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Warner Archive // Unrated // October 26, 2010
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Wbshop]
1925 was a good year for Lon Chaney. He had become a big name star with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and the unsettling He Who Gets Slapped the following year. In '25 he would release two more outstanding films, The Phantom of the Opera and The Unholy Three, along with a more minor film, The Monster opposite comedian Johnny Arthur. This lesser know Chaney film is now available through Warner Archives. The film tries to meld Arthur's humorous milksop character with some chilling 'old house' aspects and while each of them works on their own, the two elements don't really mix well (did the producer or director really think they would?). Even with this flaw, Chaney gives a great performance and the film is actually very enjoyable.
When a local rich farmer, John Bowman, goes missing one evening, the local general store stock boy, Johnny Goodlittle (Arthur) sees his chance to solve a real live mystery! He's been taking a correspondence class in how to be a detective, and no sooner does he graduate (getting a diploma, a pair of hand cuffs, and a gun (!) for his efforts) than this mystery drops in his lap.
The local sheriff thinks that the farmer is dead, so the insurance company sends their own investigator to see what's what. Johnny tries to convince the man that something fishy is going on in the local insane asylum that has recently closed, but he doesn't see any connection. So one stormy night Johnny investigates himself and ends up getting trapped in the asylum with the girl of his dreams, Betsy Watson (Gertrude Olmstead), and her beau Amos Rugg (Hallam Cooley). They aren't alone of course. Dr. Ziska (Chaney) has reopened the institution and runs it along with the sinister and very strong Caliban (Walter James) and the possible maniac Rigo (George Austin). Can the three escape the creepy house before Dr. Ziska reveals his sinister plans?
The film starts our nicely, with a creepy guy in a tree lowering a large mirror onto a road in the middle of the night and causing an accident when the driver veers off the road to avoid the illusionary oncoming car. With a title like The Monster, a star like Lon Chaney, and an opening like that, I settled in for a nice eerie film.
The movie takes an odd turn from there however. It becomes a comedy. While the locals are examining the scene of the accident Amos Rugg, sitting on Bowman's wrecked car, declares "I'll bet a new spark plug that Bowman met with some kind of accident." We're also introduced to Johnny Goodlittle and his book "How to Become a Detective", which becomes a running gag in the film. The book gives the same advice for every situation: that a detective needs to use his ingenuity. Goodlittle starts quoting that, and he's soon the butt of jokes in the town.
This thing is, a lot of the comedic parts of the film are pretty funny. When Johnny asks the insurance company detective for advice gets the following nugget of information: Whenever I'm in danger I close my eyes and count to ten. Try that and see what happens."
Once they get to the old house on the hill, the film does get creepy once again. The old asylum is filled with trap doors and all of the widows have steel doors that will clamp down if someone tries to open them. Shadows knock on doors and when the trapped trio discovers a dead man sitting in a chair, only to see him revived by Dr. Ziska the film really starts moving.
Lon Chaney gives a great performance, as always, though his part is more of a supporting player than a star. He's unsettling when first introduced and becomes more eerie as the film progresses. The climax of the film gives Chaney a reason to let loose and the highlight of the movie. It's too bad that after that, they decided to end the film with a joke.
The 86 minute movie comes on a DVD-R in a standard keepcase.
This silent film has a orchestral score performed by an uncredited group. I'm assuming that it was done by the MGM orchestra for a re-release in the early talkie era. It's fine, as far as it goes, but it's clear that they didn't put a lot of thought into the music. The audio is fine, though not exceptional.
I was pleased with the full frame image. While it's not perfect the picture does look very good for a film that's over 85 years old. The contrast is generally good, though a couple of night scenes are a little on the dark side, and the level of detail is fine. There is some minor print damage, mainly dust and spots, but it's never distracting. Overall this is a very nice looking disc.
A rather odd mix of comedy and horror, the film isn't perfect but it is entertaining. Chaney does a great job as the mad Dr. Ziska and even if his role isn't the largest in the film, it's still worth watching for that alone. Highly Recommended.