Most fans of classic Hollywood horror films probably remember the first time they saw a Universal horror picture. My first exposure was at age 5 when my parents allowed me to stay up late and watch The Wolf Man (1941) with them. After that, a lot of those early years in Memphis, Tennessee were spent watching “The Late Show” with babysitters while my parents were either attending or giving a cocktail party. Every Saturday night some horror favorite from Universal would air and The Mad Ghoul (1943) was a particularly fond memory. But the one that really stayed with me was House of Horrors (1946) featuring Rondo Hatton as “The Creeper.”
Watching this again after so many years in a crisp, clean transfer that was a joy to behold, I wasn’t expecting much but I was more than pleasantly surprised. Despite its reputation as a low-budget production shot on minimal sets in the Universal backlot, House of Horrors is a fun, stylish, fast-paced thriller with snappy dialogue, moments of black comedy, moody, film noir-like cinematography by Maury Gertsman and a game cast that inject some spunk and vitality into what could have been a routine, unmemorable affair. It might also be the first film I’ve seen by Jean Yarbrough that I actually consider good.
Yarbrough ground out more than 100 programmers in his long career and most of them were undistinguished or memorable for the wrong reasons (Bela Lugosi in The Devil Bat , Mantan Moreland in King of the Zombies , John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and Basil Rathbone in Hillbillys in a Haunted House ). But the thing I was most struck by in House of Horrors was the complicated presence of Rondo Hatton who gets a special introductory credit as “The Creeper” and brings a sense of genuine pathos to the proceedings.
A lot happens in 65 minutes to say the least (including five murders) and in some ways it might have served as the blueprint for Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959) which also featured a deranged protagonist on the fringes of the art scene and desperate to be embraced and admired by the important arbiters of culture. In this scenario, Marcel DeLange (Martin Kosleck), a struggling sculptor who lives hand to mouth, finally has an opportunity to make a sale to a novice art collector. His prospects crumble, however, when his potential buyer brings along art critic F. Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier), who is famous for his vitriolic art reviews. When Marcel reveals his decidedly modernist sculpture, saying “I call it “To Cease from Toil,” Holmes counters with, “And I call it tripe. Pure unadulterated tripe with an overtone of sheer lunacy.”
It’s all downhill after that. Marcel loses the sale and feeling dejected, wanders down to the waterfront in despair. His suicidal mood is soon interrupted by something splashing in the water – a man drowning near the dock. Marcel drags the exhausted man to safety before noticing his unnatural appearance: “Magnifique! The perfect Neanderthal Man.” It doesn’t take Marcel long to realize his new houseguest is The Creeper, a serial killer of women (he snaps their spines), who is the subject of a police manhunt. Not only does The Creeper prove to be the inspiration for Marcel’s new work, he also becomes an instrument of revenge for the sculptor.
In the beginning, Marcel is sympathetic, even if he is a little kooky. He’s hospitable, generous with his meager provisions, kind to cats – the trained kitty on display here is a professional scene-stealer – and he could be some kind of genius (his art would definitely attract attention now). There is also something almost touching about the developing friendship between these two down-and-out social outcasts which prefigures Midnight Cowboy in some strange way and in its later stage, more like the sick duo of Henry and Otis in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer .
Of course, The Creeper is supposed to be horribly grotesque and little more than a mindless killing machine; he probably was viewed that way by many viewers at the time. No backstory or explanation is offered for his murderous hatred of women and none was really needed for a disposable genre film like this. Killing is simply part of his nature. It brings to mind that anecdote Richard Pryor told about visiting prison inmates and asking a convicted murderer why he killed all the occupants in a house; “Cause they was home,” was the response and The Creeper has a similar response when Marcel comments on his recent killing, “I’ve often wondered why a man would want to snap a woman’s spine.” “She screamed,” is Rondo’s one-beat response. So much for psychological insight. But what if she hadn’t screamed? Was rape the main objective? It’s not that clear here thanks to the Breen Office (Hollywood’s self-censoring arm) which forced the producers of House of Horrors to remove any suggestion of lust or sexual desire in their depiction of The Creeper.
On a recent viewing of House of Horrors, Rondo Hatton evokes pity and compassion as The Creeper in ways that have little to do with his character or his acting. A victim of acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland which results in deformities in the head, face and extremities, Hatton certainly wasn’t the first person to be exploited by a studio for his physical defects. Consider, for example, the entire cast of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), some of whom like dwarf actor Angelo Rossitto (Hellzapoppin’ , Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome ) worked in movies for the rest of their lives, regardless of the typecasting. It makes you wonder what sort of life Hatton would have had if he hadn’t been hired for movies. Was the studio’s exploitation of him the best available employment option given the alternatives at that time?
