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Monster, The

Entry updated 8 April 2024. Tagged: Film.

US silent film (1925). Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. Directed by Roland West. Written by Willard Mack, Albert G Kenyon and Roland West, based on the stage play The Monster (performed 1922) by Crane Wilbur. Cast includes Johnny Arthur, George Austin, Lon Chaney, Hallam Cooley, Walter James, Gertrude Olmstead and William H Turner. 86 minutes. Black and white.

One evening, as wealthy farmer John Bowman drives home, a "human monster" lowers a mirror onto the road: Bowman, seeing his vehicle's reflection, veers to the side and crashes. Later, the town of Danburg's citizens gather at the scene to discuss the farmer's disappearance; one, Johnny Goodlittle (Arthur), is taking a correspondence course in detection (see Crime and Punishment) and discovers a piece of paper which mentions the nearby Doc Edwards Sanatorium on one side and has "help" written on the other. However, the local constable dismisses it, pointing out that the sanatorium has been closed for two months, as Edwards is in Europe. The insurance company sends Detective Jennings (Turner) to investigate, but when Johnny tries to show him the note both the constable and the rakish Amos Rugg (Cooley) assure him it is not worth considering; the latter is also Johnny's rival for the affections of Betty Watson (Olmstead).

Johnny's diploma arrives – along with a gun, badge and large pair of handcuffs. Later at a party, Amos turns up in a dress suit from Chicago and sweeps Betty off her feet. The crestfallen Johnny leaves: as he mopes a passing lunatic asks for a match for an imaginary cigarette, then confides, "They're going to lower the mirror so I can shave Bowman," and walks off. Suspecting this might be a clue, Johnny follows to discover the mirror trick being pulled on Amos as he drives Betty home, but when he tries to intervene he falls down a chute into a room; meanwhile Amos and Betty have left the wrecked car and gone to the sanatorium at the top of the hill, in the hope it has a working phone. Despite one having gone downwards and the other two uphill, they find themselves in the same room. The trio find a body; but Dr Ziska (Chaney) now introduces himself and explains it is "Rigo, a patient – I keep him in a trance [see Hypnosis]. Sometimes he gets out – does terrible things ..." He waves his hand and the caped, stooping Rigo (Austin) – whom we recognize as the lowerer of mirrors – walks off. As he has no phone and there is a storm, Ziska insists the trio stay the night. He orders his servant, the muscular, well-oiled (possibly intended to make him look Arabic) and mute Caliban (James), to "see that the guests have the USUAL attention!". They are put in a locked room and – after some business with a secret passage and Johnny accidentality getting drunk – they are abducted (Betty with hands coming up through a sinking bed and gripping her): the men are thrown into Dr Ziska's laboratory. They search for Betty, but instead find the imprisoned Bowman and Dr Edwards, the latter revealing the lunatics have taken over his asylum.

Whilst Johnny is being pursued around the house by Rigo, Amos is strapped into what looks like an electric chair whilst Dr Ziska (who was once a renowned surgeon) explains his plans: "you are about to witness the most remarkable operation ever attempted by man. You and I alone shall see what happens – AND NEITHER ONE shall tell." Betty is then brought in, for "It is only from a woman that I can learn the secret of life!" (see Women in SF), and he has been trying to obtain one by causing the crashes. Amos unwisely suggests, "You must be mad!" and Dr Ziska loses his temper: "Don't you dare call ME mad!" He then declares that "With the aid of that death chair – I shall transfer your soul into her body!" (see Identity Transfer). He then cries out, "Rigo – my knives!" But the caped figure who enters is Johnny, who has overpowered Rigo. He frees Amos and the pair restrain Dr Ziska in the "death chair", covering his head; when Caliban answers his cries for help, he mistakenly turns the chair on, killing the doctor. Detective Jennings – who had discovered Amos's wrecked car nearby – now arrives and all ends happily, with Johnny offered a job as an insurance agency detective and winning Betty's heart.

The sf component only appears towards the end; it is doubtful how rooted in science Dr Ziska's theories would have been, though he seemed capable enough to have built the "death chair"; his hypnotic abilities verge on the supernatural. Though conveying some menace, Chaney's performance reflects that The Monster is also a comedy (see Humour), so his acting is a little over the top. Much of the comedy comes from Johnny Goodlittle, a bashful, mild-mannered hero with ambitions ("which in Danburg is as bad as having eczema"), but this is not particularly funny – the humour of the title cards stands up better.

The film's Horror elements are of historical importance. Though it appears to be full of movie Clichés, it was a very early user of these tropes and seems to be the first to combine them; it can be seen as the template for many subsequent Hollywood horror films, often featuring Mad Scientists like Dr Ziska. Rigo is a prototype Igor and the setting is what horror aficionados refer to as the "old dark house": a rambling edifice atop a hill with hidden passages, spyholes, hands appearing out of walls, perpetually stormy nights, etc. Despite one character being named Caliban, there is no obvious connection to William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623). [SP]


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