The Lon Chaney Nightlight

Lon Chaney in Man Made Monster glows in the dark.  Literally.  He plays Dynamo Dan the Electrical Man, a genial carnival performer who’s in a bus accident that electrocutes and kills all the other passengers.  But Dan, apparently because of his carny act (during which, per his own description, he engages in such interesting pastimes as sticking his fingers into light sockets), has survived and flourished (“I’m the one that lived,” says Dan cheerfully).  His electrical-absorbing ability comes to the attention of a scientist who, luring Dan into participating in weird electro-biology experiments, zaps electric bolts into Chaney’s tall, chunky torso with the unwholesome relish of a cat for electrified cream.  This luring researcher happens to be played by Lionel Atwill; and Lionel, by his very presence, ratchets up this film to a loopily unpredictable level.

With Atwill’s introduction, I could stop there, the plot practically writing itself.  Of all the great Hollywood-Golden-Age horror stars, Lionel (as I indicated in my post here) was unsurpassed in his depiction of exquisitely refined depravity.  Master of the demonic leer, the leering grin, and the grinning sneer, Lionel, in such films as Murders in the Zoo, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat, and The Sphinx, could roll dialogue off his lubricious lips with the slickness of warm wax, when not smacking those same lips over the unholiest of pleasures.  Suffice it to say that, where’er Lionel treads, murder and mayhem must follow.  Enough of which to keep 1941’s (year of the film’s release) children attached to their seats for the length of a kiddie-matinee second feature, affording weary parents a needed Saturday-afternoon break.

The film’s story is simple.  The goal of Lionel’s mad scientist—are there ever any sane ones?—is to create a new form of life—are there ever any other aims?—in this case, a race of supermen that can live on electricity alone.  It’s a goal that, despite Lionel’s nefarious purposes, might make sense in energy-saving terms, in that people would be able to do without electricity in other ways:  lighting rooms, for example, by the glow of their faces alone.  So who needs a light bulb, any light bulb?  Once we see Chaney step out of the lab, as brilliantly lit as a Ray Milland Lost Weekend, we can throw out all those arguments about Edison versus LED.  Just plug in Lon, and you’ll have enough luminescence to light the Chrysler Building for a year.

MMM is a modest film, strictly low-budget and barely an hour long, but with its own (not at all unholy, I assure you) pleasures.  Unlike today’s horror cinema, which tends to drag its CGI-laden carcass toward the two-hour mark, MMM’s story is lean and efficient, getting quickly to the action as it makes its points, while providing enough twists to sustain interest.  The narrative pursues its arc—how Lon gets addicted to electrical sparks as a child does to chocolate; how he gradually falls under Lionel’s control; and how, convicted of murder, he’s condemned to the electric chair, of which effect on him is rather like the Briar Patch on Br’er Rabbit—with the stripped-down zeal of a shark after prey.  There are some nice, grisly touches, such as a reporter cheerily puffing a cigar as he awaits a man’s execution, or the sight of an incandescent Chaney stomping across the countryside like a walking ad for Con Ed.  And MMM looks good, its noirish B&W cinematography by Elwood Bredell etching shadows against metal, glass, and luminous flesh.

The film also features a fine performance by Chaney, whose character, and his portrayal of it, evokes both sadness and sympathy.  Playing a simple, good-hearted soul, with a fondness for dogs (reflecting a real-life love of Chaney’s), Dan’s very innocence and honesty is his misfortune; he can’t see harm in anyone else, not even someone with as sinister a smirk as Lionel.  His story can be read as a metaphor of a naïve workaday chump manipulated by elites for their own detrimental purposes; the dog Corky is, quite touchingly, the one most concerned about Dan (you can track Dan’s deterioration through the dog’s reactions to his bodily changes).  As I noted in an earlier post, Chaney, son of the great silent-film actor Lon Chaney Sr., had a terrific mug of his own; though somewhat rough and unsubtle in expression, his face could catch and release a surge of pure, unadulterated feeling.  A close-up of Chaney’s agonized visage, near film’s end, as the electricity, and his life, runs out of him and he dimly comprehends what’s happening, will linger in your visual memory.  It adds that right touch of heart that the best horror contains.

What will also stay in memory’s tablets is Lionel’s own performance, done with his typical understated bravura; it makes you laugh in the midst of a grimace.  When it came to subtlety and nuance, in both gesture and (especially) voice, Lionel led the pack; he may not have had heart, but he could suggest layers.  His particular gift was for the unexpected emphasis, the curved intonation, that lent a perverse, eye-opening twist to the underlying meaning of his lines.  “You’re perfectly all right,” says Li to Lon after one blasting, his disgruntled inflection sounding suspiciously like disappointment; or, as he starts the final treatment, remarking that, “We shan’t be disturbed — I’ve taken care of that,” with just enough of a ghoulish stress that makes you wonder what else he intends to take care of.  Note also what Lionel does with his reply when accused of being mad:  “Of course I’m mad!” he exclaims, with such a gleeful matter-of-factness that he makes a seeming-straightforward phrase sound positively audacious.  It’s a rare talent that can take a good line and make it not only better, but stranger.

When it comes to spooky-movie viewing, you could do worse, cinema-wise, than Li and Lon in MMM.  It may not a classic but it’s fun, and even thoughtful, to watch:  demonstrating the effects of mad science, contrasting human decency with human inhumanity, and putting a spin on the expected set pieces, including a lit-up and electrified Lon hauling off the heroine, while appropriately rubber-suited, of course (and no, that’s NOT an off-color pun).  But hey, what’s a monster movie without the monster carrying off the girl?  And here by one who can be tracked in the dark, no less, rendering a villagers’ torchlight parade unnecessary.  Just another reminder to save on energy, even during the scary season.

Happy Halloween.

BONUS CLIP:  Here’s the original trailer for Man Made Monster (retitled The Atomic Monster for a 1950s re-release), showcasing Lionel in full leering flight:  “More Startling, More Shocking Than Anything You’ve Seen!”

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