Wednesday, May 8, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*

Though the classic Universal monsters were still going strong in the early forties, arguably the studio's horror-mystery programmers became somewhat erratic in quality.

NIGHT MONSTER is one of the good ones. Though director Ford Beebe was best known for B-westerns and serials, he does a fine job imparting a sense of Gothic fatalism to the weird family on the Ingston Estate. Ingston is the crabbed, crippled paterfamilias of the house, and he reigns over a heritage of hate that includes his possibly insane sister, his devoted housekeeper and butler (the latter played by a top-billed Bela Lugosi), his randy strongman-chauffeur, a Hindu mystic, and a maid who begins the story by fleeing the mansion in tried-and-true Gothic-heroine style.

Ingston's sister Margaret is first seen scrubbing at mysterious bloodstains on the floor as she were a latter-day Lady Macbeth. However, she's not totally bonkers, for she defies her tyrannical brother by sending for a psychiatrist. Miss Harper, to ascertain Margaret's own sanity. Margaret becomes the replacement Gothic heroine for the story, while Dick Baldwin, one of Ingston's neighbors, falls in with her and becomes the de facto Gothic leading-man. Ingston's wealth makes it possible for him to stoke the fuels of his hatred against the doctors who crippled him, and he doesn't want visitors. However, a mysterious killer murders the vagrant maid, and so the local sheriff locks down the mansion, refusing to let the occupants lead during the legal investigation.

Three doctors, despite being aware that Ingston nurtures ill feelings toward them, also occupy the house, but not for long, as the killer goes after them as well. Not surprisingly, this causes the sheriff and Baldwin (who's apparently a consultant because he writes murder-mysteries) to suspect Ingston. But he's not just crippled, he's a quadriplegic, so he's a poor candidate for a killer. However, the aforementioned Hindu mystic demonstrates some bizarre talents that may reveal the identity of the serial murderer.

The standout feature of this B-film is the marvelous nature of the Hindu's powers, since this is one of the few times such supernatural abilities were used to explain what seems like a serial-killer mystery. The script's idea of said powers is actually pretty well-researched for 1942, though the mystic (Nils Asther) doesn't get much to do, any more than top-billed Lugosi (who might've been better served with the Hindu role). The other members of the ensemble, though, are given relatively rounded characterizations for a B-mystery, particularly Leif Erickson's smarmy chauffeur and Fay Helm's nervous but righteous Margaret, who has a great end-scene against the officious housekeeper. But Ralph Morgan's nasty Ingston gets the best lines, and, as in Gothic fiction, the hero and heroine (Baldwin and Harper) pale by comparison.

On the flip side, we have HORROR ISLAND, which has nothing going for it but the familiarity of some of its better actors, particularly Leo Carrillo in one of his many heavily-accented types. The "horror" of the title is The Phantom, a cloaked murderer in a fright-mask who's trying to get hold of the treasure of pirate captain Morgan, but the Phantom is certainly not the star of the show, as was the "Smiling Ghost" of a similar horror-comedy of the same year (albeit from Warner's). The star is Bill Martin (Dick Foran), a young guy who's constantly trying to find some career that puts money in his pocket without his having to work too hard. Not much is revealed about Bill's past, though apparently at some point his family had enough money that he received, as a bequest, a small island off the coast of Florida. One might speculate that because Bill got saddled with this useless white elephant, he's spent his life thinking that the world owes him a living: hence his attempt to further his fortunes with trivial enterprises like dance studios and escort services. When the Phantom comes into his life, pursuing half of a treasure map held by Carillo's character Tobias, Bill barely takes the Phantom seriously, nor Tobias's claim that the treasure of Captain Henry Morgan is hidden somewhere on Bill's crummy little island (which, despite being supposedly valueless, has an old mansion on it that ought to be worth something).

Bill's main response to all this folderol is a new get-rich-quick scheme, as he decides to host a "haunted house ride" on the island for all the suckers he can pull together. This group includes the usual Universal collection of oddballs: a married couple who turn out to be a gangster and his moll, a sleepwalking professor, and the usual pretty girl with whom Bill exchanges flirtations. However, the tour is interrupted by the usual murder attempts, and not only by the mysterious Phantom, who ends up being the film's number-two menace.

In addition to the Phantom's peculiar outfit, the old pirate mansion also sports one "outre device" slightly in line with the tomb-traps of the much later Indiana Jones flicks. I found all of the characters as thoroughly uninteresting as the ones in NIGHT MONSTER were semi-interesting. I'd call the story's motifs psychological since the base idea is that once gadabout Bill Martin falls in love with the standard pretty chick, he'll straighten up and fly right. But in this role at least, Dick Foran's charm fails to impress.


  1. Hi Gene: I largely agree with your assessments of the excellent Nigh Monster, which I found hugely entertaining, with nary a dull moment. It moved at a good but not fast pace, the characters were nicely realized, and I found the acting for the most part well above average.

    A truly A level effort for such a modestly budgeted picture. While it has little in common with the roughly contemporaneous Val Lewton horrors from RKO it didn't seem to get the respect from critics. But then I doubt that Ford Beebe & Friends had any high artistic aspirations, as was clear from the start the Lewton people did.

    As to Horror Island, I saw it so long ago as to scarcely remember it but for Dick Foran's being in it. He was a competent player, and I've seen him do good work in films; however, like you, I find him charmless; and with only a handful of exceptions,--The Petrified Forest and My Little Chickadee come to mind--he seldom made a positive impression in films. I find his light, musical comedy persona all wrong for the leading man-archaeologist character in The Mummy's Hand.

  2. Glad to see NIGHT MONSTER get some more love.

    I thought Foran and Peggy Moran had an Ok chemistry in MUMMY'S HAND, but then, Peggy's character is a little more than just "the girl" in that flick.

  3. Yeah. She was cute and had youthful spunk and an original personality. Dick Foran was Dick Foran.