Thursday, October 26, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: U is for The Undying Monster (1942)

Startled awake from a fitful sleep, a groggy Helga Hammond (Angel) asks Walton, the family butler, if her brother has returned home yet. Seems she was waiting up for Oliver Hammond in the study of the palatial Hammond estate but fell asleep. Truth told, Walton (Hobbes) appears even more worried about the tardy Oliver than his sister as the doddering old doof is having a near panic attack over the ancestral Hammond Curse due to a rapid change in the weather; for, as the old prophetic rhyme goes, “When stars are bright on a frosty night, beware thy bane on the rocky lane."

And while Helga scoffs at any such superstitions, despite a starry night and an early frost, we’re not so sure if it's "the Hammond Curse" or concern over another run-in with a certain group of poachers, with whom her brother had already come to blows with a few nights past, that has her fretting so as she calls Dr. Colbert (Fletcher), with whom Oliver was visiting that evening. Colbert reports Oliver just left with his nurse, Kate O’Malley, but assures the worried Helga he will undoubtedly reach Hammond manor safe and sound after escorting her home. But as soon as she hangs up, Helga and Walton hear an unearthly howl coming from the nearby moor.

Crash-cut to Kate O’Malley (Traxler) running for her life as the source of that hellish howling closes in on her. But she’s soon out of real estate when she reaches the cliffs near Hammond Hall, but she tarries too long before trying to climb down to the shore as the mystery beast is now upon her -- and methinks her screams will do her little good.

Meanwhile, back at the manor, Helga is rallying the troops to hitch a team of horses to the wagon and, armed with her father’s pistol, leads a rescue party into the chilly night. They find Oliver (Howard) first, torn-up by some animal but still alive. Nearby they find what’s left of his faithful dog, broken and similarly shredded. And as they carefully move Oliver back to the wagon, the groundskeeper, Strudwick (McGraw), hears a pitiful moaning that leads him to the nurse, who is in such bad shape by the time they get her back to the main house the poor girl has slipped into a coma. A coma from which Dr. Colbert doubts she will ever awaken from. Oliver, on the other hand, is expected to make a full recovery.

Later, in London, the bizarre and vicious assault near Hammond Hall has drawn the attention of Scotland Yard, especially an Inspector Craig (Mathers), who sees a strong link between this recent attack and the fate of many other members of the Hammond family tree dating all the way back to the Crusades -- that same Hammond Curse Walton was so worried about and Helga was doing her best to ignore, I’d bet. And so, Craig assigns two of his most talented investigators to the case: forensic scientist, Robert Curtis (Elison), and his capable but extremely eccentric assistant in training, Cornelia “Christie” Christopher (Thatcher), who just wrapped up a seemingly unsolvable murder case through physical trace evidence; and so, figuring if anyone can crack this mysterious case wide open, these two can.

And while both are anxious to dig into the evidence and background of the Hammond curse, Curtis the skeptic, Christie a true believer and dabbler in the occult, the Hammonds, Dr. Colbert, and the hired help are oddly uncooperative -- even going so far as to tamper and destroy some of the evidence as several layers of conspiracy appear to be at work at Hammond Hall. In fact, the rapidly recovering Oliver and Helga seem determined to steer Curtis and Christie out the door as quickly as possible, even if it means leaving the identity of the attacker unresolved. What or who are they protecting?

And stranger still, no one is willing to discuss the tenants of the alleged family curse. But despite all these obstructions, the dynamic duo manage to piece it together, tracing it back to a Hammond knight interred in the sarcophagus located in the family crypt deep in the bowels of Hammond Hall. Seems this errant knight was put to death for heresy and devil-worship after returning from one of the Crusades. And if the curse is to be believed, ever since, the family has been hounded by some horrible preternatural monster hellbent on killing the senior member of the clan for each generation of Hammonds. The legend is also peppered with incidents where the eldest Hammond only saw the beast and then committed suicide before it inevitably got them; a fate which seems to have befallen Oliver and Helga’s father; and a fate Helga and Dr. Colbert hope doesn’t befall Oliver, as well.

