(4/10) J. Carroll Naish is the mad scientist in this 1944 low budget effort from Poverty Row outfit PRC, a man trying to win the affections of a woman by infecting her father with the deforming syndrome acromegaly. If you can get past the gruesome premise, it’s a pretty decent horror SF programmer with unusually good performances.
The Monster Maker. 1944, USA. Directed by Sam Newfield. Written by Larry Williams, Pierre Gendron, Martin Mooney, Nell O’Day. Starring: J. Carrol Naish, Ralph Morgan, Tala Birell, Wanda McKay, Terry Frost, Glenn Strange. Produced by Sigmund Neufeld. IMDb: 4.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
This is one of those lower-than-low budget mad scientist films that were made in the forties, one feels, simply to fill a film-shaped hole in a program. But this isn’t the shittiest of the bunch, and it has its moments, even a small twinkle of originality attached to it. And it stars J. Carrol Naish as a mad scientist, so that’s reason enough to watch it.
What one often forgets while reviewing these mad scientist films with Naish as ape men and hunchbacks, is that the man was nominated for Oscars for best supporting roles twice. One such instance was in a 1945 film called A Medal for Benny, which no-one today remembers, but the other was for the lauded 1943 war drama Sahara, starring a Humphrey Bogart at the height of his fame, and directed by Zoltan Korda, one of the three Hungarian Korda brothers who took British film industry – and Hollywood – by storm in the thirties and forties. So that’s the kind of mad doctor we are dealing with here.
The story – briefly – is this: A possessed scientist called Dr. Igor Markoff (Naish) falls madly in love with a young woman called Patricia Lawrence (Wanda McKay) because of her uncanny resemblance to his late wife, and starts courting her. Because Dr. Markoff is seriously creepy she asks him to stand off, first politely, and then by sending in her father, the famous pianist Anthony Lawrence (Ralph Morgan) to ask the bugger to bugger off. But to no avail.
This is: Markoff is a specialist in a rare hormonal disorder called acromegaly (a real disorder, although exaggerated in the film). The disease basically doesn’t allow certain facial features and and hands and feet to stop growing when the rest of your body reaches maturity. It is caused by a malfunction in the pituitary gland – a gland that was all the rage in horror films at the time. It may also mess with vital organs, such as the heart. It does not, however, make you look like the elephant man, which is how it is described in the film. It is sometimes connected with gigantism, and you may know some people afflicted by the disorder from films, show wrestling and real contact sports, such as André the Giant, The Great Khali, Richard ”Jaws” Kiel and Ted Cassidy. There was an actor called Rondo Hatton who made something of a name for himself in the forties as a villain in B films because of his strange appearance, which is where the filmmakers may have gotten their idea from.
Anyway: Searching for a cure for the disorder, Markoff has found a way to induce it and advance it at a rapid pace, but not yet a cure. He secretly gives Lawrence (the father) an injection that basically turns him into the elephant man – and what worse: his swollen hands won’t allow him to play the piano. After hiding in his room for weeks, Lawrence finally seeks out Markoff, who has during the course of the film actually found a cure – and now tries to blackmail Lawrence: the cure for the daughter. In rage, Lawrence refuses and gets tied down to a bed.
All the while, Patricia Lawrence and her boyfriend Bob Blake (Terry Frost) try to put two and two together and fail to realise that Dr. Markoff is up to no good. There is also Markoff’s assistant Maxine (Tala Birell), that for some reason that, completely beyond anyone’s understanding, is madly in love with Markoff. This is while she is full aware of the fact that Markoff’s wife committed suicide after Markoff in his jealousy inflicted her with acromegaly so that no other man would look at her. When she finally protests against his hideous act against Lawrence, she shouts a bit and then goes up to her room to sleep (yes all assistants to mad scientists are required to live in the mad doctors’ mansions). Markoff then sets his gorilla to kill her in the night. Yes there is also a gorilla. It appears in this one short scene, and is chased away by Rex the Wonder Dog. Yes, that was the dog’s real name. It was almost as famous as Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. This exciting scene of the dog chasing off the gorilla naturally happens off-screen, and the gorilla is never seen again. Despite the fact that the professor tried to kill her, Maxine dutifully goes right back to sleep, and when she wakes up the next morning, the two simply carry on as if nothing happened. It’s like someone during production thought that the film needed a bit more action (which it does), and then simply slapped on the gorilla scene, but didn’t bother to change the rest of the script.
