There’re strange goings-on in and around Ingston Towers. When the frogs stop croaking in the slough, best watch out, something’s out stalking. Something deadly.
Milly Carson has had enough. Working as a maid in wealthy Kurt Ingston’s home, she’s seen too many weird things, like blood spots on the floor, and thinks it best to tell the cops, especially since her employer’s doctor was recently found dead in the nearby slough. She abruptly quits, accepting a ride into town with chauffeur Laurie. After he makes an unwanted pass, she catches a ride with a passing townsman. At the house, Kurt’s sister, Margaret, anxiously awaits the arrival of a doctor she’s summoned, psychiatrist Dr. Harper.
Laurie heads into town to pick up three guests; Drs. King, Phipps, and Timmons. The medicos know each other, all having treated their host, Ingston. Milly meanwhile, tells her story to Constable Beggs, who doesn’t think much of her vague claims. She heads back to the house to collect her things. Through a plot contrivance, her ride leaves without her and she starts walking through the slough, rattled when the frogs and crickets fall silent; it’s a sign all is not well.
On the road, a woman with a broken-down car begins walking towards the house, but turns back upon hearing a woman scream. She flags down an approaching car and asks for a lift to Ingston Towers. She’s Dr. Lynn Harper, psychiatrist, and her good Samaritan is Dick Baldwin, mystery writer and acquaintance of Ingston. Harper fails to mention the blood-curdling shriek of terror she just heard.
The trio of doctors arrive at the house and wonder why they were summoned, with Timmons feeling remorseful at their having turned Ingston into the paralyzed shell he’s become. Harper and Baldwin arrive soon after and all sit for dinner, joined by their host, the wheelchair-bound Ingston, who has had a prosthetic arm made so he can at least feed himself. When Margaret Ingston asks to speak with Dr. Harper, her brother orders her to wait, there’re more important things to attend to.
All retire to another room, where Indian mystic Agor Singh gives a demonstration of manipulating “cosmic matter” by making a skeleton materialize through focused concentration and sheer will. Ingston tells the physicians it could be used to create new limbs or organs, like a lizard regrowing a tail. Dr. King blusters it’s all poppycock. Not long after everyone’s retired, he ends up dead.
The next morning, Milly’s body is found. Harper manages a conversation with Margaret in which nothing useful is learned. That night, more dead doctors, with Breggs and Baldwin investigating the house to figure out whodunnit.
To say this effort by Universal is a disappointment is an understatement. Night Monster suffers on multiple levels. The story is overpopulated, for one, and despite a promising first few minutes, soon devolves into the uninteresting. The direction by Ford Beebe plods along, but the real culprit is writer Clarence Upson Young. It’s bad when I start rewriting the script in my head, cutting characters and changing events to make things more engaging.
Another major problem is not knowing why Kurt Ingston consulted doctors in the first place; accident, disease? How did his doctors fail him, botched surgery, medication, or dangerous and unorthodox treatments? A more revealing conversation between them, perhaps with Singh, would have helped the audience to become more engaged. There’s not enough time or space for characters to develop or backstories to be told. As for sister Margaret, are the butler and housekeeper gaslighting her? Probably/possibly. We’re never shown or told why she chooses to stay in the house if she fears she’s being driven mad by the hired help.
As for the acting, Don Porter as Dick Baldwin is as affable as Leif Erickson’s lecherous Laurie is churlish. Robert Homans annoys as hick constable Beggs. As Lynn Harper, Irene Hervey seems flat, remote, and disengaged in most of her scenes. It would have been more interesting if maid Milly (Janet Shaw) stuck around, she had some moxie. In fact, dump Harper and Beggs, and have Baldwin and Milly as friends/lovers doing the investigating in the old, dark house. Bela Lugosi, as butler Rolf, and Lionel Atwill as Dr. King are wasted in small, supporting roles. Ralph Morgan as Ingston and Fay Helms as maybe crazy sister Margaret are decent enough. Nils Asther, as Singh, isn’t around enough to make a fair judgment.
There are a few effective scenes. Singh conjuring a skeleton was nicely done, and there’s some interesting shadow work in a later scene, with what’s presumably the design of the fire grate visible on the people in the room. The frogs and crickets falling silent lends a nice eeriness, but none of it is enough to lift this movie out of the morass it’s stuck in. I rate it 3 out of 10. (3/10)