EDITOR’S NOTE This podcast is dedicated to Universal Monsters, but there are many more excellent (and some awful) vintage Universal Horror films out there that don’t feature any of these classic monsters and so won’t be featured on our show. They are absolutely still worth covering, so we’ve invited some guest writers to share their thoughts on these non-monster Universal Horror films. Now, enjoy this film review from Sal Roma.
Title: Man Made Monster . Studio: Universal Pictures . Writers: George Waggner and Harry Essex . Director: George Waggner . Released: March 28, 1941 . Country: United States . Rating: 7/10
After a bus accident results in the electrocution of all the bus passengers but one, the lone survivor, Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr of The Wolf Man), is hired by Dr. Lawrence (Frank Albertson, the wealthy “Tom Cassidy” in Psycho) to take part in some experiments. Joined by Lawrence’s partner, Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill, a regular in many of the Frankenstein sequels), the duo tries to learn more about McCormick’s apparent immunity to electricity. Little does Dr. Lawrence realize that Dr. Rigas has his own sinister side experiments planned to use McCormick’s immunity to turn McCormick into a “Man Made Monster,” compelled to follow all of Rigas’ orders.
Seeing as my first Universal Monster Cast written review was for George Waggner’s 1941 film Horror Island, it seemed only fitting that I should watch his other horror film released on March 28th of that year – Man Made Monster (aka The Atomic Monster). Right away, it became clear why Man Made Monster is the more popular of the two early-1941 Waggner films. Although fun, Horror Island didn’t have any single element that made it truly memorable. The same cannot be said about Man Made Monster. Not only does it star one of the biggest actors of the Universal Monster days (also greatly under-appreciated) in Lionel Atwill, but it also features the Universal Horror debut of Lon Chaney Jr. Undoubtedly, the legacy of this small budget film is that it brought Waggner and Chaney Jr. together, allowing them to film the legendary The Wolf Man later in the year.
Early on in Man Made Monster, I kept thinking about The Wolf Man. It seems impossible not to, with this being a ‘41 film directed by Waggner and starring Chaney Jr. It goes further than just that, though. Chaney’s portrayal of this film’s sympathetic monster, undoubtedly came in use for when he went on to become the tragic character of Lawrence Talbot. Dr. Lawrence’s laboratory is located in the moors. Although not technically The Wolf Man, any time I hear the “Moors” I think of another popular Universal werewolf film, An American Werewolf in London. Meanwhile, whenever I hear the name “Lawrence” and see Chaney Jr, I instantly think of Lawrence Talbot from The Wolf Man. McCormick’s character even has a friendship with “Corky” the dog. A werewolf getting along with a dog, makes sense to me.
However, the longer Man Made Monster went on, the less I thought of The Wolf Man and the more I began to pick up on the similarities between Man Made Monster and another Universal Monsters classic – Frankenstein. In fact, the simplest way to sum up Man Made Monster is that it’s essentially a more sci-fi and slightly more realistic take on Frankenstein. Both McCormick and Frankenstein’s Monster are these big lumbering giants that aren’t very intelligent, and while they do kill, it’s not as if they are actually villains. Both Dr. Rigas and Dr. Frankenstein are too consumed with desires to play God with their scientific work. The difference is that Frankenstein wasn’t an evil character, just too obsessed with his goals. Dr. Rigas would be more aligned in Frankenstein sequel villains such as Bride’s Dr. Pretorius or Ghost’s Dr. Bohmer (coincidentally, also played by Lionel Atwill), his intentions not being so pure. Personally, I consider Dr. Rigas as the highlight of the film., with his facial expressions and evil actions. Atwill makes for an amazing villain.
As mentioned, Lon Chaney Jr. typically excels at playing the role of a tragic character. McCormick is a very simple man, seemingly with low intelligence, but it’s difficult not to feel for him when things go awry when he’s such a decent person. Up until the electric treatments began affecting him, McCormick was happy go-lucky, getting along with everyone and seemingly without a single negative thought in his mind. Considering the fact that Chaney’s only previous successful film was 1939’s Of Mice and Men, as the simpleton gentle giant, Lenny, I believe Chaney mostly just tweaked his character of Lenny to become McCormick. Due to that connection, I began to see similarities between John Steinbeck’s legendary character and Mary Shelley’s legendary monster.
Man Made Monster was a small budget affair. With a budget of $86,000, there wasn’t much money to go around. For comparison sake, Waggner’s The Wolf Man had a budget of $180,000. Due to the fact that the budget was so low, a few of the kills are done off-camera. Inadvertently, this actually added to the drama, as various reporters report back what they are witnessing with McCormick’s rampage, but we’re not shown any of it. The result is that the viewer’s imagination comes alive with its own interpretation of how the kills occurred. That little touch of having the reporters relate what was going on in the moment made the deaths far more exciting than they would have been, reported after the fact. The special effects for the film, in the form of McCormick’s head and arms glowing with the electricity racing through his body, does come across as a great effect for its time and the limited budget likely allotted for effects. However, younger viewers may find the glowing effect to be a bit hokey.
The biggest weakness of Man Made Monster had to do with the character of reporter Mark Davis. We’re introduced to Davis at the start of the film, with his failed attempts to woo the main love interest of the film and Dr. Lawrence’s niece, June Lawrence. It is my understanding that the entire film takes place only in a matter of months, yet by the end of the film, June is suddenly engaged to Davis. When did this happen? Early on, it seemed as if June was being set-up to be the love interest of McCormick. There’s also an attempt to create a sub-plot with Mark where, over the course of the film, he learns the value of people and their lives, over his own personal success as a reporter. Yet, it felt slapped together and rushed and Mark’s life lesson comes across as a weak attempt at extending the film’s length. It seemed to me that multiple scenes with Davis may have been left on the cutting room floor, resulting in his character feeling disjointed from the rest of the characters and the film as a whole. Ideally, he should have either been engaged to June from the start of the film or never at all. With a running time of only sixty minutes, the film doesn’t have time to waste on underdeveloped characters or subplots such as Mark.
Overall, Man Made Monster is a worthwhile film to seek out. Perhaps it’s just because I’m such a fan of the Frankenstein series, but I was interested in this electrified living version of Frankenstein’s Monster. The historic legacy of this film is that it is the first Universal Horror for both George Waggner and Lon Chaney Jr. Without it, we may not have had The Wolf Man. It is admittedly hokey and the smaller budget from the more legendary Universal Horrors is noticeable, but it’s a fun film. You honestly can’t go wrong with Lon Chaney Jr. playing a tragic character or Lionel Atwill portraying a conniving villain.
I’d give Man Made Monster a rating of 7/10 with a rental recommendation. It is available on a standalone DVD as part of the “Universal Vault Series,” released in 2014, or included in the “Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive” DVD box set, released in 2009.