Howl at the Moon
Mystery Science Theater 3000, Season 1, Episode 3: "The Mad Monster"
Another week brings up a another short-plus-feature combination. I have to say, I actually like this format, not only because we get a couple of different stories to watch over the course of a 90-minute episodes but also because it feels like a throwback, an allusion to the bygone era of films with a serial combined with a theatrical. It works well considering the kinds of films we're watching.
That said, these are a couple of stinkers we have to get through, make no mistake. The format of the show may be good but these films are absolute trash:
Short: Radar Men from the Moon, Chapter 2: "Molten Terror"
Apparently we're going to get most of the serial for Radar Men from the Moon and, just like last week's episode, episode two really isn't anything to write home about. Our hero, who looked like he was exploded last time, simply dives out of the way of the blast and survives (classic cliffhanger logic), only to then hatch a plan to steal a moon-man ray guy and bring it back to Earth. Sadly, the moon-men catch wind, send some guards after him, trap him (and an associate) in a cave and send a flood of molten lava at them. I'm sure they'll find a way to escape it next week, just like they escaped the previous danger this week, but man, am I ever bored by this serial.
That said, this was great as far as the MST3K guys were concerned. The humor was snappy, the guys were constantly riffing, and the serial was a lot of fun to watch just because Joel and the Bots were super engaged. This is the kind of patter people always talk about when they discuss MST3K and, clearly, with a couple of official episodes under their belt, the guys are starting to find their footing. Well done. Hated the serial, loved watching it with the crew.
The Main Event
The primary movie for today's episode is a low-budget monster flick from Producers Releasing Corporation. PRC was, in essence, like today's Asylum or other low-rent movie studios. Their job was to crank out a bunch of "B-Side" films for double-bills that could be paired up with movies people actually wanted to see. They knew the kinds of films they were making and I doubt anyone that worked on The Mad Monster would be surprised, or even saddened, to see the film eventually covered on MST3K.
The Asylum makes knock-off versions of popular films now, and PRC did the same thing back in the day. The Mad Monster is a "Werewolf" film just without all that pesky lycanthropy, slotting it in so it could run alongside Universal's better known horror films, Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man (the latter of which had come out just the year before The Mad Monster. This was a film clearly designed to cash in on the popularity of that other, much better, werewolf film.
In The Mad Monster we're introduced to Dr. Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco), a mad doctor who was fired from his university position sometime early for coming up with a wild theory that he could turn men into man-animal hybrids with a serum made from the blood of animals. Leaving his work in disgrace, Dr. Cameron set up shop at his home lab and proceeded with his experiments. Eventually, with willing (if incredibly stupid) test subject Petro (Glenn Strange), Cameron put his plan in motion, injecting Petro with the serum and turning the man into the Mad Monster.
From here, Dr. Cameron works to get his revenge, sending the monster after the four professors who laughed him out of academia: Gordon De Main as Prof. Fitzgerald, Reginald Barlow as Prof. Warwick, Robert Strange as Prof. Blaine, John Elliott as Prof. Hatfield. The only issue is that the newspapers are starting to report on the carnage and the police begin to notice the clues about where all these deaths are located. As the dragnet tightens around Dr. Cameron he has to figure out how he can showcase his work without everyone suddenly charging him for a whole host of crimes. Plus, Petro begins growing increasingly unstable in his monster form (who'd have thunk?) meaning that his next transformation into the monster could also be the one where he loses his grip on humanity and never can be restored.
Considering the quality level of the studio, it should come as no surprise that The Mad Monster is a turgid and tedious affair. The front half of this remarkably short, 77-minute movie, is spent with the doctor going over his plans, imagining the professors who scorned him, laughing with delight as he plots to kill each of them. It's a lot of "story" presented to us as a massive info dump, and it also means we spend almost the entire first act of this production in a lab, like it's a play and the design team can switch sets until the next act.
Actually, thinking of the film as a play helps to explain many of the decisions. More often than not the film will set up a scene with, position its characters, set the camera, and then leave everything in a static shot, like we're the audience at a play. The blocking for the actors is stiff, the camera work non-existent, and the film barely feels like a film, from start to finish. It reminded me of the way the original Universal Dracula from 1931 was done. That film, too, was stiff and awkward, like a stage play put to film (which is actually what it was). But that film came out 11 years earlier and everyone in the industry, A- and B-studios, should have learned how to make a better film by this point.
There's no other way to put it, then: The Mad Monster is just a bad film. It's long, filled with unbearable pauses and awkward moments, and it barely ever feels like a film. Even the guys, Joel and the Bots, struggle to make this watchable although they do have more than a few chuckle-worthy laughs. Overall this isn't their best episode, but it is elevated by the "Radar Men" short at the start of the episode. The Mad Monster drags it down but doesn't completely ruin it, and I do still think we're on an upswing for the series, all things considered.