Thus, a probable supernatural explanation has been uncovered, but Curtis isn’t ready to give up on a rational solution just yet -- especially when faced with the obstructive conspiracy by the Hammonds to seemingly conceal the real truth, including evidence that Kate O’Malley has been drugged with cobra venom to keep her unconscious so she can’t be questioned about what really happened. But before this can be pursued, the girl dies, leaving Curtis back at square one after the coroner’s inquest.

But then something even stranger happens that makes the scientist rethink everything when he tries to examine some coarse hairs found at the site of the attack. Thinking they belong to a wolf, Curtis and Christy try to do a side by side spectrographic comparison to prove this; and while the samples match at first, meaning it did come from a wolf, the hairs taken from the scene of the crime, placed inside a vacuum-sealed tube, slowly disappears before their very eyes as if it never existed after being exposed to the intense light of the projector -- and the rest of the sample also evaporated, meaning any rational explanation has now been chucked out the window and there may just be something to that Hammond Curse after all. That something being the eldest Hammond and the monster are most probably one in the same...

Born near Hartlepool, England, in 1884 -- or in 1890, depending on the source you consult, Jessie Douglas Kerruish was a writer of short stories who first saw print in 1907. Most of her early work appeared in Fleet Street periodicals and scandal sheets like The Weekly Tale-Teller and Yes and No, which often concerned mystery and intrigue in North Africa and the Mid-East with a feminine touch and humorous twist. (Sadly, a lot of her earlier work was lost forever in the London Blitz when the records for those magazines were destroyed by the Luftwaffe.)

Working closely with editor Isabel Thorne, who seemed to have the reading pulse of the public nailed down, Kerruish joined her contemporaries, Sax Rohmer, Rafael Sabatini, Jack London, and Edgar Wallace in spinning offbeat tales and macabre mysteries for their ravenous readers who ate it up. And by 1917, Kerruish was ready to stretch things out a bit and her first two novels, Miss Haroun al-Raschid and The Girl from Kurdistan, were “absorbing and pacey romantic adventure yarns set mainly in the Near and Middle East” and were praised by critics for the authentic portrayal of their exotic locales. But Kerruish’s best-known and most celebrated work was undoubtedly The Undying Monster: A Tale of the Fifth Dimension -- “an authentic, undisputed, and much-lauded masterpiece of the macabre."

First published in 1922, Kerruish’s novel concerns “the uncovering of a hereditary family curse unraveled by psychic detective” Luna Bartindale, who manages to end the lycanthropic cycle through hypnotic regression. A huge success upon its release, and while “the occult jargon is laid on a bit thick at times” the novel held up over the years and aged well enough to still be in print as late as 1975. Sadly, Kerruish’s promising career seemed to dry-up after the publication of The Undying Monster: A Tale of the Fifth Dimension. Crippled by a sudden onset of chronic migraine headaches, she contributed a few short stories to the anthology magazine, Not at Night, throughout the 1930s and 1940s but that was about it until the author kinda disappeared from the scene and then died an obscure death in 1949, exact date and cause unknown.

Sadly, no one would probably even remember Jessie Douglas Kerruish at all if not for 20th Century Fox’s cinematic adaptation of her novel, The Undying Monster (1942); a rare horror outing for the storied but staid studio. See, while Carl Laemmle Jr. and Universal drained the blood out of the box-office with their monsters and Gothic melodramas of the 1930s, strangely enough, their rival studios only made token efforts to cash-in as they franchised out. The Brothers Warner drummed up Dr. X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933); Paramount unfolded the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) and took us on a tour of The Island of Lost Souls (1932); and while RKO seemed content to keep re-releasing King Kong (1933), MGM tried and died with Freaks (1932); and Fox, well, they essentially washed their hands of the whole gruesome business.

That is they did until Darryl F. Zanuck, president and head of production for the studio, saw the box-office success of Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941) -- though Zanuck was less interested in the product on screen but the profit margin over how cheaply it was made. And so, Zanuck, for the first time ever at Fox, set up a B-unit to specifically produce a line of cheap horror movies. (They even had their own version of Lon Chaney Jr. in Laird Cregar.) Across town, RKO was doing the same thing -- of which I’m sure Zanuck was keenly aware, which would result in a highly successful string of psychological thrillers, beginning with Cat People (1942), thanks in most part to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur elevating the material well past their meager budgets and short shooting schedules. And while Fox’s brief horror output doesn’t quite rival Lewton’s RKO unit, they are solid and strange enough to make them worthy contributions to 1940s vintage horror that are well worth a look.

