The Second World War had a strange effect on the world of horror, as the world turned to horrors of a more real than those provided by Count Dracula and Dr Frankenstein. Studios knew an audience for horror still existed, but regarded such film-goers as a stubborn hardcore and not a thriving market. Accordingly, such movies received less investment and attention, and even Universal’s classic monster film series began to turn in on itself. Although the results were often entertaining, the lack of originality left horror a marginally profitable backwater with little incentive to make anything fresh of the genre’s aging stock of gothic chills. Now and then, a studio would challenge Universal’s dominance, as was the case in 1942 when Twentieth Century Fox produced Dr Renault’s Secret and the more successful The Undying Monster. Based on the 1922 novel The Undying Monster: A Tale of the Fifth Dimension by Jess Douglas Kerruish, this is an interesting film, made at a time of conflict and in conflict with itself, as the production, attempting something new, clashes with a script aping other successful films of the time.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainTwo films influenced The Undying Monster: The Wolf Man (1941), the latest horror hit for Universal, and Fox’s own Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and in particular its 1939 début The Hound of the Baskervilles. This has the unfortunate effect of pulling The Undying Monster in two directions, towards the supernatural fantasy of The Wolf Man and the more scientifically inclined Sherlock Holmes stories. At the same time, the script adapts a traditional gothic horror novel set in Britain, while the director, German-born John Brahm, is keen to demonstrate the subtle, expressionistic techniques first developed in his homeland. We also have, by way of mischievous critical speculation, the wartime alliance the USA and the UK to consider, with the cast a mix of Americans and Brits, the latter more in supporting roles and adding local color, with two American actors, James Ellison and John Howard, as rational, straightforward figures, in the traditional style of Hollywood leading men. Indeed, Ellison portrays a character similar to Sherlock Holmes, despite being the wrong nationality, a sign of America’s increasing ‘invasion’ into customary British staples, while English-born Heather Thatcher plays the Dr Watson figure as an eccentric comic relief, hindering as much helping Ellison’s Robert Curtis, the default Holmesian hero.
Along with Brahm’s direction, Lucien Ballard’s photography has received deserved praise from critics such as Leslie Halliwell and Phil Hardy; deep and fluid, Ballard’s work on The Undying Monster helps give the film a more expensive look than its ‘B’ origins would suggest. The opening sequence has come in for special commendation; after a voiceover explaining the curse of the Hammonds, and setting our story on the English coast around the year 1900, the camera takes us on a tour of the main hall of Hammond House as a grandfather clock strikes midnight. Upon each chime, the camera alights upon an object or person within the room, in a style more akin to a European modernist writer than a Hollywood ‘B’ film. A story unfolds through visuals alone: a family crest; a vulnerable woman asleep on the sofa; a Great Dane, ears pricked and alert; a roaring fire; a suit of armor; an aging butler. All elements tying together to form a history, and the present day, of this family, with each swoop of the camera a semi-colon in the story of the Hammonds.
The butler, Walton (Halliwell Hobbes), accidentally awakens Helga Hammond (Heather Angel), who wants to know if her brother Oliver has returned from a visit to his friend, Dr Colbert. He has not, making Walton uneasy: “It was on just such a night as this,” he begins, but is hushed by Helga. Leading the dog, Alex, outside to its kennel, the dog's furious barking startles Helga and Walton who see nothing amiss. Helga supposes poachers are afoot, but Walton notes the cold weather and recites the family lore: “When stars are bright, on a frosty night, beware thy bane, on the rocky lane.” Walton believes in the legend of a beast at large along the cliffs at certain nights, hunting down men of the Hammond family foolish enough to take the short cut from the village, which seems to me a very specific sort of curse and one easily avoided. Helga, her manner as clear and clipped as her accent, believes in no such foolishness. Walton reminders Helga her grandfather killed himself after seeing the beast, and its “horribly mangled” victim. Helga telephones Dr Colbert, who tells her Oliver left some minutes ago...outside, a dog howls, and it isn’t Alex pining for the fireplace.
