Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942)

This seems to have been my week of watching borderline SF films, with viewings of such films as a ghost story turned alien encounter (High Desert Kill); a wacky screwball comedy with a mad scientist (The Boogie Man Will Get You); and a shaggy dog Gothic horror with a bogus bit of science at its heart (The Maze).  So it should come as no surprise that I just watched another Forties mad scientist film, although one of the stranger and least typical of the breed.

After all, it starts out as something quite different, with the young doctor arriving in the middle of a big storm at the local inn on his way to meet up with his fiancee at her father (the titular Dr. Renault)’s mansion.

However, the bridge has washed out, and he has to stay the night at the Inn, along with two of Dr. Renault’s servants: the sad and rather dim-witted gardener, Noel (played by horror film regular and radio comic, J. Carrol Naish); and the thuggish Rogell, whom we know is a bad guy because he’s played by former wrestler and movie tough guy, Mike Mazurki.

By the end of the night one of the other guests is dead with his neck snapped, murdered because he was so drunk he ended up in the wrong room — the one young Dr. Forbes should have been in.

A lot of reviewers have complained that the secret is given away too early, although I tend to disagree:  not only does the big reveal take place later than most of them seem to think — at the halfway mark — it seems to me the biggest strength of this film is its rather unusual focus on the monster, himself.  He has to be one of the most sympathetic monsters ever to appear in a horror film — even if he does end up killing quite a few people before we’re done.

Besides Naish and Mazurki, we also get George Zucco as yet another mad scientist and Ray “Crash” Corrigan in that familiar ape suit.  This time, mind you, it appears entirely in a set of still photos.  I got the impression that George Zucco’s head had been pasted onto one of the photos, leading me to wonder if they came from another film.  However, they might have used a stand-in if George wasn’t available at the same time as Ray and the photos are so strange that I find it hard to believe that they could have come from anywhere else. Ray’s fans will be happy to know, though, that he doubles for J. Carrol Naish in the climactic fight.

Mind you, Naish’s physical performance is quite impressive, both his character’s walk and mannerisms, and in some surprisingly intense parts of that fight in which his face is visible.

Part of this emphasis on the monster and his tragic story may be because the film was based on Balaoo, a novel by Gaston Leroux (best remembered for The Phantom of the Opera): not only does the book reveal the creature’s curious nature not long after the opening set of murders, but the remainder of the story is told from his perspective!

However, 20th Century Fox changed the name of the mad scientist, apparently with the idea of invoking H.G. WellsThe Island of Dr. Moreau — although for some reason his name is never pronounced like the French car (“Rehn-OH”), but as “Rehn-Ault.”

While this is not a great film, it is an interesting and surprising offering, with a bit of mystery, some thrills, some chills and a dramatic climax in an old mill.  Very little time gets devoted to the mad scientist parts of the story and a lot to the story of the poor creature, which makes this a very rare sort of mix.

And, as it is only a little over an hour long, it never wears out its welcome.

So file it under “worth a look,” particularly if you love the old mad scientist films of the Thirties and Forties.

You never know, you might go ape over it.

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