Director: John Brahm
On the evening that wealthy Oliver Hammond (John Howard) takes too long to walk back home to his country estate, the wind and the eerie howling echoing in the night has his butler (Halliwell Hobbes) thinking back to a similar night twenty years ago, when grandpa Hammond died after an encounter with a supernatural creature. Not for nothing does this family believe in a curse and their crypt bear the inscription “when stars are bright on a frosty night, beware thy bane in the rocky lane.” On nights such as these, the Hammond men have all died an unexplained, violent death or, if they were lucky to survive a horrific encounter, committed suicide soon after.
Oliver’s sister Helga Hammond (Heather Angel) doesn’t believe any of this supernatural nonsense, and when a woman’s scream is heard far off in the forest, Helga grabs gun, lantern and carriage and charges out with her servant (Charles McGraw) to investigate. They find Oliver injured, a neighbour, nurse Kate, badly mauled and a dog dead, all three torn at “with grasping claws and ferocious bite.”
Scotland Yard chief forensic expert Robert Curtis (James Ellison) is called in to investigate, and like Helga, he scoffs at all things supernatural. His loyal assistant Christy (Heather Thatcher), by contrast, thrives on goosebumps, brightens at the mention of possible monsters, hears sad trombones when spooking has some logical explanation, cooks toffee with the lab equipment, and comes armed with a sharp sixth sense and a wry quip for every occasion. She shares a playful repartee and inquisitive nature with Robert and provides a fun female contrast to Helga, who’s the serious, fiercely independent woman who wants to protect the family honour.
Robert and Helga share a common skepticism about monsters, but that doesn’t stop the detective from suspecting Helga along with all others. After all, she’s the sole heir when the next Hammond man meets his demise. When Kate dies from causes not directly related to the attack, the butler warns Robert to leave before it’s too late, and some clues emerge that no science can explain, Robert reluctantly starts to consider the wilder theories advanced by Christy, the curse, and the superstitious villagers. Then comes another frosty night when the monster snatches Helga from her bed and leads our detective on an exciting chase.
The Hammonds’ sprawling seaside manor includes several gloomy passageways to rarely explored, hidden areas and levels that give our players plenty of scenes in which to huddle, gasp, point and marvel, and do suspicious things to conceal secrets and involvement. The 500 year-old Hammond crypt under the house is the perfect spot to hear both wisecracks and the origins of the family curse, and there’s a secret room the butler and wife (Eily Malyon) hope nobody finds. Malyon was an actress that perfected the art of staring daggers, and gives a wonderful display of that signature move at the inquest when she shoots some stern looks at Charles McGraw. When strange footprints are found on the dusty cellar floor, Helga’s gentleman, the former brain specialist Dr. Jeff Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher) deliberately smears them; like so many of the other characters, Jeff has a questionable past and an unknown current interest involving experimental medical therapy gone wrong.
The film’s 1922 source novel The Undying Monster by Jessie Douglas Kerruish had a sole female paranormal investigator summoned to the Hammons estate, a character it would have been fascinating to see in a 1942 movie. But rewriting to feature the dashing Ellison as an action CSI and giving him a sassy female sidekick works well, and makes this play like a hybrid Sherlock Holmes-Universal monster movie. Director Brahm (The Lodger, Hangover Square) makes this fast, thrilling fun, while the grand but depressing estate, sinister shadows and surrounding twisted, rugged grounds all beautifully photographed by Lucien Ballard.