More proof that Val Lewton's RKO horror thrillers had a major impact on fantasy filmmaking, Columbia's The Soul of a Monster is a 1944 cheapie with artistic pretensions. Rarely showing up in genre studies, even reference books about horror films, the picture gets a maximum of moody atmosphere from its 61 minutes of grim story plotting. The original script by Edward Dein is a throwback to an earlier era of fantasy filmmaking. There's no monster, exactly, but we do get good performances by fading cult actress Rose Hobart and the great actor George Macready in an unexpected leading role.
Beloved philanthropic surgeon George Winston (George Macready) is dying of complications from an infection. His wife Ann (Jeanne Bates) prays to anyone in the great beyond who can save his life, an invocation that summons Lilyan Gregg (Rose Hobart). The mystery woman marches across town on a windy night and demands to be left alone in George's sickroom. The next day George is apparently cured, but as he gets back on his feet his personality seems to have changed. Family friend Fred Stevens (Erik Rolf) is the first to notice, when he suspects George of killing his previously beloved dog. Fred also witnesses a corsage wilting merely at George's touch. Lilyan leaves the household but maintains her psychic hold on George, who leaves Ann and vows to protect Lilyan at all cost. She then directs George in an attempt to kill Fred with an ice pick. George eventually realizes that something is wrong but cannot shake Lilyan's influence. He goes back to work, which puts his partner Dr. Roger Vance in danger from Lilyan as well: not only does George have no pulse, when he's accidentally cut, he doesn't bleed. Who can put an end to this macabre state of affairs?
The Soul of a Monster was reissued under the much better title Death Walks Alone; I can imagine kids in the 1960s staying up to see this on TV, only to be frustrated when no monster appears. Screenwriter Edward Dein reaches back to the expressionist days for his story, which has elements of Faust, The Monkey's Paw and White Zombie. Sort of an inverted Film Blanc, it presents Lilyan Gregg as an unexplained satanic conduit or zombie master, even though none of the typical iconography is present. Lilyan's only motivation is a vague evil intent. She doesn't seek to eliminate George's associates until they get in the way, and her desire to control George works against the idea that she seeks a companion in the undead afterlife. We have no idea how she came about her supernatural talent, or if she herself is one of the undead. Making things even less consistent is a scene in which she pulls a gun on George. By that point both characters know that he's technically a zombie and probably cannot be killed.
Director Will Jason was a songwriter and director of short subjects; The Soul of a Monster appears to be his first full-length feature. He's taken the assignment quite seriously, as the show alternates between 'ordinary' blocking and coverage and expressive sequences that may have been storyboarded. Easily related to Val Lewton's work are a couple of nighttime stalking scenes that focus on legs and feet on wet sidewalks; potential victim Fred is saved from the menacing George when he just happens to find a little crucifix on the sidewalk. We also get a nice scene of George waxing weird at a window with a lighting storm in progress, as a musician plays The Mephisto Waltz.
This is of course not subtle, and neither is the close-up of a gash in George's arm made by a pair of scissors. It doesn't bleed. The visual must have been fairly creepy for a mainstream movie of 1944; a similar visual was shocking 30 years later in Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain.
The casting and the cinematography are the film's best assets. Just starting out in features, cameraman Burnett Guffey creates a wide range of expressionistic lighting effects, making the most of slightly subjective tracking shots and interesting silhouettes. Some of the dialogue sequences are by contrast flatly presented, as we would expect to see in a Columbia "B" film cheapie. Guffey would later become a leading proponent of the '50s semi-docu look, on big pictures and many Columbia films noir. Is he the talent behind The Soul of a Monster's artistic veneer?
Already a Broadway star, George Macready brings fine nuances to the role of a man who slowly realizes that he's become a walking corpse, controlled by a manipulating woman (no jokes, please). Macready underplays everything admirably; if the film had a higher level to take its drama to, the actor surely could have handled it. Even Macready's prominent facial scar adds to his effectiveness. When George Winston revels in his new feeling of power, in certain shots he resembles the Nordic superman of the silent horror fantasy Homunculus.
The anti-Christ figure Homunculus took the opportunity of his apparent immortality to set out on a campaign of world conquest. His violent behavior aside, George's ordeal is much more humble. He loses the ability to love his wife or to care about his life's work. He eventually (through Macready's little acting hints) must face the fact that he's become one of the damned. But don't expect The Soul of a Monster to follow through on its theme. By act three it's repaying its debt to the Production Code Office by including speeches endorsing Faith as the answer to everything. We even get a scene with a boy's chorus practicing a hymn. And then a facile "trick" ending pulls the rug out from under the whole show. It's a cheat that's better off ignored.
I've seen some wartime Columbia short features that are artless and devoid of entertainment value (One Man Submarine, anyone?), which makes The Soul of a Monster come off as a relatively ambitious curiosity. Whether due to the influence of the Production Code or the near-disappearance of the horror genre, the movie has plenty of contemporary company in the vague mystery-horror-suspense-weirdo school of filmmaking. I'm guessing that horror fans after something different will not be disappointed. Unless they expect a monster.
The Sony Pictures Choice Collection DVD-R of The Soul of a Monster is a great transfer and encoding of this bona fide O.O. (Obscure Obscurity). We can really appreciate Burnett Guffey's cinematography, as seen in the middle image above. The IMDB (we always trust them) tells us that the film's music is cobbled together from half a dozen composers' work in the Columbia stock library, and it hangs together fairly well. I did notice some warbling in a music cue, or two.
No trailer or anything else gives us clues as to how this picture was sold -- it was almost surely marketed as the bottom half of a double bill, playing under a movie with name stars.
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T'was Ever Thus.