The Undying Monster (1942)
Director: John Brahm
Writer: Lillie Hayward and Michel Jacoby
Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard
Producer: Bryan Foy
by Jon Cvack
John Brahm is one of the more interesting directors I’ve discovered. I saw his first film The Lodger (1944) last Halloween, playing as a type of early Summer of Sam (1999)/Zodiac (2007) serial killer story. I’ve yet to see Brahm’s Hangover Square (1945), but a short documentary about the guy revealed that it was a hybrid sequel/remake of The Lodger except with more money (think Evil Dead 2 ); allowing him to better showcase his skills. The few clips from the film ranging from a Michael Meyers’ POV to a long oner of the killer exiting his house and onto the London streets and into the closing shots of the killer playing a John Herman score while being engulfed in flames and burning to death.
Brahm wouldn’t make much more from there on. Counter to his German peers, he’d never get much further into film noir and instead made a long career directing television - going on to do episodes of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A film scholar said it might have been due to his reluctance to participate in Hollywood politics and/or his lack of ambition. I struggle to think of more wasted potential from a filmmaker.
The Undying Monster was Fox studios response to Universal’s horror division. However, counter to their competitors, Darrel Zanuck demanded that his properties be developed with more of a literary angle. Rather than focusing on actions and scares he wanted good characters and smart stories.
At only a bit over an hour long, The Undying Monster is half Sherlock/half Universal creature feature to the point where by two-thirds the way I was left wondering whether it was even a monster at all; despite the movie’s poster that featured a werewolf.
It opens on the Hammond family estate in England where we learn that, since the Crusades, the family has been cursed with a series of deaths, suicides, and murders. When the estate’s owner Oliver Hammond (John Howard) is attacked by a mysterious creature in the night, they call upon Scotland Yard to investigate, including the story’s Sherlock Dr. Robert Curtis (James Ellison) and his wise-cracking and straight shooting partner Christy (Heather Thatcher) who run a massive lab that’s developing the latest in forensic science.
Robert and Christy head over to the Hammond estate where Walter (Halliwell Hobbes), Oliver’s sister Helga (Heather Angel), and local Inspector Craig (Aubrey Mather) head down to the basement crypt where Robert sees some strange footprints before Walter fakes a fall and destroys them. Robert immediately suspects that it was either Oliver’s sister Helga Hammond, the butler Walter (Halliwell Hobbes) or one of the other family members, all in an attempt to get the money. When another victim is killed, Robert fears they’ll never learn the truth.
It becomes such an effective plot and told with such support, going so far as a jury trial, that with only fifteen minutes left or so I was convinced the monster was a ruse; a type of Scooby Doo story where they created the monster to create smoke around the case. Robert then gets his hands on a hair sample and in a brilliant lab test using early - and legitimate - forms of chemical analysis, they discover that the hair comes from a wolf; which soon disappears before their very eyes.
They return to the Hammond estate in order to explore further around the island. That night, Helga is kidnapped and leads us into a thrilling final sequence, Robert and the others chase the creature to the beach. It’s Jaws’ (1975) structure - keeping the monster in shadows and showing only fragments until the final moment where he catches himself from falling off the cliff, crawls up, and the police shoot him down. We finally see the monster, though just for a split second; where in fairly convincing stop motion he transforms, revealing himself as Oliver Hammond.
Roberts soon learns that the family curse has actually been genetic, with the lineage affected with lycanthropy; that is, the mythological shift between wolf and man.
It’s a beautiful film, providing all you want from classical era horror. It also leaves you sad, wondering why Universal’s Wolfman would get five sequels and how this one got zero. It’s so easy to see Roberts and Christy return as they battle a new type of monster - vampire, invisible man, sea creatures. The film plays like an early version of X-Files, with the same will-they/won’t-they sexual tension. It’s a series that never was, that could have produced some of the area's finest horror sequels. Similar to Brahm’s career, the film is a case of what cinema could have been.
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