Man-Made Monster / The Atomic Monster / The Electric Man / The Mysterious Dr. R. (1941) **
The Wolf Man was the movie that made Lon Chaney Jr. the supreme horror film star of the 1940’s, but it wasn’t his first foray into the genre. That honor goes to a picture which would otherwise enjoy no honors at all, a clunky little Universal programmer called Man-Made Monster, the script for which had been languishing unused since the mid-30’s, when its original incarnation as a Karloff-Lugosi vehicle called The Electric Man was shitcanned because of a perceived excessive similarity to The Invisible Ray. (The original title was resurrected for use in Great Britain, where the censors inexplicably found Man-Made Monster objectionable, and when the film was reissued in 1953, it was rechristened The Atomic Monster in a desperate and highly misleading cash-in gambit.) Chaney was evidently cast primarily because Universal needed a big man who could convincingly play a charming numbskull; lord knows the script didn’t give him anything to do except be large and lunkheaded.
Man-Made Monster begins with a fairly respectable (if also glaringly obvious) model bus accident. The vehicle skids off the road while rounding a corner, rolls over onto its side, and crashes into a high-tension electrical tower. The next morning, the papers report the remarkable news that the sole surviving passenger has not only lived, but is apparently unharmed despite what ought to have been an instantly lethal shock. That catches the eye of a doctor and medical researcher by the name of John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds, from Cobra Woman and The Strange Case of Dr. Rx), whose work hinges upon the intersection of electricity and biology. Lawrence drops by the hospital to see this miraculously tough individual, who turns out to be sideshow performer Dan McCormick (Chaney)— known on the carnival circuit as Dynamo Dan the Electric Man. In case you couldn’t guess, the man’s act involves passing electric currents through his body and other similar, electrically-themed parlor tricks, and when Lawrence hears that, he becomes very interested indeed. Lawrence speculates that McCormick’s routine at the sideshow might have given him an immunity to electric shock in much the same way that sustained controlled exposure to certain chemical poisons can confer a resistance to their toxic effects. He suggests that McCormick could stay with him at his mansion until he is ready to move on to the next town on his route, earning his keep by allowing the doctor to study his physiological peculiarities. It’s about the closest approach to a free lunch that has ever come McCormick’s way, and far be it from a career carnie to turn down an offer like that.
Dr. Lawrence does not live alone, however. He has a twenty-ish daughter (Anne Nagel, from Black Friday and The Mad Doctor of Market Street) and also a partner named Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill, of Night Monster and The Gorilla). We might also want to include newspaper reporter Mark Adams (Frank Albertson), who hangs around the mansion so much in the days after McCormick’s arrival that he strikes up a romance with June Lawrence. At first, McCormick tries to dodge Adams, but the truth is that the person from whom he has the most to fear is Dr. Rigas. Like Lawrence, Rigas devotes his energies to the emerging science of electrobiology, but Rigas’s thinking is rather further out on the fringe than his partner’s. While Lawrence is content merely to study the ways in which organisms use electricity in their systems, Rigas believes that very intense electrical stimulation can actually be used to change an animal’s fundamental physiology— assuming, that is, that the animal so treated can be prevented from dying of the shock. Specifically, Rigas thinks that it should be possible to condition the body to subsist entirely on electric current, and that any organism so conditioned would become totally subject to the will of whomever then “fed” it. The aim of all this, apparently, is simultaneously to eliminate world hunger and to permit society to make efficient use at last of its “inferior” members. You can imagine what goes through Rigas’s head when he hears that he’s going to have an electricity-proof man staying under the same roof as him, under circumstances which will make him well accustomed to being taken into the lab to be zapped for scientific experiments. And as an added incentive for Rigas to get up to no good with his new houseguest, Lawrence is about to leave for a week-long conference of biologists, giving Rigas full charge of the laboratory and the work with McCormick during his absence.
While Lawrence is away, Rigas swiftly gets rolling on his own private project, using McCormick as a test case for his seemingly cockamamie theories. And because this is a cheap-ass mad scientist movie, Rigas turns out to be right, and repeated exposure to huge voltages does indeed cause Dynamo Dan first to develop a drug addiction-like dependency on electricity, and finally to derive an ever increasing proportion of his sustenance from the daily discharges. Dan also becomes more and more zombie-like as the experiment progresses, until, by the time Lawrence returns from his conference, June has grown sufficiently worried about McCormick’s well-being to mention it to her dad.
Now Rigas is really in a bind. He was supposed to be following his partner’s program of research, not turning McCormick into an electrically powered zombie, and Lawrence is sure to figure out what’s happened as soon as he gets a close look at Dan. The only thing for it, or so Rigas figures, is to incapacitate Lawrence by drugging him on the sly, attributing the sudden debility to the strain of the conference on a geriatric constitution. Even that works for only so long, however, and one evening Lawrence walks in on his partner in the lab just as he is putting the finishing touches on his creation. When the older doctor walks in the door, he sees McCormick dressed in an insulative rubber suit and glowing from the electricity coursing through his body. Rigas orders McCormick to strangle Lawrence, and to confess to the crime as soon as anyone else arrives on the scene. Then he drains off the excess power from Dan’s body so as to make him presentable for June, Mark, and the authorities.
Between his own confession and the testimony of psychiatrist Dr. Bruno (The Monster and the Girl’s George Meader, who can also be seen in The Smiling Ghost), it looks as though Dan McCormick is pretty much screwed. And although June tips off the district attorney (William B. Davidson, from The Most Dangerous Game and The Cat Creeps) to her suspicions that Rigas is somehow behind her father’s murder, the mad doctor has covered his tracks well, and no exonerating evidence comes to light by the time McCormick goes to trial. He is convicted of capital murder, and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Needless to say, everybody but Rigas has a big surprise in store for them when Dynamo Dan the Electric Man gets his date with Old Sparky.
There’s honestly very little, good or bad, to be said for Man-Made Monster. I would be hard pressed to think of a more perfectly generic early-40’s mad scientist flick, and if it weren’t for its significance as the start of Lon Chaney Jr.’s career in horror films, it would surely be even more completely forgotten than it is today. It has the usual Strickfaden equipment recycled from the Universal Frankenstein series, it has the usual irksome reporter in the part of the typically useless nominal hero, and it has a just barely subliminal anti-Nazi undercurrent of the sort that would become increasingly common as World War II wore on. Even Lionel Atwill’s turn as the villain is strictly by the numbers, a sort of mean value for all of the numerous mad geniuses he’d played during the preceding decade. It isn’t that Man-Made Monster is a notably bad movie— it’s competently made all around, and with a running time noticeably under an hour if you factor out the time spent on credits and production slates, there’s just no way for it to be boring— but there is nothing about it that lingers in the memory, except possibly that weird-looking rubber suit McCormick wears during his two periods of full monster-hood. Really, this is one of those times when I kind of wish a movie had been considerably worse; a Monogram or PRC production using the same story would probably have been much more entertaining.