And perhaps in an effort to class them up a bit, Zanuck insisted all of them be based on some literary classic. And so, the first release on Fox’s new B-unit schedule was The Undying Monster. Perhaps not quite a ‘literary classic’ but it had a werewolf in it like Universal’s film. And while The Undying Monster feels like they snuck onto Universal’s back-lot to film it at times, the film’s Gothic surroundings, trappings, and frights are also firmly grounded in reality with all the modern forensic stuff -- one of the film’s best defining assets. In fact, the film plays out more like a Sherlock Holmes mystery than a monster movie -- we’re essentially watching The Werewolf of the Baskervilles, here, as Curtis and Christie realize, through scientific method, they’re dealing with a bona fide werewolf. Now all they have to do is find out who is sprouting fur and fangs before they go on a rampage again -- for even though the answer to that is rather obvious, they still have to prove it.

Balancing all of that out and delivering a smart and snappy thriller was director John Brahm -- with a notable assist from famed cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, who went on to much praise and Oscar nominations shooting things like The Killing (1956) for Stanley Kubrick and Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969) for Sam Peckinpah; and Ballard brings a harsh, proto-noir flavor that easily melds with the Gothic stuff with the sharp contrast of shadows and light. Still, much of the credit for the film’s success belongs to Brahm, who “meticulously mapped out every scene and camera angle before shooting commenced."

Born the son of a comedian and theater director, John Brahm was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps -- but then took it one step further. His first filmmaking experience came as a dialogue director for a film starring his future wife, Dolly Haas. Then, in 1934, seeing war was inevitable for Nazi Germany, and having had his fill of the army in the first World War, Brahm moved to England, where he continued working in film as a production supervisor. He then made his directing debut when D.W. Griffith backed out at the last minute for the British remake of the director’s own Broken Blossoms (1919/1936), also starring Haas. A year later, Brahm followed Haas to America, where he caught on at Columbia for his debut Hollywood film, a melodrama, Counsel for Crime (1937). In 1941 he signed a three year contract at 20th Century Fox. But after directing Wild Geese Calling (1941), another sudsy melodrama starring Henry Fonda, Joan Bennett, and Warren William, Brahm’s next assignment was to be a musical, something he was not comfortable with. And when he tried to beg off, Zanuck made him an offer: if he wouldn’t do the musical, he would have to do The Undying Monster.

Brahm, who was weaned on and was heavily influenced by the dark visual fantasies of F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and other German expressionists, jumped at the chance to do a horror film. Universal did the same thing back in the 1930s, importing German filmmakers such as Karl Freund and Paul Leni, and those influences definitely show as Brahm proved to have the same knack for suspense thrillers with deep psychological undercurrents that looked and felt ah-mazing. 

And if Brahm makes one mistake with The Undying Monster, it is the denouement after a pretty thrilling and well-executed climax when the identity of the werewolf is finally revealed -- well, confirmed, after he tried to kidnap Helga. But the monster is caught near the cliffs and takes a chest full of buckshot from a flying squad of constables, transforming back to his human form before he falls upon the rocks far below. (And if he wasn’t dead before, he’s definitely dead now.)

But then, setting the template perhaps for things like Psycho (1960), or echoing back to the ‘final word from our sponsors of the old Universal horrors, we have what feels like a tacked on ending, where Dr. Colbert, Curtis and Christie put the finishing touches on their official report of the incident, where Colbert tries to explain what happened and fill up a few plot-holes, claiming Oliver and the rest of the Hammonds all suffered from adult-onset lycanthropy. He then insinuates this inherited condition was just a plain old certifiable strain of insanity that always manifested at a certain age in certain Hammond men; and the Hammond family, wanting to keep this shameful secret a secret, concocted a yarn about a curse to cover up all those suicides. And those that didn’t kill themselves were locked away deep in the basement of Hammond Hall, explaining away all the evasiveness. 

