It’s sometimes difficult to recognize the value of a work done right when it’s been diluted by enough cheaper, sillier versions of its exact aesthetic. R.E.M. & Throwing Muses no longer sound like paradigm-shifting college rock innovators now that their sound has been assimilated & dispersed. John Carpenter’s Halloween will never again be as jarring as it was before it inspired an entire genre of immitators. We can never truly go back to the awe of the first appearance of the CG brontosaurus in Jurassic Park. Familiarity & normalization can be the worst enemy of a movie, especially a thriller that’s looking to shock you into a state of terror. The 1944 horror curio The Lady and the Monster is a blatant victim of over-familiarity. In the 1950s & 60s, sci-fi horror films boasting its exact plot structure & bleep-bloop future-machines were a dime a dozen (with They Saved Hitler’s Brain & The Brain that Wouldn’t Die being the most readily recognizable examples), but in the 1940s The Lady and the Monster would have been much more striking in its tone & brutality. A film this handsomely crafted & zeitgeist-predictive should stand out as a kind of innovator in its field, but I can’t help but take its achievements at least somewhat for granted. It’s just an aesthetic I’ve seen too many times before.
Underlit wealthy creeps occupy a dank gothic mansion, complete with a menacing science lab. The only female lab assistant (Czech figure skater-turned-actress Vera Ralston, who often boasted about the time she insulted Hitler to his face at the 1936 Olympics) finds herself in a love triangle with her fellow lab partner and their mad scientist boss (infamous Greed-director-turned-character-actor Eric von Strondheim). This tension is amplified when the stressed-out trio fall into a Dr. Frankenstein plot in an initially successful experiment to keep a human brain’s “electrical beat” intact after its host’s death, using only lab equipment. Said brain belongs to a millionaire reprobate who “survived” a plane crash and whose wife & lawyer are very interested in the circumstances of his supposed death. The brain has its own mysteries to solve as well, a task it completes by possessing the minds of the scientists who keep it alive and sending them sleuthing for clues. As much as the film resembles 1950s drive-in horrors that would follow, it’s also a low-end version of a 1940s noir— an intensely-lit investigation of a mysterious web of cheats & double-crossings. If it can be understood as idiosyncratic in any way, its peculiarity is in that hybrid of genres & temporal sensibilities.
One thing is for sure: if The Lady & the Monster were made in the 1950s or 60s, there would have been a much more explicit depiction of the mind-controlling millionaire brain itself. As is, the brain only appears as a loaf-shaped silhouette adorned with extraneous wires, which isn’t quite as satisfying as the cheaper thrill of actually getting a good look at it. I assume the the 1953 film Donovan’s Brain, adapted from the same novel as The Lady and the Monster, took an entirely different approach. At the same time, I doubt Donovan’s Brain is nearly as handsomely crafted as its sci-fi noir predecessor, as there are countless other 1950s sci-fi horrors with a near identical premise and yet very few of them, if any, actually look this good. The acting is superb. The exterior shot miniatures & impossibly tall ceilings recall German Expressionist silent horrors like Destiny & The Hands of Orlac. The attention to lighting is a wonderful split between that silent era & the noir pictures the film has a direct lineage from. Still, no matter how technically well-made The Lady and the Monster is in terms of craft, I can’t help but somewhat undervalue it, due almost entirely to overly familiar tropes that would not have been nearly as cliché in 1944. I feel as if we’re all susceptible to taking this one for granted, no matter how much we try not to.