If one considers Bela Lugosi the king of 1940s B horror, then surely George Zucco was the the king of the C’s. Zucco actually appeared with Lugosi in two-and-a-sixteenth movies during this era of trash classics. (The 16th classification is an estimate of how much—or little—third-billed Zucco actually appeared in 1944’s Return of the Ape Man, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Zucco’s claim to stardom rests on the six-picture contract (only five were made) he had with Producers Releasing Corporation, or PRC Pictures as it’s generally known. (Its detractors—and there are many—often pronounce PRC as “prick.”) PRC was the lowest of all poverty row studios. Oh, there were cheaper production outfits, but PRC actually had something that passed for a studio. They managed to secure Lugosi for one movie—The Devil Bat (1940)—but either the illustrious Sam Katzman offered him a better deal at Monogram Pictures, or one PRC movie was enough even for the notoriously none-too-choosey Lugosi. Enter Zucco, who could not afford to say no to the offer. Of such things is the history of cinematic oddities written. And first up was the gloriously goofy—and oddly ambitious—The Mad Monster (1942).
One of the more noteworthy facts about PRC was their utter lack of originality. While the idea of The Mad Monster was clearly to cash in on Universal’s The Wolf Man, the film that emerged was just as clearly a rehash of The Devil Bat with Zucco instead of Lugosi and with a cheesy werewolf as his instrument of revenge rather than the earlier film’s even cheesier giant bats. In some ways, it worked better since werewolf effects were more easily achieved on a PRC budget. (PRC would “officially” remake The Devil Bat for Zucco’s swan song as The Flying Serpent in 1946.) In place of Lugosi revenging himself over a stolen cold cream formula (or “formoola,” as he pronounced it), Zucco’s Dr. Lorenzo Cameron gets back at his colleagues for laughing him out of the scientific community over his theory that men could be turned into werewolves, which could then be sent overseas to wipe out the Nazis. (I can’t imagine why they felt there was anything questionable about that.)
Hiding away in his mansion in some undisclosed swamp, Zucco’s mad doctor, of course, proves his theory that injections of wolf blood into a human being will indeed produce a werewolf. (Now, either the budget didn’t extend to a real wolf or I apparently have wolves occasionally wandering into my backyard, which makes me suspect Zucco is actually creating a werecoyote.) His subject is this big doofus named Petro (Glenn Strange), who acts like a fugitive from a touring company that stages Of Mice and Men, but he does effectively turn into an OshKosh B’Gosh-wearing werewolf (the mad or at least irritable monster of the title) that looks a little like Gabby Hayes with fangs. Apart from letting Petro wander around the swamps killing various backwoods types, Zucco sends his creation to call on those who belittled him. There is, of course, a reporter (Johnny Downs) on hand to figure it all out.
In its favor, The Mad Monster achieves a pretty creepy atmosphere, especially with its fog-shrouded swamp set. It also crosses an unusual line by allowing its monster to kill a child. And the whole thing ends in a surprisingly well done conflagration in the mansion. But, really, the charm of the film lies in its dopey screwiness—not to mention outbursts of unintentional amusement. I have no idea why Zucco actually climbs on top of Petro every time he injects him with wolf blood, but it certainly provokes some mirth, especially when he asks Petro how he feels after a bout of werewolfery, only to be told, “I feel like I always do when you stick me with that thing.” Yes, well …
The film was directed by Sam Newfield, whose brother Sigmund Neufeld coincidentally owned the studio. He also directed The Black Raven about a year later. In between the two, however, Newfield knocked out an astonishing 18 feature films—sometimes under an alias so it didn’t seem like one guy was making all the movies. To say that Newfield was more prolific than actually good may be understating the case, though he does appear to have put in a little more effort on his horror pictures. Let’s merely say that he was efficient. Then again, since brother Sigmund wasn’t paying him much per picture (usually about $500), there was an incentive for that.
The Black Raven (pray, what other color of raven is there?) stars Zucco as Amos Bradford, proprietor of the Black Raven, a kind of old dark hotel—apparently near the Canadian border—where shifty business seems to be a regular feature. Zucco is reunited here with Glenn Strange as his handyman/sidekick, Andy. (Amos ‘n’ Andy, get it?) It seems a more congenial relationship than their previous one, though Amos is forever remarking on Andy’s stupidity. This, however, is pretty much the way he treats everybody. At one point he even tells the Sheriff (Charles Middleston), “You’re more stupid than usual.” Amos has some kind of criminal past that’s out to catch up with him, and even now he has a sideline in smuggling miscreants across the border.
There’s no overt horror this time and the film is essentially an old-dark-house murder mystery. The story is partly cribbed from an obscure 1936 picture called The Rogues’ Tavern, though it lacks that film’s intriguing murder method of having insane Clara Kimball Young knock off her victims with a set of false dog teeth. (You can’t have everything.) What sets the film apart—other than Zucco apparently having a fine time being sarcastic—is that the screenplay is actually pretty witty and Newfield gets some fine atmosphere out of his rain-drenched night setting. The truth is this gets very close to being a good little thriller and is very likely the best of the Zucco PRCs—for what that’s worth. Without a doubt, it’s my favorite. It is, in any case, fun and fast-moving with more duplicity per square inch than you can shake a stick at.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Mad Monster and The Black Raven on Thursday, June 21, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.