Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Man-Made Monster (1941)

Dan McCormick, the so-called Electrical Man, is a simple sideshow performer caught in a bus crash. A surge of electricity kills everyone onboard, save for him, getting the attention of Dr. Lawrence, who believes Dan has a unique talent that could be used for the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately Lawrence's lab assistant is the mad Dr. Rigas, who believes Dan's immunity to electricity can have a different purpose for the world...

Man-Made Monster opens in a similar vein to the much later film Unbreakable, focusing on the special powers of a disaster's only survivor. The first act is pretty light-hearted. The protagonist is a happy-go-lucky fella, who's not too bothered by his narrow escape, and is looking forward to getting back to his carnival act and making some dough. He makes quick friend's with his benefactor's niece June, and nosey reporter Mark

The movie is only an hour long, and much of its runtime is spent setting up the drama to happen. Even when Dan is transformed into a min-controlled monster, the movie spends more time on detective work and courtroom drama,

The big rampage is only the last 12 minutes of the film. The 'execution' scene is disappointingly offscreen. It's supposed to be the big spectacle of the movie-Dan in the electric chair, receiving a fatal dose that instead imbues him with more power than ever before, transforming him into an unstoppable juggernaut...and this is all told to us from the other room! The movie teases us too, like when a reporter rushes out of the chamber and rattles into his phone about Dan just killing two guards and making his escape.

The climax is full of dramatic and somewhat hilarious moments, and characters knowing things they couldn't possibly know, before Dan is somewhat anticlimactically killed by a fence. Not a large fence either, but a tiny one!

The film ends with a strange coda, where June insists Mark burn the mad doctor's notes instead of getting a good scoop out of them...except I wasn't sure if that was actually destroying the evidence of Rigas's wrongdoing! At least there's an adorable shot of Corky pushing the book onto the flames, avenging his fallen friend.

Tone was my biggest issue with Man-Made Monster. It's all so fun at fun that once things get going, it becomes quite a miserable watch. Poor June, her friend's crazy, her father's dead, and all on the night her boyfriend was gonna propose to her!

Another fault is that it's all very by-the-numbers, and you can see how it could have easily become something unique. I don't fault the writers for not doing this, of course, but I can't help but watch and wish it went here instead of there. Oh well, that's what remakes are for!

The characters are the biggest element to the movie. Dan is a good lead. He's so cheery in fact that I didn't want him to become bad. Turn Frank Albertson into a monster instead! I found it hard to buy Dan would just go along with all this. He's already hesitant about Rigas, so why would he keep subjecting himself to uncomfortable experiments from a crazy-eyed manaic? But he doesn't, and before too long he's a walking shell who comes to depend on the next dose of electricity like a drug. Our two heroes make a point of it to try and save Dan, but this comes to naught, which is a bummer.

Dr. Rigas is the villain of the piece, abusing his power in a misguided effort to create a race of supermen. And like all mad scientists, his creation eventually gets the better of him. 

Dr. Lawrence is a total dolt. Aside from hiring a mad scientist (knowing enough of his theories to reprimand him, but never actually being sensible and firing him), he also never looks at Rigas's files until it's too late, meaning his mad assistant has been filling his prized test subject with lethal amounts of electricity every day and this stupid bastard never even noticed!

Reporter Mark is your typical 1930s protagonist. Plucky, dogged, and fancies himself a ladies man, with mixed success. He sensibly mistrusts Dr. Rigas, until such a point when it's inconvenient for the script. Lawrence's niece June knows how to stand her ground, but she also gives Mark a chance and takes him out for dates (all offscreen though, unfortunately). Both characters step up when the action starts. June is clever, knowing instantly that Dan isn't to blame.

The duo get their fair share of amusing dialogue, like an exchange that perfectly encapsulates how newspaper men think. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself. 5 people killed and the best you can do is write bad jokes!" "Look lady, 5 people were killed and we treated it with the proper respect, but that was yesterday!"

Lon Chaney Jr. is an endearing presence during the first act, and does well during his more dramatic and monstrous moments. Lionel Atwill is at his most insane, sometimes to the performance's detriment, but most of the time it's great fun. Samuel S. Hinds plays his benevolent boss, and is ok enough. Anne Nagel and Frank Albertson are likeable leads. Reliable Asian character actor Chester Gan is nice, and the pooch who plays Corky sadly goes uncredited.

From what I hear, Man-Made Monster was originally slated to star Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but it was deemed too similar to their previous picture The Invisible Ray. Naturally they still went through with the project, just with different actors  The film also seems to have inspired The Indestructible Man 15 years later, also with Lon Chaney Jr.

The effects are a high point. On a relatively low budget, Man-Made Monster was able to show convincing and spooky effects, perfectly capturing Dan's electrical nature.

Man-Made Monster has its faults here and there, but is worth checking out. As Lon Chaney's debut into horror, following in his father's footsteps, this has an important legacy...

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