Friday, October 25, 2013

Man Made Monster (1941) review



Lon Chaney Jr. (Dan McCormick), Lionel Atwill (Dr. Paul Rigas), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. John Lawrence), Anne Nagel (June Lawrence)

Directed by George Waggner

The Short Version: Prior to making his name as THE WOLF MAN, Lon Chaney headlined this shocker about a man with an affinity for electricity, and turned into a monster by a mad scientist. For a film that runs just under an hour, the filmmakers surge the picture with a high quotient of characterization. Like other classic creatures, Chaney's McCormick is a tragic figure. A lesser Uni-horror compared with the more familiar mad, undead, and hairy heavyweights, MAN MADE MONSTER is surprisingly effective and well made. Chaney fans should get a charge out of it.

An accident during a major storm leaves the passengers of a bus dead from electrocution; one man survives -- a sideshow performer named Dan McCormick. Fascinated by his ability to withstand high degrees of electric shock, Dr. Lawrence invites Dan to stay at his home to run tests on him. Lawrence's partner, Dr. Rigas is likewise eager to participate in this experiment, if for entirely different, and far more nefarious reasons.

The year 1941 was significant for Lon Chaney Jr. where the horror genre was concerned. It was the year the name Chaney became synonymous with lycanthropy after THE WOLF MAN was unleashed onto the world. Earlier in the year, Chaney played a similarly tragic, but no less dangerous character in MAN MADE MONSTER. 

Based on the story 'The Electric Man' by Harry Essex, Sid Schwartz and Len Golos, Waggner's movie was just another Uni-horror quickie of the time period. It's historical significance lies mostly with getting Chaney Jr. well on his way to horror stardom headlining Waggner's big 1941 hit, THE WOLF MAN, released at the end of the year.

Originally known as THE MYSTERIOUS DR. R before it was released, Waggner's movie is of interest on a multitude of levels that belie its veritable 'B' movie status. The concept of two scientists working together, yet both have opposing ideologies as to the nature of their work, is a schism bearing a mother lode of themes and ideas unique to the mad scientist canon. Dr. Lawrence (Hinds) wants to perform tests on Dan McCormick in the hopes of using the knowledge to save victims of accidental electrocution. On the other end of the spectrum, Lawrence's partner, Dr. Rigas (Atwill) wishes to harness Dan's uncanny ability in a sinister plot to create a race of super beings that thrive and subsist off of electricity.

Rigas is the most fascinating of the two for obvious reasons; and once it's discovered that his experiments on Dan's body leaves him in a weakened state, the script likens the absorption of electric charges to drug addiction. After excessive electrical experiments, Dan becomes more reliant on them. When his juice is depleted, he requires a new charge. In one scene, Dan is being electrically rejuvenated; and as the jolts pass through his body, he smiles pleasingly as his pain is alleviated. Much like a drug-addled user, Dan becomes dependent on Dr. Rigas -- doing everything he says while under his control.

British actor Lionel Atwill is as mad as he wants to be here, and it's a shame the film isn't longer to get more scenes of him delivering even more abject villainy. The actor was an indomitable presence in 30s and 40s horror frequently playing a variety of (but not limited to) mad men and mad scientists. 

Chaney's character is arguably of more substance than his more well known Larry Talbot from THE WOLF MAN (1941). Both men are tragic characters, but McCormick is the livelier, and the most sentimental of the two. He has an affability about him that differentiates McCormick from the more serious Talbot. Furthering this pleasantness of character, in MAN MADE MONSTER Dan forms a bond with a small dog named Corky. This dog is shown a lot, and its inclusion adds a great deal of poignancy to the movie that it wouldn't have had otherwise.

Much like Frankenstein's creation, and Talbot's hairy, fanged alter ego, Dan McCormick is a monster to be pitied. His eventual transformation is the product of abused science. After being used as an instrument of death, the vile Dr. Rigas allows Dan to go to the electric chair for crimes he wasn't technically responsible for. He survives this capital punishment -- the massive amounts of voltage have given him the power to kill with a touch. Dan does away with a couple of guards, and escapes the prison. His "rampage" during the last ten minutes causes some inadvertent destruction. These final minutes show Dan as confused and seeking help instead of actually trying to hurt anyone.

In 1956, Chaney starred in a variation of MAN MADE MONSTER entitled THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN. However, the character he played there was anything but likable, and not much of value is found in the film, either.

Waggner seems to have taken a different approach here, or at least desired to do a picture divergent from the usual monster movie of the day. He gets a nice balance of horror, suspense, drama and exposition for such a short programmer. Waggner was less successful doing this with HORROR ISLAND from the same year and also in the Technicolor Karloff vehicle THE CLIMAX (1944). The former gets drowned out with comedy schtick; and the latter seems more interested in spotlighting gorgeous set design and extravagant musical numbers instead of its PHANTOM OF THE OPERA roots.

The special effects of the distinguished John P. Fulton are visually impressive (the opening miniature work; the electrified effects that give Dan his deadly glow) as is Jack Pierce's make up for Dan's quasi-undead pallor later in the movie.

For fans of Chaney and Uni-horror, MAN MADE MONSTER is an entertaining quickie that's well made and benefits from strong performances and a nice play on the 'tragic monster' concept popularized with films like FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and KING KONG (1933). It's never scary enough to give you goosebumps, but you should get a jolt or two out of its modestly electrifying entertainment value.

This review is representative of the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive 2 disc set paired with THE BLACK CAT (1941), HORROR ISLAND (1941), NIGHT MONSTER (1942) and CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943).

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