The Undying Monster/The Hammond Mystery (1942) ***
20th Century Fox never really developed a consistent, distinctive voice for their 1940’s horror movies (perhaps because they made so few of them), unless possibly free-roaming quirkiness counts as a unifying aesthetic. That very unpredictability makes the studio’s wartime fright films among the most dependably interesting of the era, however, and The Undying Monster is an especially striking example. It looks essentially like a contemporary Universal gothic, but it plays more like a murder mystery in which the culprit just happens to be a werewolf. In fact, one might almost look at it as a lycanthropic variation on The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Oliver Hammond (John Howard, from The Invisible Woman and Destination Inner Space) is late coming home from a visit to his friend, Dr. Jeff Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher, of Svengali and The Mummy), and his sister, Helga (Heather Angel, from The Premature Burial and The Mystery of Edwin Drood), is starting to worry about him. Helga may scoff at Walton the butler (Halliwell Hobbes, of Dracula’s Daughter and the America version of Gaslight) and his bellyaching about the Hammond curse, but she’s obviously concerned over something more than the inhospitable weather or the poachers who have been stalking the family estate lately. Her trepidation is well founded. On the return trip, Oliver, his dog, and his maid, Kate O’Malley (Virginia Traxler), are attacked by something that dismembers the spaniel and mauls both humans— so severely, in Kate’s case, that she’s in a coma by the time Helga and Walton go out looking for them. Oliver’s injuries, though serious, are not life-threatening, but Dr. Colbert describes Kate’s chances as “microscopic” when he examines her a short while later.
Back in London, Inspector Craig of Scotland Yard (Aubrey Mathers, from the 1940’s versions of The Lodger and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) takes notice of the bloody goings-on at Hammond Hall. What makes the attack on Oliver and Kate so interesting to Craig is the pronounced similarity it bears to the fates of a great many members of the Hammond family, dating all the way back to one of the later Crusades. This, we may assume, has some bearing on that curse Walton was on about. Craig assigns two of his most talented people to the case: forensic scientist Robert Curtis (I Walked with a Zombie’s James Elison) and detective Cornelia “Christy” Christopher (Heather Thatcher, of Flesh and Fantasy and the 1937 The Thirteenth Chair). This pair is sort of like an olden-days British Mulder and Scully, except that in their case (and a big surprise this is, right?), the man is the doctrinaire skeptic and the woman is the credulous eccentric. And while this is never quite stated explicitly, it is strongly implied that Curtis and Christopher similarly specialize in the weird and seemingly preternatural.
The Hammonds and their servants are markedly uncooperative with the Scotland Yard agents when they arrive at the estate a few days later, and Colbert’s behavior is even more suspicious. Walton and his wife (Eily Malyon, from She-Wolf of London and— aptly enough— the 20th Century Fox Hound of the Baskervilles) snoop after the detectives constantly. Oliver and Helga seem determined to hustle Curtis and Christopher out the door as rapidly as possible, even if it means leaving the mystery of the attack unsolved. And Colbert goes so far as to hide and destroy evidence whenever the opportunity arises, as when he removes a book detailing the history of the Hammond family from the library and “accidentally” effaces the footprints on the dusty floor of a room that has supposedly been sealed for years— footprints that Curtis regarded as the first solid clue he and his partner had discovered since their arrival. Furthermore, nobody wants to talk about the supposed curse, even though Curtis is certain the old story ties in somehow with the case he and Christopher have been sent to crack. Nevertheless, the investigators gradually piece together enough hints to form an outline of the story of the crusading Hammond ancestor who lies interred in the big sarcophagus at the center of the family crypt, a man who was put to death for heresy and devil-worship upon his return from the Holy Land. And if that story is to be believed, the family has been pursued ever since by some horrible monster, bent on killing the senior member of the clan in each generation.
Ah, but what sort of monster, and is it the real thing, or is there some rational explanation for the curse? Well, to begin with, we know that whatever attacked Oliver and Kate was strong enough and fierce enough to tear a dog to pieces. Also, Christopher finds clumps of black fur at the scene of the attack, fur which clearly did not come from the slain spaniel. Curtis thinks it’s wolf fur, despite the supposed extermination of wolves in the vicinity of Hammond Hall, and he hopes to confirm his hunch with spectrographic analysis. He and his partner are in for a big shock, though, for as soon as light other than that of the moon touches the fur samples (Christopher had gathered them at night, and they’ve been sealed up in a thick envelope ever since), they literally vanish into thin air, as if they had never really existed in the first place! Seeing as the only wolf I can think of with disappearing fur is a werewolf, I guess that pretty well rules out any remotely rational explanation, doesn’t it? That still leaves open the question of who the monster is during the hours of daylight, though, and raises considerably the stakes for fingering the culprit correctly on the first try.
The Undying Monster was directed by John Brahm, who went on to helm two more unusual fright films for 20th Century Fox: The Lodger and Hangover Square. Those movies might be classed with RKO’s slightly later The Spiral Staircase, characterized as they are by a curious combination of Victorian/Edwardian settings and precocious 60’s-style psychological horror. This movie is, on the whole, more old-fashioned, though, with Brahm— a German immigrant, not surprisingly— serving up the purest jolt of Expressionist styling to be seen in Hollywood since probably The Cat and the Canary. Note, however, that that antique atmosphere clashes in an unexpected and obviously carefully considered way with the protagonists’ use of cutting-edge technology to aid them in their investigations. When Curtis proposes to run that tuft of werewolf fur through his spectrograph, it’s like hearing Sherlock Holmes announce that Professor Moriarty’s DNA was discovered at a crime scene. All the gothic trappings might lull you into a mood of genre complacency, but Brahm slaps you right out of it the moment he shows you the inside of Curtis’s crime lab, forcibly reminding you that this is supposed to be the modern world, misty moors and lycanthropes notwithstanding.
Another unexpected piece of modernity makes its presence felt at the very end, but this one doesn’t work nearly as well. The Undying Monster was in production simultaneously with Val Lewton’s Cat People, and one gets the impression that rumors of the RKO movie’s meticulously crafted (and, for a Hollywood horror movie, conceptually groundbreaking) ambiguity must have filtered over to 20th Century Fox. For although The Undying Monster beat its rival to the theaters by most of a month, its final scene seems impossible to explain without reference to Cat People, so glaringly at odds is it with the remainder of the film. In a move that bears all the hallmarks of corporate interference, The Undying Monster concludes with Curtis and Christopher attempting to put a psychological spin on the killer’s lycanthropy, even though not only the audience, but the detectives and their interlocutors as well have just witnessed his transformation from man to monster and back with their own eyes. There was a time, of course, when such last-minute back-pedaling was the standard operating procedure for American horror movies, but those days were long gone by 1942. What’s more, the old school of rational-explanation endings invariably included an unmasking of the “monster,” or an explication of the techniques by which the supposed supernatural manifestations had been produced. The Undying Monster has nothing of the kind. The detectives figure out who the Hammond monster is, but not quickly enough to arrest him before his next transformation; the final confrontation is unmistakably between them and the police on the one hand, and an inhuman creature on the other; and the werewolf’s dying reversion to its human alter-ego is treated as one of the movie’s key visual set-pieces. For Curtis and Christopher to pass that chain of events off as the product of the killer’s deluded mind makes them look like the delusional ones! It’s a lousy way to wrap up what had otherwise been an unusually smart and stylish film.