A sideshow performer, Dan “The Electric Man” McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr.) survives when a bus crashes into high tension lines, thanks to a strange partial immunity he’s acquired to electric current from his act. He agrees to take part in a few experiments to understand his gift, unaware the the good Scientist’s partner (played by the reliably evil Lionel Atwill) has other plans for him that soon turn him into an indestructible electrified monster.
None of which changes the fact that this one clearly inspired Lon Chaney’s big break in The Wolf Man later that same year.
He plays a genial, likable regular guy sort of character who gets “bitten” (…well, close enough) by a high tension line and turns into a monster. Yeah, this time it wasn’t Bela Lugosi who bit him, but we have do have Lionel Atwill waiting in the wings, playing the sort of villainous character he played with obvious relish in dozens of other films.
There’s more than a hint of Universal’s take on Frankenstein here as well, as Lon ends up mute and lumbering around in the classic sleepwalker mode (à la Caligari) in a rubber suit (which supposedly weighed seventy pounds!) that makes him look rather stiff — and even less human. John P. Fulton’s glow effects when Lon is fully charged are a nice touch — and I’m sure quite a technical achievement at the time! — but are a bit too bright as they make it hard to see Lon’s face. Which may be why his monster-state isn’t quite as sympathetic as Karloff’s suffering monster.
But then, that did have a lot to do with the fact that Boris Karloff was suffering under all that makeup.
Supposedly, before the studio shelved the film for five years, they’d intended to turn it into a Karloff/Lugosi film. Admittedly. that is an intriguing notion, although I’m not sure that it would have turned out so well at the end of Universal’s first Horror cycle. Instead, it launched Lon Jr.’s career as a horror star, and ranks as one of his better horror efforts. it is also notable as one of more science fictional Universal Horrors.
This is a film which gives us something which, unfortunately is far too rare: a horror film that is ultimately tragic, as a good and likable character loses his humanity and ends up becoming something monstrous. With a running time just under one hour, this was obviously one of Universal’s second string horror films of the era (although their two real 1940s standouts, The Wolfman and The Invisible Man, are both fairly short, even if they are over an hour!) but it is an engaging and well made feature, even if it misses being a classic.
But then, a solid and entertaining effort like this is rare enough. Which makes it more than worth a look for fans of Universal’s Horror films, or Forties horror and SF in general.
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