Tuesday, October 26

The Mad Monster

I've been watching a ton of films featuring mad scientists lately, as that was my theme for this year's Halloween countdown on YouTube. Mad scientists were all the rage in the early days of science fiction films. There are more mad scientist pictures throughout the 30s and early 40s than you can shake a test tube at. Universal Studios released their own fair share of them during this time, most notably the Frankenstein series of films, as well as other mad science features like The Invisible Ray and Man Made Monster. In 1941 Universal also released a very different type of monster movie that would become a smash hit... The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. The movie in this week's review is from a rival studio, one of the lesser ones... PRC... and it was their own low-budget attempt to capitalize on both of these genres - mad science and werewolves - mashed into one picture, with THE MAD MONSTER.

George Zucco stars as Dr. Lorenzo Cameron, a scientist with a chip on his shoulder towards a group of colleagues and fellow scientists who scoffed at his work, called him mad, had him barred from the University where he was employed, and discredited him in the press. 

He was working on controversial theories of science and evolution at the time and has since continued these studies, using his simple-minded handyman Petro (Glenn Strange) as a test subject. He gives Petro injections of a catalytic agent derived from wolf blood that turns him into a snarling werewolf. He then invites each of his nemesis to his lab for a firsthand – and deadly – look at his “mad” theories in practice. Petro has no recollections of his transformations afterward, or the monstrous deeds he performs while in his animalistic state.

Anne Nagel plays the good doctor's daughter, Lenora, oblivious to his work and mad scheme. Johnny Downs plays her boyfriend reporter who suspects her father’s involvement in the unusual string of deaths of scientists.

The Mad Monster was directed by Sam Neufeld in 1942 for PRC (Producer's Releasing Corporation). This black and white poverty row chiller feels very low-budget across the board, and a bit dated, mostly due to the clunky soundtrack, which is very much a product of its time. Despite this, the film is fairly entertaining throughout, mostly due to the quick runtime (77 minutes) - but it could still stand to have 5-10 minutes cut just to tighten it up a bit. 

The makeup for the werewolf in this one consists mainly of wig, beard, and fangs – but it's still effective, and his costume is unique, resembling a hillbilly werewolf in overalls and floppy work hat. Glenn Strange’s size makes him an imposing, hulking brute of a beast – which of course made him perfect to play the Frankenstein Monster two years later, in 1944’s House of Frankenstein.

The Mad Monster
is very similar to another mad science film that came out one year prior (1941) - Man Made Monster. In both a somewhat slow, simple man is taken advantage of by a mad scientist, used as a guinea pig, and turned into a monster with the ultimate goal of creating an army of super-powered soldiers. Anne Nagel stared in both films as the daughter of a scientist and has a reporter boyfriend in each as well. 

This film also plays very much like a mash-up of two Lon Chaney Jr. films: the aforementioned Man Made Monster and The Wolf Man, which was also released in 1941. To top it all off Glenn Strange seems to be very much channeling Chaney’s performance as Lennie from Of Mice and Men (1939) in this role as well. There's no doubt in my mind one of the producers of this film was a Chaney fan!

Director Sam Newfeld would go on to direct four films starring good ole George Zucco, all science fiction schlockers from PRC - The Mad Monster (1942), Dead Men Walk (1943), The Black Raven (1943), and The Flying Serpent (1946). George Zucco was definitely their "guy" there at PRC.

Speaking of Zucco, the role of a mad scientist seems custom-made for him. He brings an intensity to his performance that is perfect for the part. The sets and backgrounds in this one feature the standard mad science trappings of bubbling beakers and fluid-filled flasks, housed within the castle-like stone walls of his laboratory. What kind of mad doctor would he be otherwise?

The Mad Monster was re-released in theaters in 1945 on a double-bill with The Devil Bat starring Bela Lugosi. These films pair perfectly as each features a mad scientist taking revenge on their former colleagues through elaborate mad schemes. That would have been a great double-feature, especially in drive-in theaters - hell, I'd love to see that double-feature at a drive-in even today!

3 out of 5 skulls

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