The Mad Monster

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ 

(2/10) In a nutshell: George Zucco makes an early outing as a mad scientist, and Glenn Strange does his first monster in this cheap Poverty Row werewolf film directed by Sam Newfield in 1942. Although shot in only five days with a bad script and cheap sets, it narrowly avoids the list of awful movies thanks to the performances and some atmosphere.

The Mad Monster. 1942, USA. Directed by Sam Newfied. Written by Fred Myton. Starring: George Zucco, Glenn Strange, Anne Nagel, Johnny Downs. Produced by Sigmund Neufeld for PRC. IMDb score: 3.1

Poster for The Mad Monster, with Glenn Strange and Anne Nagel.

Poster for The Mad Monster, with Glenn Strange and Anne Nagel.

After the release of Universal’s Frankenstein (1931, review) and The Invisible Man (1933, review) and Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls (1932, review), Hollywood was flooded by mad scientist films, and the trend accelerated rather than waned in the early forties. Shape-shifting monsters were a staple thanks to several filmatisations of the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, including a high-profile version by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941, starring Dick Tracy and Ingrid Bergman. Their popularity was boosted by Universal’s release of The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941, and throughout the forties many studios started churning out films concerning man-beasts, not irregularly with a transformation caused by a mad scientist. Few of the Poverty Row studios, however, took the route of the werewolf, perhaps because creating a believable werewolf makeup required talent and resources that these studios simply didn’t have. One exception was The Mad Monster, made by Producers Releasing Company (PRC) in 1942, just six months after the release of The Wolf Man – it remained Poverty Row’s only werewolf film, perhaps because the abysmal result discouraged others to follow the same path.

Poster.

Poster.

The star ratings on IMDb have to be taken with a grain of salt thanks to the user-generated nature of the site. Ratings tend to form a cluster between 8 and 5 stars, pretty much regardless of the actual quality of the film. As a rule, more obscure films almost often get a rating around 2 points above what they are actually entitled to because they are mainly rated by die-hard fans of a certain genre. Thus follows that such crapshoots as Ghost Patrol (1936, review) and Sky Racket (1937, review), that both landed on my list of awful movies, have an IMDb rating of 4,6. The cheap rubber bat/Bela Lugosi film The Devil Bat (1940, review), which I gave 3 stars, rates as 5,4 on IMDb. Then it should be a warning sign of epic proportions that PRC’s The Mad Monster only has been able to stack up 3,1 stars on IMDb.

So what’s it all about then? Well, this was in fact the same company that made The Devil Bat, a film that trodded along nicely thanks to some good comedy and a Bela Lugosi in splendid form. On the other hand it was directed by Sam Newfield, brother of PRC’s president Sigmund Neufeld. Newfield was the director of the above mentioned crapshoot Ghost Patrol. In typical PRC and Newfield fashion, The Mad Monster was filmed in five days.

George Zucco as the mad scientist.

George Zucco as the mad scientist.

The film follows the mad scientist Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco) who experiments with blood transfusions between men and beasts. In a tiny lab devoid of even the most basic mad scientist ecquipment, he gives injections to his slow-witted mountain of a gardener Petro (Glenn Strange). The serum turns him into a werewolf with one instinct alone: to kill. Petro, a gentle, mild-mannered child in a bodybuilder’s frame, remembers nothing of his fits when he wakes up again.

In one of the mad scientist genre’s most contrived scenes, Cameron lays out the exposition in an imaginary debate with his former colleagues, that turn up as translucent figures around his lab table, and allows him to explain to the audience his backstory and motivation. He has been shunned by these four scientists for his crazy ideas of making super-soldiers for combating Nazis in WWII. Now he intends to give the werewolf serum to the American government and create an army of werewolves fighting what will without doubt be Zombie Nazis from the Moon (I’d watch that film). But before gaining his wealth and fame, he will risk all he has worked in a crazy scheme to make Petro kill the scientists that had scorned him. Because he is a mad scientist, that’s why.

