Tuesday, November 24, 2009

House of Horrors (Universal, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran another item from the Universal Cult Horror Collection box: House of Horrors, a generically titled 1946 effort that I’ve always quite liked even though it’s notorious as the next-to-last film made by Rondo Hatton, a genuinely tragic figure whose real life was much more compelling than any of his movies. Hatton was born on April 22, 1894 in Hagerstown, Maryland and in 1912 moved with his family to Tampa, Florida, where as a young man was quite attractive, a star high-school athlete and very popular. All that changed when he went to fight in World War I, was caught in a German poison-gas attack, and survived but contracted acromegaly, a rare disease in which the body overproduces human growth hormone and the extremities swell up to grotesque proportions. Hatton got a job after the war as a reporter with the Tampa Tribune, and in 1930 he was covering the location trip of a movie company shooting a film called Hell Harbor. His grotesque appearance caught the eye of the film’s director, Henry King who gave him a small role in the movie.

According to imdb.com, he also played a juror in the 1931 William Wellman masterpiece, Safe in Hell, but then didn’t work in films again until 1936, when he and his second wife had the idea of moving to Hollywood and allowing the movie companies to exploit his real “monstrous” face and gait. He was mostly cast in minor roles — albeit sometimes minor roles in quite important movies like In Old Chicago, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Moon and Sixpence and the 1939 Dieterle/Laughton version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame — until 1944, when Universal signed him and decided to give him a major buildup as a horror star. They launched his new career by casting him as a mute, monstrous murderer in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce film The Pearl of Death, an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Six Napoleons” in which Hatton played an invented character, “The Hoxton Creeper,” the hired-gun killer used by master jewel thief Giles Conover (Miles Mander) to knock off anyone in the way of his pursuit of the Borgia Pearl.

Universal used him again in movies like Jungle Captive and The Spider Woman Strikes Back and then decided to launch his career as a monster star with House of Horrors — shot under the working titles Joan Medford Is Missing (which doesn’t happen until the final reel!) and Murder Mansion (there isn’t a mansion — murderous or otherwise — in the film at all). Universal used writer Dwight V. Babcock to concoct an “original” story for Hatton’s monster-star debut, George Bricker to turn it into a screenplay and (a boy named) Jean Yarbrough to direct — and the surprise is that House of Horrors, though made at the tail end of Universal’s Gothic horror cycle, turned out to be quite good.

Part of the film’s quality comes from Yarbrough’s flair for Gothic atmosphere — unlike William Nigh with The Strange Case of Dr. Rx, Yarbrough emerged from the salt mines of the sub-“B” studios (in his case PRC instead of Monogram) and actually took full advantage of the resources of a major studio with state-of-the-art production facilities; he and cinematographer Maury Gertsman included some extensive moving-camera shots, dark, chiaroscuro lighting, appropriately doomy music from the Universal stock library and an overall aura of chill far above most of the routine Universal horror product of the time. Another plus is the performance of Martin Kosleck, an actor best known for playing Joseph Goebbels twice (in 1944’s The Master Race and 1962’s Hitler) and perfectly cast here as Marcel Delange, an artist who creates clay sculptures of oddly distorted figures that look fine to me but arouse the ire of vicious art critics F. Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier) and Hal Ormiston (Howard Freeman).

The film opens in Delange’s studio, where he is lamenting that all he has to live on is bread and cheese, and at night he has to work by candlelight because he couldn’t afford to pay his electric bill, but he’s hopeful that a rich collector, Mr. Samuels (Byron Foulger), will buy one of his works and allow him to eat a decent meal, feed his cat all the milk the animal could want, and get his lights turned on again. Alas, Samuels arrives at Delange’s studio with critic Harmon in tow — and Harmon viciously assaults Delange’s work and gets the artist so mad he throws both of them out of his studio, then smashes the sculpture Harmon just talked Samuels out of buying. Delange then walks to a convenient river and is about to End It All by throwing himself in, whereupon he sees someone else in the water and rescues him instead.