Not far away, the Hammond’s maid, Kate O’Malley (Virgina Traxler), runs along the cliffs for her life – and loses. Brahm employs a point-of-view shot of the killer, the camera shaking back and forth like an attack in a modern slasher movie, though of course much less gory. Also modern is Helga’s reaction; no shrinking violet, she dons her coat and headscarf, requests her father’s revolver and orders her coachman to drive her towards the screams. Housekeeper Mrs Walton (a cruelly uncredited Eily Malyon) warns against such bravado. “I can get a crack at it,” Helga replies. “I’m a pretty good shot,” and we believe her.
Helga ventures down the rugged cliffs with the coachman and calls for Oliver among the blasted trees. The pair find Oliver’s spaniel, “horribly dead,” which is the worst sort of dead. Oliver is found alive, in better shape than his spaniel, unlike Kate, who is very much a dog’s dinner and in a coma.
Dr Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher) and Hegla tend to the injured Oliver in bed as he explains he Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domainwalked Kate home, until attacked “from all sides at once.” The script works hard to cover its tracks while also making it easy to work out the villain; Oliver describes how he fought the beast “in a darkness that turned red,” and other such interesting quasi-psychological turns of phrase, but does make one figure this is a whodunit with only one suspect. Oliver himself believes a monster lurks in the countryside, determined to kill every last Hammond.
Alone with Dr Colbert, Helga knocks back a restorative brandy and wonders why Oliver doesn’t have any distinctive claw marks on his body, as a monster or beast would leave behind. Helga refutes Oliver’s supernatural suppositions; Dr Colbert demurs, clearly knowing more than he lets on.
Meanwhile in London, Robert Curtis (James Ellis, a former rancher who bears a passing resemblance to Clark Gable or Errol Flynn), the man who solved the infamous Kensington murders, is at scientific work with assistant Christy (Heather Thatcher). The interaction between Curtis and Christy suggests the pair have worked together quite a while, and will continue to do so at a cinema near you, but if The Undying Monster was intended as a series, it ended after just one film. As the Inspector Craig (Aubrey Mather) joins them, Christy offers fresh toffee made, as Curtis points out, with lab equipment used to test samples for hydrophobia. As Christy runs off either to have her stomach pumped or to howl at the moon, Curtis and Craig discuss the Hammond case. The Inspector, who looks rather like a plump little owl, believes the supernatural is at work, but Curtis is a scientist and intends to find out the truth behind the hoary Hammond legend.
Curtis gets to show off his knowledge of the legend when Helga arrives in London to request an official investigation into the attacks. The story began with Sir Reginald Hammond, a crusader who made an unholy alliance to prolong his life, and is now said to live in a secret room in Hammond House, emerging only to kill, as per satanic terms and conditions. Impressed by this array of knowledge on her family history, Helga agrees to put up Curtis in Hammond House, though why anyone puts up with Christy, who looks forward to indulging her love of murder cases and horse-like appetite while bellowing lines as if aiming at the neighboring film studio, is anyone’s guess.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Tobias Helfrich/PumbaaWasting no time, Curtis joins Oliver at the police search of the cliffs, and everyone gathers around the dead dog to speculate on the nature of its death (it those days before television, people often gathered around dead things to guess at their demise). Curtis floats the idea that an escaped monkey from the local zoo caused the mayhem and the police go off to pursue this frankly unlikely line of inquiry, because Curtis speaks so well compared to their working-class yokel accents.
Christy has re-arranged Hammond House more to her liking, with dinner taking place in the main hall around the fire, due to ghosts’ noted dislike of warm rooms. “But there is something here, something strange,” she muses, and it’s nothing to do with those British pork sausages. Curtis blames Christy’s “feminine intuition,” an old euphemism used to describe intelligent women. A less intelligent woman, Millie the Maid (Heather Wilde) screams on seeing a ‘monster’ in the cupboard, just as chains are heard clanking from the crypt...