WARNING: The following review contains massive spoilers for the 1939 film, The Human Monster. While I generally try to avoid such things, doing so this time was unavoidable when discussing certain elements of this film. If you’ve watched the film before, then you know just what I am talking about. As for those that have not seen the film, I do apologize, but to be fair…. you have had almost 90 years to do so! That said, in my honest opinion, these “spoilers” do not ruin the film. In fact, they aren’t even much of a surprise.
Based on the 1924 novel “The Dark Eyes of London” by prolific British writer Edgar Wallace (who also penned the screenplays for 1932’s Hound of the Baskervilles, as well as the original draft of what would become King Kong), The Human Monster is a 1939 British film starring horror luminary Bela Lugosi, and was directed by Walter Summers, whose career as a director and screenwriter spanned from the early 1920s until 1940. Although the film shared the same title as the novel upon its UK release, the film was later released stateside in 1940 by “poverty row” studio Monogram Pictures under its new title.
Lugosi stars as Dr. Feodor Orloff (a surname used by numerous horror villains in years to come), a former physician who, after admittingly being forced out of practice due to his unorthodox scientific beliefs, becomes an insurance agent. In addition to writing up policies for his clients, Orloff frequently loans them money to help them make ends meet. In return, Orloff informs these clients that if they wish to repay him for his generosity, they can volunteer their time and services at a local home for the blind, where Orloff spends his free time providing medical care for the poor, unfortunate souls.
The home is owned and operated by Mr. Dearborn, himself a blind man. Upon arriving at the home, these clients are escorted to Orloff’s upstairs office… where they are promptly murdered by drowning by Orloff and his lackey; a large, deformed man named Jake (Winfred Walter). The bodies of these victims are then dumped into the Thames, left to look like suicides or accidental drownings. Orloff then has the policies rewritten and signatures forged so that he himself collects on the policies, all while making it appear that the funds have been sent to other benefactors living abroad.
When the bodies start piling up (or should that be “floating up”?), Detective Holt (Hugh Williams – Dead Men Tell No Tales, Wuthering Heights) of Scotland Yard is assigned to the case. Accompanying him is American police detective O’Reilly (Edmon Ryan), who has overseen the extradition of a known forger from the US to London. To be honest, O’Reilly is really here for “comedic relief” purposes.
When Orloff discovers that his latest victim has a daughter, Diane (Norwegian actress Greta Gynt), who serves as the beneficiary on the dead man’s policy, he offers the young woman a position as secretary at Dearborn’s home. Granted, this is nothing more than a ploy by Orloff to keep Diane close by, as he plans to also have her dispatched. However, unbeknownst to the deranged insurance agent, Holt has gotten to Diane first, and the two have agreed for her to act as a spy, hoping to expose Orloff.
The film’s big “surprise”, revealed in the film’s final act, is that Orloff and Dearborn are actually one and the same, with the former doctor donning a disguise when in the persona of the blind old man. While Bela’s voice is dubbed as “Dearborn” (thanks to his unmistakable thick Hungarian accent), the transformation is accomplished with nothing more than a wig, fake mustache, and dark glasses. The “ruse” is far from deceptive or convincing, and would surely be laughed at in newer films. While it’s arguably just as humorous here, it can be excused due to the limitations of that era’s make-up effects.
You may have noticed that I have yet to refer to The Human Monster as a “horror” film. This is because, despite the presence of the man who played Dracula, the film actually plays more like a murder mystery (albeit one with little real “mystery”) or crime thriller. While the film is undeniably tame by today’s standard, it does contain murders, forced lobotomies, and images of dead bodies. As such, the British Board of Film Censors deemed the film to be “too frightening for children under the age of 16”, making it the first British “horror” film to be branded with an “H” rating. The “H”, fittingly, stood for “horrific”.
As previously mentioned, The Human Monster is quite tame by modern standards, and surely would not scare anyone under the age of 16 these days. However, the film is still quite entertaining, even if it is insanely predictable. This is due primarily to some solid performances, including Lugosi himself, who many do not consider to be a “great” actor. After watching performances in some of his later films, such as Bride of the Monster (which I absolutely love, by the way) or Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (not to mention Plan 9), it’s not too hard to see where many get that opinion. That said, The Human Monster features one of Lugosi’s better performances. It might not be on par with his role as the legendary Count, but I’d put it on the same level as his turns in White Zombie or The Corpse Vanishes.
Sure, the film shows its age, especially with its female character being the obligatory potential love interest to the male lead, but there’s not anything here that I would call “offensive”. Then again, I’m a straight, white male… so what the Hell do I know? That said, Diane is portrayed as a strong-willed, brave woman, determined to bring her father’s killer to justice. What is somewhat surprising is that neither she nor the male leads play much of a factor in that “justice” when it is indeed finally served.
The Human Monster is not a film that I will be recommending to horror fans who only watch modern films, as I’m sure it would present little in the way of thrills and chills for them. However, fans of classic horror (again, if you can really call the film “horror”) or classic films, in general, will certainly want to give this one a spin. That is if they haven’t already. I mean, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the film is 83 years old now. You’ve had plenty of time to watch it
The Human Monster is available on Blu-ray courtesy of VCI Entertainment. The film is also available free-to-watch on Tubi and Youtube.