The Monster isn’t a film that belongs to its star Lon Cheney in the way his appearances in The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or London After Midnight do. But while his role in as Dr. Ziska gets pushed into the shadows of this bizarre horror-comedy, Roland West’s film made a distinct mark on cinematic history.
Widely considered to be the first “mad scientist” movie and the first “old dark house” movie, The Monster delivers a bizarre look at the thin line between what makes us laugh and what makes us scream. The deep shadows, horrific make-up, and maze of set pieces clash with the light and dopey characters. West sets up his hero as a man hilariously unfit for the situation he finds himself in, a scenario viewers would find again and again throughout the years since the film.
The plot of The Monster resembles another film released only one year earlier, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. Aspiring detective Johnny Goodlittle investigates the disappearance of John Bowman. The trail leads him to an abandoned sanitarium, where he meets Dr. Ziska, a former patient who, along with his merry band of freaks, has overrun the asylum.
Roland West splits the difference between comedy and horror by creating some beautifully creepy castle designs and expressionistic lighting and a very weightless plot. Retreading the some of the same ground as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, West’s film relies less heavily on a dream-like expressionsof horror. West’s designs, including the intricate passages, dungeons, and laboratories, are ahead of their time, and would later be appropriated by Vincent Price for his haunted house movies.
His use of camp and horror, however, would be later perfected by Abbott and Costello. By placing an unlikely hero at the center of the film, West parodies his genre at its inception. Goodlittle’s inexperience gifts him an absent mindedness that allows him to solve the case, but not without fumbling his way through the set first. The Monster, for all of its goofiness, might as well have been the world’s first Scooby-Doo episode.
Despite being regulated to the background, Lon Chaney’s Dr. Ziska has a presence that permeates throughout the film. His hand lay firmly in each of the sinister plans for his house guests orders about a some particularly ghoulish minions. Rigo, Caliban, and the unfortunately-named Daffy Dan seep into the background of the scenes, allowing Ziska to lure his guests into his web.
Lon Chaney, however, really doesn’t get the most screen time nor is his character the most interesting. Yet while Johnny Arthur’s Johnny Goodlittle played up the laughs, Chaney’s Ziska really does aim for scares. Less made-up than in his more famous pictures, Chaney’s ability to slap a malevolent smile on his face and stalk his victims never ceases to keep up the creepy side of the film.
The Monster, despite being the birthplace of the old dark house, the mad scientist, and the horror comedy still feels inessential. Neither particularly scary nor funny, the film struggles to balance the two throughout. By the time the film reaches its climax, reality becomes so heightened it seemingly detaches from the horror world entirely. The Monster never establishes a consistent tone for either, West’s ability to create a frightful tone for the film does win over in a few, select spots.