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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

House of Horrors (1946)

Director: Jean Yarbrough
Stars: Robert Lowery, Virginia Grey, Bill Goodwin and Rondo Hatton
Last night, I reviewed The Brute Man to remember Jan Wiley on what would have been her one hundredth birthday. Given that it was also Rondo Hatton’s third film as the Creeper, I watched the other two first and felt that I should follow up with the one I haven’t already reviewed. This is House of Horrors, the first in a projected series of films clearly inspired by Hatton’s character in the Sherlock Holmes movie, The Pearl of Death. While The Brute Man is a highly interesting picture for a lot of reasons, I’d still argue that House of Horrors is just a little bit better. It’s still a flawed film in a number of ways, but it tries a bit harder than its prequel. The cops in this film actually attempt to catch the mass murderer terrorising the streets of New York rather than trying to ignore it’s even happening and pass the buck as far and as quickly as possible. Hatton gets lots of screen time and there are also a couple of very interesting performances from Martin Kosleck and Virginia Grey, even if they feel like they shouldn’t be in this particular picture.

It’s Hatton front and centre from the outset, though. In The Pearl of Death, he was firmly in support, doing what the villainous Giles Conover wanted but mostly in the shadows. He gets a great old school Universal reveal towards the end, when he turns and moves into the light, and another as he stalks towards Holmes with an apparent immunity to bullets. Here, he gets an ‘Introducing Rondo Hatton as the Creeper’ credit and stalks around behind the rest. His first appearance in the film proper is also a good one, as he slowly struggles out of the river that Marcel DeLange is thinking of throwing himself into. It’s odd to see Robert Lowery given top billing, given that the film only exists to showcase Rondo Hatton and Martin Kosleck is really the protagonist of the piece, a sculptor hated by the critics who uses the Creeper to visit revenge on them by snapping their spines. Incidentally, this is how the Hoxton Creeper murdered people in The Pearl of Death, so why we’re supposed to assume he’s a different character here, I have no idea.
These movies weren’t A list stuff, firmly intended to support bigger pictures and, as such, they ran short. House of Horrors runs only 65 minutes and The Brute Man is even shorter still, clocking in at less than an hour. Yet George Bricker, adapting an original story by pulp author, Dwight V Babcock, chose to begin as an old school character piece with a long sob story scene that feels like it should begin a fairy tale rather than a horror thriller. Kosleck, born in a part of Germany that is Poland today, still had a European accent, though he was fluent in English, but he downplays that by being as careful with his diction as possible. It almost feels like he’s attempting to play a simple peasant who can’t understand why life has to have it in for him. Perhaps he was just trying to do something different from all the Nazi roles he had been typecast into during the Second World War. He saw it as his mission to expose the Nazis as evil by playing as many of them as he could and he did, becoming described as ‘the definitive Nazi swine’.

Here, he’s just a struggling artist who cares for his cat, Pietro. And when I say struggling, I mean that he has to sculpt his primitive naked women by candlelight because he can’t pay to keep the power on. He borrowed the bread and cheese he’s eating for dinner and he has no milk for Pietro, but it’s all going to be OK again because Mr Samuels will be paying him $1,000 for a statue tonight. Yeah, right. Not if have an idea of where this story’s going! Sure enough, Samuels arrives with Holmes Harmon, a hatchet-man critic who can’t stand DeLange or his work. After he decries Surcease from Toil as ‘unadulterated tripe’, suddenly Samuels isn’t quite so interested in coughing up that much-needed cash. DeLange chases the pair of them out of his studio with a knife, smashes his creation to pieces with a sculptor’s hammer and wanders off to the river to throw himself in and end it all. Instead, he finds the Creeper. ‘Magnifique!’ he pronounces. ‘The perfect Neanderthal man!’
And so we’re off and running. DeLange has a new lease on life, aching to create ‘a masterpiece that will live forever’ by having the Creeper pose for a statue. And the Creeper gets to live, have a place to do so and with the opportunity to do what he does best: break backs. The first is a streetwalker he spies out of his window, suckering him into an alley. When the headlines of the morning papers hawk the crime and the sculptor asks rhetorically why anyone would snap a woman’s spine, Hatton gives what might be the best line of his entire career. ‘She screamed,’ he responds in that cracked and deadpan voice. And then, because DeLange is no fool, even if he sounds like one, he idly wonders about what he’d do to F Holmes Harmon if he only could. Off wanders the Creeper and the story is well and truly in motion. This is where we start to wonder about Hatton’s character. Sure, the opening credits tell us that he’s the Creeper, while the papers stir up his past murders and wonder if this madman could be alive and killing again.

