Written by: Robert Ellis (story), Robert Ellis (adaptation)
Directed by: Frank R. Strayer
Starring: Rex Lease, Vera Reynolds, and Sheldon Lewis
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďRuth is not the type of hysterical woman that's given to nightmares."
Back in the 30s, audiences were regularly terrified by old dark houses, mad scientists, and primates, so the filmmakers behind The Monster Walks had the bright idea to bring them together under one roof. Thatís about the extent of the ingenuity on display here, though, as this early talkie proves that producers and exhibitors have always been in the business of offering up familiarity whenever possible. If you were to dream up the most generic, drab murder mystery imaginable, itíd probably look a whole lot like The Monster Walks.
In this case, the mad scientist in question has actually died before the film even begins. Dr. Earlton has left a will, however, and his surviving family and friends have gathered at his mansion. He names his estranged daughter Ruth (Vera Reynolds) his sole heir, much to the dismay of someone else in the house who believes themselves to be more deserving of the family fortune. With the help of Dr. Earltonís lab ape, this unseen assailant begins to stalk the rest of the tenants to claim the inheritance.
Iíd say The Monster Walks probably seemed like wild, lurid stuff back in 1932, but when its money shots include a gorilla going apeshit in a cage and an obviously fake, hairy arm on a stick creeping up on the heroine while she sleeps, that would be a hard claim to make (plus, on a morbid, sobering note, just about anyone who ever saw this back when it was released is likely dead now, so itíd also be hard to verify). One thing is pretty certain: by this point, the ďold dark houseĒ routine was already quite familiar, so much so that James Whale was already taking the piss out of it that very same year. Despite its wrinkles (I donít think too many of them featured a murderous gorilla), The Monster Walks doesnít do a whole lot with the formula besides dull it down into a gabby, predictable procedure that sees Ruthís fiancť (Rex Lease) teaming up with a family friend to work through the possible suspects.
Itís not a very large array, which only makes things worse. The will does specify that Ruthís uncle (Sheldon Lewis) is next in line should something happen to his niece, but heís a kindly invalid and couldnít possibly hatch such a plot (right?!). More likely suspects emerge, such as the housekeeper (Martha Mattox) and her son (Mischa Auer), a couple of vaguely European weirdoes who are outraged by their employerís snub from beyond the grave. Auer provides a bit of bright spot as a pale, sniveling creep in the tradition of oddball butlers, and he even has a cool character tic since he ominously noodles around on a violin during the filmís few atmospheric scenes. One character who is certainly not a suspect is Willie Bestís servant since the film would need to have any sort of respect for his characterís intelligence to even consider that as a possibility. Instead, The Monster Walks reduces Best (who would go on to star alongside some of the greatest comedians of all-time) to an embarrassing shuck and jive act. While this was typical for the time period, itís no less ghastly, particularly since Bestís character delivers the filmís brazenly racist punchline that compares the ape to one of his lazy ancestors. Iíd also say that this would have been horrifying in 1932, but itís an unfortunate reminder of Hollywoodís codified, racist history.
Such unwitting transgressions are pretty much the only things that even register in The Monster Walks. While its title isnít quite a misnomer, itís not like you actually see the titular monster rampaging about, which is an unfortunate side effect to one of the productionís more daring aspects: instead of having an actor suit up for the part, thereís a real, live gorilla here, albeit completely caged up for the duration of the movie. All thatís left is for the cast to talk; relatively speaking, this was an early talkie, and itís so enamored with its new talkie that it may as well be a stage play. The script drowns the proceedings in expository dialogue throughout. Even the big reveal canít escape this fate, as the scheming murderer yammers on while most of the climactic action takes place off-screen. The eventual explanation isnít all that clever and is actually lamely contrived, which is what happens with a shallow pool of suspects.
If nothing else, The Monster Walks is breezy, clocking in at less than an hour. Iíd say that makes it harmless, but the stuff with Best is pretty unseemly and hard to ignore. When latent racism is a filmís most memorable aspect, thatís pretty troubling. At any rate, this one joins a pretty big pile of forgettable early horrors that lack the cinematic verve necessary to truly bring the genre to life on-screen; itís static, stilted, and barely even attempts to scrounge up any atmosphere beyond the obligatory thunderstorm setting. Unsurprisingly, itís fallen into the public domain and has landed on several budget packs, including Mill Creekís Horror Classics, a set that actually features many titles deserving of such a distinction. The Monster Walks certainly isnít one of them, but if you really need to see what a perfectly mediocre old dark house entry looked like, this is a pretty good choice. Rent it!
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