The Undying Monster is a 1940s old dark house mystery concerning a family legend about a werewolf. It was directed by John Brahm, who also did two much better movies in the “gaslight” thriller genre in the 1940s: The Lodger, and Hangover Square. All three came together in the same boxed set, which is how I got hold of this less well-known work of his.
After an opening voice-over that introduces the legend of the Hammond Monster and sets the story we are about to see in 1900, the movie takes us around the interior of an old mansion somewhere on the English coast.
The clock is striking 12 and chords of ominous music play. We end up in the drawing room, lit only by the fire in the fireplace.
No–it’s just a little directorial fake-out. The butler comes in a minute later and both the dog and the woman wake up. “I must’ve fallen asleep,” the latter says apologetically.
This young lady is Helga Hammond, who was waiting up for her brother Oliver’s return from the laboratory of a doctor friend who lives nearby. Oliver isn’t usually out this late. There is some conversation about poachers on the family estate and the butler quotes an old poem about the Hammond Monster: When there are “Bright stars, frost on the ground” (as there are on this particular night), “beware the bane on the rocky lane” (the path Oliver is most likely to take home). The Hammond siblings’ grandfather died on the cliff path along the sea coast 20 years ago–after seeing the Monster, the butler maintains.
Helga scoffs at the old family legend. She believes her grandfather killed himself. She doesn’t seem very worried about her brother, even after the Great Dane barks at something outside before running away into the frosty night, but she does telephone the doctor to confirm that Oliver did leave his house some time ago. She is about to go up to bed when a dog or wolf is heard howling in the distance.
We cut to a woman running along the rocky coast path, until she is attacked by a camera-point-of-view assailant. Her screams and further canine howls attract the attention of Helga and the servants at the house. Accompanied by one of the servants and armed with her brother’s revolver, Helga bravely rides out to explore the rocky path. In turn, she discovers:
1. Oliver’s pet spaniel, dead and horribly mangled.
2. Oliver, bloody but alive.
3. The woman, whose name is Kate O’Malley; she works at the lab, and is also alive but in worse condition than Oliver.
Kate and Oliver are conveyed back to house. Oliver soon regains consciousness with confused memories of fighting the beast that attacked Kate. Kate, however, is in a coma. The doctor who examines them both can’t say what type of creature attacked them. A large dog? Aside from the Great Dane, we have seen that the poachers have a pack of big bloodhounds.
It’s time to call in Scotland Yard! Two scientific-minded investigators are assigned to look into this latest incident involving the Hammond Monster: Robert Curtis or “Bob,” and Miss Cornelia Christopher or “Christy.”
These two are introduced with the air of being familiar characters, and that this is just one of many similar, unusual cases they’ve handled, much as the people in the prologue of a mystery might turn to Sherlock Holmes in the second chapter. But if there are any other serialized stories about the 1900s-style X-Filish adventures of Bob and Christy, either filmed or written, I am unaware of them. Christy, I’m sorry to say is no Edwardian Dana Scully, but plays the part of unfunny comic relief. She “dabbles in the occult” and talks of little except food. Bob is nothing out the ordinary for a leading man in a movie of this genre and era.
The old inspector who supervises them was a friend of the late Hammond grandfather, which is why Helga has come to him for help. As he reviews the files of that 20-year-old case, we get a little more family history: A Hammond ancestor was said to have sold his soul to the devil. The legend has it that he still lives in some secret part of the house and requires the periodic sacrifice of his descendants to maintain his immortality. Helga continues to scoff at these supernatural tales involving her family and Bob is likewise skeptical. The old inspector seems more inclined to doubt that a rational explanation can be found, and Christy is positively thrilled at the idea of the Monster.
Bob and Christy accompany Helga back to Hammond Hall that same foggy morning. On the way, they stop at the site of the attack, where the local police are examining the area. Oliver is up and has joined them, with a bandage around his forehead.
The local police have more prosaic suspects than the Monster in mind; their eyes are firmly on those poachers with the bloodhounds. Bob suggests some sort of ape that has escaped from a zoo, but he’s only joking. When he asks Oliver if the spaniel barked in warning, Oliver reports that the poor little dog didn’t seem to sense any danger (But we recall that the Great Dane did).
