Stars: Tom Neal, Jan Wiley, Jane Adams, Donald MacBride, Peter Whitney, Fred Coby, Janelle Johnson and Rondo Hatton
Hatton plays the Creeper, a character with an interesting history, for the third time. His first appearance was in a Sherlock Holmes movie, The Pearl of Death, in 1944, the ninth in the series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. There, he’s the Hoxton Creeper, a dangerous tool used by the villain of the piece, Giles Conover, to destroy his enemies, always by breaking the third lumbar vertebra of their spines. Hatton is hardly in the film but he’s memorable whenever he is, shot in looming shadows and only being revealed at the very end of the film, when Holmes cleverly turns him on his master. Two years later, Hatton made what was intended to be the first in a series of movies featuring the Creeper. This was House of Horrors where the character stalks behind the opening credits. He’s rescued from a river by a sculptor about to commit suicide, who then uses his new friend to murder art critics who have savaged his work, all while sculpting a bust of the killer, which he believes will become his masterpiece.
Certainly, the Creeper in The Brute Man is the same Creeper as in House of Horrors, but while this is the second in that projected Universal series, this is a prequel rather than a sequel. It gives us some insight into who this murderer was before he started killing and why he started doing so, what we would today call an origin story. It turns out that he was a college student called Hal Moffat, the successful captain of Hampton University’s football team and a young man in love. He had a rival for the affections of Virginia Rogers, namely his best friend, the more scholarly Clifford Scott, who sets him up with apparent glee. He gave him a set of incorrect answers for a chemistry test to ensure that Moffat is kept behind after class, making him unable to take Virginia out on a date. Then he walks the young lady past the window of the chemistry classroom to gloat. Moffat was known for his temper and seeing the two and realising how he was set up makes him throw what he’s holding at the ground. The chemical release disfigures him.
Interestingly, Jan Wiley doesn’t play the blind girl, even though that’s by far the more prominent female role, but she’s still credited above Jane Adams, who does. Clearly Wiley was the bigger star at the time, even though she was about to retire at thirty; the only part she played after this film was an uncredited one as a perfume saleswoman in The Best Years of Our Lives. Before it, she’d built something of a name for herself in ‘B’ movies. She was a versatile talent, appearing in Range Busters westerns such as Tonto Basin Outlaws and Thunder River Feud, Universal horror pictures like She-Wolf of London and The Brute Man, pulp adventures like Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc and Secret Agent X-9, and other dynamic movies with dynamic titles that rarely lived up to them, such as A Fig Leaf for Eve and The Living Ghost. Most of her films were made during her decade-long first marriage, which ended in 1945, the year her last pictures were shot. She married again in 1947 and settled in to being a wife and mother, never acting again.
You see, the Creeper is set up to be a sympathetic killer. For all that characters in House of Horrors kept billing him as a madman, he appears to be more like a damaged soul, both inside and out, who wasn’t functioning on all cylinders. All his lines are simple ones, as if he’s unable to string concepts together in layers. He isn’t killing people for the sake of it, he’s just doing what seems to be right. He’s finally found his first friend and he does what he can to make him happy. He’s less sympathetic here, but he’s a more sympathetic character than his so-called college buddies, who set him up with a trick that leaves him a disfigured man and promptly forget about him until he comes knocking on their doors to seek revenge. He knows what he’s doing here, though, intelligence shining out of Hatton’s eyes even if it isn’t echoed by his words and actions. The whole subplot with Helen the blind girl sets him up as the misunderstood monster, a beast on the outside but a beauty on the inside. That’s what Helen sees with her mind.
It didn’t end there either. Neal and Payton were blacklisted by the major Hollywood studios and became better known for their violent relationship than their acting. Payton had married Tone after his recovery, but left him after less than two months to return to Neal; Tone filed for divorce on grounds of adultery. It didn’t last for Payton and Neal either, but at least she got out alive. Neal married a third wife in 1961, a receptionist called Gale Bennett, who was found dead only four years later with a gunshot wound to the back of her head. Neal was arrested, convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to between one and fifteen years in prison. He served six. It’s a rather bitter irony that has a man like Rondo Hatton, a journalist and army veteran struck down in his prime by a disfiguring disease, remembered today for performances that exploited his crumbling visage and crumbling voice by casting him as madmen and monsters, while a man like Tom Neal, who really was a monster, was able to play dashing heroes.