Stars: Robert Lowery, Virginia Grey, Bill Goodwin and Rondo Hatton
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.
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!’
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.
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.