Last night I felt like killing some time via Universal horror movies! Always a good idea. I watched this film, and The Black Cat (1941), neither of which I had seen before. I will link my thoughts on the latter film if I review it.
Man-Made Monster was released in 1941 and was directed by George Waggner, who would later direct The Wolf Man (1941). This film also stars future wolf man Lon Chaney Jr. as the man turned monster.
The plot concerns Chaney’s character, Dan McCormick, who is the lone survivor of a tragic bus accident, in which all of the passengers were electrocuted to death after the bus struck some power lines. In incredibly good spirits, McCormick, who is a carnival performer that dabbles in electrical illusions, is taken in by Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds). Lawrence wants to innocently study his apparent immunity to electricity, but his sinister colleague Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) plans to turn Dan into a subsurvient glowing zombie.
Throughout the film we see the juxtaposition between the two scientists, how Dr. Lawrence wants to use Dan’s gifts to help people and how Rigas plans to achieve world domination (it always seems to be the goal among Universal monster movie scientists). That dynamic is interesting to watch, especially on Rigas’ side. Lionel Atwill is at his most sinister in this role, and chews the scenery around him with glee. A poignant moment arises when Rigas is giving Dan his first major dose of electricity, and Dan smiles at Rigas, unaware of the doctor’s true intentions. Rigas just gives him a cold stare.
Chaney is very charismatic in the first half of this film as Dan McCormick, pre-monster. It is easy to see why Universal liked the actor enough to give him the starring role in The Wolf Man later that year. He smiles through practically everything, until Rigas gets ahold of him.
After his transformation into a glowing hulk of a man, however, he becomes less interesting. He has only a few lines and mostly walks around with a constipated look on his face. I felt for the character, but his lack of verbal anguish and pathos just didn’t sell it for me all the way through. Universal gave us a more compelling protagonist in The Invisible Ray (1936), starring Boris Karloff (as a glowing man) and Bela Lugosi.
The effects here are impressive, especially the animated glowing auora around Chaney. For a low-budget film, it is pretty good-looking. The bus crash at the very beginning of the film is also not bad (until the bus actually crashes), and initially I could not tell if it was a miniature.
(Left) Karloff in The Invisible Ray and (right) Chaney in Man-Made Monster. Their physical actions in these screenshots give the accurate impression that Karloff’s character is more methodical, and Chaney’s is more of a monstrosity.
This movie seems to take bits (both literally and thematically) from other Universal films. The mad scientist character who toys with electricity clearly invokes memories of Doctor Frankenstein. The frantic search for the monster in the countryside reminds me of The Invisible Man (1933). Horror buffs will recognize shots of some contraptions in Rigas’ lab as being lifted from Frankenstein (1931), and one of the machines in particular seems to be the exact same one Boris Karloff and J. Carroll Naish use in House of Frankenstein (1944). The glowing protagonist is incredibly similar in appearance to Karloff in The Invisible Ray (1936). Universal often repeated itself in making these B movies in the 1940s, however here they combine elements from previous films and turn it into something familiar, but new.
I really did not like the ending. The climax of the film is Chaney’s (now zombielike) character heading off to the electric chair for the murder of Dr. Lawrence earlier in the film. This is all a test in Dr. Rigas’ mind, however, to see how powerful Dan can really become (Rigas was responsible for Dan murdering Dr. Lawrence). He escapes the prison, heads back to Rigas’ lab, and saves Dr. Lawrence’s neice June from Rigas, who he electrocutes.
Oh, I forgot to mention. Dr. Lawrence has a neice, and she has a boyfriend, but neither character is that important or compelling; they’re just… um… there to unravel the plot for the audience.
Anyway, the glowing menace saves June’s life, but then inexplicably carries her out of the lab and into a nearby field. Why? Did the producers really want a money-shot of the iconic monster carrying the girl away trope that badly? Rigas was dead, and the good guys were on their way, so he had no reason to carry her off if his intent was to save her life. June would have been just fine if he’d left her there.
I won’t reveal the fate of Chaney’s character here, but just as a note, it a bit similar to the finale of The Wolf Man (1941).
This movie starts out promising and delivers a servicable story, until after the prison scenes in my opinion. It is not very long (less than an hour, a definite plus), and the pacing is relatively quick, so if you want to see it, go ahead! It is a decent monster movie with a couple of exceptional performances (Atwill and Chaney), and is best viewed back-to-back with another movie; a nice double-bill experience.
The film is available on DVD; I recommend buying it in this collection, you get five minor Universal horror films for a good price.
It is also available by itself on MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD from the Universal Vault series.
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