But we don’t see that. We see a quiet creature who does what he does to help his only friend. He doesn’t seem to be all there, as if he’s suffering not from the acromegaly that afflicted Hatton but a kind of brain retardation that leaves him naive and childlike. He’s a big guy and all the more sinister for how he’s big: he’s a slim man who we might describe as being in great shape, if only the acromegaly hadn’t elongated his face and hulked out his shoulders. It’s easy to see why Universal wanted him because he could have played Frankenstein’s monster without any make-up. Jack Pierce, who sculpted such memorable features onto Boris Karloff back in 1931, did the make-up for this film but had little to do for Hatton, who was just right as he was. So he’s sinister and his shadow would definitely shock, but he doesn’t appear to be mad in the slightest. I had a lot more sympathy for the Creeper in this film than I did in his origin story in The Brute Man. There, he knowingly sought revenge for his disfigurement. Here, he just tries to help a friend.
I’d say that, of course, the cops are all over the new Creeper murders, but then they soon wouldn’t be in the prequel; they are at least on the case here. Bill Goodwin isn’t too bad as Lt Larry Brooks, but he’s so loose that we wonder if he thinks that he’s in a comedy rather than a Universal monster movie. He has a grin on his face throughout the movie, even while discovering corpses, and he’s quick on the pull too. As he interrogates an artist named Steven Morrow, who circumstantial evidence suggests could well be the Creeper, his eyes are diverted to the artist’s model, Stella McNally, and he promptly distracts himself to flirt up a storm with her and set up a date. Inappropriate much? Morrow is played by Robert Lowery, who inexplicably gets top billing in House of Horrors. Why, I have no idea at all, because I recognised most of the rest of the cast but not him and because he doesn’t even attempt to build any character into Morrow, content to float through the film falling into every plot convenience trap he can find.

What Joan Medford, hot shot reporter, sees in him, I have even less idea. Virginia Grey plays her with all the sass and vinegar that Lowery has forgotten even exists. I adored her performance, even if it seemed to exist in the wrong movie too. Just like Martin Kosleck believes that he’s in a fairy tale and Bill Goodwin believes that he’s in a comedy, Grey apparently believes that she’s in the sort of fast talking newspaper drama Warner Brothers churned out in the thirties rather than the sort of creature feature that Universal specialised in during the forties. Jean Yarbrough directed with film noir style but Babcock and Bricker are a handicap to him every way. It’s as if they tried to throw every genre they could into one film. I was half expecting Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to waltz through a shadowy doorway for a musical number! In her way, though, Grey is the best thing about the picture because she’s thoroughly alive and that’s what we needed in a story about a lot of people getting dead.
So there’s a lot to like in House of Horrors, even if it has a notable identity crisis. It looks wonderful, with shadows everywhere and a camera that knows exactly how to move within them. The cinematographer was Maury Gertsman, who had shot a number of films for Universal, including jungle pictures, Sherlock Holmes yarns and monster movies. Mostly, though, he specialised in westerns. The sets, costumes and score all feel right too, but then this was Universal; they owned this genre! Sadly, they felt that it was a safe bet to just have Rondo Hatton creeping around breaking backs and a solid story wasn’t required. It leads to an unwieldy amount of plot convenience to shuffle the cast members around to be right where they need to be. Everyone knows where everyone else lives in New York! Models fall for cops! Art critics fall for commercial artists! Cops are unceasingly cheerful! The further the film goes, the further off track the film goes and the ending is worst of all. The Creeper was a promising series, but it underdelivered.

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