A minor film taken on its own, Man Made Monster introduced movie audiences to two of the major stars of the 1940s Universal horror movie factory: actor Lon Chaney Jr. and director-writer-producer George Waggner. Chaney Jr. (born Creighton Chaney) became Universal’s primary monster performer for the rest of the decade thanks to his success in the title role of The Wolf Man. George Waggner also rode the success of The Wolf Man as its director and rose to be the studio’s go-to producer and director for the remainder of the classic horror cycle.
Before the two hit their heights, they had a low-budget trial run with this little electrical SF horror movie.
Man Made Monster started as an adaptation of a story by Harry J. Essex, “The Electric Man,” which Essex wrote as a film treatment. Universal planned it as a Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi vehicle in 1935 under the drab title The Man in the Cab, but the studio placed that project on hold. The similarities between the proposed film and The Invisible Ray in 1936 (both have glow-in-the-dark killers with an electrical death-touch) make it likely the execs shelved one to make the other. In 1940, the new Universal management tossed George Waggner $86,000—as low a budget as anything they were cranking out at the time—and told him to make another attempt at “The Electric Man.”
Waggner started his career as a silent movie actor; he had a role in John Ford’s early Western classic The Iron Horse. In the 1930s he switched to writing screenplays. He already had a few directorial credits on “B” Westerns before Universal handed him his first horror assignment. Waggner rewrote the script for what would become Man Made Monster under the pseudonym “Joseph West.”
I’m not sure what Universal’s brass expected from Waggner, although it was certainly less than what they ended up getting. But their reason for casting Lon Chaney Jr. is transparent: name recognition. The son of the famous silent movie “Man of a Thousand Faces” came to attention as an actor for his performance as slow-witted Lennie in the 1939 film version of Of Mice and Men. Universal recognized the marquee value of the Chaney name in a horror film and gave him his first role in the genre along with a modest payment of $500 a week.
Man Made Monster feels like a 1950s science-fiction film made fifteen years early, with electricity substituted for nuclear power and given a slick studio sheen. Even though produced on a pittance, the movie had access to Universal’s deep well of sets, costumes, character actors, and lush musical cues. Waggner’s investment as director also gave the film a personality that belies how inexpensively and rapidly it was shot. It’s sixty minutes of B-movie thrills with a brief turn into courtroom drama territory to slow the pace down before the climax kicks in.
Chaney plays Dan McCormick, also known as “Dynamo Dan, The Electric Man,” a circus huckster who does gags with electrical power. But after Dan emerges as the sole survivor from a bus collision with an electrical tower, he attracts the attention of Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), a leader in the made-up field of electro-biology. In a scene bizarrely similar to one years later in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, the doctor arrives in the hospital to tell Dan that he’s curious about why the stuntman not only survived the accident that killed everyone else in the bus, but emerged from the wreckage without a mark on him.
Dr. Lawrence invites Dan to his mansion/laboratory where he can run tests on his resilience to electricity. Also living at the mansion are the doctor’s cute niece June (Anne Nagel) and another electro-biologist, Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill). Dr. Rigas has more pointed goals in this vague branch of biology than pure research: he wants to take the “less useful” members of society and turn them into a race of supermen who need only electricity to live. (Cut to Bela Lugosi’s “Race of atomic supermen!” speech from Bride of the Monster) Dr. Lawrence doesn’t support his partner’s disturbing approach to their field. He even swaps a line from Bride of Frankenstein: “This theory isn’t science. It’s black magic.”
But Dr. Lawrence still lets this nutcase screw around with dynamos in the laboratory attached to his house. I suspect a blackmail deal going between houseguest and host, with Dr. Rigas playing the Herbert West part. But ultimately Dr. Lawrence is guilty of nothing more than being a gullible old guy. He’s fortunate Dr. Rigas never tried any experiments on the adorable family dog, Corky, something I expected to happen the moment the pooch showed up.
Dr. Rigas starts testing his theories on Dan, gradually addicting him to electrical charges until Dan changes into a hollow shell of a man. For some reason, this also makes him obedient to Dr. Rigas’s will only, although logically he would follow anyone’s orders. While Rigas works on creating his electrically powered slave—a “voltage vampire” according to the movie ads—a reporter investigating Dan’s mysterious case, Mark Adams (Frank Albertson), falls down on the job as he romances June. Mark keeps barging into the Lawrence household without an invitation, which shows how lax the doctor is at keeping tabs on what’s happening under his roof.
