Sunday, October 25, 2009

October Horror-thon #25: "Night Monster" (1942)

Welcome to Ingston Towers, home of the looniest tunes to ever grace a Universal production. Patriarch Kurt (Ralph Morgan) is confined to a wheelchair, his sister (Fay Helm) thinks she's going insane, and a would-be swami (Nils Asther) has made himself at home. It's to this funny farm that Kurt summons a trio of doctors he plans to astound with a medical breakthrough. Our friend the yogist has apparently taught him how to repair human organs and tissue using nothing but his mind. But while the doctors dispute this fantastic claim, something strange has taken to prowling the Ingston estate at night, an evil force introducing those who cross its path to an early grave.

It's safe to say that Universal had its fair share of corny fright flicks. They can't all be classics, so it's only natural that the occasional oddity turn up. But none have been as downright puzzling as Night Monster, an unassuming mystery that plays like The Old Dark House by way of David Lynch. Disorientation is key, as viewers are launched into what feels like a story already in progress; you'll swear there's 20 extra minutes floating around somewhere. The film also has a habit of jumping from character to character, each one loopy enough to star in their own B-vehicle. Eventually, Night Monster settles down a bit and adopts a traditional whodunit format, though once the initial, "What the hell?" shock has passed, it turns out to be a pretty by-the-books picture.

For one, Night Monster sure makes the story a breeze to figure out. Without giving too much away, there's one moment fairly early on where if it seems like the movie's telling you exactly what's going to happen, it is. Plus, this "revelation" really does test one's commitment to the fantastic. We've come to accept the walking dead and all sorts of supernatural boogeymen over the years, but Night Monster doesn't play its cards well enough for audiences to buy into its baloney. Other than that, it's a decent enough spook show, with an entertaining turn from Morgan as the crippled Mr. Ingston. Even Bela Lugosi puts in an appearance as the obligatory butler, a glorified cameo that nevertheless highlights one of the more lucid moments of his career.

Night Monster may bat for Universal's bush leagues (outdone even by obscure fare like Captive Wild Woman), but it makes for an all-around quirky watch. As fleetingly unconventional as it is, such nuttiness does stir things up and add a little flavor to this silly cinematic stew.

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