October 20, 2017
It's a tried and true movie formula - the set up that has a bunch of unsuspecting kids lured to a strange home, in which a malevolent mad scientist type awaits to act upon his bizarre proclivities. It's even become known as the "old dark house" movie, named for The Old Dark House, released in 1932. But in the case of The Monster, directed by Roland West and starring the inimitable Lon Chaney, this was released seven years earlier.
The Monster can fairly be judged, historically, as a little ahead of its time. In reality, it was a bit of a lark for everyone concerned. In spirit, it probably hews closer to Bugs Bunny's Hare-Raising Hare (1946) than to, say, The House on Haunted Hill (1959). This is a horror comedy: our mad scientist (Chaney, in a rare role for him, in which he actually smiles) is never as serious a threat to the protagonists as you'd think; the hero, a bumbling kid (Johnny Arthur) who just got his "detective license" by correspondence, is out to impress the girl of his dreams (Gertrude Olmstead); and a few of the mad scientist's assistants were issued right out of central casting.
Sherbrooke Live at the Winspear continues its Halloween tradition of silent films with live musical accompaniment by presenting The Monster on October 31 at 8 pm. Once again, we're thrilled to have the dean of film music accompaniment, Dennis James, at the controls of the incredible Davis Concert Organ, as he plays music as the film is projected above the stage.
Just before he made this B-movie treasure, Lon Chaney had done some of his best work in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and soon after, would do it again with The Phantom of the Opera. To ham it up as the crazed Dr. Ziska for director West must have been a bit of a busman's holiday for Chaney, and he takes full advantage. His mad scientist preens, smirks, and wears a smoking jacket for Pete's sake. Reviews for The Monster can't help but use words like cliché, kitsch, and generous portions of ham.
But everyone involved in the enterprise seems to know that, and the whole thing is carried off with a knowing chuckle at all the scenery chewed right down to the supports. It will be a hoot to hear Mr. James create his usual masterful sonic landscape to this unheralded gem of a genre which has seen much greater examples, and much, much worse as well.
By all means, dress up in your Halloween best, and stick around after the movie for drinks, a live DJ, and more in the lobby. Or maybe I shouldn't say "live" DJ. Maybe just undead will do.
Written by D.T. Baker