“You have been very foolish, Lou. You are blind, and you cannot speak. But you can hear – and that will never do!”
Of all the movie villains – and there are many – Bela Lugosi remains one of the most prolific and iconic. Thanks to his distinctive accent, he was inevitably cast as the bad guy; there are only a handful of his Hollywood roles in which he gets to be the hero. While Dracula may be his most famous role – the role that propelled him to stardom, in a film that helped to establish Universal Studios as the place for horror – The Human Monster reveals him at his most villainous. There’s nothing redeemable about his character here: he’s motivated by sheer greed; exploits the less fortunate; and calmly, ruthlessly commits acts of murder for the most petty of reasons – money. Whereas Dracula was at least a tortured, tragic figure, Dr Orloff is a truly nasty piece of work – a horrible, cruel monster – and Lugosi excels in the role.
The Human Monster, also released as The Dark Eyes of London, is a particularly gloomy film – based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, it’s a detective-thriller that was rated “H for horrific” by the British Film Board (a far more promising and evocative rating than today’s boring 12A, 15, etc!) and, for a low budget, old, sometimes shoddy picture, it still deserves that classification. Released in the USA by Poverty Row studio Monogram, it signals the beginning of Lugosi’s career descent (ending in posthumously appearing in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space) but allows the character actor to flourish in a leading role at a time when the major studios were distancing themselves from him. Indeed, The Human Monster is just one of five films that Lugosi made in 1939, including the delightfully bonkers The Phantom Creeps and Son of Frankenstein, in which Lugosi steals the show in minor role Ygor.
The plot is a fairly convoluted one: Lugosi is Dr Orloff, an insurance salesman who, for about ten seconds, appears to be a kindly and charitable man. As well as fronting the money for people struggling to pay their insurance premiums, he is the most significant benefactor for Dearborn’s Home for the Destitute Blind, a place where homeless blind men can stay and develop skills that will enable them to live more productively. Yet Orloff’s not the good man he appears; the shelter helps him to cover up his horrible schemes. Despite his care, the number of men found drowned in the Thames, all of whom have received their life insurance from Orloff’s company, raise suspicions, and Scotland Yard’s finest, Larry Hoult (Hugh Williams) is soon on the case. He’s helped by his new comedy sidekick partner, a mysoginistic trigger-happy Chicago cop, and Diana (Greta Gynt), the daughter of one of the recently deceased who is determined to track down her father’s killer.
The crux of the film is that the blind men offer the perfect foil for Orloff’s evil deeds – he relies on their inability to see so that he can carry out his plans without any witnesses. The men, mostly elderly and particularly doddery, are a pathetic bunch – they shuffle around like zombies, live in austere conditions seemingly oblivious to everything going on around them. Despite never really being the film’s focus, they are explicitly presented as helpless and pitiable. It is Orloff’s interaction with these poor souls that really reveals him to be a horrific character: one man, Lou, who is already blind and mute, is subjected to the most horrendous cruelty after attempting to warn a man of Orloff’s plans. Poor Lou, bedridden and already robbed of two methods of communication, is calmly, unceremoniously deafened with some ominous machine, leaving him now mute, deaf and blind – trapped entirely in his own body until he is eventually put out of his misery some time later. It’s a brutal and particularly tasteless moment, and Lugosi doesn’t even flinch as he commits such terrible acts.
As with the majority (if not all) horror films of the time, eventually good prevails – there’s a pretty impressive twist that I won’t give away, but ultimately Orloff is defeated, meeting an end that so many of Lugosi’s villains meet, at the hands of his henchman. But this remains categorically Lugosi’s film: he gives it his all, as he always did, and matches his naturally theatrical charisma with a rarer brutality. Indeed, it’s his suave, debonair appearance and the twinkle in his eye that makes Orloff’s monstrousness that much more distressing. While he’s better known for other roles – and certainly, there are plenty of others that have rightly received more attention – The Human Monster is easily one of his most disturbing, brutal and downright sadistic films: as a Lugosi fan, there are few films of his that I don’t in some way root for him, no matter how evil he’s supposed to be, but in this, even I was cheering his eventual demise.