The Monster (1925) is part of the extensive Warner Archive Collection 2011 releases. This film, directed by Roland V. West and starring Lon Chaney, goes a considerable length to prove the adage that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Essentially, The Monster is the precursor for the tongue-in-cheek old-dark-house-with-malevolent-horror-star-as-host movie. Considerably later,Vincent Price and William Castle visited The Monster‘s familiar territory in the House on Haunted Hill (1959), a film that has become the stereotypical example of the genre.
Director Roland V. West revisited The Monster territory again in the following year’s hit, The Bat and, yet again with sound in The Bat Whispers (1930) (for which he is most remembered—well, he may actually be best remembered for giving a deathbed confession that he murdered his girlfriend Thelma Todd).The Monster is the least known of West’s dark house trilogy and, although it is the weakest of the three, it retains interest for several reasons.
The Monster is an oddity in the way it uses star Chaney. Chaney’s body of work goes a considerable distance in debunking his reputation as a “horror” actor. The few horror films Chaney appeared in are more aptly described as bizarre, densely psychological melodramas. The Monster, however, could serve as a prototype for a genre celebrity in a B-movie parody. Chaney’s Dr. Ziska is strictly cartoon horror. He could romp with Baron Boris in Mad Monster Party (1967), or brew up a Gossamer with Bugs in Hare-Raising Hare (1946).
Hick amateur Johnny (Johnny Arthur) has just gotten his detective license in the mail, just in time to try and solve a local whodunit disappearance. Johnny, the local nerd, has his eye on Betty (Gertrude Olmstead) but she’s on the arm of the local jock hero. If only Johnny could solve the case and win the girl. This setup leads the three teens to the local spooky house run by Dr. Ziska, a mad surgeon running a former sanitarium. Ziska is aided by caped ghoul who rolls imagined smokes and, with the aid of a mirror, plays saboteur to cars on lonely back roads. Ziska is also assisted by the hulking mute, Rigo.
Trap doors, laundry chutes, secret basements and an electric chair are the props in West’s dream-world. Chaney’s Ziska is surprisingly foppish with smoking jacket, a flapper-like quellazaire, and a wayward eyebrow. Ziska wears a menacing grin at all times, making him a possible first member of a Grand Guignol Three Stooges which might include Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi in their lean salad days. Foppish or not, Ziska is man enough to get aroused when he straps poor Betty to the table. With Rigo’s Frankenstein monster-like presence, about the only thing missing is a Vampirella to play opposite Ziska’s Dr. Deadly.
The Monster is not great cinema, its not the best West, best Chaney, or best Old Dark House movie (James Whale would deliver that seven years later), but it is silent pulp and, in the right mindset, it can take you back to the days of milk duds and acne.