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Man Made Monster (1941)
While Man-Made Monster is not one of the all-time great horror films like many of its thirties and forties Universal Pictures celluloid brethren, it is not without certain merits; in particular, it can be viewed historically as the proving ground for one of Universal's undisputed classics, The Wolf Man. Both filmed in 1941, Man Made Monster first teamed many of the people who would later collaborate on The Wolf Man. Star Lon Chaney Jr., and director George Waggner are well known to have gone on to make the furry opus, but many of the other talents that reunited for the Wolf Man included some of Universal's stable of technicians and artists like special effects wizard John P. Fulton (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Ten Commandments), makeup magician Jack Pierce (Frankenstein, The Mummy), musical director Hans Salter (The Mummy's Hand, Ghost of Frankenstein) and costumer Vera West (The Man Who Laughs, Son of Frankenstein).
The story of Man Made Monster is one of good fortune gone bad. On a dark, rainy night a passenger bus skids out of control into an electric utility tower. All of its passengers are electrocuted and killed, save one. The sole survivor, Dan McCormick (Chaney) is a carnival performer, billed as "Dynamo Dan, the Electric Man." It is surmised he survived the crash due to immunity to electricity built up while performing his carnival act. When questioned about his act by the "good cop" ethical scientist Dr. Lawrence (Samuel Hinds, The Raven, Son of Dracula), Dan says his tricks are all just a bunch of "hogwash." Unfortunately for Dan, it's more than hogwash, it's just the electrically-immune, simple-minded ticket to world domination that Dr. Lawrence's (self-proclaimed) mad partner Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) has been looking for.
It's easy to like Dan McCormick. Lon Chaney Jr. always did the "aw, shucks" routine very well. Unfortunately the script by director George Waggner under the pseudonym Joseph West (why didn't he want credit for that?), didn't give Chaney many opportunities to do more than a thin "aw, shucks" routine. His transition from affable, knockaround guy to mindless jolt-junkie happens in a series of quick shots of experiments. When the momentary sequence is over, we see Dan as a mindless brute, slave to pusher Rigas and the life-sustaining electricity he provides. For a guy who literally glows, Dan McCormick is one dim bulb. That brings another of the merits of Man Made Monster, the marvelous, Dynamo Dan glow-in the-dark and electric special effects. The mystery and wonder of "how'd they do that?" makes watching those effects a real joy. Without the aid of computer generated images, Fulton had to be creative. That's classic movie magic.
Dr. Rigas is the epitome of cinematic evil scientists. Suffering from less than Shakespearean dialogue, Lionel Atwill still turns in a very enjoyable performance. His Rigas is both slimey and hammy. While that's a lousy combination for a sandwich, it works for Dr. Rigas. There is no mystery to Rigas though. You have him pegged as a bad guy the moment you see him. For some reason Atwill seemed to play either the vilest of the vile or policemen. Figure that one out for yourselves. It's easy to write off the evil Rigas does because of the cheesy dialogue, but consider that in 1941, other doctors, real-world doctors in Nazi Germany were performing barbarically dehumanizing experiments that were ideologically similar to Rigas's. Did a chill run up your spine? It should.
The biggest pieces of dead weight in the film are the characters of Dr. Lawrence's daughter and assistant June and her fiancé, newspaper reporter Mark Adams. Anne Nagel (The Mad Monster, The Secret Code) and Frank Alberston (It's a Wonderful Life, They Made Me a Killer) give fine performances, but they don't really add to the plot. They are the characters the audience is obviously supposed to identify with, but that is a misstep. June and Mark are plastic interchangeable pieces of set dressing. Diminishing the importance of those two and placing more of the focus on Dan would have served the film well. It would reinforce the audience's empathy with Dan, the really interesting and tragic character and cause greater emotional involvement with his plight, which is really what the movie is about.
Man Made Monster is a good film, but far from a great one. Pop it in the VCR (you have to because it's not available on DVD) and give it a viewing some rainy Saturday afternoon, back to back with The Wolf Man for a real Classic-Horror history review. It's a good two and a half hours worth of black and white B-movie fun with static electricity and fur!