Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Man Made Monster (Waggner 1941)

Earlier this year, I finally watched The Wolf Man, the 1941 horror classic from director George Waggner which featured Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. While I had some reservations about the film as a whole, it was an ambitious and striking work, thematically complex and an interesting critique of the pressures of patriarchy and traditional conceptions of masculinity.

So when I heard that there was another film from the same year directed by George Waggner with Chaney Jr. in the lead, I was excited to say the least. Unfortunately, Man Made Monster is far from the heights set by The Wolf Man. Instead of a bold an ambitious film, Man Made Monster is a poorly conceived riff on the Frankenstein story, borrowing the broad strokes of the tale and “updating” it for the pre-atomic era. The end result is a film whose sole value is as a camp classic when viewed ironically.

Man Made Monster opens with a bus crash into an electricity tower, which kills five of the six passengers. The lone survivor is Dan McCormick (Chaney Jr.), a carnival showman who comes out completely unscathed despite the high amounts of electricity. This bit of luck attracts the attention of a leading scientist named Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), who working on a bio-electrical theory. Dr. Lawrence invites Dan into his home with the idea of studying Dan’s “immunity” to electricity, an offer Dan is more than happy to accept given that he is temporarily out of work. Dr. Lawrence’s colleague, Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) however sees Dan as the perfect subject to test out his more extreme ideas about creating powerful electrically run beings, and sets about a clandestine set of experiments to transform Dan into one of his new electrical men

With a running time of only an hour, Man Made Monster moves at a rapid pace, and the film suffers as a result. The characterisation is rudimentary at best, with characters fitting into only the most basic of archetypes, if that. Only Chaney Jr. is given anything of real value to play in the film as Dan, the dim but loveable victim of Dr. Rigas. A scene late in the film where Dan is under psychological evaluation is given more effort from Chaney Jr. than the scene deserves, managing to bring out some legitimate pathos out of the proceedings. Atwill unfortunately does not fare near as well, with his mad scientist character existing as little more than a plot device designed to deliver poorly written exposition and even worse villainous monologues.

Blame for the shoddy writing falls on the shoulders of George Waggner himself, who wrote the film under the alias of Joseph West. While Waggner does manage to fare better in his direction of the film, Waggner the writer manages to undermine Waggner the director at numerous points thanks to the endless exposition. All too often, particularly in the final third of the film, characters stand about and deliver said exposition while watching events that we the audience are never made privy to, or even in scenes that audience is allowed to see. During the film’s climax, various characters stand around and describe what the monstrous Dan is doing rather than actually doing anything to help the situation, even though they are the characters who are supposed to be intervening.

Man Made Monster does have its charms however, a few of them legitimate. From time to time, Waggner does manage to creating some striking imagery, particularly during a montage scene showing the passage of time leading to a character’s execution date. The effects utilized to realize Dan in his monstrous state are effective, and the film does manage to have a bit of fun mocking psychoanalysis in a manner Alfred Hitchcock would have loved. However, the film is more memorable for its unintended humour, from the laughably bad science (electrical immunity? Really?) to what is perhaps one of the worst “man was not meant to play God” speeches I have heard in quite some time.

As a film likely made to fulfill a production quota, Man Made Monster is hardly the worst film to come out of the Classic Hollywood era. It is however a below average genre piece that would have been a welcome target for mockery on Mystery Science Theater 3000. While hard core genre fans will likely want to see the film, anyone else interested in seeing a science gone wrong film would be best to look elsewhere.

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