Saturday, February 28, 1970: Night Monster (1942)


Synopsis: The Ingston mansion lies near the spooky swamps of a rural area, miles from the nearest town. It’s gloomy enough in the daytime, but at night it’s really creepy. That’s when the fog rolls in and weird things start happening.

Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) is the wealthy old recluse who lives there, along with his crazy sister Margaret (Fay Helm) and a gaggle of creepy domestics.

In fact the only one in the house who isn’t a weirdo is the maid, Milly (Janet Shaw), but she hasn’t been there long and has decided to quit. She is creeped out by the place and by its inhabitants. She also thinks that someone from the Ingston house is responsible for a murder that happened nearby, and that there might even be a connection between the murder and a hulking creature seen roaming the area at night. The local constable, however, isn’t buying it.

About the time Milly is leaving, a number of visitors are showing up at the house: Agor Singh (Nils Asther), a mystic who has gained the confidence of Kurt Ingston; Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey), a psychologist that a desperate Margaret had sent for; Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), a local mystery writer who is a frequent visitor to the estate. And Ingston has invited three doctors to pay a visit — King, Timmins and Phipps — the same three doctors whose botched surgery left him paralyzed.

Singh demonstrates his mystic powers by making a skeleton appear in the room — apparently real, and when he makes it disappear there is a pool of blood left on the carpet where it appeared.

Before long, the body of young Milly is found in the swamps nearby. This brings the local constable to the Ingston Mansion. But that doesn’t prevent the brutal murder of the three doctors. Harper and Baldwin begin to suspect Kurt Ingston — after all, he had a motive for wanting the doctors dead, and perhaps he wasn’t quite as paralyzed as he let on. But how could Ingston have committed the murders when he has no arms or legs?
Comments: If I told you that Night Monster was shot in eight days, would you expect to see a good movie?

I’m guessing not. But this little flick really exceeds expectations. Admittedly, it ain’t Citizen Kane. But it is still a better movie than it has any right to be.

To me, Night Monster is a good example of how the old Hollywood film factory worked: a script was picked, contract actors were assigned, an existing set was dressed, a shooting schedule was posted, and it was running as the B-picture in theaters across America almost before the prints were dry.

I have a lot of admiration for the old studio system because it was a marvelously efficient way to make lots of movies while ensuring at least a basic level of quality. In spite of what you may have heard, it hasn’t entirely disappeared; tune into the Disney Channel sometime, and you’ll see a vertically-integrated entertainment outlet at work.

So this is a worthy product of that system: craftsmanlike, competent, but nothing flashy.

And best of all, Night Monster doesn’t cheat the audience.

Perhaps I ought to explain what I mean by that. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen movies that are basically conventional mysteries or thrillers with a smidgen of horror-movie content. Or — ahem –with less than a smidgen of horror-movie content. There’s nothing more frustrating than being suckered into a movie expecting one thing and getting another. So this week it’s refreshing to get a horror movie in which the horror elements are an essential part of the narrative.

But there is a bait-and-switch present in Night Monster, one that I haven’t been able to figure out. The top billing for the movie go to Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Yet both actors are relegated to minor parts. Atwill plays the fatuous Dr. King, and Lugosi plays Rolf, the butler. Had I been casting the film, I’d probably give Atwill the Kurt Ingston role, while Lugosi, not a particularly versatile actor, would have been a good choice for the mystic, Agor Singh (though I have no complaint with the performances of Ralph Morgan or Nils Asther — the latter delivers the obligatory there-are-some-things-that-man-was-not-meant-to-know line with appropriate gravity).

I suppose it’s a little late to send a letter complaining about the casting to director Ford Beebe, so I will conclude by praising the performance of Janet Shaw, who plays Milly. She has real presence when she’s on screen and disappears all too soon.

But when she’s there, you can’t take your eyes off her. In one scene the Ingston chauffer is driving her to town. Suddenly he pulls off the road, turns off the car, and turns toward her with a wolfish gleam in his eye. Shaw delivers the best line in the movie: “What’s this all about,” she tosses off contemptuously, “as if I didn’t know?”

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One comment

  1. NIGHT MONSTER is simply an all time favorite, perfect for viewing with the lights out at 1:00 AM, which is the only way I ever saw it. Well mounted using the same sets as THE WOLF MAN and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, a script that offers up a slew of odd characters, brought to life by a superb ensemble cast. “A scream in the night through the fog on Pollard Slough,” hiding some THING so fiendish the frogs stop croaking when its shadow appears. A genuinely rare occurrence of a 1940's chiller that still creates goose bumps today, it even impressed director Alfred Hitchcock, who screened it because he planned to cast luscious Janet Shaw in his SHADOW OF A DOUBT. Unfortunately, her career had already peaked, but she was a welcome presence in HOLD THAT GHOST, THE MUMMY'S TOMB, and HOUSE OF HORRORS. Irene Hervey had already been ogled by Lionel Atwill in MGM's 1936 ABSOLUTE QUIET, while at Universal appeared in THE HOUSE OF FEAR and DESTINATION UNKNOWN.

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