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Monday, February 09, 2015

One That Fought Hard Contest With Sleep


Maybe Not Good, But Still Hypnotic: Night Monster (1942)

Doctor guests at a spooky manse are killed in succession. You wonder why the whole party doesn't move someplace safer. Universal made these by truckload and it helps to have seen them first during impressionable years when all such was captivating. In other words, don't risk Night Monster on your uninitiated, lest they flee as NM's cast should have. I used to watch it on TV without even expecting thrills to happen; that's how drunk I was on all things Universal, especially when Bela Lugosi lurked around corners. Dan Mercer and I once saw Night Monster with Dick Bojarski in latter's basement, horrors not altogether confined to the screen. You just don't forget experiences like that. Dick put a pox on Universal for misusing Bela as a red-herring, but here it was 1983, and what could we do about it? Further question: Was Lugosi in supporting role ever the "surprise" killer? Fans didn't like him diminished to butler status as others conducted mayhem. It was sadly how he'd finish though, answering castle doors and sweeping up in The Black Sleep.


The murders are signaled by swamp frogs that stop croaking, a neater than it sounds trick. Victims are glimpsed with outstretched claw hands, as if they were scared to death, but when we finally see the killer, he's not so formidable. Every Uni chill was build-up and suggestion, censor clamp on horrors past that. Lugosi and Lionel Atwill are billed first, but Bela's subservient and Atwill's the first to die, thus a letdown. I think Universal kept using Lugosi in the 40's because he was got cheap, and there were exhibitors (that is, Universal's customers) who saw value in the name and that many more twelve-year-olds who would show up because Bela was somewhere in the movie. Chicago's 1942 first-run ad at right provides some proof: note Lugosi's billing above the title --- Woods Theatre management knew he was leading lure for the show. Night Monster represents for me nostalgia that has little to do with merit it lacks, the recent watch pleasurable because Universal's DVD looked so good. How did I last past midnights with this after long Friday at elementary school? Shock Theatre was oft a battle against onrush of sleep, especially when likes of Night Monster was on wee hours' marquee.

9 Comments:

Blogger CanadianKen said...

Enjoyed the article, as always. But I don't really share your misgivings about "Night Monster". It always worked for me. Certainly enough that I never found the misuse of Lugosi that nettlesome. What I did enjoy a lot was the spotlight shone on two talented actresses - the eternally undervalued Irene Hervey (was there ever a lovelier, breezier blend of sophistication and approachability?) and Janet Shaw (who'd done an earlier unsung stretch at Warner Brothers as Ellen Clancy). Shaw's the feisty maid in "Night Monster" and makes every minute count.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Think the director was required to sue Lugosi and Atwill here, didn't want them as the typecast heavies. The unblinking artificial limb sequence remains one of Universal's most unnerving scenes.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Like CanadianKen, I have always harbored a fondness for NIGHT MONSTER. As to the whole red herring thing with Lugosi, he has even less dialogue in THE BLACK CAT ('41) but in that one his salary should have been included in the production design budget. He's in every other shot, peering through windows, around corners and such, wearing a sort of feline make-up. He's as important a prop as the creepy cat altar guarding the crematorium.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

don't risk Night Monster on your uninitiated

Actually, I find that to be true of Universal's vintage thrillers in general. Their ability to frighten having long since largely vanished, the appeal of these films tends to be completely lost on those who don't come to them already armed with an appreciation for them.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The misuse of both Karloff and Lugosi in these films amounts to watering down the brand. I am sure many of not most viewers expected to see the stars as the villains feeling cheated when they were not. I have found the 30's films still have power over modern audiences, at least over the audiences I have seen them with. The 40's films pale against them. The first time I saw NIGHT MONSTER on late night TV as a kid the reels were shown out of order. Just read Chaw Mank's LUGOSI AND KARLOFF. Great boo.

12:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Assume you're referring to Gregory William Mank, who wrote "Lugosi and Karloff," a terrific book I'd recommend to all GPS readers.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Bill O said...

While it's regrettable that Karloff and Lugosi were used as red herrings, in this film, as I say, the characters are more, I dunno, realistic, and didn't call for the Atwill and Lugosi villainy. I got the feeling the director would've dispensed with then entirely if he could, tho there'd be a resultant box office loss.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Yes, Gregory not Chaw.I learned long ago that to keep and build an audience their expectations must not be just met but surpassed. Universal was under new management in the 1940s who did not seem to understand that thus the misuse of Karloff and Lugosi.

12:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer beautifully sums up the day he and I spent with Dick Bojarski in 1983:


That occasion you write of was the only time I've ever seen "Night Monster," and for the life of me, I remember very little about it. Dick, on the other hand, left a vivid impression, of a pale furtive man who admitted others to his company with the reluctance of someone answering an unexpected knock at his door before dawn. Once he understood that he was among fellow enthusiasts, however, he became a most avuncular host, eager to share the odd delights he'd discovered, whether in personal anecdotes or unusual film items he'd collected. He was living at the time with his mother in a small row home in, as I recall, the Queens section of New York. His screening room was in the basement of the house, which was otherwise filled with the odds and ends stored there. The projector and our chairs were at one end of the basement, a path had been cleared through the debris for the projector beam, and a portable screen and speaker were at the other end. After an aperitif of segments from Edward D. Woods' "Glen or Glenda," which I haven't seen in a print of that film since then, probably for good reason, given how bizarre they were, Dick called out that we were about to see the most frightening movie ever made. Yes, it was "Night Monster," and though I recognized Ford Bebe's name as the director and was interested in what he could do with a feature film, as opposed to the serials I was familiar with, I found it thoroughly pedestrian and, as noted, almost entirely forgettable. Certainly the setting in which it was being shown, with the heaped mounds of boxes, bags, ladders, and other unknown things shadowed by the flickering beam of the projector, was far eerier than anything on the screen. I had the curious sense that, in being in this house, with its basement and a kitchen and dining room area lined with mismatched filing cabinets, all of them filled with items rare and commonplace and upon which were piled stills, books, and rolled up posters, seemingly at random, we had entered into what was really the tangible expression of Dick's mind. Even his mother, who we never met, but whose voice we heard, calling to Dick from the top of the basement stairs, much to his annoyance, fit in with the experience. And yet, from out of this disquieting disorder came the most marvelous articles, for Dick was a regular contributor to "Castle of Frankenstein" magazine, which we loved. Finally meeting the man who had provided me with so much enjoyment was more than welcome and in no way a disappointment. If I have a better understanding now of the price that was paid for those articles, in the sense of a life fulfilled, I also appreciate what wonders he must have known, for that strange mind of his, or the solace they provided.

10:47 AM  

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