Finally Patricia and Bob manage to make two and two four, and set out to confront Markoff – and of course the father protests wildly. But somehow the message doesn’t get through to Markoff, although one does wonder what he thought was his next game plan. First of all – even in the forties fathers in America hardly arranged their daughters’ weddings (I hope). Second – does Markoff really think that Lawrence would somehow convince his daughter to marry a monster, just to get to spend his last silver days playing the piano? And even if he would, does Markoff actually think that the father could somehow convince her – a clearly strong-headed and independent woman – to marry this man that she clearly finds scary and repulsive? Well, let’s give him the benefit of a doubt – he is mad after all. Anyway, in the end (without giving away too many spoilers), Maxine plays an important role and all’s well that ends well.
Battling out who made the worst horror films of the forties were Poverty Row studios Monogram and Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Both studios also used two of the most notorious quick-shooters of the era, Sam Newfield and William ”One-Shot” Beaudine, known for their expert skill in using as little time and money as possible to get films done, sometimes not caring too much about the end result. This time around it was Sam Newfield at the helm.
Sam Newfield 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 (1942, review) 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 (1936, review), are utter crap. Newfield’s forays into sci-fi generally tend towards the latter category, the other ones being The Mad Monster and Lost Continent (1951).
The low budget isn’t necessarily a problem in this movie, as Newfield keeps it fairly tight. We generally never see an outside shot, so the film was probably filmed in a single studio, or perhaps multiple studios, as was sometimes the case, when penny-pinched companies had to squeeze in at vacant facilities between other films and be gone the next day. And while the lack of anything resembling interesting sets and visuals do betray the low-budget nature of the film, within its given restraints, it holds up well – i.e. we don’t get the rubber bats of The Devil Bat (1941, review). Even the absurd acromegaly makeup looks pretty good – as in well made. In fact, makeup artist Maurice Seiderman worked on such diverse projects as Citizen Kane in 1941 and They Stole Hitler’s Brain in 1968.
Now, about that makeup, though. There are critics that have taken offense not only by how acromegaly is misdepicted in the film, but the fact that the filmmakers choose to take an actual disorder and present the sufferer as a ”monster”. Others simply find the practice of exploiting other people’s suffering for profit outright wrong. One of these is renowned film historian Tom Weaver, calling the film “a gruesome and slightly unpleasant horror entry” in his book Poverty Row Horrors: “Obviously, seeing their affliction being treated in this light probably does very little for the morale of real-life sufferers, just as the film, plodding and nasty, sizes up as a disappointment for many horror film fanciers”. Another accuser is Matthew Foster at Foster on Film, giving the movie a 1/10 star review: “When a movie is this unpalatable, it needs some importance message, some insight into the human condition. None are to be had. For its brief sixty-two minute running time, the audience is supposed to wallow in the ‘joy’ of watching an insane scientist give a disfiguring disease to a kind, elderly man. I’m missing the fun here.”.
And that’s an opinion I can absolutely understand, even though I didn’t even consider it while watching the film. But although I can see how someone would be angered at how the symptoms of the ailment is exaggerated, there is nothing in the film that actually points to the sufferer being a “monster”. First of all, the only time Lawrence is referred to as a monster is by himself, when he calls Markoff a Frankenstein and himself a monster – and in the title. In fact, he is never depicted as a monster in the movie. Instead, he is more or less the hero of the film, and the only person in the movie with some actual moral backbone. He is the one who steps in when the daughter doesn’t have the guts to tell Markoff off once and for all. He is the one that is adamant not to bother his daughter with his misery. He doesn’t even blink when the choice comes between saving himself and giving up his daughter to a madman. Even the good-hearted nurse/assistant goes along with Markoff’s evil plan, first because she is in love with him and later out of fear and seemingly some misplaced notion of loyalty. She could have just phoned the police. Secondly, while the symptoms of the disorder are exaggerated for dramatic effect, the movie makes it very clear that we are not talking about the natural progression of acromegaly, but in fact a supercharged version created in a lab.
While I do see how one might take offense over the idea, I think the film itself does nothing to demean the sufferers of the disorder or belittle the suffering the go through. But I do not suffer from it myself, so who am I to judge? (And while I use the word ”suffer” it is also true that many inflicted live very normal and happy lives until the disorder starts messing with the vital organs at a later stage.) My point is perhaps that I don’t really understand why some reviewers have problems with this specific film, but are quite happy to ignore many similar and worse stereotypings and misrepresentations in other movies.