After Bob and Christy arrive at Hammond Hall, spooky aspects of the old house start to manifest and people begin to behave suspiciously. In quick succession, we are treated to a slamming door frightening a maid, then the sound of rattling chains, which draws everyone down into the family crypt.
Here, one old Crusader’s tomb features a statue that is supposed to represent the Monster, although it looks more like a dragon than a wolf to me. They don’t say if this is that same ancestor who sold his soul, but I think we are meant to take it as a given.
While they are all still in the crypt, Bob mentions the rumors of a secret room. Only it turns out not to be so secret; everybody in the house knows about it and Helga offers to show them. She claims that the place has been kept locked and no one’s set foot inside in three years… except that there are obviously more recent footprints in the dust on the floor. The doctor “accidentally” obscures these by stumbling over them.
The doctor openly resents the Scotland Yard visitors, and not just because Bob is obviously attracted to Helga and he sees him as a potential rival. And Bob is suspicious in return. The doctor is a well-known nerve specialist–so what’s he doing in this remote part of the country when he ought to have a lucrative office in Harley Street? Also, if Oliver were killed, that would leave Helga sole heir to the Hammond fortune and her future husband would naturally share it.
A book on the Hammond family’s history disappears from the library. A whispered conference between the butler and housekeeper suggests that they too have something to hide. Meanwhile, Kate remains in her coma–drugged, the housekeeper says.
When Bob and Christy return to investigate the scene of the attack that evening, they find a scrap of woolen scarf and some coarse animal hair. The butler is soon after caught burning something in the secret room’s fireplace. Bob recovers some of the burnt material and, using the latest scientific spectrography, proves that it was the rest of Oliver’s scarf. He also proves that the hair belongs to a wolf–just before the sample vanishes completely before the investigators’ eyes when they turn on the lights! “Some things are beyond science,” the old inspector intones.
It’s a good beginning, with a sadly muddled and abrupt ending. Up until this point, I was sufficiently entertained with the gothic trappings of the mystery to want to see how it turned out (even though I already had a good idea about who the Monster was). Brahm does know how to create a spooky atmosphere; in addition to the two movies I mentioned above, he also went on to direct episodes of the original Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, and Thriller. There’s enough material provided in the first 45 minutes of this film to give the audience some mild, quasi-supernatural thrills and to set up at least a couple of false leads. What I didn’t know on my first viewing was that this film is just barely an hour long. I was expecting a few more tricks and plot twists to unfold as Bob and Christy conducted their investigation–when suddenly the whole thing was over.
While the investigators are gathering up clues to lead them to identify the Monster, a wolf-man climbs in through a window at Hammond Hall and carries off Helga. This sends everybody in the cast who isn’t a werewolf in pursuit to the cliff path. After some running around, the wolf-man drops Helga on some rocks at the water’s edge and he and Bob fight it out.
The Monster then climbs back up the cliff only to be faced with the entire local police force and a number of other people. Before their astonished eyes, he transforms from his Lon-Chaneyesque wolf-face back to that of a normal man (a nice little dissolve effect, by the way, considering the time this film was made and its probable budget), before he plummets back down to his death. Not so “undying” after all.
And in its final moments, the film takes its most bizarre and unexpected turn. Christy and Bob discuss the case and speak of lycanthropy as a mental condition that leads a man to believe he is a werewolf. This tragic dementia was what the Monster was suffering from. Nothing supernatural was going on here. Okay, then–so what about that transformation from wolf-man to man? Bob didn’t witness it, but just about everyone else in the movie did and so did the audience. And what about that wolf fur that disappeared when exposed to bright light? That’s some psychosomatic symptom.
It also surprised me that nothing came of the romance that was developing between Bob and Helga. As I mentioned above, he is attracted to her, and she is prickly enough in her responses to his overtures that anyone who’s seen a movie in the last 100 years would expect them to be in each other’s arms before the final credits. But this does not happen. Helga disappears once the Monster leaves her at the foot of the cliff and if it weren’t for one throw-away line during the final scene, I wouldn’t even be reassured that she survived her ordeal.