Although there is some excellent documentation available on his life on the internet, it’s hard to know what he thought of his conspicuous relationship with the film industry but there are scenes in House of Horrors where he doesn’t appear to be acting at all. He is simply there, exposed, and we can’t help but focus on his oversized head, the bulging forehead, the jutting, elongated jaw, the large upper torso in contrast to the small waist and lower trunk and the thick, flat sound of his voice, speaking minimal dialogue with little inflection such as “Are you afraid of me?” or “You’re my friend Shake.” The horrendous effects of acromegaly made talking difficult but there were worse things to endure – the constant physical pain he experienced daily which was described in an article by actor/writer Barry Brown as like “a migraine headache all over his body.”
In terms of thespian skills, Rondo is probably on a par with Tor Johnson from the Ed Wood movies yet knowing some of the facts about Rondo the actor and the disfiguring disease that ended his life lends House of Horrors an unexpected poignancy at times and forces us to judge Hatton’s performance on a completely difference level from the other actors. He might have been touted as the only actor in horror movies not to require makeup but that probably seemed less cruel than being jeered at on the street by kids chasing after him, yelling “Hey, monster man!” Strangely enough, Hatton was handsome and athletic in his youth and was voted best looking by his high school classmates. It was after he served in World War I that he began to show signs of the acromegaly that would end up distorting his features.
Hatton began making movies in uncredited roles in the late 1920s but it wasn’t until the early forties that he appeared in more prominent roles due to his unfortunate appearance. The Sherlock Holmes mystery The Pearl of Death (1944) marked his first official appearance as The Creeper. Other typecast roles would follow such as Moloch the Brute in The Jungle Captive (1945) and as Mario the Monster Man in The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946). His final film, The Brute Man (1946), was released the same year as House of Horrors and it marked the last screen appearance of The Creeper. Hatton died that same year in February at age 51 from a heart attack before either of those final two movies were released. In a tribute to Hatton, horror fans David Cotton and Kerry Gammill created the Rondo awards in 2002 which are a fan-based awards ceremony that honors excellence in cinema, journalism and scholarship in the horror genre.
As for Martin Kosleck in the role of Marcel in House of Horrors, he provides a much more animated and mood-shifting performance than one usually expects in a low-budget horror film. He brings genuine conviction and a touch of real madness to his many self-righteous outbursts while alone with The Creeper. In one conversation, he reveals, “Before you came into my life I felt put upon. I was haunted constantly by the feeling that I was persecuted, helpless to fight back. But now I have the feeling of power, limitless power. No one will stand in my way. Soon every critic will recognize my greatness.” We almost believe him even though variations of this speech have been uttered by almost every mad scientist or visionary crackpot in the movies all the way up to Vincent Price’s critic killer in Theater of Blood (1973).
I don’t know about you but I think Udo Kier is Kosleck’s contemporary counterpart and often wonder if Kier was channeling his fellow German soul mate in films such as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973). Kosleck, like Hatton, was typecast most of his career, and his roles were usually Nazi officers or sinister Europeans; he also had the rare distinction of playing Hitler’s henchman, Joseph Goebbels, five times during his career beginning with the 1939 film Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Of his later film work, the 1964 low-budget cult classic The Flesh Eaters is probably the most famous but he also memorable in various TV appearances in popular series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Batman and The Wild, Wild West.
In spite of the gloom and doom of Kosleck and Hatton, there is a fun, devil-may-care side of House of Horrors which is mostly expressed through Virginia Grey’s flirtatious, quick-witted, self-reliant lady reporter. While most of her scenes with her artist boyfriend Steve (Robert Lowery) are played for laughs, she often breaks out of the conventional heroine mold in holding her own with the opposite sex. In one exchange with Steve, when he tries to discourage her from visiting Marcel’s studio at night, she challenges him: “Hey, hey, Stevie, wait a minute. Take a look at me. I’m a big girl and definitely not the homebody. My job happens to take me to odd places at strange hours but it’s a living and I like it!”
I also find the movie – which was obviously made for the average moviegoer – fascinating in the way it depicts the two art critics, skewering them as snobbish, class conscious urbanites and, as such, completely expendable characters. Alan Napier and Howard Freeman (as Hal Ormiston) attack their roles with relish, making themselves delightfully despicable. They also make a amusing physical contrast together with Napier the slender, effete one in the acid style of All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) and Freeman, with his pear-shaped body, coming off like an overtly gay Robert Benchley. There’s some funny gallows humor too involving a wise-cracking morgue attendant and several visually striking moments that make the most of the cheap sets such as a scene where streetwalker Virginia Christine (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) is illuminated by a lit match in front of a barber shop bearing the sign, “Children’s hair – a specialty.”
I could babble on about House of Horrors but any fan of Universal horror will need no encouragement to seek out this superior B-movie horror. House of Horrors first appeared on DVD in November 2010 from a DVD on-demand initiative between Turner Classic Movies and Universal Studios. It was later offered by the same manufacturers in a DVD collection entitled Universal Cult Horror Collection and included Murders in the Zoo, The Mad Ghoul, The Mad Doctor of Market Street and The Strange Case of Doctor Rx. Another attractive option appeared in March 2020 when Shout! Factory released Universal Horror Collection Volume 4 on Blu-ray which pairs House of Horrors with Night Key, The Climax and Night Monster.
Other links of interest: