NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS was watched for either the Forgotten Pre-Codes series at The Daily Notebook or the Late Show: Late Films Blogathon, but ended up missing both. A shame, because it’s weird as hell and twice as interesting.
It’s the last film of director Lowell Sherman, that suave and portly screen Lothario who helmed plenty of sophisticated affairs in the early thirties — he died shortly after completing it, and it finally opened in 1935, after the Production Code was fully established, but it still has a certain racy vibe to it — where else can you see the hero of a film wilfully petrify a fishmonger?
Let me back up slightly and explain. The movie is from Universal, part of that great swarm of movies never released on home video — Universal have been good about getting their 30s horror films out, but have left the whole rest of their back catalogue festering in a vault, somewhere, it would seem. The film begins with this warning / statement of intent / helpless shrug —
Thereafter we meet an eccentric family, living under a barrage of explosions caused by mad scientist Hunter Hawk (Alan Mowbry) and his crazy experiments. When Mowbry eventually achieves his goal, a magic ring which can turn things to stone, his first act is to use it on all his annoying relatives, save the glamorous Peggy Shannon, whom he likes.
All of this is fairly high-concept and understandable, but then Hawke meets a leprechaun, gets drunk with him, and starts a relationship with his daughter (the free-and-easy, strongly implied extra-marital sex seems bold for post-code). This, to me, falls under the heading of Double Voodoo — when a film contains more than one unrelated aberrant concept, it is in danger of disintegrating into a bag of bits. It seems valid , for instance, for Dracula to meet the Wolfman, since they’re both Mitteleuropean folkloric characters of supernatural origin, but if you throw in the Frankenstein monster, the product of electro-galvinism, you risk incohesion.
NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS, it is fair to say, not only risks incohesion but pursues it relentlessly with slavering jaws. Hawke discovers that his ring can also transform stone into living flesh and blood, so he sneaks into the local art gallery after dark and brings to life all the Roman statues, who all turn out to have the personalities and powers of the mythic figures they represent. Soon, he and his leprechaun lover are running wild in the streets with Neptune (Robert Warwick, obsessed with fish), Hebe (Geneva Mitchell, obsessed with cups), Bacchus (George Hassell, unused to modern bootleg liquor) and too many others. Hawke casually petrifies anybody who gets in his way, behaving altogether more like a psychopath than one is used to seeing in a lead character of the period, outside of gangster films.
It’s very silly, mildly diverting and completely bananas — the early warning that most of the more insane parts are a dream is unfortunate, because it compromises the overall craziness which is the film’s chief merit and trait.
“He’s a hideous creature,” said Fiona of Mowbry, which is true, if a little unkind. But, as Hunter Hawk, his aristocratic bearing works well with his privileged, dreamy, inhumane character. No wonder his son Hudson turned out to be a burglar, forever trespassing in art galleries himself.