aka The Human Monster

Having previously gone to England in 1935 to film Mystery of the Mary Celeste for Hammer Films (Yes Hammer Films!) Bela Lugosi returned again to headline this murder mystery with mad doctor overtones in 1939 working with producer, John Argyle, and director, Walter Summers. Both Argyle and Summers had a hand in the screenplay from an original source novel by Edgar Wallace.

Not surprisingly it’s Bela’s eyes in close up that opens the film with the credits in tow. Cut to a body floating in the Thames. And it’s not the first. There’s been a series of “suicides” as of late and Scotland Yard has it’s suspicions that there’s a madman on the loose in London.

With Bela in town I tend to agree.

Assigned to the case is Hugh Williams and at a running time of 76 minutes he makes quick work of following a lead to an insurance company headed by Lugosi. Ironically it seems that the bodies being pulled from the Thames all have life insurance policies with Bela’s firm.

When Bela sets his sights on his next victim he damn nears go over the edge of sanity cutting the ham a bit on the thick side but reigns it in to keep his performance leaning towards the low key side until we get closer to the film’s climax and the film is better for it. As a matter of fact this is one of Bela’s better performances and there’s a major plot point still to come.

Bela is going to play dual roles and thanks to his being dubbed in the role of a heavily mustached blind Professor at a school for the blind, the ruse works and in 1939 might have initially fooled a ticket buyer or two. I should add that his insurance company owner goes by the title Dr. Orloff. Once again Bela is dabbling with medicine even if it isn’t his public vocation in the eyes of Scotland Yard.

Orloff? Surely you Jess Franco fans are familiar with that name. I know, I know, of course you do and you’re about to say, “and don’t call me Shirley.”

The plot will pick up steam when Bela kills his next policy holder only to find out the man proves to have a daughter that Bela wasn’t aware. Played by Greta Gynt, she’ll prove to be the film’s leading lady and romantic interest for our sleuthing member of Scotland Yard, Mr. Williams.

Supplying some comedy to lessen the overall impact of the killings is Edmon Ryan as a Chicago cop on loan to the Yard. I guess Glenda Farrell or Fay Wray weren’t available to play a tough talking dame who just happens to be an investigative reporter to play alongside our investigator while doubling as comedy relief. When the latest body is pulled from the Thames Ryan will be quick to ask, “Don’t they ever shoot anybody in this country?” He’ll even look to his Scotland Yard partner and ask him, “What’s next, Sherlock?”

With Bela behind the killings as one might expect, is he The Human Monster of the title when the film was released under it’s new name in North America? Perhaps but based on the advertising campaign it looks like it’s referring to Lugosi’s giant sized man servant played by Wilfrid Walter. It’s the dim witted Lenny-like Walter who does Lugosi’s evil bidding.

One killing that Lugosi won’t need any help in committing is when he murders a blind violinist who may have overheard too much. It’s a scene that will keep Lugosiphiles smiling and audiences of the day aghast in horror. Bela goes over the top cackling and grinning as he drowns the poor man in a large tub before dumping his remains in the mud plains of the Thames below his sanctuary at the home for the blind using a trap door overlooking the river. It’s as if Bela is channeling his memorable performance as Dr. Vollin in 1935’s The Raven where he was clearly past the edge of sanity from the outset.

Then again maybe Bela was just warming up for his eventual role as Dr. Eric Vornoff who had designs on “conquering the VORLD” in 1955’s Bride of the Monster. Perhaps you know that one best thanks to Martin Landau’s wonderful Oscar winning performance as Lugosi in Tim Burton’s biopic, Ed Wood.

With the Yard closing in will Bela and Tor Johnson …. sorry, I meant to say Wilfrid Walter. Will the pair succeed in killing the damsel in distress and escape the law or will Williams and Ryan crack the case and rescue the fair haired beauty?

A far better film than I recalled not having seen it in what must be over 30 years by now. It was one of the earliest Lugosi films I had seen as a kid thanks to it’s turning up on VHS tape albeit in a poor quality transfer when the world of home video was just beginning to take hold. Films in public domain like Human Monster were being marketed by low budget companies to those of us who wanted to own a copy of our very own.

It also serves to remind me that ages ago when trying to research movies via books at the local library and monster mags like Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein I was of the originally of the opinion that Bela had made a movie titled Human Monster and a totally different one called Dark Eyes of London. Those early days of movie discovery long before the internet clarified everything are fondly recalled.

1939 was a good year for “Poor Bela.” He not only had Dark Eyes of London spooking audiences but he shared the screen with Garbo in Ninotchka and then there was Igor in Son of Frankenstein. Probably his greatest film performance if we remove Dracula from the equation.

Bela would journey back to Britain once more following WW2 in 1951 for a stage tour of Dracula that resulted in one more movie where he played opposite “Old Mother Riley” in a film known under various titles including My Son the Vampire.

For a more in depth look at Bela’s trips to England, the movies and the tour he embarked upon bringing Dracula back to the stage one last time check out the book, Vampire Over London, if you can locate a copy though I think it might a rare/pricey volume.

Finally a shout out to Network who have released the film on blu ray with an abundance of bonus materials including a slip case, poster cards, commentaries and interviews with the likes of film scholar Kim Newman. A nice addition to one’s movie shelf.