After a really bad overlay transformation scene, that shows up only once in the film, thankfully, Petro goes rampaging a couple of times in the countryside, and a forest made up of potted plants presumably left over from some jungle adventure film, killing people at random. Petro as a werewolf is basically still dim-witted Petro, but now a bit hairier and with fangs, and he walks around saying ”Arr. Arr”, more like a pirate than a killer beast. There is nothing scary about him, especially when he for a long stretch wears a slouching hat. You really can’t be afraid of a werewolf wearing a hat.

Really. How could you be afraid of this. You want to cuddle it.

Really. How could you be afraid of this. You want to cuddle it.

It also turns out that the only way Cameron can control the beast is with a bull whip. And that is something that often strikes me with these films. These scientists dream of creating armies of monsters, but don’t seem to take any consideration of how they would actually control such monsters. When they hardly can seem to control one dim-witted gardener, what on earth would they do with thousands of these? This also leads to the fact that Cameron can’t first turn Petro into a werewolf, and then set him on the rival scientists. Since he has no control over it, he must first get the unchanged Petro in the same room with the scientists, then give him one injection, then flee the scene of the crime, then get the other scientist to give Petro the other injection, and then have him wait for the transformation, and then finally Petro can kill him. What were they going to do with the Nazis? Hand them thousands of men and syringes and say ”OK, now you give these guys the final injections, while we bugger off, have a nice day”?

Johnny Downs, Glenn Strange and Ann Nagel.

Johnny Downs, Glenn Strange and Ann Nagel.

And we also have – as form would demand – the mad scientist’s young daughter Lenora (Anne Nagel). As form would demand, this adult woman is completely enslaved under her father’s will and is forced to live with him in his reclusive mad scienist mansion. And as form would have it, she is also completely devoted to him, even after he throws her boyfriend out as soon as he sets foot at the premise. Yes, as form would demand we also have a boyfriend, who is, as form would demand, a reporter who turns out to be the hero of the story, even though he doesn’t really do anything else than finally put two and two together, something the poor Lenora hasn’t been able to do for all this time. She really is even more dim-witted than Petro. And I suppose I don’t have to tell you how it all ends.

Now, that's a mad scientist.

Now, that’s a mad scientist.

George Zucco was one of the actors that took up the reins when Boris Karloff started to try to veer away from mad scientist roles, and studios started to veer away from Bela Lugosi’s substance abuse and increasingly bad performances. Lionel Atwill was already in the game, and he would soon have company by John Carradine and J. Carrol Naish. Some people consider Zucco to be the best of these, thanks to his crazy histrionics combined with some actual acting talent. Zucco had a dignity that often had him cast as judges or professors, and could also call upon a certain warmth making him good for grandfatherly roles. But when his shrill, high voice started commanding werewolfs and condemning fellow scientists, he was mad as a hatter. He started his horror career in the late thirties, and this was his second sci-fi mad doctor role after The Monster and the Girl (1941). Zucco gives his best shot in this film, but the script by Fred Myton (best known for the 1944 jungle adventure Nabonga) is just too bad for him to make anything of.

Glenn Strange in Gunsmoke.

Glenn Strange in Gunsmoke.

Glenn Strange was a mountain of a man, standing nearly 2 meters (6,5 ft) tall, who was originally not cast in films because of his frame, but his musicality, as he was part of a western radio music group called Arizona Wranglers. As they would occasionally perform in western films and serials in the thirties, Strange soon found himself as an extra because of his physique. Although most of his over 300 films and series outings are westerns, he got his first taste of sci-fi in Universal’s smash hit serial Flash Gordon (1936, review), where he played various soldiers and henchmen. The Mad Monster was his first horror film and his first as a monster, and he was soon picked up as the next Frankenstein monster in House of Frankenstein (1944, review), House of Dracula (1945, review) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Frankenstein Monster (1948). Apart from a guest spot in the TV series Space Patrol in 1952, these were his only sci-fi performances. Apart from his role as the Frankenstein monster, he is perhaps best known for playing bartender Sam Noonan for 12 years on the TV series Gunsmoke. Strange was no great character actor, but it is hard not to feel for the dumb brute in this film, as he does his best version of Lenny in Of Mice and Men. But it comes off as way too amateurish, and as mentioned earlier, he is hardly intimidating as the werewolf. He is, nonetheless, one of the highlights of the film, as he just tries so damn sincerely to create a decent performance of what must have been his biggest role to date.

