During the 1940s, films featuring humans morphing into beasts flourished with even animated fare such as Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) (which had naughty wayward boys painfully transitioning into donkeys) making use of such frightening imagery. Even in a Three Stooges short called Idle Roomers (1944), a wolf boy named Lupe popped up to scare poor old Larry, Curly and Moe. But the literal werewolves were making their mark on celluloid and one of the post-The Wolf Man ventures married horror with murder mystery.
Opening with a voice over explaining the mystery of the notorious Hammond House “monster”, The Undying Monster (1943) is an incredibly stylized and effective hybrid of Sherlock Holmes-esque mystery movie and a unique take on the “monster in the house” story motif. It is a mesmerizing outing with lycanthropy sitting as the narrative centrepiece. The camera angles, the mood, the lighting, the carefully detailed direction and the meticulous attention to detail when it comes to framing each scene are all elements found in both horror expressionism as well as the currently fashionable and increasingly popular film noir motion pictures to hit movie houses during the time of World War II. The Undying Monster does in fact visually read like a film noir and upholds some inspired shots that borrow from gothic horror as well as this newly appealing cinematic exploration into the urban landscape of the dark side of the human condition. There are scenes such as a conversation had about the cause of death of the first victim of the Hammond House monster set behind a burning fire – which is completely taken for granted because the dialogue is so sharp and compelling that this interesting and alluring choice in depiction seems to be effortless and yet remarkably seductive. This is the most effective element of the film – it delivers a rich visual feast but never detracts from the intriguing and well written story.
The protagonist is Miss Helga Hammond (Heather Angel) and she is one of screenwriter Lillie Hayward’s terrific heroines – a pioneer woman, earthy but feminine, compassionate but forthright, independent and also reliant on other characters to prove her sanity and ultimately keep the namesake of her family respectable. Screenwriter Hayward made a career out of writing such complicated and sturdy female characters, and although she was mostly known for films that dealt with dogs and the relationships shared between humans and dogs, her women were always leaders of the new frontier, and Helga Hammond is no exception. Even Helga’s relationship with her own Great Dane Alex is a tribute to Hayward’s keen interest in women (and little girls) and their compassion towards their beloved pooches.
Haunted by the suicide of her grandfather, Helga crosses through the Hammond House like a beaming orb of light as the grandiose but dismal sets and gloomy art direction force her to be the only positive radiance in such an oppressive dismal abode. Along for the ride in researching the case of lycanthropy are two detectives: one male and the other an older female. Both these detectives are also scientists, and Christy (Heather Thatcher), the female scientist, is yet another one of Hayward’s pioneer women that she relished in writing. The film most certainly comes from a post-first wave feminist perspective and this is something that might not be apparent as the movie moves forward and the male detective takes more centre frame, but it is something that cannot be denied.
The first sign of supernatural influence comes with a rush of excellent music and a shadow and light show followed by a violent attack constructed by a P.O.V. This instantly sets Helga out to investigate, with the film once again reasoning a consistent keen interest in the frontier woman taking charge of a situation. Helga calls out to a male counterpart who mounts a horse cart: “Get in the back!” The film allows a genre hungry audience a snippet of feminism in it’s early days as post-suffragette, while by the time audiences get to The Howling in 1981, they are coming in from a post-second wave ideology where women and female-centric cinema was recurring, instrumental in influence and also propelled by studios and non-studios wanting to tell female stories. Karen White in The Howling is an important and influential figurehead while Helga Hammond is also just as revered – characteristically, however, the two women are different; in that Karen is presented as vulnerable and traumatised, while Helga is a self-proclaimed “Jolly good shot!” Helga’s relationship with her brother Oliver (John Howard) seems to be a focal point, but one that quickly recedes once the detectives enter the story. However, Helga is seen as protector and defender of her troubled brother, who incidentally turns out to be the “monster” of the piece, aka werewolf. Helga is also described as a “good nurse”, painting her up as a well-rounded ideal of the “modern woman”.
As opposed to The Howling where the sound of wolves/werewolves baying at the moon is a signal to neurotic fear and paranoia in the eyes, mind and soul of the film’s protagonist Karen White, in The Undying Monster, the first time we hear the howling of a wolf it is described by Mrs. Walton (Eily Malyon) (the old house maid), as “a lost soul” – here in this forties mystery movie/monster hybrid, the howling in the woods is something to sympathise with, as if a curse of lycanthropy is an affliction to pity. The theme of a monster stalking and haunting a wealthy family or the attribution of curses and the afflicted is something that will pop up throughout the years in motion picture horror history, and it also speaks volumes about class resentment and societal structure – the monstrous rich and the good, honest and poor villagers. The wealthy aristocratic elite are often presented as mysterious monsters, one only has to think of Count Dracula or the Frankenstein family in those regards, and these holier than thou creatures of evil or creators of evil work sit at polar opposition to the peasants who are poor but saintly Christians. This all changes come the time of The Howling where varying degrees of class are presented as monstrous – the redneck Quists, the middle class Warrens and not to mention the hickville hillbilly characteristics of The Colony which is ultimately set up by a wealthy successful British doctor. In The Howling, aristocracy is a thing of the past, and the only hang over from European rule is Dr. George Waggner who has progressed from the stuffy veneer of British refinement and become a TV pop-psychologist converting Los Angeles new age thinkers to become werewolves or to channel their werewolf self.
