Ford Beebe, 1942
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Ralph Morgan, Irene Hervey
I was actually starting to get bored with Universal horror in the early ‘40s, many of which are comedic mystery films simply advertised as horror movies, but then along came Night Monster. I’m not sure how this insane, bizarre little film got made at all, but it was churned out in 8 days and has been sadly forgotten over the years. Fading Universal horror stars Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill received top billing (Lugosi’s first top billing since Dracula in 1931), though they both only really have small side roles.
A number of murders and other odd things begin to happen near an isolated, spooky mansion in a swamp. The owner, wheelchair-bound Curt Ingston (Ralph Morgan, Weird Woman), has summoned three doctors to his home to show them that he has found a cure where they have failed. His sister, fearing she is succumbing to the family madness, has brought a psychiatrist in to observe her against the wishes of her family. A mystery writer has accompanied the psychiatrist after rescuing her from car trouble. On staff Ingston has a strange butler (Lugosi), a creepy chauffeur, a gruff housekeeper, a hunchbacked guard, and a yoga-practicing mystic, Agar Singh (Nils Asther). Ingston declares that the doctors are responsible for his current state (he’s a quadruple amputee) and one by one, they drop dead. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist is being kept away from Ingston’s sister.
Lugosi is sadly wasted here. He would probably have been great as Singh, the Eastern mystic, but is forced to play the butler, a role Universal regularly cast him in towards the end of his career with the studio. Coincidentally, the actor cast as Singh, the Swedish Nils Asther, was known as the male Garbo he was considered so attractive. He seems an odd choice for a swami, though he does the role justice. Atwill, though not with us for very long, fares much better as the doctor, at least until he is murdered. The rest of the cast is decent, particularly Ralph Morgan as the devious Ingston.
Probably the film’s strongest point is the atmospheric, shadowy swamp and mansion scenery, some of which was apparently borrowed from The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein. Though I’m not sure specifically which set pieces were borrowed, it was standard for Universal to share sets between horror films, particularly their later, low budget efforts. Fog is of course in generous supply and there are plentiful hints of the mystery genre that Universal was so reliant on during this period, though this is fortunately a solid horror film.
The film’s major issue is that it simply tries to be too many things and showcase too many side characters. I read another review that described the film as “Universal horror by way of David Lynch,” which makes a certain amount of sense considering the random inclusion of yoga and Hindu mysticism in the plot. This isn’t just a red herring, as any sort of supernatural mystery typically is in Universal films from this period, but has an integral and kind of amazing role to play in the film’s conclusion. There’s also a romantic subplot involving the mystery writer (Don Porter) and the psychiatrist (Irene Hervey), which is a little annoying.
I think this really could have been a great, bizarre little film if Universal had put more care into it, but by the ‘40s they almost completely abandoned their horror films and just kept churning out some pretty generic crap. An interested piece of trivia is that Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed the film, particularly the maid (who quickly gets murdered), played by Janet Shaw, who he later cast as a waitress in one of his finest films, Shadow of a Doubt.
If you enjoy weird, unexpected older horror films, this comes highly recommended. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it has plenty of surprises and will definitely delight anyone who dislikes the staid, boring mystery films and dried up sequels that Universal squeezed out in their later classic horror years. You can find it as part of the Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive, which includes other rare/forgotten horror films like The Black Cat (1941), Man Made Monster, Horror Island, and Captive Wild Woman.