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Cult Movie Picks - May 2013
Remind Me
,Indestructible Man

The Indestructible Man (1956)

Released in 1956, Indestructible Man came at a challenging point in the career of its star, Lon Chaney, Jr., who had ascended to stardom in Universal's The Wolf Man in 1941 and its numerous successors. Of course, Chaney had already proven his mettle outside the horror genre, most notably in Of Mice and Men (1939) two years earlier and a slew of roles in other genres stretching back to the early '30s; however, the studios' aversion to outright horror in the 1950s found him taking on an even broader slate of projects with an average of six or seven features a year.

Though no one would ever peg it as Chaney's finest cinematic work, Indestructible Man is enjoyable as a fusion of three different genres: crime film, science fiction, and rampaging monster horror. Chaney plays Charles Benton, alias "The Butcher," a low-rent mobster sentenced to the electric chair after his cronies turn state's evidence. However, his death sentence doesn't last long thanks to a scientist (Invaders from Mars' [1953] Robert Shayne) who decides to use Chaney as a guinea pig for human reanimation. The result turns the undead convict into an unstoppable force bent on revenge, and the police try to figure out what's going on as the bodies start to pile up.

An afternoon favorite on TV for several decades, Indestructible Man was released theatrically by Allied Artists, one of the busiest drive-in specialists of the period with a huge slate of monster-oriented titles. It most frequently wound up on a double bill with World without End and was one of only two credited films directed by Jack Pollexfen, who had earlier served as producer and writer of such matinee favorites as The Neanderthal Man (1953) and The Man from Planet X (1951).

More than a few monster fans were quick to note the film's strong similarity to a previous film, Universal's Man Made Monster from 1941, which also featured Chaney as a man rendered indestructible with the aid of a meddling scientist and a lot of electricity. (The criminal portion of the plot was also recognized as an echo of a non-Chaney horror film, the Boris Karloff vehicle The Walking Dead from 1936.)

Pollexfen repeatedly denied the similarities to Man Made Monster in interviews over the years, despite an amusing line of dialogue in his film that virtually calls out the film's title. He also claimed to have written the initial draft of what would be turned over to become its final film version in the hands of Vy Russell and Sue Dwiggins, both of whom would reunite with Pollexfen for another horror/sci-fi oddity, Monstrosity (aka The Atomic Brain) in 1963. Both films are linked by their heavy reliance on voiceover narration and the theme of science run amok with disastrous results, though in the case of the later film, the results are considerably more perverse.

Though much of it takes place in nondescript police offices and a laboratory, the film is entertaining for its occasional glimpses of mid-'50s downtown Los Angeles including the city's Hall of Justice and a peek at the oft-used Bradbury Building, which would go on to iconic use in Blade Runner (1982) and TV's The Outer Limits.

Rarely pausing to take a break, Chaney made this film on the heels of another film in which he played a mob boss, I Died a Thousand Times, a 1955 reworking of High Sierra (1941). However, in that film Chaney, who only has a supporting role, has considerably more dialogue than his role in Indestructible Man, which finds him completely mute after his execution. Nevertheless Chaney gets to use his admirable non-verbal acting skills and even dons some monstrous makeup after his face is consuming by flames, a conceit suggested with his red-tinted eyes in the film's advertising artwork (which also promoted it as "The scream that shocks the screen with 300,000 volts of horror!").

Horror roles had dried up for many actors at this point (with the genre only due for a major resurgence in 1960), but Chaney was fortunate enough to land a handful of additional creepy roles in the all-star cheapie The Black Sleep (1956), the Bert I. Gordon favorite The Cyclops (1957), and the bizarre The Alligator People (1959).

Among the cast of familiar bit character actors, movie fans will most likely recognize "Casey Adams," the actor who plays Lieutenant Dick Chasen. That name was given to him earlier by Darryl F. Zanuck for his roles in Fox productions like Niagara (1953), but he reverted to his real name, Max Showalter, for most of his career including such films as The Music Man (1962), Lord Love a Duck (1966, "Pink put-on! Papaya surprise!"), and his final role as Molly Ringwald's Grandpa Fred in Sixteen Candles (1984).

Like many other films made without major studio backing at the time, Indestructible Man lapsed into the public domain fairly quickly. This turn of events led to its frequent revival well into the home video era, with the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000 grilling it in their fifth season for good measure. However, given its resilience today and fond status among Chaney fans, it's fair to say that this film has actually proven far more indestructible than its resuscitated title character.

By: Nathaniel Thompson



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