CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
Universal’s 1942 “Night Monster” is one of the studio’s unsung gems. Directed and written by two men who worked mostly in the western and adventure genres (Ford Beebe and Clarence Upson Young respectively) and photographed by the veteran cameraman Charles Van Enger, the film is a tidy little “old dark house” mystery that veers unexpectedly, and delightfully, into supernatural horror. The plot concerns Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan), a wealthy old invalid who invites the three doctors who attended him in his illness (Lionel Atwill’s huffy Dr. King, Frank Reicher’s contrite Dr. Timmons and Francis Pierlot’s clueless Dr. Phipps) to his isolated castle-like estate. They think he means to make a big donation to their hospital, but he really wants them there to witness a demonstration of “mind-over-matter.” When the doctors start turning up strangled the suspects come out to play: there’s Bela Lugosi as Rolf, a snobbish and sinister butler who seems most solicitous toward maintaining his employer’s good name, Laurie (Leif Erickson), a burly womanizing chauffeur who acts more like a refugee from a gangster movie, the invalid’s Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper, Mrs. Judd (Doris Lloyd), who cowls even Rolf, the invalid’s sister Margaret (Fay Helm) whom everyone claims is mentally unbalanced and Agor Singh (Nils Asther), an Eastern mystic who may or not be a fraud. Everyone is a suspect except for Ralph Morgan’s querulous invalid, who can hardly be the suspect since the “treatments” he received from Atwill & Co. have left him an armless and legless shell of his former self.
What was an Eastern mystic doing on an isolated country estate? Why he was teaching his client the secret of mind over matter. And how was old Mr. Kurt using the secret? Why he was generating new ectoplasmic arms and legs that would last just long enough for him to settle some old debts, the neatest trick since Preston Foster’s one-armed Doctor Wells discovered Synthetic Flesh and became the strangling Moon Killer in “Doctor X.” Milly Carson (Janet Shaw), an over-inquisitive maid and the double-crossing chauffeur soon follow the trio of MDs into The Great Beyond, but by then the mystic realizes the mistake he has made in giving such power to a man driven mad by anger over his physical state. Before the semi-bungling village constable Cap Beggs (Robert Homans) ends Morgan’s experiment with Eastern Mysticism via a few well-placed bullets, thus saving the last MD, Irene Hervey’s Dr. Lynn Harper, Margaret has finally gone off the deep end and having locked the bullying Mrs. Judd in her room with her, sets the place alight. Ingston Towers goes up in record time, but I’m left wondering, whatever became of Rolf? He just vanished–not murdered by Morgan, not locked in with Morgan’s mad sister, not part of the mini-posse that finally tracks Morgan down–did he get lost in all those corridors, or did Lugosi have a pressing engagement at Monogram Pictures? Who knows.