Like so many other European talents from the first part of the twentieth century, German director John Brahm was forced to flee his home country thanks to the rise of Nazism, and eventually found his way to the United States, where he began a career with Fox. His horror films for the studio, primarily The Undying Monster (1942), The Lodger (1944), and Hangover Square (1945), represent some of the studio’s genre output — which was quite limited compared to competitors like Universal — that remains sadly neglected. Though Brahm would go on to dabble in film noir with The Locket (1946) and Raymond Chandler adaptation The Brasher Doubloon (1947), and even worked with Vincent Price on the zany 3-D effort, The Mad Magician (1954), his horror trilogy for Fox represents his finest work. Not only do these films deserve more attention, but they can be seen as the superior precursors to his enjoyable directorial work on genre television shows like Suspicion, Johnny Staccato, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Naked City, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and many more.
The first film in Brahm’s horror trilogy, The Undying Monster (1942), is one of a handful of so-called werewolf films to come in the wake of Universal’s Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941). But it borrows equally from something like the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), which also concerns a family curse, more mystery than outright horror, and a decidedly nebulous use of the supernatural that turns out to be a MacGuffin. These themes also connect The Undying Monster to two slightly later, but equally neglected gems: the similarly plotted Le loup des Malveneur (1943), made during the Nazi occupation of France, and Universal’s She-Wolf of London (1946).
The Undying Monster follows the illustrious Hammond family who are allegedly victim to an ancient curse. The heir, Oliver (John Howard of The Invisible Woman), is attacked by a strange creature one night out on the foggy moors and falls into a coma. Though his sister Helga (Heather Angel of Gothic melodrama The Mystery of Edwin Drood) insists that there must be a rational explanation, the family servants believe the attack is linked to the centuries old curse that dictates male family members will eventually commit suicide or die suspiciously. Scotland Yard Inspector Robert Curtis (James Ellison of I Walked with a Zombie) attempts to solve the case, despite resistance from the Hammonds, their servants, and the local doctor.
Despite how enjoyable it is, this film is probably the least interesting in Brahm’s trilogy, as it lacks the effective psychosexual terror of the latter two efforts, not to mention the weighty presence of the star of those films, Laird Cregar, and I suspect it suffered from some studio interference on a script level. Penned by Lillie Hayward (Lady Killer), who would later go on to work with Disney, and based on a novel by Jessie Douglas Kerruish, the film has some effectively dark moments, but dips into a dizzying number of genres. It is at once a horror film, an atmospheric, supernatural murder mystery, a mad scientist movie, dialogue-heavy parlor room drama, and even at times a slapstick comedy with the presence of a male and female detective team always at odds with each other.
The film does make some good use of the horror tropes popularized by Universal a decade earlier, such as a suspiciously locked room, strange footprints, and oppressive fog. There is the strange intrusion of the legal system — something that happened often in Universal’s Frankenstein films — where a nurse, who was attacked at the same time as Oliver, dies and it is ruled that her death was the result of unknown circumstances. There are also some unusual, Sherlock Holmes-like clues in the form of a wolf hair on one of the victims and evidence that someone has been injected with cobra venom (like you do), and the conclusion involves a standard Gothic horror trope. The heroine is kidnapped and the detective must rescue her before she becomes the next victim, something that would be repeated for The Lodger (and dozens of other horror films from the period). But while the film seems to be leading us towards a human perpetrator (as with She-Wolf of London), the surprise twist is that the supernatural elements aren’t a MacGuffin at all; there is an actual werewolf, though we see little of him/her and the ending is rather ludicrously explained away.
Brahm’s genre follow up is the far more fascinating The Lodger (1944), a remake of Hitchcock’s 1927 silent film; itself adapted from Marie Belloc-Lowndes’ novel of the same name. Hitchcock’s film followed his beloved “wrong man” premise and, as with Fritz Lang’s pivotal serial killer film M (1931), is concerned less with personal psychopathy and more with social hysteria and mob violence. Brahm’s take on the material is more akin to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), about a teenage girl discovering that her beloved uncle is a murderer, or even producer Val Lewton’s bleak The Leopard Man (1943), about a killer preying on vulnerable young woman and pawning his crimes off on an escaped panther.
