The Monster Maker (1944) **
As PRC movies go, The Monster Maker isn’t half bad. It scores points with a twisted premise, some unexpectedly good monster makeup, and a lot of forward momentum. On the other hand, it also suffers from such endemic poverty row diseases as indifferent acting, crummy sets, obvious stock footage, a gratuitous man in a gorilla suit, and a script that would have benefited from another rewrite or seven. At 62 minutes, it’s painless; much longer and it would rapidly wear out its welcome.
Pianist Anthony Lawrence (Ralph Morgan, from The Mad Doctor and Night Monster) is giving the final performance of a long and grueling cross-country tour, and up in the balcony boxes are two pairs of spectators, one of which is already known to Lawrence, and the other of which will become known to him before the night is through. In the first box are Lawrence’s daughter, Patricia (Wanda McKay, of The Bowery at Midnight and Voodoo Man), and her boyfriend, Bob Blake (The Flying Serpent’s Terry Frost), who is also Anthony’s booking agent. In the other are medical researcher Dr. Igor Markoff (J. Carrol Naish, from The Beast with Five Fingers and Jungle Woman) and his assistant, Maxine (Tala Birell, of The Frozen Ghost and Jungle Queen). In point of fact, Markoff doesn’t seem to be paying a lot of attention to the show. Instead, he’s watching Patricia like a hawk, to the equal consternation of both her and Maxine. The reason why is both simple and highly suspicious, all things considered; the Lawrence girl bears an uncanny resemblance to Markoff’s late wife as she appeared in her youth.
Markoff contrives to meet Anthony and Patricia in the intermission between Lawrence’s two sets, and while he makes a point of both apologizing for his rude and unnerving staring and explaining the motivation behind it, neither Patricia nor her father is entirely mollified. Bob, meanwhile, has an even more unfavorable take on the doctor’s visit: “That cock-and-bull story was already old in Caesar’s day!” All in all, it’s no trick to imagine how Patricia feels about it when, over the next couple of weeks, Markoff sends her bouquets of flowers three times a day, every day, sometimes with flagrant love notes attached. Eventually, she becomes so disgusted with the unwanted attention that her father resolves to go see Markoff and order him to desist.
This is where the trouble really starts. You see, Dr. Markoff isn’t really Dr. Markoff at all. He’s a doctor, sure enough, and quite a good one at that, but the real Igor Markoff is long dead at the fake one’s hands. Real Markoff had seduced Fake Markoff’s lovely young wife (the one who looked like Patricia) away from him, and in revenge, Fake Markoff first injected his wife with a chemical that gave her acromegaly, then murdered Real Markoff and assumed his identity when even a disfiguring disease proved insufficient to short-circuit the attraction between the two illicit lovers. He has since become the world’s foremost expert on acromegaly, and is currently this close to perfecting a cure based upon research which the man he impersonates left uncompleted. His breakthroughs, however, obviously came too late to do his wife any good. When Lawrence shows up at his home/lab/clinic to protest his harassment of Patricia, the encounter quickly escalates from discussion to argument to physical confrontation, and it ends with the pianist getting whacked over the head and injected with acromegaly serum while he’s unconscious. Markoff then calls the Lawrence place on the phone, tells Patricia that her father had a sudden attack of vertigo and bumped his head, and asks if she could swing by to drive him home. While they’re waiting for the girl to arrive, Markoff suggests to Lawrence that because there were no witnesses to the clash, it really would be better for both parties to forget it ever happened. And while his orderly, Steve (Glenn Strange, from The Mad Monster and The Black Raven), is helping Lawrence to the car, Markoff cautions Patricia to keep an eye on her father, and to consult a doctor if she notices any unusual changes in his condition or behavior. Can I get a “heh-heh-heh” over here?
There are unusual changes, alright. First, Lawrence’s energy levels shoot through the roof, almost as though he were a teenager in the midst of a growth spurt— can’t sleep, can’t concentrate, can’t sit still. Then, he notices that the coordination in his fingers seems to be failing him, and upon closer examination, he gets it into his head that they have actually become slightly larger and thicker than they were before. Both Patricia and Bob confirm this curious observation. Eventually, Patricia hassles her father so much that he agrees to see Dr. Adams (Sam Flint, of The Lady and the Monster and The Crimson Ghost), who immediately calls in a couple of colleagues to confirm his findings. The reason Adams doesn’t trust his own initial judgement is that Lawrence seems to have developed acromegaly, which is not only very rare, but is virtually unheard of in men Lawrence’s age. (Like practically all growth disorders, it typically makes its onset during childhood or adolescence.) This is very serious business, because there is no known cure for the disease, and it frequently results in death; fortunately, Adams knows somebody who might be able to help. You know already who he’s going to name, right?
So now we can see at last the outlines of Dr. Markoff’s insidious plan. Markoff has an angle on a cure for acromegaly. Lawrence has a daughter whom Markoff wants to marry, regardless of her opinions on the subject. Surely the two of them could arrange a trade? Lawrence won’t go for it, but Markoff isn’t worried. On the one hand, despite his professed refusal to deal, his victim has nevertheless let himself be checked into the clinic, and the sicker Lawrence gets, the more willing to negotiate he may become. And on the other, as Markoff lets Patricia see him treating her father (in addition to his probable cure, he’s got a drug that stops acromegaly in its tracks as long as it’s administered regularly), she might plausibly soften her own opinion of him. Of course, Maxine (who is inexplicably in love with Markoff herself) isn’t going to like this, especially once she figures out that it was Markoff who made the pianist sick in the first place, but the mad doctor has a solution in mind for that little problem, too. Why else do you think an endocrinologist keeps a caged gorilla on hand in his laboratory?
The most striking thing about The Monster Maker is the quality of the makeup used to portray Anthony Lawrence’s acromegaly at its most advanced. It’s only slightly less convincing than what was used for the title character in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (if nowhere near as involved), and that was made more than 30 years later. I think what makes it work so well is the strategic placement of the prostheses— Ralph Morgan’s eyes and lips are left almost completely unobstructed, preventing the mask-like effect that has so often characterized cinematic depictions of acromegaly over the years. Morgan is able to act through his false face, and since he’s one of the better members of The Monster Maker’s cast, that helps the movie out considerably.
What I like best about the film, however, is its weird nastiness of tone. Really, The Monster Maker is not all that good a movie. The piteously low budget shows everywhere but in the aforementioned makeup (the set depicting the front of Markoff’s mansion is especially forlorn), the acting is wobbly (any time J. Carrol Naish can so completely own a film, there’s real trouble afoot), and the second half of the story is in desperate need of tightening up. But The Monster Maker’s spin on the age-old “courtship by coercion” premise has an ugly edge to it that makes for reasonably engaging viewing anyway. There is also a sense in which even one of the movie’s most serious shortcomings turns into an asset, in that the inability of screenwriters Pierre Gendron and Martin Mooney to do much of anything with the character of Patricia Lawrence plays up Markoff’s vision of her as little more than an object, desirable not for any of her own qualities, but solely because of an accidental physical resemblance to somebody else whom he once cared for. That Markoff happens to have disfigured and killed the woman whom he seeks to replace with Patricia adds a further layer of twistedness to the proceedings. It’s not enough to make the movie more than passable, but it was a rare 40’s programmer that aspired to more than that, anyway.