This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – The Monster (1925)
The Monster (1925) is a comedy-horror based upon the play of the same name by Crane Wilbur. Wilbur would also write the screenplays for two of Vincent Price’s notable 1950s entries – 1953’s House of Wax, which was Price’s breakthrough horror role, and 1959’s updated remake of The Bat, which Wilbur also directed.
The Monster stars Lon Chaney, who plays a mad surgeon who has taken control of a modest mental asylum. He is adequately sinister and unhinged, but this is very much a minor role for him, and nothing compared with The Phantom of the Opera (1925) which was filmed the same year. Though Chaney gets top billing, he doesn’t appear until after a half-hour in.
The movie is really a vehicle for Johnny Arthur who plays the effeminate and naïve hero, Johnny Goodlittle. Goodlittle wants desperately to be a detective and to be noticed by the beautiful Betty, a pretty girl who is always being driven around by Johnny’s rival, the masculine Amos. Arthur would go on to specialize in the so-called “Nancy Boy” roles until they were banned by the Production Code in 1934, and would thereafter play wimps, such as in the 1934 horror film The Ghost Walks.
The Monster is yet another example of the Old Dark House motif, and follows the contemporary American penchant for injecting humor into the proceedings. The horror, though, is for the most part taken seriously. (By contrast, Buster Keaton did a short horror-comedy in 1921 called The Haunted House, but the horror tropes were played for laughs rather than thrills.) The combination of comedic characters being dropped into a serious horror film would work wonderfully in later successful horror-comedies, notably in films such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Shaun of the Dead (2004). Like those films, The Monster never devolves into camp, which would not come into its own until the 1930s, particularly with films such as James Whales’ appropriately titled The Old Dark House (1932).
The Monster is a film that creaks with age, and the first half, with Johnny’s tired antics, play out as a tiresome rural comedy. Johnny Arthur is, unfortunately, neither funny nor charismatic. However, things accelerate in the third act, and the film earns its horror recognition by finding inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” (1845), and especially after Johnny accidentally drinks some liquid courage and takes charge of the dilemma, even bossing around Amos. This is also where Chaney becomes more involved as the insanely evil Dr. Ziska, lighting up each scene with his presence. There are some choice set-pieces, such as when Johnny is trying to escape via the asylum’s roof on telephone wires in the pouring rain. His cloaked adversary climbs up to him and cuts the line, sending the cutter plummeting and Johnny swinging through a window, sliding several stories down a banister and through the front door, crashing into the cloaked charger and knocking the attacker unconscious. It’s all very cartoonish but fun. Steve Haberman is right in his assessment that “the movie is entertaining for the undemanding.” However, he also acknowledges that the Old Dark House cliches of hidden chutes and sliding plaques, etc., apparently assembled in short time by raving lunatics, is “too much to swallow,” and the stuff of countless plays already staged.
The film was fairly well-received upon its release, with many reviews pointing to Chaney as the highlight. Movie Weekly praised his acting because he was not hidden behind makeup, allowing his true talents to shine. However, many of the reviews felt that the comedy took too much away from the suspense and potential horror, and that Chaney could have really done something stellar with a more serious tone. A review from The New York Times is illustrative, commenting that “Mr. Chaney does not have much to do, but his various appearances are effective… Mr. Chaney looks as if he could have enjoyed a more serious portrayal of the theme.” Nevertheless, the New York American claimed that the film “is in a class by itself when it comes to furnishing cold shivers and nervous chills,” and a review in Harrison’s Reports warned that the film “will prove too grewsome [sic] for tender-hearted people.”
The director, Roland West, became well-known for his innovative horror-themed mystery-thriller films, especially The Bat (1926) and The Bat Whispers (1930) (the latter of which supposedly inspired Bob Kane to create Batman). In fact, Kendall R. Phillips sees The Monster “as the most immediate precursor to the mystery thrillers.” West would be remembered for a more macabre connection, however, being the death of actress Thelma Todd with whom West had been having a long affair. Todd was found dead of carbon-monoxide poisoning in a garage in 1935 and though no evidence connected West or anyone else to her death, conspiracy theorists claimed that West killed her and planted her body in the location. Whether or not he was involved, the implication hurt his reputation and he became a recluse, suffering ill-health and an eventual nervous breakdown. He would die in 1952.
Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film (Baltimore: Midnight Marquee Press, 2003).
Phillips, Kendall R., A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018).