In The Lodger, an up-and-coming singer, Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), lives with her aunt (Sara Allgood) and uncle (Cedric Hardwicke). They have recently fallen on hard times and decide to supplement their income by taking on a lodger. They welcome a scientist, Mr. Slade (Laird Cregar), into their home. He comes and goes at odd hours, and is reserved, polite, and awkward, paying particular attention to Kitty. Meanwhile, Jack the Ripper is butchering women on the streets of London and the police are at a loss. It soon becomes clear that Slade is the killer, though Kitty and her family ignore the signs. Inspector Warwick (the dashing George Sanders), who is in charge of the case, falls for Kitty, but it may be too late to protect her from the murderous advances of Mr. Slade.
The hulking Cregar is particularly memorable as Mr. Slade. A large man, both in terms of height and girth, Cregar struggled with his weight his entire life and was frequently cast as a villain, though he sought leading roles. The crash diet he would use for his next film, Brahm’s similarly plotted Hangover Square (1945), sadly led to his early death at just age 31. Cregar is perfect as Slade: psychopathic, pathetic, sympathetic, he seems to wander much of the film in a hypnotic state. The use of low angled shots makes him overwhelm nearly every frame and key lighting gives his eyes an insane, almost mystical glow.
Though the signs are evident, no one recognizes Slade’s psychosis until it is nearly too late. Edgar G. Ulmer’s serial killer film Bluebeard (1944), about a murderous painter in Paris, shares many of these details, including a nearly identical ending with Brahm’s The Lodger. The Leopard Man, The Lodger, and Bluebeard also all include the theme that members of the community are complicit in the killings; guilt is a contagion. While The Lodger’s screenwriter Barré Lyndon presents Slade as a sympathetic, doomed figure, there is never any doubt that he is the antagonist. He gives one particularly chilling speech about cutting the beauty out of women and is obviously obsessed with Kitty. Surprisingly, Slade’s incestuous, homosexual obsession with his dead brother slid right past the Production Code. His brother’s death at the hands of a beautiful actress (“actress” is often a stand-in for “prostitute” in this film, as references to the latter did not make it past the censors) is Slade’s reason for killing female entertainers.
Cregar was cast in a similar role in one of the earliest examples of film noir, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), as well as Brahm’s follow up, Hangover Square, which also reunited the director and star with George Sanders. In this similar tale of obsession, madness, and serial murder, Cregar stars as the delightfully named George Bone, a London composer, who fears he may be a murderer when he has periods of blackout. He solicits the help of a Scotland Yard professional, Dr. Middleton (Sanders), who keeps an eye on him along with Barbara (Faye Marlowe), the pianist daughter of his mentor, Lord Henry (Alan Napier). Though Barbara wishes for a romantic arrangement between herself and Bone, he becomes obsessed with Netta (Linda Darnell), a cabaret singer. Netta begins cruelly manipulating him, dangerously triggering his blackouts.
Unlike I Wake Up Screaming or The Lodger, Hangover Square boasts one of Cregar’s most sympathetic roles. Bone is the synthesis of psychopathic killer and sensitive artist. The fact that he is unaware of his violent deeds for much of the film further emphasizes this divide and implies that perhaps these murderous impulses are dormant until stimulated by trauma or sexual frustration. And again, the aspect of communal violence is present, here symbolized in Bone’s first conscious body disposal and his later suicide. When he finally strangles Netta — after much callous manipulation where she accepts his gifts and promises undelivered sexual favors — he carries her body to the town square to a parade procession. In a nightmarish scene full of masked revelers, he dumps her body on top of a bonfire of effigies meant to be burned during the Guy Fawkes Day celebration.
Fawkes, a famous seventeenth century British traitor who meant to blow up King James and the House of Lords, escaped execution by preemptively killing himself. Bone follows suit. Once he has remembered his deeds, he is unable to escape from his own conscience — the police — so he sets the building on fire during the performance of his moving new symphony. He continues to play the piano as the building burns down around him in a truly bleak and affecting ending that has few equals in ‘40s horror.
The success of these films, particularly The Undying Monster and The Lodger, is due to the cinematography from Brahm’s regular partner Lucien Ballard. All three works are full of expressionistic, fog drenched, and almost Gothic imagery. For The Lodger in particular, Ballard turns what looks like an indoor, studio set into an expressionistic nightmarish version of Jack the Ripper’s London. Ballard, who was also married to The Lodger’s Merle Oberon for a time, is one of the least praised heroes of American cinematography and would go on to work with everyone from Otto Preminger on the seminal film noir Laura (1944), Sam Peckinpah on films like The Wild Bunch (1969), Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, Franz Lang, Jean Renoir, and many more. He effectively helped shape the look of film noir and though his work with Brahm is so under-appreciated, it represents some of the most beautiful cinematography in ‘40s horror.