Thursday, October 1, 2009

October Horror-thon #1: "Man Made Monster" (1941)

(This review is the first in a series that will run throughout October. In addition to links to critiques and articles written for other venues, I will post one quick horror review every day for the entire month. Every day will see a new flick put under the microscope, so keep checking back!)

A nasty bus accident claims the lives of all its passengers, save for one: the jovial Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr.). He survived the ordeal thanks to an immunity to electricity he puts to use in various carnival sideshows. The kindly Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) wishes to harness McCormick's gift to cure illnesses, but his associate Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) has more deranged aspirations in mind. Through increased exposure to electricity, Rigas turns McCormick into a regular jolt junkie, a mindless monster dependent on power to live. The mad scientist's evil scheme reaches its apex when McCormick is sent to jail for murder, after which a trip to the chair unleashes the full force of his abilities.

For some, Universal's greatest run of horror began and ended in the 1930s. True, it's hard to top Dracula and Frankenstein, especially with the often ineffective sequels they were followed with. But the following decades weren't without a gem or two, of which Man Made Monster is among the most underrated. The story is basic fodder for the time, your standard cautionary tale about how technology will bite us all in the ass if abused enough. But what makes it all work is the unexpectedly touching performance from Chaney. Keep in mind, this was made before The Wolf Man, and he still had his famous father's reputation to live up to. But Chaney pulls off the sympathetic monster act wonderfully, faring well as both the energetic McCormick and the juiced-up abomination he becomes (even in a suit that has him resembling a rubberized Tin Man).

Once an obscurity only the most die-hard classic horror buffs possessed, Man Made Monster is now widely available in the rather groovy Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive set. While not as foreboding as others of the era, it's thematically sound and, at just an hour's length, a well-paced ride, one that'll do just the trick if you can't get enough Frankensteinian shenanigans.

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