Ann Nagel.

Ann Nagel.

Anne Nagel had a fairly long and moderately successful career as far as female B actresses go. She appeared in almost ninety films over a period of 25 years, including the female lead in the serial The Green Hornet (1940, review), as well as opposite Lon Chaney Jr. in Man Made Monster (1941, review), a supporting role as a model in The Invisible Woman (1940, review), and in The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942). Nagel, once again, proves to be a good actress as she brings a bit of common sense and naturalistic behaviour into the film, but as is often the case with these movies, the female lead is tacked on as a damsel in distress and romantic interest without much consequence for the story.

Johnny Downs as Tom the reporter leading man was a vaudeville performer turned film actor. The Mad Monster is his best known film, which should tell you all you need to know about his career. In later life he had a decent run as the host of a local San Diego TV network’s children’s show, and then turned to real estate. I watched The Mad Monster yesterday and honestly can’t say anything informative about his performance. I think he was decent.

In a small role as a little girl’s mother we see Mae Busch, an actress with a rollercoaster career, whom we’ve seen earlier as a brothel keeper in Doctor X (1932, review).

Sam Newfield.

Sam Newfield.

Sam Newfield was the Roger Corman of the thirties and forties, known for making films fast and cheap. In fact he sometimes made so many films for PRC that he had to be credited with a pseudonym to make it look like he spent more time making his movies. He is credited for directing over 200 films, serials or series between 1933 and 1952 – that’s 200 in 19 years. And when among these 200 films The Mad Monster turns up as one of his best known films, that’s the kind of director we are talking about. Other Newfield classics are I Accuse My Parents, The Terror of Tiny Town and Dead Men Walk. Most of them were westerns, but he dabbled in basically all genres, although sci-fi wasn’t one of his favourite ones. Some of his films were quite adequate, especially his work on TV-series like Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion (1955, with Buster Crabbe of Flash Gordon fame) and Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans (1957, starring Lon Chaney Jr.) are well regarded. Other, like Ghost Patrol, are utter crap. Newfield’s forays into sci-fi generally tend towards the latter category, the other ones being The Mad Monster, The Monster Maker (1944, review) and Lost Continent (1951).

None of the rest of the team are really worthy of special mention, as most worked exclusively on Poverty Row cheapos. Cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh filmed Robot Monster in 1953, generally considered as one of the worst sci-fi films ever made.

Glenn Strange and Anne Nagel.

Glenn Strange and Anne Nagel.

The direction of The Mad Monster isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just uninterested, cheap and fast. Newfield and Greenhalgh simply put up the cameras and say ”action”. Everything is static, often just people in wide shots in a room talking, cutting to and from a few close-ups, and that’s it. The visual extravaganzas consist of that one transformation scene, a few pans and a couple of tracking shots of Strange among the potted plants. As one reviewer put it: the sets are cheap, the actors are cheap, the direction is cheap, the script is cheap and the music, where it is present, is cheap. It’s a cheap movie. However, some devilish voice within me restrains me from putting this film on my list of awful movies. Perhaps it is the fact that George Zucco and Glenn Strange prevent this film from falling apart with their sincere performances. Perhaps it is that compared to Ghost Patrol, this film actually has a plot and some atmospheric shots. Somehow I don’t see this completely at the bottom of the heap, so it avoids the list, but just barely.

The Mad Monster. 1942, USA. Directed by Sam Newfied. Written by Fred Myton. Starring: George Zucco, Glenn Strange, Anne Nagel, Johnny Downs, Sarah Padden, Gordon De Main, Mae Busch, Reginald Barlow, Robert Strange, Henry Hall, Ed Cassidy, Eddie Holden, John Elliott, Slim Whitaker, Gil Patric. Music: David Chudnow. Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh. Editing: Holbrook N. Todd, Art direction: Fred Breble. Makeup: Harry Ross. Production manager: Bert Sternbach. Assistant director: Melville De Lay. Sound: Hans Weeren. Special effects: Eugene C. Stone. Produced by Sigmund Neufeld for PRC.

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