The man he’s saved is “The Creeper” (no other name, though in the imdb.com listing for Hatton he’s identified as “Hal Moffet” because that was his name in the next “Creeper” movie, The Brute Man). Once the two are together, the plot draws on such unlikely ancestors in the Universal canon as The Bride of Frankenstein (the monster taken in and befriended by a stranger) and the 1935 The Raven (the monster exploited by a madman for personal revenge). Delange wins the Creeper’s affections by buying him food (albeit with the Creeper’s own money: $3 he found on the Creeper when he pulled him out of the river) and being nice to him, and in return the Creeper faithfully goes out and murders the art critics he hears Delange rail against. In the course of his tirades Delange takes care to give the Creeper the addresses of the people he wants to kill, thereby turning his attentions from knocking off women (it’s established early on that he’s become a wanted killer because of his habit of approaching women on the street for sex; when they inevitably scream at the sight of him, he attacks them with such force that he breaks their spines) to becoming Delange’s avenging devil.

Mixed up in all of this is commercial artist Steve Morrow (Robert Lowery, two years before he became the movies’ second Batman), who does girlie pictures for magazine covers and has also attracted Harmon’s ire because, as Harmon puts it, “No girl really looks like that.” (Actually Joan Fulton, the actress playing Morrow’s model, really does look that good.) The plot incidents are pretty predictable — it ends with Morrow’s girlfriend, art critic Joan Medford (Virginia Grey), trapped in Delange’s studio; she convinces the Creeper that Delange means to turn him in to the police, and so the Creeper kills Delange and is about to kill Joan as well when the representative of the official police, lieutenant Larry Brooks (Bill Goodwin), who had previously suspected Steve of the murders because he and Harmon had a public argument, shoots the Creeper through the window of Delange’s studio and thereby saves Joan’s life.

It’s not a particularly ambitious movie, and Hatton’s appearance inspires more sympathy than fright — which I actually think is a good thing. Harry and Michael Medved, in their book The Golden Turkey Awards, nominated Hatton for their “P. T. Barnum award for the Worst Cinematic Exploitation of a Physical Deformity” (the other nominees were conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton in Chained for Life, Billy Curtis in the 1973 gangster spoof Little Cigars and the winners, the entire cast of The Terror of Tiny Town), but despite his difficult-to-look-at appearance Hatton actually strikes notes of pity and pathos — maybe not the kind of pathos Boris Karloff could have achieved if he’d been playing this part in one of Jack P. Pierce’s makeups (ironically Pierce gets screen credit for this film where he didn’t for the first two Frankenstein movies, despite the crucial importance of his famous makeup to those films’ success), but still an oddly moving performance that suggests (as does his actual biography) that Hatton was a decent and loving human being under those grotesque gas-distorted features.

Aside from that, House of Horrors plays out with a cool professionalism, ably recycling admittedly well-worn materials and a much better film than the two other “new” items in the Cult Horror Classics box, The Strange Case of Doctor Rx and The Mad Ghoul. (The fourth and fifth films in the box, Murders in the Zoo and The Mad Doctor of Market Street, are both ones Charles and I had seen relatively recently and quite liked, Murders in the Zoo for its unusually graphic violence for a 1933 film and both for Lionel Atwill’s underplayed urbanity as the villains of the pieces.)

Hatton lived to make only one other film, The Brute Man, produced at Universal with the same director and writers (with M. Coates Webster added to the writing team this time), but the combination of Hatton’s death on February 2, 1946 (from two heart attacks in rapid succession — apparently heart attacks are a side effect of acromegaly) and Universal’s decision to merge with International Pictures and get out of the “B”-movie business led Universal to sell the rights to The Brute Man to director Yarbrough’s old stomping ground, PRC. Ironically, two years earlier PRC had made a film called The Monster Maker that used acromegaly as a plot device — as did Universal’s 1955 film Tarantula.