by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Late last night Charles and I screened another movie I’d downloaded from archive.org, a 1944 PRC horror production called The Monster Maker. Directed by Sam Newfield from a script by Pierre Gendron and Martin Mooney (who, solo, wrote the two best movies PRC ever made — Bluebeard and Detour, respectively), The Monster Maker was centered around acromegaly, a genuine disease stemming from a breakdown in the pituitary gland which causes the body to produce too much human growth hormone. The disease manifests itself in unusual and uncontrollable growth in the extremities — the face, arms and hands, and legs — and can also affect the vocal cords, making the voice deeper and speech slower. The best-known movies about acromegaly are probably the three featuring Rondo Hatton, who had it for real — he’d caught it as a result of a gas attack while in combat in World War I — and though Hatton had made movies since 1930, in the mid-1940’s Universal signed him and decided to build him up as a horror star, stressing that his monstrous appearance was how he actually looked and not a Jack P. Pierce makeup job.
But before Universal could get their first Hatton vehicle out (The Pearl of Death, in which he played a newly minted supporting role in a Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “The Six Napoleons”), PRC rushed out The Monster Maker, in which the acromegalic character is a concert pianist, Anthony Lawrence (Ralph Morgan, brother of the Wizard of Oz — or at least of Frank Morgan, the actor who played him in the 1939 film), whose daughter Patricia (Wanda McKay) attracts the decidedly unwelcome attentions of Dr. Igor Markoff (J. Carrol Naish, top-billed), a specialist in acromegaly and glandular disorders in general (we see a journal article under his byline with the oddly un-journalesque title “Man Is What His Ductless Glands Make Him”). Markoff sees Patricia in a box watching one of her father’s concerts and is immediately smitten because she reminds him of his late wife Lenore — only she’s not only uninterested in Markoff, she has a boyfriend already, Bob Blake (Terry Lawrence, the usual colorless PRC leading man).
Anthony Lawrence comes to Markoff’s office with the intention of telling him to stop stalking Patricia and sending her flowers (which she re-gifts to the local children’s hospital), only Markoff clubs him over the head with a candlestick and, before he comes to, injects him with a serum that not only produces acromegaly but causes it to develop far faster than it does au naturel. The Mad Monster is essentially the 1935 Raven meets Mad Love — the victim of the mad scientist’s machinations in both Mad Love and The Monster Maker is a concert pianist (and The Monster Maker even rips off one of the most famous sequences in Mad Love, in which the pianist is heard playing and both the other characters and the audience think he’s recovered his mojo, only the piano bench is empty and the man is simply listening to one of his old records) and, like Bela Lugosi’s character in The Raven, Markoff (who, it turns out, isn’t even Markoff — a bit of exposition given by his jealous and long-suffering nurse, played by Tala Birell in the movie’s most haunting performance, lets us know that he murdered the real Markoff and assumed his identity after Markoff seduced his wife; for revenge, he injected her with acromegaly and she, seeing herself deformed, committed suicide) is attempting to force an upright middle-aged man into letting him marry the upright man’s daughter, though she can’t stand him.
It’s actually quite a well-done movie for PRC — though the makeup job on Ralph Morgan isn’t all that convincing — and Naish’s performance, which has been criticized for not being strong enough for the role, is actually quite good: like John Carradine in Bluebeard, Naish underplays in a role that would have tempted Lugosi or Boris Karloff to overwrought scenery-chewing hammery and manages to make his character that much more sinister through his restraint. It ends well, of course — Markoff and Anthony wrestle over a gun, it goes off, Markoff is killed (Maurine Watkins, call your plagiarism attorney again!) and the long-suffering nurse administers a serum Markoff invented that cures acromegaly, so Anthony gets back his normal appearance and the pianistic career he lost to the disease, and Patricia goes ahead and marries the normal guy — but it’s a haunting film, quite a bit better than The Mad Monster or Dead Men Walk, and the classical music (mostly by Chopin — the “Revolutionary” Étude at the beginning and the “Military” polonaise at the end) and an effective (and sparingly used, for once at PRC) background score in between by the young Albert Glasser ably add to the mood.