In the mid ’40s, the Universal Monsters were in a tough spot. Up until then, the ’40s had been a nonstop flow of sequels and one-offs, with an avalanche of Invisible Men, Draculas (Draculi?), and the odd Frozen Ghost here and there releasing at a steady clip. But this high release rate had made them stale, and by the time 1946 came around, the studio was in desperate need of a new, recognizable monster.

Enter Rondo Hatton. A journalist-turned-B-movie-bit-player, Hatton had been afflicted with acromegaly for most of his adult life, which enlarged his jaw and pronounced his forehead over the years. This distinctive appearance led to him being cast as nameless goons up until the ’40s, when he got his big, career-defining role as The Creeper.

Curiously, The Creeper’s first appearance wasn’t in a horror film at all. It was in The Pearl of Death (1944), one of the Basil Rathbone-led Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Here, The Creeper is the muscle for criminal super-genius Giles Conover (Miles Mander), a mute brute who snaps backs like twigs. The Creeper’s on-screen role in the film is minor—his only scene of consequence also happens to be the last in the film—but Hatton’s broad silhouette is both distinctive and imposing, and his brutal methods make him easily the biggest threat in the entire film. The Creeper is, for crime film standards, scary. So scary, in fact, that Universal decided to shoot for him as their new monster.

The first of Universal’s true Creeper films, House of Horrors (1946), has nothing to do with The Pearl of Death nor Sherlock Holmes at all. Instead, the film is set in America, focusing on the life of Marcel De Lange (Martin Kosleck), a broke sculptor whose work gets ruthlessly savaged by local critics. After one particularly brutal takedown of his newest piece, he decides to throw himself in a river and end it all… until he sees a drowning man, and, in a brief moment of clarity, saves his life.

Unfortunately, this man is The Creeper. He’s not the same Creeper as the one in The Pearl of Death, but he’s close enough—a massive, violent beast of a man who breaks backs at the drop of a hat. House of Horrors tries to give him the slightest bit of extra character, but really, it’s a fruitless attempt. The Creeper’s new personality basically boils down to him being vaguely polite to De Lange, and then going out to snap backs every once and a while.

The Creeper’s killings start out unfocused and indiscriminate, but upon learning his savior and only friend is having a hard time with the critics, he’s given a new sense of purpose. Chalk it up to my profession, but I find something incredibly amusing about the critics in House of Horrors, a group of art-hating misanthropes hell-bent on destroying the lives of everyone who dares express themselves. One could reasonably make the argument that having the villains of the first two acts be scheming, wicked critics is lazy and petty, and there’s a good chance that they would be right—but at the same time, there’s something gleefully insane about a petty duel between crappy art critics and crappy artists reaching this level, almost like a significantly more restrained precursor to Theater of Blood.

It also helps that The Creeper’s murders are the best part of the film by a wide margin. The near-Poverty Row aesthetics of the film means the sets are rather disparate, and the visual style is carried entirely by shadows, à la Detour or Strangler of the Swamp. As The Creeper’s brief appearance in The Pearl of Death established, Rondo had one hell of a silhouette, and it’s put to great use whenever he stalks his targets, turning him into a moving shadow with occasionally visible hands. The cinematography may not be particularly stunning, but the lighting and Rondo’s form help make every single time he takes to the streets a real treat for the eyes.

Sadly, the wonderful kills lead right into the worst part of House of Horrors: the surrounding investigation of The Creeper. Plenty of horror films follow both the killer and the surrounding investigation, but few manage to be as disappointingly boring as House of Horrors, with dull, charmless detectives interrogating duller artists about the murders. Sure, there is some enjoyment to be found in just how far off the hapless detectives are for a good chunk of the movie, but for the most part, their whole storyline reeks of lazy padding meant to extend the film to its meager 65-minute runtime. You could cut them from the film entirely and all you’d lose is maybe fifteen minutes and some subpar dialogue.

