The Mad Monster (1942) -**½
So you think the guardians of public safety and morality in the United States are a bunch of condescending shitbags, do you? Well, I won’t say you’re wrong, but let me tell you a quick story to put things into perspective. Way back in 1942, the Producers’ Releasing Corporation squeezed out a crummy little movie called The Mad Monster. Universal had hit the jackpot the preceding year with The Wolf Man, and PRC, as was their wont, decided to do a little coattail riding; the operative theory seems to have been that if werewolves were big money for the big boys, then werewolves and mad scientists should be more than enough to sell a poverty row rip-off without simultaneously courting a lawsuit. So instead of wolfsbane, Gypsy curses, and sliver weaponry, The Mad Monster gives us a scientist who transfuses his retarded handyman with specially treated wolf’s blood to turn him into a monster, and the resulting movie is every bit as stupid as that makes it sound. There isn’t one scary second in this turkey, and although there is one legitimate shock, it falls more into the category of “I can’t believe they really did that” than that of “Aaack!!!! That’s fucking horrible, man!” The British Board of Film Censors didn’t see it that way, however. They found The Mad Monster so repugnant that they banned it outright until 1954, at which point it was finally allowed to be shown— with an X-certificate, mind you— on the condition that every theater exhibiting it also posted a notice reading, “The public would be quite mistaken to think that any personal characteristics could be passed on by blood transfusion. Animal blood is never used for transfusions in the treatment of disease.” Thanks for clearing that up, guys. I always did have a hard time separating fantasy from reality, you know?
The Mad Monster wastes absolutely no time in establishing its calculatedly outrageous premise. The very first scene has Dr. Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco, from Voodoo Man and The Mummy’s Hand) hard at work in his lab, putting the finishing touches on his latest batch of wolf’s blood serum. Cameron then goes over to the other end of the lab, where his loyal but dim-witted handyman, Pedro (Glenn Strange, an ex-wrestler and Western bit-player who would later appear as the Frankenstein monster in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula), lies strapped to a couch. The doctor gives Pedro an injection, and the big man soon falls fast asleep. No sooner has he dropped off than he undergoes what we are doubtless intended to consider an incredible transformation, but since the wolf-man makeup merely makes Strange look like Jeff Bridges in the Dino DeLaurentiis King Kong, I can’t say I was particularly impressed. Cameron sure is pleased with himself, though. Having accomplished this miracle of modern science, he launches into a prolonged tirade aimed at the imaginary shades of Professors Blaine (Robert Strange, of Dead Men Walk), Fitzgerald (Gordon DeMain), Hatfield (John Elliot, from Dead Man’s Eyes), and Warwick (Reginald Barlow, who at least managed to get his name on the credits this time, unlike in Werewolf of London), the men who once ridiculed his work, destroyed his reputation, and ended his career as a tenured academician. He rambles on about how the four of them said he was insane for believing that transfusions of animal blood could impart the essence of the donor to their human recipients, and how he’ll show them all what fools they were now that he has achieved what they called impossible. What’s more, Cameron also vows literal revenge to back up the figurative sort that the vindication of his work will give him— evidently Cameron’s rivals will be learning the error of their ways via the claws and fangs of the transformed Pedro. Then, once vengeance is his, Cameron will make himself a fortune by licensing his process to the US military, which he is sure will be interested in a means of creating an army of fearless, unstoppable beast-soldiers.
Now obviously no mad scientist worth his salt is going to work on a project like this one in a densely populated area where he’d have to spend about two thirds of each day beating the curious off with a big-ass stick. True to form, Cameron has set himself up in a rented mansion deep in hillbilly country, where the only people who might bother him are those to whom nobody in authority would listen anyway. His daughter, Lenora (Anne Nagel, from Man-Made Monster and The Mad Doctor of Market Street), hates the isolation, particularly the part about her not being allowed to tell anyone— even her boyfriend, reporter Tim Gregory (Johnny Downs)— where they’ve gone, but there’s nothing she can really do about it. The one time she does try to sneak a letter out to Tim when Pedro goes into town for supplies, her dad catches her and confiscates the forbidden note.
Having perfected his transformative drug and a counter-agent that restores Pedro to normal just as effectively, Cameron now discovers an unexpected fringe benefit to living and working out in the sticks. The country people who live in a small settlement on the other side of the swamp that abuts his property would make a perfect target in a trial run to test the efficacy of the lycanthropic Pedro as an instrument of revenge. With that in mind, Cameron shoots the handyman up with his monster drug once again the following night, and lets him loose through the secret passage that connects the basement laboratory to the mansion’s backyard. On the far edge of the swamp, Pedro attacks a hunter and chases him all the way back to the village where he lives. At first, the man thinks he has reached safety, but while he is in the living room of his shack, telling his family about the terrifying encounter he’s just had, Pedro lets himself in through the window of the back bedroom, and kills the man’s little daughter. From the following morning on, all of the villagers are on the lookout for anything suspicious in or around the swamps, and talk of a werewolf begins circulating.
Meanwhile, Cameron gets started on his real project. He arranges a meeting with Dr. Blaine, claiming to have incontrovertible proof of his old theories, and the other professor grudgingly agrees to hear him out. Cameron brings Pedro along, and gives Blaine some cock-and-bull story that permits him to be out of Blaine’s office on a non-existent errand at the crucial time, forcing Blaine himself to administer the monster-making injection to Pedro, and seal thereby his own doom. Cameron also makes an effort to bring Dr. Fitzgerald to Blaine’s place for a little lupine comeuppance, but he gets the timing wrong and Pedro is already gone when he and Fitzgerald arrive. They both get to see what’s left of Blaine, however, and to give their stories to the police.
The attack on Dr. Blaine also gets Tim Gregory involved. The grisly death of a respected scientist is pretty big news, and Gregory makes the connection between the mauled condition of Blaine’s body and the rumors he’s heard of some strange and deadly animal stalking the swamps some miles to the north. The distance between the two locales might argue against a real link, but the similarities between what happened to Blaine and what is said to have happened to a little girl in the swamplands are highly suggestive. Checking it out, Gregory meets and interviews the father of the dead child, and accidentally stumbles upon the mansion where Cameron and his daughter have been living. Lenora and Tim are delighted at this unexpected reunion, but the doctor takes a dimmer view of the situation. He’s got a revenge plot cooking, after all, and Tim Gregory was one of the people Cameron was trying specifically to avoid. Just his luck that Pedro should start suffering from secrecy-compromising spontaneous transformations right about now, isn’t it?
How can you not appreciate a movie whose climax features a house burning down because the drapes on the living room window are struck by lightning and set ablaze? I mean, that’s some top-notch cinematic brain damage right there! It seems to me that the main strategy behind PRC’s horror movies was to overcome the shortcomings of their budgets by being consistently stranger and crazier than the competition, and The Mad Monster is certainly that. Not many movies will go so far to establish the madness of their mad scientists as to have an extended scene of them standing in the lab giving defiant speeches to the specters of their four greatest rivals. Not many films are willing to take such a shameless everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the villain’s motivation— most of his counterparts would be content with revenge or professional vindication, but Lorenzo Cameron wants both of those and a War Department contract to make werewolves for the US Army! And if nothing else, I’m pretty sure this is the only movie I know of that ever attempted to combine werewolves and mad science in quite this cracked a way. By conventional standards— and most unconventional standards, too— The Mad Monster is, of course, no damn good at all, but it makes you keep watching just to see what loony, off-the-wall thing it’s going to do next.