This does not necessarily make for a good movie, though, and even critics who take no offense to the acromegaly angle give The Monster Maker uniformly low ratings. Richard Scheib at Moria gives it 2/5 stars, calling it a “dully photographed and directed … routine poverty row mad scientist effort”. With the same rating, Mitch Lovell at The Video Vacuum calls it “just like dozens of other mad scientist movies from Poverty Row studio PRC”. AllMovie gives the film 1,5/2 stars, and Hal Erickson writes: “Though the film is as lumpy and unconvincing as Lawrence’s rubbery facial makeup, the flawless performances of those old barnstormers J. Carroll Naish and Ralph Morgan carry the day”. Still, some critics are at least mildly amused. While giving it only 2/5 stars, Derek Winnert writes: “Based on a fairly twisted premise, this shocker succeeds in creating a disturbing vision of inhumanity with the help of intense direction and a focused performance by Naish“. Brian Schuck at Films From Beyond the Time Barrier likewise praises the acting, writing: “Distasteful or not, The Monster Maker is rescued from its poverty row production values by the two male leads”. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings adds: “One thing that came to mind while watching this movie is that whatever you can say about the cheapness of the production, PRC certainly cared a lot more about their horror product than Monogram. I found you can take their movies quite seriously, where all too often the Monogram movies were jokey and campy. The acromegaly angle makes this movie tasteless to some, but I quite like it; the story and the performances hold my interest throughout.”. Finally there is Geoff Rosengren at The Telltale Mind, giving The Monster Maker 3/5 stars, calling it “a good film, a fun one even for those that enjoy B films made on the cheap”.
The writers of The Monster Maker are all studio hacks, none of them with any great movies to their names, and as explained above, this shows in the script, which seems to have been cobbled together in a rush to remedy the fact that PRC hadn’t put out a horror film in 17 months. Disregarding the inconsistencies, the badly written dialogue and the hilariously illogical way in which everyone acts, the film is simply too drawn out. There is not much in the way of either suspense, action or mystery in the movie, nor is there much of extra value in the visuals or the direction. As stated earlier, though, the make-up is holds up to scrutiny and Newfield’s direction is at least professional. But things just drag on too long. The plot might have lent itself to a 20 minute serial entry, but isn’t enough to carry even the one hour film.
The redeeming quality of the movie is indeed the acting. Naish never disappoints, and his Dr. Markoff is actually one of the better portraits of a mad scientist of the forties, as he does his best to overcome insufficiencies of the script. Equally good is veteran Ralph Morgan as the ”monster” of the title. Morgan had a good run in small parts, often as a villain, in a number of reasonably well-known films in the thirties, such as Rasputin and the Emperess (1932), The Kennel Murder Case (1933, directed by Michael Curtiz) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937, directed by William Dieterle). Morgan, born Raphael Kühner Wupperman, was the son of a wealthy businessman (he distributed Angostura bitters in the US) but after law school he took up stage acting, and was soon shocked by the lack of regulation protecting actors’ rights. He served as president of Actors’ Equity in the twenties, and after his transition to the screen, he co-founded the Screen Actors Guild, for which he also served as president for three terms. He received an honorary Oscar for his work with the guild in 1940, and the guild now gives out a price in his name. His brother Frank is the better known of the two actors, because of his seminal role as the titular Wizard of Oz in the 1939 classic. Ralph’s screen career was slowly waning in the 1940s, although some readers may know him for his portrayal of a villainous doctor in the 1942 serial Gang Busters. He made a few other horror and mystery films with actors like Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi in the early forties, but The Monster Maker was his only foray into sci-fi, along with the 1945 serial The Monster and the Ape.
Just as good as the above mentioned actors is Tala Birell as Maxine, Dr. Markoff’s assistant. Birell brings some weight and real emotion to what might well have been just a throwaway role in the wrong hands. The Hungarian actress (born Nathalie Bierl) was no longer a spring chicken in 1944: she rose to fame as a star of the legendary Max Reinhardt company in Berlin in the Twenties and starred in a few German films (none that you would know) before being brought to Hollywood in the early Thirties, when studios were flying in European actresses by the dozen, looking for the new Greta Garbo. Despite a number of leading roles in major studio B movies and Josef von Sternberg’s well-regarded Dostoyevsky-adaptation Crime and Punishment (1935), the big break eluded her, and to contemporary audiences she may be best known for her small roles in the classics Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Song of Bernadette (1943). After a few years off screen, her career did, however, pick up some steam in 1942 when WWII gave rise to a huge demand for European actors in Hollywood, and thanks to Birell’s upbringing in Germany, she was often cast in anti-Nazi propaganda films or other Nazi-themed movies, mostly in smaller parts. Best known of these are probably the 1943 propaganda movie Women in Bondage (which despite its lurid name is not an early sexploitation film, but a film about forced marriage in Nazi Germany) and the 1945 serial Jungle Queen. She quit her film career in 1948 and moved to Germany, where she was put in charge for organising theatre shows for US troops stationed there. She did, however, turn up in two American TV series in 1953 and 1955, respectively: The Orient Express and the short-lived Flash Gordon series starring Steve Holland. In the episode Death in the Negative, she starred as the evil Queen of Cygnii.