After a half-hour of build-up, Dr. Rigas at last unleashes his man-made monster: “The worker of the future, controlled by a superior intelligence!” However, Dan quickly ends up in jail for murder, and despite June and her reporter boyfriend feeling suspicious of Dr. Rigas’s hand in all this, Dan ends up sentenced to death … in the electric chair!
Ah, you get it? Do you see what’s going to happen?
I don’t know if this was part of Dr. Rigas’s long-term plan, but it does lead to a good action-filled finale with moody menace from a purely mad Dr. Rigas and Dan delivering electro-shock deaths. To add Gothic-movie flavor, the climax takes place on the foggy moors. We know this because of a shot of a sign identifying it as “The Moors.” Ah, the 1940s—when your location (and/or time period) didn’t need to make any sense.
Lon Chaney Jr. never had his famous father’s versatility, but he could play a slow-witted Midwestern chump as well as anybody in Hollywood at the time. “Dynamo Dan” is an ideal part: a dense, plain-folks fella who needs the word “immunity” explained to him. Chaney has genuine, unforced charm in his early scenes, telling June that she looks “mighty purdy with those flowers,” and enjoying bonding time with the dog. His thick build and imposing stature give him physical presence as the electro-zombie of the second half of the film, even if the part doesn’t demand much acting aside from glowering and stumbling around. It seems strange Universal didn’t immediately cast Chaney as the replacement for Boris Karloff in the Frankenstein movies based on what he does here. They got around to it not long after the success of The Wolf Man, however, with Chaney getting into the famous makeup for The Ghost of Frankenstein. That was disappointing, but not entirely Chaney’s fault.
Special effects supervisor John P. Fulton is as much the monster co-star as Chaney. The technical wizard who made The Invisible Man so astonishing pulls off minor miracles on no budget. The opening bus crash models look surprisingly realistic, and the electrical effects on Chaney, which resemble the glowing optical tricks Fulton used on Karloff for The Invisible Ray, pop off the screen. We see plenty of this effect, which is unusual for a low-budget film. The standard procedure is to find excuses to hide expensive superpowers, but long stretches of Man Made Monster unspool with the glowing Dynamo Dan front and center.
Although Universal got a marketing jolt from the Chaney name, Lon Chaney Jr. isn’t the headliner. Universal gave top-billing to Lionel Atwill, a dependable character actor familiar with mad scientist roles. Atwill is one of the most underrated members of the Universal horror performer bullpen. Considering that he took the role in Man Made Monster just to get a paycheck to fund his ambitions to enter film production, Atwill attacks the part with delicious zeal. Chaney may have gotten the boost to horror stardom, but Atwill owns the film. His commitment to making Dr. Rigas insane but without seeming like a ham is commendable. “I’ll bet he spent his childhood sticking pins in butterflies,” one character remarks about Dr. Rigas, and damn if Atwill doesn’t convey this perfectly. The camera is on Atwill’s side as well, giving him increasingly intense lighting effects as the film progresses toward his leering finale. In these closing scenes Atwill cuts loose with the villainy, and even here he still won’t go into full scenery-chewing mode, showing an appreciated amount of restraint.
Waggner brings considerable style to the film, particularly in the second half when the photography and staging turn more baroque. The squeamish Production Code forced the electric chair execution to occur entirely off-camera, but the scenes in the jail leading up to it compensate with noirish lighting that lends gravity to the remainder of the running time. Waggner gets a few powerful emotional beats from small moments, particularly with the dog Corky, who first appears as a cute gimmick to make Chaney look charming and harmless, but turns out to be the film’s emotional kicker. It’s the kind of old-fashioned audience manipulation that audiences don’t mind even when they’re aware of it.
Man Made Monster led to bigger and sometimes better things for Waggner and Chaney, although poor Atwill’s career was almost done. A sex scandal that broke during the production of the film crippled his goal of moving into film production. He died in 1946 in my hometown of Pacific Palisades, California.
Waggner’s directing career declined with the horror movie at Universal, but he later became active in television, when for some reason he re-christened himself “george waGGner.” I have no idea why. Was he trying to imitate the Wolf Man’s growl? That’s the best explanation I can come up with. WaGGner’s most prominent television assignments are episodes of the 1960s Batman, and he even got to boss around famous director Otto Preminger on the set of the two episodes in which Preminger played Mr. Freeze. That must have felt good.