John Bruni reviews The Pearl Of Death

The Pearl Of Deathaka Sherlock Holmes In Pearl Of Death
69 min., 1944
Written by Bertram Millhauser/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by Roy William Neill
Language: English
My rating: ★★

Meet the Creeper . . . .

* * *

Dracula. Frankenstein’s monster. The Wolf Man. The Mummy. The Invisible Man. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. We’re familiar with all of these classic Universal monsters, but there is one that everyone forgets about, even though he was featured in three movies: the Creeper. Unlike all of the aforementioned monsters, the man who played the Creeper needed no make-up. Rondo Hatton had acromegaly, a disease that horribly disfigured him by causing his head and hands to grow completely out of proportion to the rest of his body. His oversized, elongated head managed to land him many roles as tough bad guys, the kind of guy you’d see in a bar by the docks, crushing walnuts with his bare hands. Eventually, this disease killed him, but in the meantime, Universal wasn’t afraid to exploit his condition. In fact, more Creeper movies were planned, but only three ever got made due to his death.

THE PEARL OF DEATH is the first of these films. While the other two would most definitely be at home here at Forced Viewing, this one barely qualifies as horror. If not for the Creeper, it would be just another Sherlock Holmes picture. (But, you know. Fuck it. We reviewed UNFORGIVEN and episodes of the Power Rangers and RuPaul’s Drag Race, so why break with tradition now?)

We start out on a cruise, where a man has been entrusted to transporting the Borgias Pearl to London. It is worth 100,000 pounds, and naturally, it is cursed. Everyone who possesses it comes to a nasty end, starting with Pope Alexander VI and ending with, well, you’ll see.

A young woman, Naomi, manages to steal the pearl and hide it in a camera. She then tricks an old man into carrying the camera through customs, just in case. When she gets it back from him, she rushes to meet with her boss, Conover, to turn over the pearl. He opens the camera only to find a note from Sherlock Holmes, taunting him.

Meanwhile, back at Baker Street, Holmes is busily removing the make-up that made him look like an old man, describing the whole incident to Dr. Watson. Shortly thereafter, Holmes and Watson deliver the pearl to the museum, where the curator simply puts it on display in a glass case. Holmes, aware of the “curse,” is of the opinion that the pearl should be locked away in a vault somewhere, mostly because of all the people who died to possess this thing (in a very non-supernatural way, that is; Holmes doesn’t believe in superstition). The curator makes a great show to demonstrate how well protected it is by an electric alarm system. Holmes scoffs, and to show the man the error of his ways, the detective disarms the security system, just to show how easily it can be done. Unfortunately for Holmes, Conover happens to be in the museum at the time, and once the criminal knows the alarm is off, he breaks the glass case and steals the pearl. He escapes, but before long, the police cart him back . . . without the pearl.

Now Holmes, angry with himself for such folly, must find the pearl and return it to safety before more people die because of it. In the meantime, hovering somewhere at the periphery of the story, is a shadowy, menacing man who everyone calls the Oxton Creeper . . . .

People are of the opinion that the Creeper died trying to escape from Devil’s Island. When Holmes suggests to Inspector Lestrade that the Creeper is responsible for a series of killings he believes is connected to the pearl, Lestrade dismisses him. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Holmes is right. The Creeper is working for Conover and is desperately in love with Naomi.

Where this picture really shines (and all Rathbone/Holmes movies, really) is the use of disguise by the master detective. Rathbone is such an astounding actor that he completely loses himself in whatever disguise Holmes is wearing. Most times, you have no idea that it’s really him, and director Roy William Neill does a fabulous job of not cluing you in. Even the story, based loosely on “The Six Napoleons,” is outstanding and clever. The solution to how Conover got rid of the pearl before he was arrested is amazing, and the reason why the Creeper is killing these people is really a wonder to behold. Even though Bruce once again succeeds at making Watson look like a bumbling fool (which he most certainly wasn’t in the stories), he does so in a suitably humorous fashion. Check out his scrapbooking scene for evidence of this.

But you don’t really want to hear about that. You’re here for the main attraction: how does Hatton do as the Creeper? It’s hard to say. He is drastically underused in this movie. He only has two scenes in which he is actually on screen. There are a few other moments when he’s depicted by a silhouette or a shape in the dark, but that’s about it. Granted, the latter scenes are done superbly, especially when his bulky, misshapen silhouette smokes idly in the background.

But Hatton really shines when he’s on display. His hulking shape just doesn’t look real. His hands are so large and stretched out that his skin looks like rubber. It’s clear he’s not wearing gloves, though; his fingernails jut out like weapons. When he looms over one of his victims, it’s hard to not feel vaguely uncomfortable. He has no lines, which makes him all the more menacing. When he stares at Holmes in the end, it is very clear that he is violence personified. One would have to be, if one escaped from a hellhole like Devil’s Island . . . .

The only problem is, he’s not too bright. Holmes very easily manipulates him into turning on his boss by using Naomi. Not only that, but [SPOILER ALERT] after the Creeper kills Conover, he turns his attention to Holmes. Intent on killing the detective, he creeps forward, giant hands outstretched, ready to break bones. But, and here’s where the stupidity comes in, Holmes has a gun pointed at him. There is no way the Creeper would avoid getting shot. Holmes warns him several times, but the Creeper keeps advancing until Holmes empties the gun into him, supposedly killing him. At this time, Universal didn’t know they were going to give the Creeper his own series of films, so they left him dead at the end, rather than having Lestrade walk in the room and see that his body is missing, or some kind of Michael Myers thing like that. People apparently liked the Creeper so much that Universal brought him back to life for HOUSE OF HORRORS. END OF SPOILERS.

After gushing about this movie so much, why only one star? Mostly because it’s barely horror. Sure, there’s a cursed pearl and a serial killer villain, but seriously. The pearl isn’t really cursed. And the villain is barely used. Out of the 68 minutes comprising this movie, he’s probably on screen for 10 of them, and that’s a generous number. Outside the horror genre, it would get three stars, but here? It barely ekes by with one.

But it’s a fun, clever movie. Check it out. Just don’t expect too much when it comes to horror. You would probably be happier with the sequels, HOUSE OF HORRORS and THE BRUTE MAN, soon to be reviewed in this very spot. Stay tuned!

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About John Bruni

John Bruni is the author of DONG OF FRANKENSTEIN (New Kink), POOR BASTARDS AND RICH FUCKS and TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE (StrangeHouse) and STRIP (Riot Forge). His short work has appeared in anthologies like A HACKED-UP HOLIDAY MASSACRE (Pill Hill), ZOMBIE! ZOMBIE! BRAIN BANG! (StrangeHouse) and the critically acclaimed VILE THINGS (Comet). He edited STRANGE SEX 3 for StrangeHouse, and he was the editor and publisher of TABARD INN: TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE. Find out more at www.talesofquestionabletaste.com and www.talesofunspeakabletaste.blogspot.com.
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