April 25, 2011

Horrifying Health Care

Night Monster (1942)

Several weeks ago I was joking with a co-worker that my pets (3 dogs and 3 cats) enjoy far better health care than I do: I can always get them an appointment within a day or two; the office wait time is minimal; and the vets and the techs are always smiling and giving the critters lots of love and attention. I, on the other hand, sometimes wait weeks for an appointment, and when I do get there… well, let's just say I've gained a wealth of knowledge about not-so-current events and sports from thumbing through dog-eared magazines in the waiting (and waiting, and waiting) room.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be wealthy enough to afford the kind of lavish attention that my animals get-- cheerful, top-notch professionals who have all the time in the world to listen to your complaints, empathize, and do something about them. Of course, money doesn't always buy happiness, or even competent doctors-- Michael Jackson being a recent spectacular example.

Night Monster's wealthy recluse Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) seems to have been similarly cursed with incompetent medical help, leaving him a bedridden quadriplegic. The film opens on an ominous note, as Ingston's anxious sister Margaret (Fay Helm) confronts the housekeeper (Doris Lloyd) hunched over on the main stairs of the family mansion. It appears-- at least to Margaret-- that the housekeeper is mopping up blood. The housekeeper, whose attempt at a poker face is a clear failure, dismisses the idea as ridiculous, but Margaret is having none of it:  "Blood-- the whole house reeks of it. The air is charged with death and hatred and something that's unclean!"  She knows what she's seen, but the staff of Ingston Towers seem intent on trying to convince her that she's just suffering from nervous exhaustion… or insanity.

If Margaret Ingston is insane, then Milly the maid (Janet Shaw) is too, because she's become so spooked that she's quit her job and tried unsuccessfully to get the local constable to investigate all the "funny business" going on at the Towers. The body of the local doctor has recently been discovered in the nearby slough. The locals (including Milly) are full of stories about a deadly thing that walks the fog-covered grounds at night-- and when it walks, all the frogs in the slough become deathly silent. After having words with the imperious head butler (Bela Lugosi), Milly heads out to the village to find help in moving out. Her big mistake is going back for her things-- trapped in the malignant mansion after dark without a ride, she sets out on foot-- and promptly the frogs stop croaking…

At this point, so many visitors start arriving at the Towers that it's hard to tell all the players apart without a scorecard. Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey), a psychiatrist summoned by the anxious Margaret, has car trouble just outside the estate and is picked up by Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), a mystery writer and neighbor of the Ingstons.  Meanwhile, three doctors -- King (Lionel Atwill), Phipps (Francis Pierlot) and Timmons (Frank Reicher)  -- arrive at the nearby train station. They presided over the botched operation that left Ingston without functioning arms or legs, but have been invited out to the mansion by the apparently forgiving millionaire, who promises that he will soon make "a major contribution to medical science." King is a puffed-up twit who refuses to admit that they catastrophically failed their wealthy patient; Phipps can talk about nothing but glands-- only Timmons seems truly remorseful and sensitive to the limitations of medical science. That night at dinner, the wheelchair-bound Ingston reassures Timmons and his colleagues that "you did all that medical science could do for me. You know, I don't think you've ever been properly rewarded… but you will be…"

Ingston introduces the doctors and the other guests to Agor Singh (Nils Asther), an eastern mentalist / Yogi who has been living at the Towers for some time. Intelligent, soft-spoken and urbane, Singh is a distinct contrast to the three bickering stooges of the traditional medical establishment.  The impish Ingston seems to positively revel in the doctors' discomfort as he talks about the arcane methods he has learned from Singh to allow a man to grow new tissues at will. The arrogant Dr. King stalks off, muttering that he doesn't have time to watch "the cheap sideshow tricks of a charlatan." But the rest of the dinner party is treated to an amazing demonstration of Singh's power to tap into universal "vibrations" and materialize objects with just the power of his mind. After the spooky demonstration, there is no doubt that the incompetent doctors (even the remorseful Timmons) will soon be getting their just rewards…

As the doctors come to their "rewards" one by one in the gloomy mansion, Dick and Lynn (along with crusty, homespun constable Beggs played by Robert Homans) go into super-sleuth mode, breaking into locked rooms and puzzling over blood spots that don't appear to be from the victims. Late into the proceedings, Margaret insists to Dick and Lynn that her brother Kurt is behind the killings-- he's been brooding over his crippled condition to the point of insanity, and has lured the doctors to the Towers to punish them for their incompetence. Figuring that he's been faking paralysis, Dick convinces the constable to confront the master of the house, only to discover that Ingston has been covering up the fact that he has no legs!  But then, maybe, just maybe, this Eastern-mystic notion of mind over matter isn't so crazy after all.

Bela does his patented arched eyebrow.
Night Monster is a neat little B thriller in the "old dark house" tradition with some memorable twists and a very competent cast. Although Bela Lugosi is top-billed, he's completely wasted as the head butler who has little more to do than knit his brows, roll his eyes, and occasionally stare malevolently at the other players. Ralph Morgan (brother of "Wizard of Oz" Frank Morgan) is by turns ingratiating and sinister as he manipulates the flustered doctors like a cat playing with three cornered mice. Morgan lent his talents to several other mystery-horrors in the '40s, including Weird Woman (1944; with Lon Chaney Jr.), The Monster Maker (1944), and The Monster and the Ape (1945). Lionel Atwill is his usual screen-chewing self as the pompous Dr. King-- unfortunately he gets bumped off early (the screenwriter should have saved the best for last). Fay Helm (Margaret Ingston) had been victimized by The Wolf Man (1941) just a year before Night Monster. She appeared in a couple of dozen more programmers through the mid-1940s, including a Universal Inner Sanctum mystery with Lon Chaney Jr. (Calling Dr. Death, 1943) and the top-notch film noir Phantom Lady (1944). Baby-boomers may recognize Ingston's randy chauffeur played by a very young Leif Erikson. Erikson was a major presence on TV through the 1970s (especially in westerns), appearing in such series as The Virginian (1964-65) and The High Chaparral (1967-71).

Although it drags in places, Night Monster is a very effective and very dark B programmer. Charles Van Enger's superb cinematography and Ford Beebe's assured direction enhance some very chilling moments. Dr. Timmon's demise is particularly notable-- as he cowers in a darkened corner of his massive bedroom, a menacing shadow first covers half of his quivering form, then envelops him completely as the thing casting the shadow runs full speed at him. No less a film titan than Alfred Hitchcock is said to have admired Night Monster. Director Beebe recalled Night Monster with some fondness (quoted in Richard Borjarski's The Complete Films of Bela Lugosi):
Though it was a 'quickie,' I always was kind of proud of it. Hitchcock, who was also making a picture on the lot, screened a rough cut because he was interested in Janet Shaw for a part in his film, and was impressed with Night Monster and seemed to think it was a much more important picture than the studio thought. He couldn't believe the picture was shot in 11 days.
Night Monster is available on DVD as part of the excellent Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive set.

"There's a lot of funny business going on out here that you oughta look into before it's too late!"

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