Thankfully, Virginia Grey is there to balance everything out as the art critic turned snoop Joan Medford, who acts like she just walked out of a screwball comedy with well-placed barbs and welcome dark humor. Unfortunately, she is narratively useless to the film, adding nothing to the core story, investigation, or even main character dynamics. She exists outside of House of Horrors’ narrative peering in, and while she may be tacked on, she’s easily the most fun character to watch navigate the skeevy, murderous world of art criticism. It should be noted, though, that while she is great fun for the good majority of the film, the last 30 seconds of House of Horrors feature a conclusion for her so annoying that it will remind you why the film was made in the ’40s in all the worst ways.

Still, the core of House of Horrors is quite effective. The increasingly creepy Marcel plays well off Rondo’s flat-but-menacing Creeper, and the absurd portrait of the art world the movie paints is buckets of fun. It’s the core of the movie, and it’s just frustrating how little of it actually shines through. There’s a good heart to House of Horrors, but you’ve got to cut through a lot of fluff to get to it.

The Brute Man is a different, yet equally frustrating, beast. Released months after House of Horrors, The Brute Man acts like something of an origin story for The Creeper, showing his first murders and explaining his tragic past. It turns out that his real identity is Hal Moffat, a star college quarterback who was humiliated by his friends and burned by a faulty science experiment. Naturally, he seeks revenge. Despite predating the genre by over 30 years, The Brute Man is pure slasher 101, even more so than House of Horrors ever was.

For instance, The Brute Man seems to be driven entirely by murders. While House of Horrors certainly had their fair share of them, The Creeper is our POV character this time around, so almost the entire runtime is taken up by him either plotting a murder or carrying one out. While this would be an improvement in theory, in practice it becomes blisteringly obvious that The Creeper has no other methods for murder besides snapping backs off screen, and rarely do any of his victims get any sort of development before being coldly executed at The Creeper’s hands. There are more kills, sure, but they’re all shot and presented the same way, and with the exception of the demise of a wonderfully used fake-out protagonist, they’re all boring.

Things aren’t helped by the non-murder plot, focusing on The Creeper’s relationship with a blind woman named Helen (Jane Adams). She’s a far cry from the fun, tough Joan from House of Horrors, and instead plays the most passive role one could imagine in the film, being tricked by The Creeper and inadvertently getting him to regain confidence in himself. While this does draw out the “sympathetic monster” side to The Creeper, who later fights to get her a City Lights-style blindness cure, it’s not enough to distract from the fact that he is murdering anybody that gets in his path, and the miniscule running time (58 minutes!) means any chance of development is undermined when he inevitably murders someone again minutes later.

It’s really bizarre—as a rule of thumb, The Brute Man just feels like a complete inversion of House of Horrors. The Brute Man is too compressed, House of Horrors is too stretched. The Brute Man is overflowing with flat murders, House of Horrors has interesting murders. The Brute Man has a subpar female lead and passable detectives, House of Horror has a great female lead and grating detectives. Nearly everything The Brute Man does right is something House of Horrors did wrong, and vice-versa.

Needless to say, The Creeper movies aren’t very good, but they’re certainly fascinating. They’re relics of a rough period in Universal horror—cheaply made, sloppily assembled, and lacking any of the gothic romanticism that put the studio’s horror lineup on the map to begin with. Yet, there’s something to them that’s endlessly appealing: Rondo Hatton. He can’t act very well, and when out of the shadows he’s hardly terrifying, but he’s just so damn charming and fun to watch, and his obvious non-actor mannerisms help him stand out from most of the stale cast.

Unfortunately, House of Horrors and The Brute Man were the only Creeper films made before Rondo’s acromegaly claimed his life. Since then, there hasn’t been another trace of The Creeper, but Rondo’s legacy has lived on. Plenty of works have honored Rondo either in name (The Dark Tower VII) or via prosthetic cameo (The Rocketeer), and there’s even the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards, using The Creeper’s bust in House of Horrors as basis for their awards. He is, without a doubt, one of the most enthralling figures of Universal Horror’s later days, and he deserved much better than the films he got.

Next: Crypt of Curiosities: Towns That Dreaded Sundown