Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Allen's Brain Reviews "The Mad Monster" (1942)

"The Mad Monster" is a much-maligned poverty-row take on the werewolf story. Unlike Universal's "The Wolf Man," to which it is often compared, Glenn Strange (perhaps most widely-recognized for playing the bartender in TV's Gunsmoke) isn't bitten by a wolf or a werewolf. Strange plays dim-witted handyman/gardener Pedro (pronounced with a long "e") who works for and serves as guinea pig for mad scientist Dr Lorenzo Cameron, played by George Zucco (who is sort of a poor-man's Boris Karloff). Cameron believes he can distill the essential qualities of an animal from their blood, and transfer them to humans. He proves it by injecting Pedro with wolf's blood, after which Pedro falls asleep, grows lots of hair and a pair of fangs, and wakes up as a dim-witted werewolf. When the antidote is administered by Dr Cameron, Pedro believes he's been walking in his sleep and having nightmares about killing people.
Soon, Cameron is using Pedro as an assassin: leaving him in the office of one his enemies, who is instructed to inject him at midnight, should Cameron be (conveniently) absent. Later, he shoots Pedro full of serum and sends him to town with another of his detractors. Pedro turns into a wolf right there in the car while they're on the road! A nifty concept, if poorly carried out.
The picture then takes a frightening twist. In Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde fashion, Pedro begins transforming into a werewolf without the aid of Doc Cameron's serum! Now, he's gone from safely-controlled experiment to a, well... Mad Monster on the loose. Naturally, by the end of the movie, Dr Cameron's experiments are discovered, and both he and his creation are destroyed--Frankenstein-style--by fire.
The Mad Monster is compared with "The Wolf Man" most often, partly because of its chronological proximity (Wolf Man was made in 1941, Mad Monster in 1942), but also because the hulking Strange (And yes, that is his real name: George Glenn Strange) looks a bit like Wolf Man's Lon Chaney Jr--a similarity highlighted even more-so by Strange's portrayal of Pedro as Lennie in "Of Mice and Men." Lennie, you may remember, was played in the 1939 movie version by (ka-ching!) Lon Chaney Jr! (And for you six-degrees-of-separation trivia buffs, Chaney once donned the Frankenstein monster makeup for Universal, which Strange would also do later on. Additionally, Chaney played Kharis the mummy in the later Universal sequels, in which George Zucco played the high priest Andoheb.)
The theme of science transforming people into animal hybrid creatures was introduced, I suppose in H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr Moreau." (A film version of which was available in 1933 as "The Island of Lost Souls," with Bela Lugosi as "the sayer of the law.") And while "The Wolf Man" and its predecessor "Werewolf of London"(1935) received transformation by being bitten by another werewolf (reflections of Dracula?), Mad Monster was not the last film to use a mad scientist as the catalyst for the metamorphosis. You can see this again in the atomic age werewolf films "I Was A Teenage Werewolf" (1957) (which ought to be viewed simply to see a young Michael Landon as a troubled teen who becomes a werewolf) and the rarely-seen, creatively-titled gem "The Werewolf"(1956.)
The acting in The Mad Monster is often criticized, but after seeing a half-dozen George Zucco films, I'm convinced that we are seeing the full spectrum of his acting ability. He plays an evil, almost-charming, moderately mad scientist. Glenn Strange's performance isn't so much bad as it is annoying. His characterization of Pedro as slack of jaw and slow of speech is consistent throughout, but it made me want to throw a shoe at the screen every time he spoke. It's comparable to how African American characters were often (sadly) portrayed in that era.
There's no gore displayed on screen, but characters look at the offscreen victim and insist, "This is the work of a wild animal." Such an assertion is pretty comical, considering the only scenes of murder by the Pedro-wolf consist of him strangling his victims! Yup, look at those pawprints on his throat. Had to be an animal.
The Mad Monster gets my vote for most comical werewolf makeup ever. Short of a pair of fangs, Were-Pedro just looks like he hasn't had a shave or haircut in far too long. Additionally, as the gardner, he's always dressed in his overalls--and occasionally a big floppy hat--even when he's the werewolf. Imagine Gabby Hayes or an over-hairy Festus (from Gunsmoke), and you get the idea.
Glenn Strange went on to play the Frankenstein monster in "House of Frankenstein,"(1944) "House of Dracula,"(1945) and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein,"(1948) which is quite good. In fact, go watch it instead of "The Mad Monster."
Charles Middleton was born on this day in 1874. He is best remembered as "Emperor Ming the Merciless" in the Flash Gordon serials.
I'm substitute teaching again tomorrow at Springfield Christian School. Jr High Bible, but only 'til noon.
I have just been asked to be "officer of the month" at the Universal Monster Army Yahoo group! Woohoo! Promotions and plague rats all around!

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