[Tearing through Werewolf Cinema] 'The Undying Monster' Presented Film's First Werewolf Murder Mystery!
Welcome to a weekly series in which Doris V. Sutherland takes readers on a trip through the history of werewolf cinema...
...In The Undying Monster (1942), The Hammonds, an aristocratic English family, have long been beset with strange deaths. Legend has it that an ancestor who sold his soul to the Devil still lurks in a secret chamber, venturing out only to commit human sacrifice and prolong his existence. In the hopes of solving the mystery, Hammond heirs Oliver (John Howard) and Helga (Heather Angel) hire a pair of investigators to look into the case. While detective Robert Curtis (James Ellison) insists that there is a rational explanation for the eerie goings-on, his occultist colleague Cornelia “Christy” Christopher (Heather Thatcher) maintains that something supernatural is afoot. They both turn out to be right, in a way: the Hammond monster is a werewolf – just not quite the sort of werewolf recorded in folklore.
Often dismissed as a mere Wolf Man knockoff, Twentieth Century Fox’s The Undying Monster turns out to be a rather different beast to the Universal classic. Up to this point, no werewolf film had made a secret out of which character was a lycanthrope; The Undying Monster, meanwhile, takes a novel approach by mixing werewolves with murder mystery. Given that both genres involve a killer lurking in plain sight, this is a combination that – on paper – might have worked rather well.
But director John Brahm makes the odd decision to downplay the film’s supernatural themes. The idea that some sort of ghost or monster is haunting the Hammond estate is repeatedly brought up only to be side-lined by a more mundane explanation – usually involving some red herring or another relating to the scheming household members. As a result, The Undying Monster is unable to build or sustain any sort of credible atmosphere of the uncanny, leaving the viewer instead encouraged to interpret the unfolding story as a Hound of the Baskervilles-like affair involving supernatural phenomena faked in a squabble over inheritance. Yet just when it seems to have given up on Gothic horror altogether, the film confronts its detectives with a bona fide, hairy-faced werewolf.
How did these bizarre tonal shifts between mundane detective story and supernatural horror come about? We can get an idea of an answer by looking at the film’s source material.
The first werewolf picture of the sound era to be based on a literary source, the film was adapted by screenwriters Lillie Hayward and Michel Jacoby from Jessie Douglas Kerruish’s 1922 book The Undying Monster: A Novel of the Fifth Dimension. Kerruish’s novel is an example of the occult detective story, a genre that flourished in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras thanks to authors like E. and H. Heron, Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson. A story of this type will typically take place in a universe where all manner of supernatural beings and phenomena not only exist, but can be understood and subdued by a sufficiently knowledgeable individual. An occult detective can deduce whether a macabre incident was the work of a vampire, a ghost, or a werewolf just as an Agatha Christie protagonist can decide whether the aristocrat, the actress, or the valet committed the latest murder.
The film’s central flaw is its failure to understand the genre in which Jessie Douglas Kerruish was working. Instead of an occult detective story, the film mounts itself as a conventional Christie or Conan Doyle adaptation: the rambling old country home is an appropriately Gothic setting, but it gives no sense that a genuine spook might be lurking around the next corner. Indeed, when it was released in Britain the film was given the more generic title of The Hammond Mystery, a name that suggests a detective rather than horror story. The inevitable result of all this is, when the werewolf turns up towards the very end, he feels awkwardly out of place.
In the novel, the werewolf’s condition eventually turns out to be psychological in origin – the “fifth dimension” of the book’s subtitle being the human mind. Kerruish avoids letting this conclusion damage or demystify her occult setting, mainly through an inventive usage of Norse mythology: the cursed family are descendants of the legendary Sigurd, and the lycanthropy stems from an ancestral fear of the dreaded Fenris Wolf, prophesised to slay the god Odin at the world’s end. The film, meanwhile, does away with the mythological aspect and tries to explain lycanthropy in fully materialistic terms as “a form of mania”.
This makes little sense, of course, as the film shows us a hairy werewolf who transforms back into a clean-shaven man. The idea that “a form of mania” could cause someone to sprout excess facial hair is patently daft, but The Undying Monster presents it as being an entirely coherent scientific explanation for the phenomena. In fairness, the film does at least make a gesture towards the implausibility with a scene in which a sample of werewolf hair mysteriously vanishes beneath a projection lens, yet even this is handwaved as something that doubtless has a material cause – just one unknown to present science.
In some ways, the film’s treatment of Kerruish’s story borders on insulting. The protagonist of the novel is Luna Bartendale, a somewhat dotty but nonetheless brilliant-minded occult detective with various psychic gifts. This character is clearly the basis for the film’s heroine Christy, but as well as changing her name (apparently to honour a different author) the movie reduces the character to a mere sidekick for the smugly chauvinistic Bob Curtis. Naturally, it’s the rational-minded Bob who has the job of explaining everything at film’s end, while Christy’s occult theories are used as comic relief. The film’s two protagonists do make a watchable pair, but the failure to put Kerruish’s heroine on screen is at best a missed opportunity, at worst a betrayal of the source material.
Watched as an adaptation of the novel, The Undying Monster is a clear failure. Watched as a self-contained work outside of its wider context, the film is inconsistent and clumsy. The best way to appreciate it, then, is to watch it as an early stage in the evolution of the werewolf genre: if nothing else, the idea to mix werewolves with the whodunit was inventive for the time, and showed one of the new directions the genre could take.
By Doris V. Sutherland
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