Friday, January 29, 2016

#224: The Monster (Roland West, 1925)

Here's a delightful oddball obscurity, a horror-comedy with an unpredictable plot, some of the funniest Roaring Twenties intertitles I've seen in a silent film ("Bowman's disappearance was Danburg's biggest thrill since the milkman eloped with the bootlegger's wife" and "Everything was going fine until the neighborhood sheik arrived" are two of my favorites), and some genuinely creepy moments. Based on a then-successful Broadway stage play that has been largely forgotten thanks to the brutal culling of pop-culture memory, The Monster is currently only available in the States as a poor quality stream on Amazon Prime and the Daily Motion site. That Amazon Prime stream has some of the oddest sound effects dubbed over the top, which added to the hilarity and avant-garde weirdness for me, but may irritate the crap out of some viewers. (For example, sounds of ocean waves, a man gargling liquid, a rooster crowing, a fart noise, and children laughing, among many other odd sound choices, have been overdubbed seemingly at random for no apparent reason by the company who currently has the distribution rights to this thing). The film is enjoyable enough to survive both the weirdo dubbing and the less-than-ideal streaming quality.
Set in the small all-American town of Danburg, The Monster begins with a wealthy resident of the town disappearing after a mysterious automobile crash. The insurance company sends its detectives out to investigate, but also putting his unsolicited attention on the case is timid general store clerk Johnny Goodlittle (Johnny Arthur), who ordered his private investigator's license in the mail. Also investigating the case is another clerk at the general store, the far less timid Amos Rugg (Hallam Cooley).
Both clerks are in love with Betty Watson (Gertrude Olmstead), who appears to be the only young woman in town. Through a series of bizarre events, Johnny, Amos, and Betty end up in the now-closed sanitarium. (Or is it?) Trapped in the sanitarium, they encounter the extremely creepy Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney, who seemingly played every monster, criminal mastermind, and creepy doctor in every 1920s American film), his servant Caliban (Walter James, in brown body and face paint) (token '20s racist character), and a couple of weirdos named Rigo (George Austin) and Daffy Dan (Knute Erickson). Ziska won't let them leave because the night is too "wild" (sounds reasonable), and they soon find out the horrible reasons why.
The tone switches at this halfway juncture from lighthearted and silly to ominous and creepy, and fortunately the weird sound effect overdubs on the Amazon version mostly tread lightly from this point forward. Silent films can be pretty difficult for modern audiences to absorb (and I include myself in this generalization), but they also have a haunting dreaminess and/or a clarity and narrative purity that suits atmospheric horror films and physical comedies.
Director Roland West has a fairly straightforward, perfunctory style that won't awe you with its visual beauty or ingenuity (the latter word also serves as an inside joke if you've seen the movie), but the story and performances combine to create an enjoyable experience. This isn't some buried treasure or lost gem, just a solid piece of entertainment, which is enough in this era of entertainment-starved CGI bloat (yeah, I fit in my twice-monthly CGI slam!). Lon Chaney and Johnny Arthur fans should especially take note of this one. 

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