Janet Shaw (the waitress from SHADOW OF A DOUBT) in HOUSE OF HORRORS, a better-than-expected Rondo Hatton monsterpiece viewed as part of my ongoing pursuit of those movies with illos in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies. The lovely Janet, who appears but briefly, and whose beauty is commented upon approvingly by both the hero and heroine, seems like the kind of meaningless bit part included in studio movies so that executives, directors or stars (Errol Flynn, I’m looking at you) could nail some grateful tail. Shaw’s career arc, which took her from Beatrice, Nebraska, to Hollywood, California, and back to Beatrice, Nebraska, is suggestive of at least mild disillusion…
Also featured is Sweet Sue herself, Joan Shawlee, in an outfit which could only have gotten past the censors if they’d completely forgotten what a woman’s body looks like naked (hint: it looks exactly like Joan Shawlee in her outfit in this film). These are the normal characters, also including a manly commercial artist, his wise-cracking art critic girlfriend, and a smart-talking detective… all reasonably well written but yawn…
What matters is the devilish double act of Rondo and Martin Kosleck, the demented and poverty-stricken sculptor who rescues Rondo’s Creeper from the drink and soon has him posing for a modern art masterpiece (Rondo’s skull reinvents cubism), as well as lumbering forth on nocturnal missions to snap the spines of Kosleck’s critics (a good double feature with THEATRE OF BLOOD is suggested– everybody loves to see critics murdered).
What a teaming this is! Apart from the pleasing physical contrast (Kosleck, the Gollum-like shrimp, Hatton, who looks like he’s wearing American football padding and helmet under his skin), there’s a contrast in acting styles which is never less than bracing. Kosleck seizes his moment, in one of his larger roles, and worries it to shreds, monologuing at the cat and evoking a keen audience sympathy which rapidly gets twisted into awe at his wickedness. By contrast to this total commitment approach, Hatton is minimalist, paradoxical in such a big guy. His sullen, low-affect delivery is somehow completely riveting, and effectively suggests the Creeper’s psychopathic personality.
Of course, Rondo doesn’t need to act to be interesting, and it’s questionable whether anyone expected him to pull out any stops whatsoever. But he works.
(His performance does make me wonder if he really wanted to be in movies at all. Most reviews of his career are pretty critical of Universal for exploiting the poor man’s deformity in horror movies, but what makes the sleaziness worse is the suspicion that Hatton may not have had any enthusiasm for the work, and perhaps only acted to survive, resenting the exposure of his increasing deformity and disability.)
Rondo Hatton as The Whistler!
Contrasting the crazy avant-garde artist with the manly commercial painter of Gil Elvgren type girlie art, the movie has a very conservative outlook, with the experimental seen as both foreign and sinister… but it’s in the world of Kosleck’s impoverished dreaming, ripe for corruption as soon as he’s achieved power via his hulking housemate, that the film lives, breathes and wriggles.