Monday, 24 March 2014

Man Made Monster (1941)

Although not a classic with the gravitas and influence of the Dracula or Frankenstein films, Man-Made Monster is both a fun entry in the Universal monster canon, and significant as the film that gave Lon Chaney Jr. his horror debut and big commercial break.

When a crowded bus ploughs into a power line, gentle giant Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is the only survivor. McCormick, who does a sideshow act as Dynamo Dan the Electric Man, seems to be immune to electricity, and agrees to be tested by electro-biologist Dr John Lawrence and his colleague, Dr Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill). However, Rigas is a mad scientist who wants to create an army of electric zombies to rule the world – and thinks Dan might be the perfect guinea pig for his experiments. 

Although completely different in tone, Man-Made Monster does share some themes with Frankenstein, particularly the out-of-control science and a doomed monster who is actually an unwitting victim of it. Chaney does a good job of creating sympathy for Dan, a character is partly reminiscent of Lenny from Of Mice and Men, a role Chaney had played in the 1939 film adaption, being physically strong but good natured and with a soft spot for small animals, especially Dr Lawrence’s dog Corky.

The only other contender for screen presence in this film is Lionel Attwill, who gives Rigas a sleazy edge and some oily charm to go with his lust for power, traits that stop the character becoming monotonous.

As his partner in science Dr Lawrence, is Samuel S. Hinds, perhaps best known for playing Peter Bailey, father of George in It’s a Wonderful Life, and he brings a similar sort of warm decency to the part, which makes his willingness to perform potentially dangerous experiments on someone who does not seem to fully understand the implications a bit disconcerting. However, there is no denying the quality of his laboratory, filled as it is with the requisite, beakers, test tubes, and glowing sparking coils, as well a large table to shackle your test subject to. Although this sort of thing might look clich├ęd now, it is worth remembering that it is films such as this where these tropes were first created.

One thing that definitely ties this to the time period that it was made in is that the experiments involve electricity. Just four years after the release of the film, the first atomic bomb would be detonated, and the world’s mad scientists would switch to radiation to develop their armies of supermen.

Aside from being fast paced and entertaining in its own right, Man-Made Monster has a fairly significant place in the history of the Universal Horror cycle, as it was the success of the film that led to Lon Chaney Jr. getting the offer to play his most, iconic role, The Wolf Man.