(3/10) Poverty Row studio PRC tried to ride the werewolf wave in 1942 with this Sam Newfield production starring Glenn Strange as a slouch hat-wearing monster and George Zucco as the zany scientist. Not the studio’s worst outing, but at 77 minutes it overstays its welcome.
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. IMDb score: 3.1/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
By 1942 there wasn’t a single studio in Hollywood making big-budget horror movies, and slowly but surely the genre was slipping down to Poverty Row. One of the small outfits that took horror and SF to its heart was Producers Releasing Corporation, or PRC, a studio that had been born through a merger of several independent producers in 1940. The Next Big Thing on the low-budget horror market at the time was werewolves, thanks to Universal’s success with The Wolf Man, released just before Christmas 1941. However, the problem with creating werewolves was that they required a certain level makeup prowess, resources and time to pull off, if you wanted to do even a passable job. So what most producers did was replace the werewolf with an ape, for the simple reasons that most studios already had a couple of those, and if they didn’t, there were seasoned ape actors who came their own suits. However, in May 1942 PRC decided not to beat about the bush and presented their very own werewolf movie, The Mad Monster.
The movie was filmed in only five days, but it had been in the pipeline for almost a year — in fact PRC announced it even before principal photography on The Wolf Man had begun. And it seems the studio thought of it as something of a flagship movie, as The Mad Monster was the longest film PRC ever made, at 77 minutes. In fact, it was the longest film ever produced by a Poverty Tow company during the time of the studio system. It was directed by legendary Z-movie director Sam Newfield, brother of PRC’s president Sigmund Neufeld, who also served in the capacity of producer. The werewolf makeup was created by PRC’s unsung makeup workhorse Harry Ross.
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 equipment (although there are a lot of bubbly beakers), he gives injections to his slow-witted mountain of a gardener Petro (Glenn Strange). The serum turns Petro 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 allow 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 for 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 halfway decent overlay transformation scene, Petro goes rampaging a couple of times in the countryside, 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. He is not, I must say, particularly scary, especially when some genius in the costume department decided to put him in a slouch hat. You really can’t be afraid of a werewolf wearing a slouch hat.
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”?
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 scientist 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 as form would demand, the movie ends in the same fashion as all mad scientist films.
The direction of The Mad Monster isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just uninterested, cheap and fast. Newfield and DP Jack 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.
But it certainly isn’t the worst of the Poverty Row cheapos of the forties. It benefits from not trying to do an outright Wolf Man ripoff, and completely forgoes the werewolf mythology set forth in that film. It occasionally manages to build up some decent atmosphere. Glenn Strange was no great character actor, but it is hard not to feel for the dumb brute in this film. Strange was, in a way, riding the coat tails of another dumb brute, Lon Chaney Jr., and as the hapless gardener he does his best version of Chaney’s breakout role Lenny in Of Mice and Men from 1939. He is one of the highlights of the film, as he just tries so damn sincerely to create a decent performance of his biggest role to date. Zucco tries desperately to hold the film together, and both Anne Nagel and Johnny Downs are quite good, if completely redundant in their roles as leading couple, having little to occupy themselves with on screen.
The Mad Monster has a a 3.3/10 rating at IMDb, which is very low by the platform’s standards. For example, none of Bela Lugosi’s Monogram movies have a rating of less than 4, and these include The Corpse Vanishes (1942, review) and The Ape Man (1943). Of course, this discrepancy can be explained by the fact that George Zucco and Glenn Strange don’t have the same kind of fan following as Lugosi does. However, there are many modern reviewers that will not take it. TV Guide, Films in Boxes and At-A-Glance Film Reviews all give The Mad Monster 1/5 stars. TV Guide writes: “the production values are nil and the plot and action are very silly, but the cast can still be a lot of fun to watch”. At-A-Glance has a two-word review: “Werewolf inanity”.
Hans J. Wollstein at AllMovie goes half a notch higher, giving the film 1.5/5 stars, and Derek Winnert awards it with 2/5 stars. Geoff Rosengren at The Telltale Mind goes as far as giving it a full 3/5 stars. Wollstein writes that “the claustrophobic feeling of a small sound stage actually adds to the film’s ambience”, and that “everyone involved with The Mad Monster, including director Sam Newfield, had done worse”. Rosengren has the audacity to compare the movie to the early Frankenstein films, writing that it “may not sit on the same level, but it does what it has to in order to keep you watching and thankfully, it worked on every level”.
Such is the movie that it was one that got the famous MST3K treatment. Roman J. Martel at Roman’s Reviews writes: “The main issue with the movie is that it’s slow, really damn slow. It clocks in at 77 minutes, but it takes so long to do anything that you’ll think the movie is three hours long. […] Now at the best of times Newfield can make competent films, but his work has appeared on MST3K numerous times for a reason. Here there are endless walking scenes, endless scenes of Petro standing around looking constipated, and scenes of Dr. Cameron looking out a window with various expressions on his face. Just odd. There’s no tension, no horror, no fun to be had.”
Still, Andre Solnikkar gives the film some slack at Medium: “Jack Greenhalgh’s photography, while perfunctory in most dialogue scenes, makes the film look better than it perhaps deserves. He offers some atmospheric images, the fog-drenched swamp scenery is impressive in its dime store way, and Greenhalgh even manages a genuinely scary shot or two. As a matter of fact, a few moments are done so well that, were there more of them, The Mad Monster might have turned into a little gem.”
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. Lionel Atwill was already in the game, and he would soon have company by John Carradine and J. Carrol Naish. Like Atwill, Zucco was a veteran of the stage and a respected character actor, but also like Atwill, Zucco saw his job opportunities dwindling and found himself in demand more in B-movies than A-class productions. And of the famous mad scientists of the era, Zucco is perhaps the one that seems most out of place, even if he didn’t let it affect his performances.
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), House of Dracula (1945) 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.
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), 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, review). Nagel, once again, proves to be a good actress as she brings a bit of common sense and natural 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.
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) and Lost Continent (1951).
So what to take away from all this? Well, it would seem to depend largely on personal taste. There are those who feel that The Mad Monster transcends it low budget and even challenges some of the better Universal horror, other thinks it’s a complete stinker from beginning to end. I certainly think the movie has enough going for it that it doesn’t stink, but the thing with a movie this bad is that it has to be fun to watch, and this one just doesn’t do it for me — it’s too slow and too long and way too obvious. I like some of the atmospheric photography, I like Glenn Strange, I think the film is halfway competently made. But it’s just not enough.
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.