He even denies that Oliver was ever a classic werewolf, who never grew fur and fangs and was, like all the others, just sick in the head -- even though everyone in the room, at least a half-dozen other witnesses, not to mention everyone in the audience, clearly saw Oliver covered in fur, baring his fangs, and slashing out with his claws before he changed back into a human as he died. Wow. Really? Yeah. Wow.

In front of the camera, considering when it was made, it’s kind of refreshing to see Brahm and screenwriters Lillie Hayward and Michael Jacoby stay true to the source material and have not one, but two, strong and very aggressive female characters in Helga Hammond and Cornelia Christopher. The opening scene after the attack, when Helga takes charge and tells the frightened menfolk around her to buck up and follow her is a bit of a welcome jolt. And while Christie is mostly played as the comedy relief and the butt of several jokes from her boss, it is the most tolerable comedy relief I’ve encountered in a film of this vintage. And on top of that, she is competent at her job and not prone to hysterics even though she believes in the supernatural. As for the men, well, aside from the debut of Charles McGraw and his amazing chin as one of the groundskeepers, they’re all pretty forgettable. James Ellison is kind of a poor man’s Ralph Bellamy. He isn’t terrible, he just seems to be trying too hard. And is it me, or is he talking louder than everyone else?

And one of The Undying Monsters smaller flaws is we never really get a good look at the werewolf. The sound design in the opening attack where we didn’t see the beast worked well enough, but the ending chase is marred by some skip-framing that makes it look rather cartoonish. And the only money shot appears to be an optical of some sort; with an apparent stuntman hanging from the rocks while John Howard’s wolfed-out face was shot somewhere else and then superimposed in later. It doesn’t quite jive but adds a little surrealism to it. There’s no one listed for make-up effects but Fred Sersen was in charge of special photographic effects. But making up for this in spades is that fantastic sequence in the lab when the monster’s hair sample disappears -- and my faulty memory had it disappearing due to the full moon going behind a cloud or the sun coming up.

Thus, other than the somewhat absent monster and the last three minute whitewashing, The Undying Monster is actually pretty great -- helped by the fact it keeps on moving and knew when to wrap itself up in little over an hour. But for some reason, Fox had little faith in their new venture and didn’t put much effort into promoting it so the film didn’t do very well at the box office. However, Zanuck must have seen something he liked and gave Brahm the greenlight for two follow-up features: The Lodger (1944), which is the director’s take on Jack the Ripper and is probably his masterpiece as he added a psycho-sexual component to the proceedings (-- and was so good Zanuck decided to promote it as an A-picture), and Hangover Square (1945), a lurid melodrama and kind of an unofficial sequel to The Lodger, where a mad musician, who’s not right in the head, goes on a murder spree; both starring Kreegar, who is equally fantastic in both and I highly recommend the same.

Alas, when the studio system collapsed, Brahm kinda got lost in the shuffle and failed to live up to this initial success on the big screen except for an interesting and offbeat film noir called The Locket (1946) he did for RKO. But he did carve himself out quite the niche on the small screen, directing for anthology TV shows like Thriller (12 episodes), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (10 episodes), The Outer Limits (2 episodes), and The Twilight Zone (12 episodes, including Time Enough at Last and Person or Persons Unknown). All in all a pretty good career. And while it didn’t officially start with The Undying Monster, it is definitely from which all that followed sprang. Check it out -- but be sure to skip those last three minutes.

Sources: St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers by Jack Adrian. 

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 21 down with only 5 to go! Up next: Voodoo Hoodoo Doodoo.

The Undying Monster (1942) 20th Century Fox / EP: William Goetz / P: Bryan Foy / D: John Brahm / W: Lillie Hayward, Michael Jacoby, Jessie Douglas Kerruish (novel) / C: Lucien Ballard / E: Harry Reynolds / M: Emil Newman, David Raksin / S: James Ellison, Heather Angel, John Howard, Bramwell Fletcher, Heather Thatcher, Halliwell Hobbes, Valerie Traxler, Aubrey Mather, Charles McGraw

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