George Waggner, 1941
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Lionel Atwill, Frank Albertson, Anne Nagel
An adaptation of Harry J. Essex’s story “The Electric Man,” Man Made Monster is the surprisingly enjoyable first collaboration of soon to be horror star Lon Chaney, Jr. and director George Waggner. The two would reunite later in the same year for Universal’s classic The Wolf Man. Despite the weird and kind of aimless title, Man Made Monster aka The Atomic Monster aka Electric Man is yet another of Universal’s mad scientist films, this time with scenery-chewer Lionel Atwill taking the lead.
Sideshow performer Dynamo Dan, the Electric Man, is the only survivor during a bus accident where all the other passengers were electrocuted to death. It seems Dan is mostly immune to electricity and attracts the attention of Dr. Lawrence, who plans to study him. But Lawrence’s partner, Dr. Rigas, has other ideas and wants to do some very unorthodox experiments. Namely, he wants to turn Dan into an electrically brainwashed zombie, from which he plans to create a master work force. (No, this doesn’t make any sense to me either.) He manages to get Dan addicted to electricity (at least they are consistent about not making sense) and destroy his brain. For some reason this changes Dan and he temporarily has a permanent electrical charge, allowing him to electrocute people to death just by touching them. As part of the experiment, Rigas has him convinced for murder and sent to the electric chair, though he does not know what the consequences will be...
If you can pause your brain long enough to stop thinking about the insane plot, there is certainly some fun to be had with the Man Made Monster. Chaney plays what is basically his token role as the lumbering, sympathetic, down on his luck protagonist. Lionel Atwill immediately steals the film away from him as the near raving Dr. Rigas, creating a mad scientist role that is far more memorable than anything done by Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. Though the latter two are more remembered for playing classic monsters, they both had numerous roles as mad scientists in obscure Universal horror films. Man Made Monster was originally supposed to be a Lugosi-Karloff vehicle, but was shelved for a few years.
One of the things I like about these early sci-fi horror films is that they feel so out of place and would belong more with the ‘50s boom of atomic horror. Still, they are interesting experiments and reflect changing ideas about science and popular misconceptions/understandings about what was possible. Oddly, Man Made Monster also has echoes of M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s much later Unbreakable (2000). Though I intensely disliked that film (and all of his films), the parallels about the train/bus accident with a sole survivor are interesting.
There are a few moody shots and John Fulton (Werewolf of London and The Invisible Ray, which this film bears some things in common with) delivers some nice special effects, despite the obviously small budget. Unfortunately the hero (Frank Albertson) and the leading lady (Anne Nagel) are completely forgettable, but that’s par for the course with these later Universal films. On the positive side, Man Made Monster pretty much dispenses with a major romantic subplot, or at least spends little time on it, and also ignores the irritating attempts at humor that other Universal horror films often suffered from.
Out of all the mad scientist films I’ve reviewed so far, this probably comes with the highest recommendation (outside of Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein, of course). You can find it on DVD as part of the Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive along with a couple of other titles from the early ‘40s, such as The Black Cat, Horror Island, Night Monster, and Captive Wild Woman.