“A human monster watched with cat-like eyes for a victim.”
It’s a dark and spooky night on a heavily wooded road, and the “human monster” (George Austin) hides himself in a black cloak, waiting for a car to pass. Finally, a local farmer named Bowman makes his way down the road, before crashing and rolling his car into the woods.
The cloaked man’s scheme has worked, and with the help of a fellow creepster, he drags the injured Bowman out of the car and into a tunnel.
The nearby town of Danburg is in shock. Bowman seems to have disappeared without a trace! A search party is formed, including a young man named Johnny (Johnny Arthur). Johnny recently earned his diploma from the Kankakee School of Detectives. Can he find Bowman and save his life, or will the evil mastermind behind the accident, Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney), succeed in turning Bowman into his latest experiment?
Roland West directs 1925’s The Monster, from, as the opening title card calls it, a “famous stage success” by Crane Wilbur. According to TCM, this is the oldest surviving film to be directed by West.
The Monster is much lighter in tone than you’d expect for a film with such a title, especially one starring Lon Chaney. There is a love triangle, along with some laughs to accompany the crime plot and the darker moments it brings.
The sense of humor shows in the intertitles, as well as in the physical gags and general tone of the film. In an early example of the type of humor you can expect, the spooky dark-woods kidnapping that opens the film is followed by a snarky statement: “Bowman’s disappearance was Danburg’s biggest thrill since the milkman eloped with the bootlegger’s wife.”
I have to agree with Leonard Maltin’s assessment that comedic relief is a bit overused here. It leads to the film feeling somewhat uneven, when it could have struck a fun balance between the real chills of the “mad scientist” story and the more humorous moments. Bigger, but less frequent laughs would have solved this problem.
Still, there are positive attributes as well. The fact that Ziska’s evil lair exists in an old, defunct sanitarium adds a spook factor to the film, and there are several great “haunted mansion”-esque moments that take place there, including Ziska’s introduction to his new “guests.” A heavy-looking door slowly swings open, and Ziska emerges, Chaney looking as odd and eerie as ever.
The film is also very nicely photographed, especially in its most shadowy moments.
This was Chaney’s second film with MGM, according to TCM. His role is an early example of the ever-popular “mad scientist.” Despite the film’s shortcomings, Chaney is still a delight to watch. It isn’t his best role — I would actually say his potential to go “mad” as the mad scientist is under-utilized — but I’ll watch him in anything. He does a nice job here, and it’s interesting to see him in a much lighter film than he’s usually associated with, so the film is worth tuning in for by Chaney fans.
Those looking for a creepy silent horror flick should avoid this one, which borders on parody and provides very few frights. But, as mentioned above, it’s worth seeking out by Chaney fans for something a little different from his usual fare.