Wednesday, January 27, 2016

THE MONSTER WALKS (1932)

This Poverty Row thriller begins quite nicely: on a stormy night, in a room lit only by candles, a man and woman stand at the deathbed of Dr. Philip Earlton. The woman, Emma, pulls the sheet up over his face and suddenly a sharp shriek rings out from outside the room. The movie pretty much goes downhill from there, becoming a tepid old dark house thriller with the added attraction of an ape in the basement. It turns out that the shriek came from Yogi the ape, the devoted pet of the dead man, who, according to Emma, has sensed that his master has died. Others in the house include the dead man's wheelchair-bound brother Robert; Emma and her son Hanns, both servants in the house; Philip's daughter Ruth who is the heir—though the estate goes to Robert in the event of her death; and Ted Clayton, Ruth's handsome (B-movie handsome, that is) boyfriend. Ruth feels unsettled in the house, and with good reason: someone seems to be out to kill her, and it might be Yogi, who apparently never liked her. At one point, she wakes up to an ape hand reaching out from behind her bed trying to strangle her. Others try to tell her that she was probably just having a nightmare, but faithful housekeeper Emma agrees to switch rooms with her, and the next morning, Emma is found dead. Who exactly is this monster who walks?

There's not a lot to recommend this film except to die-hard fans of early horror/mystery films. The best thing, aside from the atmosphere of the first 10 minutes, is the performance of Mischa Auer as Hanns, a character who remains mysterious until the climax—his violin-playing, usually of Brahms' Lullaby, is a plotpoint. He's also the only actor who gets to express anything resembling real emotion, and Auer (pictured with Martha Mattox as Emma )does a fine job. Sheldon Lewis as Robert is clearly channeling Lionel Barrymore, which does him no favors, and Rex Lease (who appeared in dozens—maybe hundreds—of B-westerns, rarely in a starring role) as the mildly heroic Ted is a big zero. For a change, the ape is real, not a guy in a suit, though he's also not very scary, basically confined to jumping and dancing in a small cage. Willie Best plays the stereotyped scared-witless black servant; the less said, the better. Much of the dialogue is presented in a ponderous fashion, as though that delivery alone will create tension—it doesn't. There is a little fun to be had with the secret passages and such, but mostly this is a bland movie that might be good only as a curtain-raiser for a better thriller, like THE CAT AND THE CANARY. [YouTube]

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