With social satire firmly in place in The Howing, in The Undying Monster it also hits nails on head in that department. Christy, the female detective is feisty, addicted to her career and also plays the comic fool in the film, so she is definitely there to serve as comic relief. And the film does have an element of slight, smart humour much like The Howling. On top of serving designated fool, Christy is also invested in the occult and “thrives on goose pimples”, while her male counterpart is stoic and headstrong, obsessed with the fundamentals of scientific explanation. Once again, much like in Werewolf of London, science and the occult butt heads – and this will be a more investigated theme come the fifties when the decade of the atomic age monster will take prominence in genre cinema.
The secret of Hammond House is that a member of the family sold his soul to the devil to keep the estate and in turn would be transformed into a werewolf but have to kill someone once a year to uphold the bargain. This legend glides in and out of narrative construct and as aforementioned compliments and is complimented by the look of Hammond House in all its wonderful, gothic glory and the film’s obsession with imagery that act as visceral extension from the Universal monster movies of the past decade and currently sitting alongside the release of this film. The kinetic dialogue that seems to continually power through the film is on par with the increasingly popular film noir films being released around the same time, and in The Undying Monster, chatty characters take charge of the gloomy and creepy mis en scene as opposed to the quietly approached lengthy spook show sequences as seen in the films of Val Lewton and even the earlier Universal outings such as Dracula. Some wonderful lines such as “This place is colder than a tax collector’s heart!” populate the film and as it turns into a whodunit or more so, a who is it?, this supernatural mystery movie features continual use of the word “monster”, but doesn’t get to mention “lycanthropy” or “werewolf” until the very end.
Everyone in Hammond Hall seems cagey and not what they seem – while the two detectives prod around and ask questions. Much like The Wolf Man, The Undying Monster also has a recurringly spoken poem that suggests werewolfery, but for the most part the more interesting factor in regards to the film is writer Lillie Hayward’s treatment of the six principal women in the movie. The film is very much a forerunner in films about frontier women – Hayward would also write remarkable movies such as The Proud Rebel (1958) where Olivia De Havilland would play the quintessential pioneer woman in a western/dog-centric film and in Banjo (1947) a movie about a little girl and her dog, which featured some of the most complex writing for a child actress who would no doubt grow into a fiery feminist with a devotion to the land and to nature. Protecting and defending the Hammond family, Helga never leads into romantic leanings to the handsome Detective Curtis (James Ellison), who’s rational tone is startlingly different in comparison to the neurotic and frantic execution of the Hammonds and the doctor that hangs off the family, who is secretly in love with Helga and also committed to curing the family’s curse of lycanthropy. His words are measured and emotionless, whereas Helga and her “kind” are motor-fast and quivering with unease and uncertainty. The film reflects the shadow of lycanthropy that haunts Helga and her family quite literally in scenes that depict shadows that linger upon ceilings looked up at from low angles resembling a profile of a wolf. Every single shot is carefully composed – all the lengthy stretches of dialogue are performed in stylish and meticulously handled scenic execution. And some of the scenes would boast some innovative aspects much like the Eddie Quist transformation in The Howling. For example, blood tests and hair follicle tests feature in the movie – something that would pop up later in decades to come, however this would be one of the first times science would be that specifically detailed and integrated within the plot. The werewolf transformation itself (however brief) featured a retreating back to human form by a dissolve. Dissolve transformations were the mainstay for werewolf films during the thirties and forties, and this method would continue throughout the years up until movies such as The Howling would employ on-screen transformations using prosthetics, bladder work and puppetry.
The film was directed by John Brahm who made an impression later with The Lodger (1944) a superb take on the Jack the Ripper case and Hangover Square (1945) which told the story of a pianist who would lash out violently when he heard a discordant note (this film, with it’s phenomenal score by Bernard Hermann, would be the most influential film of horror movie fan Stephen Sondheim who would later use it as a core inspiration for his masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street).
The final moments of the film are effective and startling as the revelation of Oliver’s lycanthropy is presented as a full blown monster show – the werewolf creeping into the maiden’s boudoir, the monster carrying her off into the darkness of the woods, a lynch mob with torches chasing after the monster and a final climax of monster killed and maiden saved. There is also the interesting decision to have the werewolf walk in high speed as dictated by the camera and the coda of the film is an uplifting one with a joke (albeit a rather cruel on the character of Christy’s part) which became a staple for horror movies of the period, to end light (even musical outros in the end credits of horror movies at the time would be uplifting dance hall pieces as heard in The Island of Lost Souls (1932)). In the coda, it is learned that only the men in the Hammond family are affected and transform only on a frosty night, and this is something that the original source novel detailed in it’s closing paragraphs. Fox Studios were adamant that their horror films were based on novels, and they had bought the rights to books, making their works literary horror movies – something that their much more successful rival Universal didn’t insist upon. Instead, Universal would take lead from the works of writers such as Mary Shelley and lead these literary monsters into unmarked territories.