Indestructible Man (1956) -**
Lon Chaney Jr.’s first starring role in a horror film had been as a man who gets turned into an electrically-powered monster by the usual mad scientist. So it’s interesting to see that in 1956, as his career was really starting to wind down, Chaney turned up in Indestructible Man, a movie beginning with the same general premise. Indestructible Man made much less use of the electricity angle than had Man-Made Monster, and Chaney’s character was a deadly gangster rather than a sideshow performer before his transformation, but it’s hard to shake the idea that the makers of the later movie had the earlier one in mind as a source of inspiration.
The gangster is Charles “the Butcher” Benton, and if you ask me, he’s getting a little old to be running around killing people. When we meet Benton, he’s already on death row in Los Angeles for killing the drivers of the armored bank van from which he and two accomplices stole $600,000. His lawyer, Paul Lowe (Ross Elliott, from Tarantula and The Crawling Hand), is a crook, too, and for that reason, it has occurred to the Butcher that Lowe might have had something to do with the sudden decision on the parts of Joe Marcelli (Ken Terrell, who can be seen playing small roles in huge numbers of serials like The Invisible Monster and Flying Disc Man from Mars) and Squeamy Ellis (Marvin Ellis) to turn state’s evidence on him. Ellis and Marcelli both got immunity from prosecution, while the point that the heist had originally been organized by Lowe never came out in court; Benton suspects his former partners of selling him out deliberately in order to increase their shares of the loot, which the cops never did find. But if that’s what Lowe, Ellis, and Marcelli really did, then Butcher Benton still gets the last laugh on them. He’s the only one of the conspirators who knows where the money is, and he makes a flamboyant point of taking that knowledge with him to the gas chamber. He also goes out with a not-particularly-credible threat to kill the other three men. This threat, as you’ve probably surmised, becomes rather more credible once the mad scientist enters the picture.
Strictly speaking, Dr. Bradshaw (Robert Shayne, from The Face of Marble and The Giant Claw) of San Francisco isn’t even all that mad— better to say that he’s “ethically confused.” Bradshaw is on the hunt for a cancer cure, and he has reached the point in his research at which he really needs a fresh cadaver. Now don’t ask me what zapping a dead body with 285,000 volts of electricity could possibly have to do with curing cancer, but that’s what the doctor needs to do before he can go any further. The trouble is, he has no corpse of his own, and has apparently had no luck procuring one through the legitimate channels. With that in mind, Bradshaw sends his assistant (Joe Flynn) around to the morgue to buy one on the sly from an unscrupulous attendant. Might’ve known the black market body would belong to Charles Benton, huh? And because this is a cheap-ass horror movie, Bradshaw’s already inexplicable 285,000-volt cancer cure even more inexplicably brings Benton back to life. Nor does it just resurrect the dead killer, either. When Benton gets up off of that workbench, he is unable to speak, but he’s now superhumanly strong and apparently completely impervious to injury. The Butcher strangles both scientists and gets moving down the long road back to Los Angeles and revenge.
Meanwhile, Detective Lieutenant Dick Chasen (The Monster that Challenged the World’s Max Showalter) continues to tinker with the Butcher Benton case, even though his department considers it officially closed. Chasen, you see, is determined to figure out what Benton did with all that money, and he has a sneaking suspicion that somebody else was really the mastermind behind the job. Chasen has the blessing of his captain (Stuart Randall), but only so long as he carries out the investigation on his own time. His first stop is the burlesque club where Benton’s old girlfriend, Eva Martin (Marian Carr), dances. Eva maintains, as she always did, that the Butcher never told her where he hid the money, and indeed that she wasn’t even aware of his caper until the cops came to arrest him. But after Chasen leaves, Lowe stops by the bar, too, and while he and Eva are talking, an interesting piece of information comes to light. Eva hasn’t looked inside it yet, but Benton left her with an envelope to be opened only in the event of his death. Lowe immediately makes the connection that the envelope must contain some kind of message that will allow Eva to find the loot, and after the girl has left her dressing room to take the stage, Lowe makes off with what turns out to be a crude map of the Los Angeles sewer system, on which Benton had marked his secret hiding place. The scheming lawyer replaces the map with a $50 bill, and sneaks off to see his other two accomplices.
Chasen’s personal project gets put on hold a few days later, when more pressing official business looms up. Ironically enough, however, his new case will eventually lead him straight into cracking the old one. Police departments all across California have been put on alert because of the trail of bodies the resurrected Charles Benton has left along the road to L.A. Reports are confused and confusing, but all are in agreement that the suspect bears a striking resemblance to a man who is supposed to be dead, and that he is seemingly invulnerable to any weapon that has yet been tried on him. Benton pays his own visit to Eva as soon as he gets into town, and it is through her that word of his return finds its way to both Chasen and Lowe. Neither man fully believes the warning until Joe Marcelli and Squeamy Ellis have both died at the Butcher’s hands, but that turn of events gets their attention right quick. Lowe decides that his only hope of survival is to go to turn himself in to the police, and Chasen manages to get out of him the full story of his involvement in the crime for which Benton was executed. Now all Chasen has to do is figure out how to destroy an indestructible man.
Back in the old days, the industry had a name for movies like Indestructible Man, the cheaply made, disposable genre fare that was the spiritual descendant of the 1940’s B-picture. “Programmers,” they called them. Watch Indestructible Man,, and you’ll see just how appropriate the term really was. It isn’t so much a movie as a 70-minute succession of cliches, commonplaces, and stock situations, and it gives every appearance of having been put together out of some kind of kit. I picture director Jack Pollexfen sitting behind the camera with an instruction booklet in his hand, muttering to himself, “Okay… ‘Step 3: Combine Mad Scientist C with Dead Convict A and insert Oscilloscope Close-Up (see Stock Footage Reel from Package 2)’…” The lack of imagination in this film is almost awe-inspiring in its purity: generic gangsters, generic cops, generic mad science, generic L.A. sewer-system climax. Hell, even the has-been star is generic, in that the filmmakers picked the blandest of the washed-up old guard for the part of Benton. The worst of it is that Chaney doesn’t even get much chance to do what little acting he was capable of; his only dialogue is in the opening scene between Benton and Lowe, and after that he pretty much just stumbles around looking angry in between extended extreme close-ups on his puffy eyes and bulbous, alcohol-ravaged nose. Just about the only redeeming feature of Indestructible Man is that it’s much too colorless to be really objectionable.