Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Monster Walks (Action/Mayfair/International/Commonwealth, 1932)

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

The Monster Walks was a 1932 independent film — essentially a murder mystery disguised as a horror movie — whose entry in the American Film Institute Catalog lists it as a Ralph M. Like production for Action Pictures, Inc. (quite a misnomer given how little action there actually is in this film!) but which Carlos Clarens’ history of horror films identified as a Mayfair production (according to the AFI that was because Action Pictures went bankrupt while the film was in release — it was the middle of the Depression, after all — and Mayfair bought the rights), the AFI’s vaunted “modern sources” say Ralph M. Like owned a studio called International Film Corporation, and the print we were watching, a download from, had a credit on the title card to “Commonwealth Pictures.”

The Monster Walks was made the same year as The Old Dark House, and the two stand together as examples of what to do (The Old Dark House) and not to do (The Monster Walks) with the old-dark-house genre. There aren’t really any stars in this movie — the male lead is Rex Lease, a “B”-lister during the silent era (mostly in Westerns) who was already on his way down in 1932 without ever having been that high up in the first place. The story and script are by Robert Ellis and the director is Frank Strayer, who made some quite atmospheric little horror films for better indie studios — The Vampire Bat in 1933 for Majestic and the very impressive Condemned to Live in 1935 for Chesterfield — before signing with Columbia and wasting his flair for horror by taking the reins of the long-running Blondie series based on the comic strip.

The film centers around the Earlton brothers, one of whom has just died when the film begins while the other one, Robert Earlton (Sheldon Lewis, who played in the 1920 Louis B. Mayer version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — a film overshadowed then and now by the bigger-budgeted Paramount production of the same story the same year with John Barrymore, but one which has its points), is wheelchair-bound. The dead Earlton brother’s estranged daughter Ruth (Vera Reynolds) comes to the Earlton mansion to collect her inheritance — much to the bitterness of her uncle Robert, who believes she means to take over the entire estate and throw him out of it. Since he’s also the next in line for the estate if she should die before him, he’s got an obvious motive for her murder. As if that weren’t enough of a plot, it also turns out that the late Earlton was a research scientist who kept an ape in a cage in his basement and was planning to use it for an experiment in a human-to-ape brain transplant (not that old gimmick, again!).

Earlton’s will left a pension to the elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Krug (Martha Mattox), and her son and assistant Hanns (Mischa Auer — I was going to say “cast against type” but he played so many of these sinister, skulking hangers-on in the early 1930’s that it was actually his later comic roles, for which he’s best known now, that were against his early “type”). Also in the cast is Willie Best, the Black comedian who was still being billed as “Sleep ’n Eat” — he later rebelled and insisted studios credit him under his real name, but he still had to play the stupid shuffling servant stereotype — and he actually gets a few funny moments in this one (notably in which his foot gets caught in the jaw of a bearskin rug and he thinks he’s being attacked by the ape on the premises) but mostly it’s the same racist dreck he always played.

Indeed the biggest problem with The Monster Walks is that almost nothing actually happens — it’s mostly just people skulking around an old-dark-house set and acting mildly afraid of each other. There are a few red herrings — like the hairy, apelike arm that emerges in Ruth’s room one night and tries to strangle her, leading us to wonder if Robert Ellis is going to tell us that the supposedly “dead” Earlton brother is still alive but did one of his human-to-ape transplants on himself and became a were-ape — and a few good points, like the filmmakers’ resistance to using the gimmick of having Robert Earlton only fake his disability.

In the end, if you cared, Hanns Krug was the attempted strangler of Ruth, he tried again later but ended up killing his mom because she and Ruth had switched rooms, then killed Robert because he blamed Robert for having made him kill his mom, and finally trapped Ruth in the basement with the ape (a chimpanzee — a real one — instead of the usual gorilla-suited human who generally got cast in these roles), tried to get it to kill her, but the ape decided to play deus ex machina and kill Hanns instead. The closing gag contains a reference to Darwin and yet another racist gag for Willie Best, who’s told that he’s descended from apes and says he knew creatures like that in his family, “but they was less active.” The Monster Walks was just another Poverty Row quickie, clearly sucking off whatever star blood was left in Rex Lease’s bone marrow, and though it was only an hour long it still managed to bore.