In Praise of The Monster Maker (1944)

Posted: November 19, 2022 in Uncategorized

This is a movie that makes me smile even before the title screen. Just seeing the PRC logo is a joy. As a child, I used to daydream about resurrecting the studio. I admit, as daydreams go, it’s pretty niche.

Back in the pre-VCR days, PBS used to air Matinee at the Bijou, and I would tune in every week, hoping that this time the B-movie feature would be a horror film. Just once, I was lucky, and the film in question was The Monster Maker, which then became one of the few films mentioned in Denis Gifford’s life-defining A Pictorial History of Horror Movies that I was able to see in the dark ages before home video. The film has had a special place in my heart ever since, and I have even taught it once.

(Spoilers follow.)

The film’s premise is surprisingly tasteless for the mid-40s: obsessed J. Carrol Naish (looking like Robert Downey Jr and sounding like Peter Lorre) injects pianist Ralph Morgan with acromegaly in order to force his daughter to marry the mad doctor. The resultant makeup on Morgan anticipates The Elephant Man by nearly four decades.

I have to admire the film’s courage of its twisted convictions. Naish’s Dr. Markov comes across as a bargain basement variation of Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig from The Black Cat: not only is he obsessed with Wanda McKay because she’s the spitting image of his dead wife, but said wife is dead because he injected her with acromegaly too in a fit of jealousy (along with stealing the identity of her lover and murdering him). And he has a gorilla in a cage, as all consulting doctors do, allowing for a “Murders in the Rue Morgue” scene (with some nice shadow play) wherein his assistant Tala Birell almost meets her demise, though is saved by a heroic dog.

As with so many PRC horror movies, The Monster Maker understands that it has to keep delivering the goods, and since it can’t have the sympathetic Ralph Morgan go on a rampage, it has the foresight to provide Naish with the gorilla in his lab, for no clear reason other than to provide us with this great sequence. Plus, a gorilla suit always makes a movie better.

Then, when the Rue Morgue scene doesn’t play out as Naish expects, the aftermath is so nicely understated that it’s actually funnier than a lot of actual comedies with gorillas (and holy crap is this movie ever not a comedy).

Naish’s understated performance as the Euro-accented Dr Markov makes him even more frightening as we find out more and more just how truly twisted he is. The revelation about what he did to his wife is a truly nasty gut punch.

And then there’s Glenn Strange, doing his best Lon Chaney Jr impression!

And McKay’s love interest, Terry Frost, is exactly as useless as just about every other nominal hero of the 30s and 40s!

Even the film’s opening scene packs a punch — Wanda McKay nails the look of a woman who is just trying to enjoy a concert but can’t because some creep is staring at her (Naish is unpleasant enough as a stalker even before he breaks out the acromegaly and gorilla).

Tala Birell may, as her dismissive IMDB bio has it, merely have been “another ‘another Garbo’,” but she’s compelling here, and her role of conflicted accomplice/lab assistant/horrified witness/ultimate heroine is the unexpected heroic centre of the film.

So low-budget scrappiness, delirious plotting, compact running time, and Poe-inspired nastiness. What’s not to love?


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