Jean Yarbrough, 1946
Starring: Rondo Hatton, Robert Lowery, Martin Kosleck, Virginia Grey
A poor and struggling sculptor, Marcel, can’t afford food or his electric bill and is relieved when a patron arrives to buy his latest sculpture. Unfortunately the man is accompanied by a famed art critic, who slams Marcel’s work and convinces the patron to go home empty handed. Depressed and desperate, Marcel goes to the river, determined to throw himself in and commit suicide. Instead he finds the body of a near dead gangster/murderer, the Creeper, brings him home, and nurses him back to health. They form a strange bond and the Creeper begins to murder anyone who offends Marcel, beginning with the art critic. His preferred cause of death is spine snapping. Marcel hopes his career will turn around with new sculptures modeled on the Creeper, but it seems like not all the local art critics agree and the Creeper pays them a visit...
Also known as Murder Mansion and Joan Medford is Missing, none of the titles really make any sense, as the Creeper travels around the city to murder people. Less of a horror film than a horror-tinged crime thriller, this is more entertaining than some of the other duds Universal released during this period. The real star of the film is Martin Kosleck, who plays the deranged sculptor Marcel, both a sympathetic and wholly unlikable character. Kosleck’s restrained yet demented performance made me wonder why we didn’t see him in more Universal horror films from the early ‘40s. And then I looked it up and realized he is in She-Wolf of London, The Frozen Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse, though generally in small side roles. Having escaped Poland during WWII, Kosleck was sadly typecast as a Nazi during much of his Hollywood film career. He also appeared on Broadway and in a lot of cult television shows, and supported himself as a painter.
Co-star Rondo Hatton was outrageously exploited by Universal, who wanted to use his unique appearance for a series of films based around the character of the Creeper. Hatton suffered from acromegaly, a pituitary disorder, which made him look like a Universal monster without needing any make up. Hatton originally played a similar character in Jungle Captive, the third film in the Captive Wild Woman trilogy, and in The Pearl of Death, one of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone. House of Horrors was followed by The Brute Man, the second in a planned series, but Hatton died of heart failure (due to his acromegaly) before he could make anymore films. Despite being a lesser known horror actor, his legacy includes being the namesake of a series of annual horror awards known as the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards. The actual award is a small bust of Hatton (as opposed to the large, sculpted bust present in House of Horrors).
This film is surprisingly entertaining, despite some slow, talkie scenes involving characters no one cares about. Female lead Virginia Grey is a little annoying, but delivers some quick dialogue as best she is able and wears some absurd hats with aplomb. It’s a shame the script writers clearly found her (and her character’s artist boyfriend) much less interesting than Marcel or the Creeper. There’s also a nice side role from Alan Napier of the original Batman TV show. (Kosleck also had a small side role on the show.) House of Horrors is well worth seeing for Hatton and Kosleck’s performances and for a script that at least tries to be interesting. It is part of the wildly expensive Universal Cult Horror Collection, but I would recommend finding and watching it online.