The nods to Frankenstein (1931, review) are clear in the picture’s last third, as the mute Dan lumbers around the countryside with arms outstretched, reaching out for sympathy with a look of suffering on his face. Dr. Rigas is a callback to the mad scientists and megalomaniac villains of the radio and film serials of the twenties and thirties, and of course to the original Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau and Dr. Griffin from The Invisible Man (1933, review), all men who played at being god, at their own peril. The parallels to The Invisible Ray are obvious, even if the original story was written before the release of that film. And while the film is more or less a 59-minute cliché, it presents its story with a conviction and energy that gives the sum of all the parts at least a whiff of originality.
The movie was a three-week shoot on a minuscule budget, and for most people involved it was probably just another month of putting food on the table. But compared to most Poverty Row fare made on the same budget this film stands almost in another class, thanks to the professional know-how, the well-oiled machinery and the artistic resources of an established studio. These resources included art direction duo Jack Otterson and Russell Gausman, costume designer Vera West, makeup legend Jack Pierce and composer Hans Salter. The effects of the glowing Dan were created by visual effects guru John P. Fulton, and though undoubtedly crude by today’s standards, they were nevertheless competently crafted and effective for the time. Not Fulton’s best work, as he obviously had to create the effects on a rushed schedule. There’s also some impressive miniature and model work in the beginning of the film, showing the fatal traffic accident.
Otterson and Gausman didn’t have much money or time to work with set designs, and one can spend much of the film playing spot the reused prop/set. For the lab scenes, the prop department has dragged out most of Frankenstein’s old arsenal of Tesla coils and Strickfaden spark generators, and Waggner further spices it up with a few inserts from other movies. I do believe that the centrepiece, the electro-something machine that Rigas uses to charge Dan, is an original creation, though.
Director George Waggner was a man who made it into Hollywood the hard way, through trial and error. He dropped out of college in the early twenties to become an actor, and got a break when he landed a small part in the successful Rudolph Valentino film The Sheik in 1921, but despite a handful acting jobs, his career didn’t take off, so instead he tried his hand a songwriting, getting a few of his lyrics recorded in films in the late twenties and early thirties (he kept writing songs throughout his career). But as this didn’t pay the bills, he also started contributing to screenplays, the first one being Gorilla Ship in 1932. After a couple of dozen script contributions, Universal started letting him direct under the studio’s B movie unit, starting with cheap westerns, many of which he wrote himself, in 1938.
After also producing a couple of films, Universal gave him control over their next big monster rollout, The Wolf Man, as both producer and director in 1941, which turned out to be a massive hit, and Waggner’s best remembered film to date. One could argue that the film’s success had more to do with screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s creation of the modern werewolf myth and the seasoned Universal crew than Waggner’s direction, and in any rate he was never able to match the success of the film, neither as director or producer, and in the fifties he found himself without film offers and instead moved to TV, where he, among other things, directed some episodes of The Green Hornet (1967) and Batman (1967-68), which stand as his only sci-fi directions apart from Man Made Monster. He did, however, produce The Ghost of Frankenstein (review), Invisible Agent (review, both 1942) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review).
Now, while I have spent much of this review listing the merits of Man Made Monster, it must be said that it is still a cheap, silly and derivative B-movie — but as such, it is a pretty good one. Not that all critics agree. Andrew Wickliffe at The Stop Button praises the acting of the film, but calls it “a misfire — too cheap, too short. There’s not enough time spent with Chaney to make it a significant tragedy and the special effects are goofy. A glowing electric man is not scary.” While I can agree, I don’t really think it was supposed to be very scary. Wickliffe gives the film 1,5/4 stars. I wonder how the ratings at AllMovie actually work, as I often have a hard time equating the actual star rating of a movie with the written review. Bruce Eder basically gives Man Made Monster a glowing write-up, stating that the “picture showed what [Waggner] could do without a lot of money but with a good script, an actor who was on the same page, and a solid supporting cast”. Still, the “AllMovie Rating” is only 2/5 stars. Richard Scheib gives the film 3/5 stars, writing: “George Waggner puts the film together a whole lot better than most of the other B films of the era. There is a certain starkly effective photography. The main problem is that the structure of the story causes it to drag.” Cliff Aliperti at Immortal Ephemera is downright lyrical, calling the film “a fast-paced, well-acted, and visually exciting Universal horror film that belongs at least towards the top tier of all but their most classic monster titles”.
In 1956 Allied Artists borrowed the basic idea of Man Made Monster for the movie Indestructable Man, again with Lon Chaney Jr. in the lead, and although not a straight remake, it can certainly be viewed as a blatant ripoff. This despite the fact that producer-director Jack Pollexfen categorically denied that the film “had anything to do with Man Made Monster“, and that having Lon Chaney Jr. turned into a glowing monster after being pumped full of electricity by a mad scientist was his own original idea.
Man Made Monster. 1941, USA. Directed by George Waggner. Written by George Waggner, Harry Essex, Sid Schwartz, Len Golos. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Lionel Atwill, Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds, William B. Davidson, Ben Taggart, Constance Bergen, Ivan Miller, Chester Gan, George Meader, Frank O’Connor, John Dilson, Byron Foulger, John Ellis, David Sharpe. Music: Hans Salter. Cinematography: Elwood Bredell. Editing: Arthur Hilton. Art direction: Jack Otterson. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman. Costume design: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Sound: Bernard B. Brown, Charles Carroll. Special effects: John P. Fulton. Produced by Jack Bernhard for Universal.