Wanda McKay turns in a nondescript effort as Patricia Lawrence, the object of Dr. Markoff’s affections. McKay (born Dorothy Quackenbush), as so many starlets of Poverty Row, had a background in modelling rather than acting, and unfortunately it shows. She first won a contract with Paramount in 1938 after being chosen as Miss American Aviation, but mostly got uncredited bit-parts. In 1940 she moved down the studio ladder a notch to Columbia, which resulted in small, but credited, parts in a few westerns. She finally took her career to Poverty Row, where she finally got leading lady roles, but of course these were all in cheapos like The Monster Maker.
In the role of boyfriend Bob Blake we see the completely unknown, but very prolific, Terry Frost, who appeared in over 230 films, serials or TV shows between the Forties and the Sixties. He mostly played uncredited bit parts or small roles, as he did in the serials Batman (1943, review), Captain America (1944, review), Superman (1948), Bruce Gentry (1949), Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), Mysterious Island, Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (both 1951) and The Lost Planet (1953). He turned up in an uncredited role as a policeman in The Creature with the Atom Brain in 1955, appeared on the Adventures of Superman TV show in 1953 and 1957 and in the TV show Science Fiction Theatre as Deputy Terry in the episode Killer Tree in 1957.
True horror fans will recognise the name Glenn Strange, the huge man who played monsters in a number of B movies in the forties, and even shouldered the role of the Frankenstein monster in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945, review). In this film Strange is demoted to evil henchman with very little to do, and doesn’t make much of an impression. In the role of Lawrence’s butler we see Alexander Pollard, who made a whole career out of playing butlers, waiters and valets, including The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review) – you can even spot him as a croupier in Casablanca (1942). Sam Flint in the small role as the helpful Dr. Adams was a character actor (not) known from numerous westerns and crime dramas. He also had a few bit-parts in the sci-fi tinged serials The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938, review), Batman (1943, review), The Masked Marvel (1943) and the sci-fi movie Red Planet Mars (1952). He also made a show in the Adventures of Superman TV series in 1952 and 1953. The small role of the gorilla is played by ape suit legend, stunt man and actor Ray ”Crash” Corrigan.
Art director Paul Palmentola thoroughly acquainted himself with B-movie sci-fi over the years to come. He moved to serial making, designing sets for Brick Bradford (1947), Superman (1948), Bruce Gentry, Batman and Robin (both 1949), Atom Man vs. Superman (1951), Mysterious Island (1952), Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere, The Lost Planet (both 1953) and Adventures of Captain Africa, Mighty Jungle Avenger! (1954). He then turned to films like It Came from Beneath the Sea, Creature with the Atom Brain (both 1955), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), and last but not least The Giant Claw (1957).
Composer Albert Glasser was as prolific a composer as Sam Newfield was as a director. IMDb credits him for over 100 film compositions and over 100 as part of the music department, and legend has it that there are several more out there that he is not credited for. His playing ground was strictly restricted to B movies, including The Neanderthal Man (1953), Indestructible Man (1956), Monster from Green Hell (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Earth vs the Spider (1958).
All in all, a cheaply but professionally made mad scientist film that is worth viewing for some originality. The setup is fairly unoriginal: mad scientist turns person into monster over love after good intentions turn sour + gorilla + Eastern European villain + beautiful woman who does nothing + J. Carroll Naish + Glenn Strange. But even so, what is a bit different here is that the ”monster” is in fact not feared by anyone, nor is it malicious, but actually the hero of the piece. Unfortunately the script has many flaws, as mentioned earlier, the biggest one is that very little actually happens in this over-long yawner. Good for one view as a novelty.
The Monster Maker. Directed by Sam Newfield. Written by Larry Williams, Pierre Gendron, Martin Mooney, Nell O’Day. Starring: J. Carrol Naish, Ralph Morgan, Tala Birell, Wanda McKay, Terry Frost, Glenn Strange, Alexander Pollard, Sam Flint, Ray ”Crash” Corrigan, Ace the Wonder Dog. Music: Albert Glasser. Cinematography: Robert E. Cline. Editing: Holbrook N. Todd. Makeup: Maurice Seiderman. Art designer: Paul Palmentola. Sound: Ferrol Redd. Produced by Sigmund Neufeld for Producers Releasing Corporation.