It's a monster movie that happens to star a real monster. His name's Rondo Hatton and with the possible exception of Harry Earles, he's the most famous freak in classic cinema, thanks to his string of villainous roles for Universal. Okay, "freak" is an extreme word, but he suffered from acromegaly, which means that your body doesn't stop producing growth hormones.
Hatton wasn't ridiculously tall, but he had oversized hands and facial features. He's not actually deformed, but you certainly wouldn't call him normal either. Your reaction to this movie will depend entirely on how you feel about Hatton. It's his last film and his only leading role, instead of just playing a supporting goon. There are issues of taste. There are also issues of performance, since Hatton's clearly not a natural actor. In fact he was close to death due to his condition, wouldn't survive to see the movie's release and has been described as "so pathetic to work with" and "almost autistic" by his co-star Jane Adams. Apparently he was having trouble responding to his fellow actors and remembering his lines. There's one scene where he shakes his head ("no") but is saying "yes".
Me, I was fascinated and I think Hatton gives the movie its soul.
The thing is, he's playing an uncontrollable killer. He used to be young and handsome, but then his friend betrayed him over a girl and he had an accident in a chemistry lab. Now he lives on the streets, killing almost at random. According to the script, he should be boiling with bitterness and rage... but he's not. There's a lot of Hatton in this Creeper and the real Hatton was clearly the gentlest, simplest of men. When Jane Adams sees his inner beauty, we do too. His line delivery is stilted due to his condition and his difficulties in speaking, but there's something unique in what he brings to this film, leaving you in no doubt of both contradictory sides of his nature. He bears serious comparison with Karloff. Both are rightly famous for their iconic role in three Universal black-and-white movies, in which they play a simple-minded, murderously strong brute who's shunned by society for being ugly and yet get befriended by a blind musician who accepts them.
The rest of the film is fine. I liked the comedy cops. They're great. Adams is sweet and they handle her blindness well. The storyline is simple, but it's perfect for the running time and it's giving its star all the attention he deserves. The only thing I disliked was that the film's clearly missing one last Hatton-Adams scene, which could have turned its anticlimactic finale into something far more memorable. It's still okay, but you're waiting for that key scene to which in hindsight the whole film has been building up... and then the credits roll.
They give the Creeper an origin story, which furthermore is based on the actor's real past. In his college days, Hatton had looked normal, even handsome, and had played American football. The film partly reflects this, albeit unconvincingly (acid?), but the backstory they eventually come up is so lame that it comes full circle and becomes interesting again. They could have gone for Shakespearian tragedy, yet in fact all that happened was that his friend gave him the wrong answers in a school test. In other words, he's not Hamlet or Othello. He doesn't have a big dramatic excuse for what he did. He's just an ordinary person who's made bad choices, like the rest of us.
It's worth saying a few words about the other actors, I suppose. Jane Adams had been in other Universal horrors, e.g. She-Wolf of London, and is still working today. Donald MacBride was doubly qualified to be a comedy policeman, being best known for playing detectives in crime films but having also worked with the Marx Brothers. Finally Tom Neal is apparently famous for having been in a highly regarded film called Detour, for having sex with Barbara Payton and for killing his wife by shooting her in the back of the head.
This isn't a popular film. Hatton's death embarrassed Universal, who feared being accused of exploitation and had decided the previous year to get out of horror movies anyway. They thus sold it to a poverty row studio called Producers Releasing Corporation and for a while it became a lost film. More importantly though, reviewers and audiences don't seem to have been bowled over either. Hatton's acting has been criticised, while other commentators think the whole film's in bad taste. Mystery Science Theater 3000 used it. It's even been said that the film isn't scary, although I'd say it measures up just fine on that count to other Universal horrors and it's worth noting that in England, the rating of H (Horrific) was created specifically for it.
Despite this though, Universal had been going to make a series of Creeper movies. The character first appeared in one of Basil Rathbone's better Sherlock Holmeses, The Pearl of Death. I'm pretty sure the Creeper died at the end of it, but presumably he got better again and returned for House of Horror and this film. I don't know why he's called "Creeper", though. Because he's creepy?
I liked this film. I wouldn't say I adored it, but I think it really captures something thanks to Hatton. He's almost hypnotic. It's not about his acting, but his being. Today, he's an icon.