Jean Yarborough, 1946
Starring: Rondo Hatton, Tom Neal, Jane Adams, Donald MacBride
House of Horrors was the first film to star Rondo Hatton as the Creeper, though he also appeared in the Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death and Captive Wild Woman film Jungle Captive in side roles. Though I enjoyed House of Horrors far more than I expected, I don’t have a lot of good things to say about The Brute Man. While it is certainly unpleasant that Universal exploited someone with a disorder (acromegaly in Hatton’s case) and attempted to turn him into their latest monster character, The Brute Man goes even further by including biographical elements from Hatton’s life. I found this to be pretty tasteless (and not in the good, John Waters sort of way).
In this film, which is sort of a sequel/prequel to House of Horrors, the Creeper is desperate to get revenge on those responsible for his hideous deformities. He commits a few murders by snapping the spines of a local professor and a woman. While eluding the police, the Creeper comes across a blind piano player, Helen, who is the only person not afraid of him. Though he bonds with Helen, he continues killing people and the police discover his hide out. They learn that the Creeper, really named Hal Moffet, blames his (now married) college friends for his deformities, which were the result of a chemistry accident. Hal learns that Helen needs an expensive surgery and is determined to help her even while he gets revenge.
Hal’s back story, namely being a handsome and popular football player in high school, is based on Hatton’s life. Universal tried to dress up Hatton’s history a little (as Hollywood studios often did with their stars) by claiming that his acromegaly came from mustard gas poisoning in WWI. This is simply not true and was the result of a pituitary gland disorder, though he did serve in the war. On one hand it seems that the film tries to make the Creeper more sympathetic, by sort of providing him with a love story in the form of Helen, the blind pianist. As other critics have written, this is similar to the plots of a few other films from The Man Who Laughs to Bride of Frankenstein to Chaplin’s City Lights. But at its core, the film essentially pokes fun at Hatton, either because of his deformity or his incredibly bad acting. There are some entertaining moments, but overall this is a pretty depressing, mean-spirited affair.
The rest of the cast is average at best, but I imagine the script is mostly to blame. Tom Neal (Detour) is decent as the lead and Jan Wiley (She-Wolf of London, among others) is alright as his wife. Jane Adams (House of Dracula) is likable as Helen, though she has probably the most unfortunate and unbelievable role outside of Hatton’s. The old Universal stand by - bumbling police officers as comic relief - are also annoyingly present.
Though I can’t recommend it, the film does look great, full of noirish cinematography and plenty of stylish fog. This is actually Universal’s last B horror movie and they were apparently so embarrassed with it that they sold it to Producers Releasing Corp, a Poverty Row studio who distributed it briefly. The Brute Man was considered lost until the early ‘80s, when it emerged on VHS. It also made its way onto an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1996. If you’re really curious, you can find it online or here on DVD, though it is out of print and a little pricey. Watching the Mystery Science Theater episode does take out some of the sting, though, and that is currently available on YouTube.