Friday, April 18, 2014

'The Brute Man' marked a pathetic end to Universal's golden age of horror

By Doug Gibson

I love the 15 golden years of Universal Studio horror films, starting with Dracula and adding Frankenstein, Igor, The Wolf Man, two Mummies, various Invisible humans and assorted mad scientists, creatures and tortured professionals (think Inner Sanctum). But the final film of the genre, "The Brute Man," stinks. 

Rondo Hatton was a truly tragic figure. Universal's last "monster," he was "The Creeper," except he didn't creep. He more or less staggered. He suffered from acromegaly, which disfigured his face and badly affected his health. In fact, he died of a heart attack a couple of months after "The Brute Man" wrapped at Universal. It was eventually sold to Producers Releasing Company, not due to quality; Universal, in the midst of a merger, was shedding its B-film productions. 

"The Brute Man" involves a series of murders committed by "The Creeper," an ugly, tall figure who apparently can slither through the city and kill at will. The police, doing nothing, are badgered by the mayor to catch the Creeper. Meanwhile, in a risible plot development, the Creeper orders groceries to his shack by the waterfront and then kills the delivery boy when he gets too curious. 

Finally, the police gather that The Creeper is an embittered former college football star who was disfigured in a lab accident. He's getting revenge on his ex-college pals whom he blames for his predicament. One of the ex-pals is wealthy Clifford Scott, played by Tom Neal. Now, Neal is usually an interesting actor to watch; anyone who has seen "Detour" or "Bowery at Midnight" can see he has some screen presence. But not in this film. Befitting the boring story and drab direction from Jean Yarbrough, Neal is a bore sans charisma who is killed by The Creeper.

Meanwhile, in what film historian Tom Weaver has correctly tagged as a grotesque homage/parody to the superb "Bride of Frankenstein," the Creeper becomes infatuated with a beautiful blind piano instructor, played by minor starlet Jane Adams, (best known for being a hunchback nurse killed by mad doctor Onslow Stevens in "House of Dracula.") Despite the Creeper's declarations that he's wanted by the cops, Adams invites him to visit her as often as he can. Also, for a little while, the Creeper is unaware she's blind ...

Eventually, The Creepe" kills a pawnbroker and gives the blind woman, named Helen Paige, diamonds to pay for an operation to restore her sight. Naturally, when she tries to redeem them, the police inform her they are stolen. (This is as boring to write as it was to watch).

Eventually, the languid cops use Helen, having her publicly confess-- via the press -- that she knows who The Creeper is. (Why they wouldn't keep it secret and wait for another Creeper visit, when he wouldn't be angry and ready to kill, is beyond me.) Anyway, the Creeper learns that Helen "turned" on him and hurries to her apartment to kill her. There, he's intercepted by the police and captured. End of story.

"The Brute Man" runs under an hour. It's strikingly underscores how Universal's chiller Bs deteriorated in the last couple of years, with Spider Woman and The Creeper. Everyone attacks Rondo Hatton for his poor performance, and it is bad. He whines rather than talks and his attacks are poorly staged. But has anyone considered that poor Rondo Hatton was in the final months of his life. He was dying! I'm sure he could use the money in the final few years of his life but the use of him as The Creeper is creepy and exploitative.

Ironically, Hatton's grotesque visage has become very iconic. The now defunct Cult Movies magazine used it on its cover for years and the Monster Kid Classic Board, or whatever it's called, has annual "Rondo" awards for excellence in the genre. I supposed the iconic status of Hatton justifies using his face today, and I don't doubt the good will or sincerity of the fans today. But it still seems like one more bit of exploitation toward a man who suffered from a truly tragic disease that caused him great pain during his life. If any screen visage should honor excellence in the genre, it should be Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. Watch "The Brute Man" below, via MST3K.

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