By Doug Gibson
I'm reading a biography of Lon Chaney Jr., which I plan to review soon, and it prompted me to finally watch the 1941 Universal horror film, "Man Made Monster," starring Chaney in the title role. The film pre-dates "The Wolf Man," which made Chaney an iconic figure in horror cinema. However, "Man Made Monster," a thrifty $85,000 B-effort from Universal, was essentially a try out for Chaney, a look see from Universal executives as to how Chaney Jr. would do in a monster role. He passed the test. The film is a lean, effective little shocker.
Chaney stars as Dan McCormick, a carnival worker who does an act where he survives electrical shocks. It's mostly fake, as he admits with a grin. McCormick is the sole survivor of a horrific bus crash (well-displayed on the screen). His survival interests a pair of scientists, Dr. Paul Lawrence (Samuel Hinds) and Dr. Paul Rigas, (Lionel Atwill). The latter, Rigas is a mad scientist who wants to create a master race of persons charged by electricity. While Lawrence is away, Rigas makes McCormick his guinea pig, injecting him with huge shots of electricity, turning him into a glowing monster while charged, and a drooping, non-responsive near-invalid when the shocks wear off. Also in the cast are Anne Nagel, as Lawrence's niece, and Frank Albertson, as a newspaper reporter. They supply a mild romance as well.
Things hit a climax when Chaney, falsely accused of Lawrence's murder (he killed the good doc while charged and manipulated by Rigas) attains super-monster status when his state-sanctioned electrocution strengthens him rather than kills him. Strangely, this scene is talked about rather than shown.
Chaney is effective as a good-natured common man manipulated into being a killer by a mad scientist. The performance is the beginning of the role he would perfect as Lawrence Talbot the wolf man, although Talbot is more sophisticated. At this point in his career, Chaney often utilized a little of his "Lenny" performance that he had done so well in 1939's "Of Mice and Men." The film is capably directed by George Waggner. The Universal B movies, despite wild plots, tend to be leaner and more disciplined than the C films produced by Monogram and PRC ... Perhaps it's because the writers there were better paid.
The real star of "Man Made Monster" is Lionel Atwill. He is brilliant as a cold-hearted, single-minded, fanatical mad scientist. The role was intended for Boris Karloff but it's fortunate Atwill got it. Karloff would not have been this good. You can watch the 59-minute film here.