vt The Hammond Mystery
US / 63 minutes / bw / Twentieth Century–Fox Dir: John Brahm Pr: Bryan Foy Scr: Lillie Hayward, Michel Jacoby Story: The Undying Monster: A Tale of the Fifth Dimension (1922) by Jessie Douglas Kerruish Cine: Lucien Ballard Cast: James Ellison, Heather Angel, John Howard, Bramwell Fletcher, Heather Thatcher, Aubrey Mather, Halliwell Hobbes, Charles McGraw, Alec Craig, Eily Malyon, Virginia Traxler, Heather Wilde.
The year is around 1900. Perched on a clifftop somewhere in the south of England is Hammond Hall, creepy home of the Hammond family, heirs to a deadly secret. The family history records how the male Hammonds have come to dreadful ends. The current incumbent, Sir Oliver (Howard), who with his sister Helga (Angel) is the last of the Hammonds, is hoping to buck the trend.
Helga (Heather Angel) and butler Walton (Halliwell Hobbes) agree that “sometimes dogs are smarter than folks.”
Helga (Heather Angel) and butler Walton (Halliwell Hobbes) show off one of the manor’s great stained-glass windows.
One frosty night, as Helga is waiting for her brother to return home late from helping in the laboratory of her boyfriend, Dr. Jeff Colbert (Fletcher), she and the butler, Walton (Hobbes), hear a preternatural howling from without. Helga, fearing that Oliver might have defied family tradition by going along the Rocky Path by the shore and been attacked by the local monster, commandeers groundsman Will (Craig) and a carriage to go out in search of him. They find Oliver badly damaged on the Rocky Path; nearby, Jeff’s nurse/assistant Kate O’Malley (Traxler), is in even worse condition, while Oliver’s faithful dog has been completely eviscerated.
Inspector Craig (Mather) of Scotland Yard sends in the chief of the Yard’s laboratory staff, Robert “Bob” Curtis (Ellison), plus Bob’s assistant, Cornelia “Christy” Christopher (Thatcher). They believe in bringing science to bear on crime—
Christy: “My dear boy, all London knows that you solved the Kensington murder with your scientific tests when everything else had failed . . .”
—while at the same time being open, especially Christy, to all sorts of occult possibilities.
Our first sight of Bob Curtis (James Ellison) — damn’ sciencey, what?
Arriving at Hammond Hall, the pseudoscientific pair soon find all manner of spooky goings-on: rattling chains, mysteriously slamming doors, a secret room that no one’s been in for three years but where there are fresh footmarks in the dust, and so on. In due course rational explanations for all these emerge . . . except for the eldritch footprints, which are just sort of forgotten about. They also find that the speedily recovering Oliver is frantic for the safety of his sister: “Helga, you’re next! You’re the only Hammond left besides me!”
Bob Curtis (James Ellison, left) and Inspector Craig (Aubrey Mather). Normally you’d expect the Ian Anderson lookalike to be the maverick detective while the other guy was the cop, but in this instance you’d be mistaken.
In the secret room they discover an inscription of the family superstition, a piece of doggerel that butler Walton is found of gloomily reciting:
When stars are bright
On a frosty night
Beware thy bane
On the Rocky Lane
Walton also enjoys saying things like “There are some things that are beyond the understanding of us here on earth”—but then so do several other cast members, even including the supposedly hard-headed Inspector Craig of the Yard.
Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher) explains himself to Bob Curtis (James Ellison).
Bob and Christy eventually crack the case, of course. In the final dramatic moments Helga is rescued from the clutches of the monster. There’s a pretty decent effort to dress everything up in sciencefictional terms, rather than leaving it as a straightforward piece of irrational horror; unfortunately, that effort is undermined by some of what has gone before, including the movie’s best little bit of business: Bob and Christy are using a spectrometer to show Inspector Craig that some hair found beside the mutilated dog is identical to wolf hair, projecting the two spectra on the wall, one above the other, when suddenly the lower spectrum fades and vanishes—as does the sample of “werewolf” hair!
It’s refreshing that the two main women in this movie are gutsy and intelligent. Early on, when Helga fears for her brother on the Rocky Path, her courage in going out into the wild night to find him surpasses anything most men might display. Christy is if anything a better scientist than Bob, even if given to allowing the occult credence; it’s a shame she’s such an overbearing character, a model of that kind of insensitive, no-nonsense, jolly-hockey-sticks practicality that in real life, while often mistaken for competence, is more usually a sign of the Dunning–Kruger Syndrome in action.
An example of Ballard’s neat noirish cinematography: we see Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher) and Helga (Heather Angel) as from from the interior of the fireplace.
In fact, there’s a third strong female character: Walton’s wife (Malyon), who like Walton clearly knows far more of the family secret than either will ever willingly let on to strangers. By contrast, the new maid, Millie (Wilde), is closer to the horror stereotype, being (a) very cute and (b) prone to shrieking a lot.
Millie (Heather Wilde) testifies at the inquest.
There’s an amusing reference to a completely different horror movie, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), and its literary precursor. While the newly arrived Bob is with the local bobbies and Helga examining the remains of Oliver’s dog, he comes up with the following suggestion:
Bob: “How about a big monkey? I suppose you’ve checked up to find if one has escaped anywhere?”
PC Plod: “There’s no shows in the vicinity, sir.”
Helga: “There’s a zoo about eight miles from here.”
In fact, it’s just Bob’s stratagem to get the bobbies off his back so that he can start his investigations in earnest.
This is a US movie set in England, so of course the problem of the accents arises. The producers got round this by casting English players in most of the main roles: Angel, Hobbes, Fletcher, Thatcher, Mather. (Thatcher, although you wouldn’t guess it from her performance here, began her professional life as a saucy danceuse whose impression of a harem dance apparently met with much eye-popping approval.) The two main male leads, however, were Americans and, while Howard makes an attempt (a failed one) to sound British, Ellison simply doesn’t bother. Here we have a supposed pillar of Scotland Yard saying things like “toob” for “tube”; that insouciance thwarts the efforts made by so much of the rest of the production to make this seem a quality number.
Paul Meehan lists this movie in his Horror Noir: Where Cinema’s Dark Sisters Meet (2010) and, although I’m generally a little tentative about readily accepting such crossovers, on balance I think Meehan’s probably correct. One could make a rather weak case for this movie’s noirishness merely in terms of its plot, but it’s Ballard’s stupendously noirish cinematography that makes it so tempting to regard The Undying Monster as being of essential interest to film noir aficionados.
On Amazon.com: The Undying Monster (1942)
Kristina Dijan has an annoyingly good article about this movie on her Speakeasy blog here.